19 Dec 2019
Regardless of our marital status, all of us are sexual beings. The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!” Despite its challenges, the Bible suggests singleness is a “gift” for some (see 1 Corinthians 7:7–9). While many singles struggle without a spouse and long for marriage, others may not resonate with the feelings of loneliness discussed below. Many single Christians live joyful, content, and especially fruitful lives for the kingdom, specifically because of their unmarried state. I know the challenge of being an older single. After twelve years of marriage, I suddenly lost my first wife to complications from breast cancer. I was thirty-nine years old (with twin eight-year-old girls). After her death, I was single for almost three years. Though my personal experience with singleness is limited, I write with a keen awareness of the difficulties singles face. Every person’s story is different, but I hope that what follows is helpful to single readers as they seek to faithfully embrace their sexuality.
The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!”
Single and Waiting (on the Lord)
The creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 suggests that waiting on the Lord was built into the world from the beginning. After Adam’s creation, God declares, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18), then proceeds to create the animal kingdom ahead of Eve. But we see the eventual blessing as Adam meets Eve and erupts in poetic exultation. However, waiting is more pronounced and painful after Genesis 3. There is a reason why there are multiple complaints of “How long, oh Lord?” in the Psalms. Now life is filled with disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. As Proverbs 13:12 expresses, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Many of us are living with the deep heartache of hope deferred.
If this is your experience, I want to share a perspective on waiting. It is an active place. I used to think waiting meant trying to be patient, like waiting for the bus with nothing to do. Not so. Waiting on the Lord is active. In fact, it is a place of warfare. Years ago, reading through the Psalms, I was struck by the conclusion of Psalm 27, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (v. 14). Do you hear what David is saying? Waiting on the Lord is a terrifying place to be.
It is not for the faint of heart, but requires incredible, Spirit-given strength. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is moving forward despite your terror. This is true for any waiting God calls us to, but especially the waiting that stretches on for years and decades. If you are wrestling with your singleness, I encourage you to see this as a battle that takes courage, and a place where God wants to meet you.
In the Old Testament, marriage is assumed to be the normative mode of life, with childbearing as a critical component. This is partly due to the creation mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), as well as the building anticipation that a deliverer would come from Abraham’s seed, a son of David, to free Israel from her oppressors. But the focus on physical generation begins to shift as Isaiah prophesies about this coming deliverer.
Isaiah 53 is one of the most wondrous passages pointing to Jesus’s sacrificial death. Written hundreds of years before his earthly life, it describes his crucifixion and even the manner of his burial. After describing Jesus’s death and the reality that he was “cut off” from his generation and the land of the living (v. 8), the passage turns and makes a shocking pronouncement: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (v. 10). There is an anticipation of life after death—resurrection!—and the production of offspring. Although Jesus lived his perfect human life as a single man and was literally childless, Scripture regards Jesus’s single life as having produced a family in the community of his followers. This was a striking claim in the ancient world, in which married life and the production of physical children was the assumed norm.
Isaiah went on to describe the drastic change that is coming with the advent of the Messiah:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3–5, ESV)
This was an incredible statement! The Old Testament law declared that no one with damaged or removed genitalia could even enter God’s assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1). Such people were second-class citizens, at least as far as worship in the temple was concerned. In this context, Isaiah’s pronouncement was a strong affirmation that God saw those who, through their physical and relational status, were excluded from a central aspect of Israel’s religious life. Isaiah envisioned a new day when, in a transformation of the creation mandate, physical generation is no longer the name of the game. Laying out this history highlights the extraordinary redirection that results from Jesus establishing the kingdom of God. Isaiah thus offers singles something “better than sons and daughters”—an everlasting legacy based solely on the work of God through his people who bring about a spiritual generation that carries into the world to come.
Approaching the New Testament, this change is even more pronounced. When questioned about the practice of divorce, Jesus brought his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concluded his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12, ESV).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and the production of children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaimed some people will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state! As we’ll see below, this is because of the heightened focus on the kingdom that corresponds with the coming of Christ.
Paul took Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging the believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness because spouses created divided loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouses (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). The call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom reorients the focus and is prioritized above the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply”. To this end, he encouraged lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledged that it is not sinful to marry. (Also see Paul’s clear refutation in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 of those who forbid marriage.)
I suspect this 1 Corinthians 7 passage is rarely preached in American churches. The suburban church typically portrays marriage and family as the normative ideal. The goal of a singles ministry is to get everyone paired off and participating in the rest of the life of the church: coming to potlucks with casseroles (instead of a bag of Doritos), producing offspring to populate the children’s ministry, and so on. For many churches, children are still their best church-growth strategy. Although churches acknowledge that in Christ things are different than the Old Testament, they still operate as though what matters most is getting married and having children. I preached at a church in Philadelphia and met a single guy in his thirties. As we chatted, he shared about his move to the city. Even though he continued to work in the distant suburbs, he opted for a long commute, changing churches and moving into the city because in that context he is not the bizarre anomaly he’d been in his former, suburban church. There has been little affirmation—at least in many American suburban churches—of the New Testament’s high calling of singleness.
Working through the Pain
I realize for many unmarried Christians this vision may not offer much comfort. I once preached on Malachi 2:10–16. In this section, the ancient tribe of Judah is rebuked for divorcing their wives from among their own people in order to marry foreign women who worship idols. Malachi raged, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (v. 15, emphasis added). As I discussed this passage, I shared some of this vision of singleness—that singles have opportunities to nurture spiritually-generated “offspring.” Some single folks in the church were encouraged by this, but others felt it wasn’t enough. Many singles—and not only women—want actual physical offspring. They want to be parents and hold their own children. What can we say to such a widespread and understandable human desire? With such unique disappointments in the lives of many single people, along with God’s special design of marriage at the creation, we may be forced to conclude that singleness, with its challenges, is one aspect of the brokenness of the world due to the Fall. If this is an accurate assessment, it means singleness may always come with an ache on some level. For some it is a “gift,” and presumably, they have “self-control” and do not “burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:7, 9). But the fact is that many face singleness for a host of reasons while not experiencing a sense of having been designed for it.
If God is truly God, there is no getting around that he is behind everything in existence. His sovereignty is behind your singleness. If you’re not happy about it and you’re not talking to him, you need to start. Because, I guarantee you this—whether you are speaking directly about this issue or not, it affects your relationship with him. Perhaps you are ignoring him in your pain, shutting him out (sadly, this is one of my personal tactics). And, of course, if you’re shutting him out, you’re turning somewhere else to medicate your pain. Maybe you’re losing yourself by searching Christian Mingle, Netflix binging, or trying to assuage your desire with porn or romance novels. Or perhaps it’s alcohol, work, exercise, or food. Or a combination—eating ice cream doused in chocolate liqueur, while doing work on your laptop, sitting in front of Netflix on your smart TV, while occasionally swiping through potential dates on your tablet . . . twenty-first-century idolatry can certainly multitask.
Embracing Promises Amid Pain
While the truth of God’s sovereignty sometimes sounds cold and distant, I urge you to see it in light of his amazingly particular love for you. David, considering God’s close attention to the details of his life, declared, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). He went on to describe God’s thoughts toward him as innumerable as the grains of sand. God’s thoughts toward you are vast and particular and fine-tuned to your unique life. We must think of his sovereignty over the details of our lives in the context of this particular love.
Consider the amazing declaration of Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you. . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isaiah 43:1, 4, 7,). Not only did God create and form you to be a unique image bearer, but he calls you by name as his very own. Because you are incredibly precious and loved, his eyes are on you and he wants to honor you. The ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. And, finally, did you catch why he created you? For his glory! Alongside these incredible statements, the New Testament teaches that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, emphasis added). Do you hear the bridegroom language? He wants to possess you as his very own, and that’s why Jesus came—to win his bride.
If you are single, I long for you to hear these words as deeply true, rather than spiritual platitudes. Jesus wants to meet you in your pain, disappointment, and unsatisfied desires, and give you comfort—this is a profound spiritual reality. Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18). He knows our deep need for him, and he longs to be intimately united to us.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God. According to the Bible, you are in a position to do far more for the kingdom than those who are married. But there is something else incredibly important: your life, lived well, is a revolutionary challenge to the principalities and powers of this dark world as your obedience educates the spiritual forces of the manifold wisdom of God (see Ephesians 3:10; 6:12). Our culture is seduced by sexuality and daily sells us the lie that a life without sex is not worth living. Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace suffering disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life. It is an ongoing challenge to grow in learning that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3), but far from something to be pitied, your life is a countercultural battle cry that the world (and the church!) needs to see!
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.