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Published Date: July 31, 1997

Published Date: July 31, 1997

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“Lord, If Only…”: Reflections on Single Adulthood in Africa and in the West

January 1984: The plane touched down on shimmering tarmac and my heart trembled with anticipation. At long last I had returned to Africa, the continent of my birth! Leaving behind the -30 C. temperatures of my home city in Canada, I arrived to find +30 C. sunshine in Nairobi, Kenya.

After an hour of moving through immigration and customs, I was met with a firm handshake by Joyce Taylor, senior missionary with the Africa Inland Mission. Her animated eyes searched my face through thick black frames. Shocks of rust-coloured hair rested in no particular direction, and a broad grin lit up her faintly freckled face. As we approached her vehicle, she reached for my two suitcases which the airline had clearly marked “Heavy Baggage.” I leapt in protest, knowing full well the bags weighed a good thirty kilos each. But with casual defiance, she swung the bags into the truck with seeming effortlessness. “Strong as an ox” was one of my first impressions of this senior, single missionary woman.

Yet this was only the beginning of many impressions that were formulated as I watched Joyce in action at a nearby school over the next two years. Affectionately known as “Wa T” (“Daughter of Taylor”), she had become an almost legendary figure among the Akamba people of Eastern Province. For almost forty years, she had started secondary schools for girls in increasingly remote and desolate areas of Ukambani. Now, almost fifty years since her first arrival, she has taught two and three generations of young Kenyan women, many of whom have gone on for further training and risen to prominent positions in Kenya-including the first female Minister of Parliament, Mrs. Nyiva Mwendwa. After a lifetime of service in the most rugged conditions, and remarkable identification with the people in language and lifestyle, she has rightfully earned the designation of “the white Mukamba.” Such was my introduction to a vanishing breed of pioneering missionary women.

On that same day of arrival, however, I met another single missionary woman. Mrs. Leslie Bates was the headmistress of the rural girls’ school where I had come to teach. Having gathered from previous correspondence with the Mission that she was a widow, I had envisioned an elderly woman with cotton dress, glasses, and grey hair swept back in a bun. Instead, here was this young, attractive woman of thirty-five exhibiting all the warmth and vibrancy one would expect from a southern Californian! By her present cheerful demeanour, one wouldn’t know the painful story of her past. Married at twenty and widowed at twenty-one, Leslie had spent most of her subsequent years working with Wa T in developing girls’ schools in rural Kenya.

Over the next two years of our working together, I often marveled at Leslie’s extraordinary giftedness and stamina in the face of all kinds of hardships. It wasn’t the lack of electricity, running water, and telephone, nor the physical isolation, being miles from the nearest town on horrendous dirt roads. Nor was it the administrative and pastoral skills required to teach and “mother” over a hundred Kenyan teenage girls. It was the other challenges-like the lingering drought which meant the schoolgirls had to walk miles to fetch water fur bathing, and she herself had to spend hours transporting water for the kitchen in large metal drums that eventually damaged her Peugeot truck. Challenges like checking daily on sacks of maize, beans and milk powder promised by the government for secondary schools, only to discover they had been sold off on the black market by local officials. Challenges like the ongoing tensions of local church and village politics, which at one point almost broke her spirit.

The more I knew of Leslie, the more amazed I became at what seemed a dramatic transformation in personality from how she described herself in her younger days. Growing up in California, she was anything but a tomboy or athletic or even physically active. Instead, she was a self-professed bookworm and one who loved to sew, crochet and do needlework. Now here she was managing a school in primitive conditions in Africa, with all the labour which that entailed, including planting over a thousand seedlings within a few years.

One day she shocked the entire community, including myself! The two school donkeys had a fight, and one kicked the other so hard it inflicted a compound fracture with the bone protruding through the skin. As the workmen prepared to put the wounded beast down, Leslie insisted on setting the bones herself, thereby saving the life of the doomed donkey! Another day she was awakened before dawn by the school matron who was in labour. Unable to reach the hospital in time, Leslie, with no training in nursing, delivered the baby in the back of the truck! Since African babies are often named according to circumstances associated with their birth, this particular child was named “Motokaa”!

Exploring Singleness

Why the introduction to these single missionary women? Partly to set the context for the discussion of single adulthood in Kenya, and partly to raise some of the questions which began to emerge for me during those years. For example, why had God not provided another marriage partner for Leslie, given how very “marriageable” she seemed with all her personal attractiveness and gifting, her domestic skills and her deep love for children? Why was I, too, on my own, after it had looked as though I would come with a ‘spouse? What impact did singleness have on our own lives of faith and ministry? And what did the Africans think, deep down, about us single white women? There was Wa T in her mid-sixties, Leslie in her mid-thirties, and me in my mid-twenties. Despite the love and esteem shown to the missionaries, what did the Akamba truly think of us not being married?

I sensed that somehow they made exceptions for us as “wazungu” (“white ones,” “Europeans”), but what did they think of our African colleagues in the same situation? Upon entering the new culture, I had been struck initially by the tremendous amount of weight placed on marriage and the increased status it guaranteed. As I gained further immersion in the Akamba way of life, I noticed how getting married and bearing children seemed to be not only the greatest aspiration of the schoolgirls, but almost their raison d’être. What, then, of their own teachers who had not attained such status and “success” in the eyes of the community? I observed with dismay when my single African Christian colleagues, both male and female, seemed somewhat ostracized in church and social circles for not having married by a certain age.

Expectations regarding marriage were not restricted to rural societies, as I soon discovered when I moved to the capital city of Nairobi in 1988. Working at Daystar University College, I gained further exposure to Christians from numerous denominations, ethnic societies, and countries across Africa. Even here, the extent to which one’s marital and parental status influenced one’s identity was somewhat surprising. A Kenyan faculty friend and age-mate shared how even Christian friends, evidently having given up on her ever marrying, asked her why she was not having children! Then for the first time ever I heard a woman introduce herself as “Mrs. Dr. So-and-so,” with the emphasis on “Mrs.” clearly indicating a more significant title than “Dr.” I became accustomed to the very predictable self-introduction by men as “the husband of only one wife” and the father of however many children, said with humour yet again with the stress on marital and parental status. And I became increasingly wearied by the apparently apologetic stance of single students in their repeated self-introductions as “single and searching” or “single and satisfied,” etc. By all appearances, marriage and parenthood together form a most crucial benchmark of adult identity in African society.

Yet on the other hand, this reality is not so surprising. Clinical psychologists have highlighted the tremendous role which family and societal expectations play in shaping one’s emotional construct or understanding of oneself. Writing from the context of the West, family therapists Schwartzberg, Berliner, and Jacob (1995, 4) state the following:

While men and women may experience it differently, marriage is a marker for the culture, family, and self in the expected progression from dependency to adulthood. Its presence or absence becomes a comment on how far along we are. ‘This comment, however, is not value free. If the milestone of marriage has not been achieved by a certain time, which can vary with the individual, family, or culture, it can have a profound impact on our sense of place in the surrounding social milieu, our position in the family, and our evaluation of self .

Working from the basis of Bowens family systems theory, which “defines the multigenerational family as the primary unit of emotional influence in the life of the individual” (Ibid, 32), these therapists point out that family and culture are closely intertwined when it comes to significant prescriptions about marriage. In an attempt to explain why single adults often feel out of step with the norms of family and the wider society, Schwartzberg et al state:

The family, perhaps the most powerful context influencing one’s life (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989), not only transmits cultural messages but also transforms them to fit the particular generational legacies regarding the meaning and role of marriage that are specific to each family. The filters of ethnicity, class, race, and gendered expectations, as well as the unique multigenerational processes that have shaped the family, all contribute to the particular way the family responds when a family member remains single beyond young adulthood (Ibid, 7).

The authors go on to describe how the definition of family varies according to different cultures, whether it includes immediate relatives only, the extended family, or even one’s ancestors. This in turn affects the perceptions regarding the meaning and role of marriage. For example, in those cultures where the family takes precedence over the individual and each generation is connected to the previous ones, marriage is not regarded as the creation of a new family. Rather, it marks the continuation of the family line, usually through the male. It also symbolizes stability and provides social identity (Mindel, Rabenstein, & Wright, 1988, in Schwartzberg et al, 39). Therefore, an adult not marrying may be viewed as counterproductive or even as “a betrayal to the perpetuation of the family” (Ibid). An example is cited from Jewish culture in America, as follows:

Because of the elevated position of q:tarriage and family, it has been argued that an individual’s relationship to marriage and family will affect his or her self-esteem, with failure to fulfill the ideal of family stability leading to decreased self-worth (Brodbar-Nemzer, 1986). With this intense value on family, it is easy to see that there is little role for a single person. It is often said among Jews, there is no such thing as being single, that there is only “not yet married” (Ibid, 44).

Marriage in the African Culture

What is true of Jewish culture could equally be said of African societies. The traditional view of marriage and family permeates African cultures like blazing sunshine pervades the vast savannah. Nothing escapes its penetration. In literature, Okot p’Bitek speaks for East Africa in his classic play, Song of Lawino (1972, 1989). Lawino, the heroine spumed by her husband Ocol for being deeply rooted in the customs of her people, provides poignant expression of the traditional Acholi culture she seeks to uphold. Concerning the role of marriage, she asserts most pointedly,

You may be a giant
Of a man,
You may begin
To grow grey hair
You may be bold
And toothless with age,
But if you are unmarried
You are nothing (p’Bitek 1989, 50).

In traditional African prayers, marriage was virtually presupposed, yet there are innumerable prayers beseeching God for children since this was a chief concern among African peoples. Indeed, to be without children was considered a form of evil that was very difficult to bear (Mbiti 1975, 20). Hence the cry of distress known as kwambaza in Burundi, appealing to the Supreme Being Imana:

… O Imana of the country of the Hutu and Tutsi,
If only you would help me just this once!
O Imana, if only you would give me
A homestead and children!
I prostrate myself before you,
Imana of Urundi.
I cry to you: Give me offspring,
Give me as you give to others!
Imana, what shall I do, where shall I go?
I am in distress,
Where is there room for me?
O merciful, O Imana of mercy,
Help this once (Shorter 1975, 135).

So deep is the conviction that life consists in sharing life, it is said that “to live is to transmit life. If one does not have children one is not alive” (Ibid, 44).

Underlying the literature and prayers is the fundamental African world-view concerning the nature of humanity. John Mbiti, a leading exponent of traditional African philosophy, expresses it succinctly in his oft-quoted dictum: “‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” (Mbiti 1969, 108- 109). In other words, the individual does not and cannot exist alone, but only in community. Or, in the more graphic description by John V. Taylor,

Seen in this way, Man [i.e. humankind] is literally a family tree, a single branching organism whose existence is continuous through time, and whose roots, though out of sight below the earth, may spread further and wider than all the visible limbs above…. Yet in this single, continuing entity there is no radical distinction of being between that part of the family which is ‘here’ [i.e. living] and that which is ‘there’ [i.e. dead]….

The fact of individuality may often clash with the demands of this collective humanity, just as conflict often arises between father and son, and the occasions for this are far more numerous in these days. Yet the underlying conviction remains that an individual who is cut off from the communal organism is a nothing…. As the glow of a coal depends upon its remaining in the fire, so the vitality, the psychic security, the very humanity of a man, depends on his integration into the family. In the old days the years of growing up were concerned mainly with his being. grafted into this community; the most important rituals of adult life were designed to preserve the cohesion of the community; the important sins were those that damaged the relationships of the community; and the most dreaded calamities were childlessness and the breaking of clan ties, both of which eventually rooted a man out of the community (Taylor 1963, 91-92).

Given this traditional world-view; it is no wonder that marriage and family take on such enormous proportion in African society. Once again, noted author Mbiti interprets the role of marriage in traditional cultures as follows:

For African peoples, marriage is the focus of existence. It is the point where all the members of a given community meet: the departed, the living and those yet to be born. All the dimensions of time meet here, and the whole drama of history is repeated, renewed and revitalized. Marriage is a drama in which everyone becomes an actor or actress and not just a spectator. Therefore, marriage is a duty; a requirement from the corporate society, and a rhythm of life in which everyone must participate. Otherwise, he who does not participate in it is a curse to the community, he is a rebel and a law-breaker, he is not only abnormal but ‘under-human’. Failure to get married under normal circumstances means that the person concerned has rejected society and society rejects him in return (Mbiti 1969, 133).

Nor is marriage the sole concern, for marriage without procreation is considered incomplete. The necessity of children is grounded in the philosophical concern of being “remembered” in the afterlife, voiced as follows: “‘f you don’t get married and have children, who will pour out libation to you when you die?” (Ibid, 134). Since personal immortality in the realm of the “living dead” continues only so long as one is remembered on earth, it is absolutely essential to bear offspring who will care for one after physical death. These convictions, then, form the philosophical basis for the following conclusion:

To die without getting married and without children is to be completely cut off from the human society, to become disconnected, to become an outcast and to lose all links with mankind.

Everybody, therefore, must get married and bear children: that is the greatest hope and expectation of the individual for himself and of the community for the individual (Ibid).

While it must be emphasized that these views stem from traditional African religion and philosophy, they nonetheless continue to underpin much of contemporary thinking and practice. The traditional beliefs may not consciously inform people’s perceptions, yet this cultural view of marriage is so deeply ingrained that customs are slow to change. In spite of a century and more of the Gospel being proclaimed in East Africa, the biblical teaching on the legitimacy of single adulthood (e.g. Mt 19:11-12, 1 Cor 7; cf. Koons and Anthony 1991, 71-79) does not appear to have made much impact on traditional expectations regarding the necessity of marriage. What Taylor noted some years ago could equally apply to the contemporary scene: Despite the decreasing numbers who adhere to the old beliefs, the “traditional world-view is continually reflected in the thoughts and attitudes of Christian Africans” (Taylor 1963, 20).

Marriage in Western Culture

The outcome of these traditional expectations in Africa, however, is not entirely different from the cultural context in the West. Without tracing the history of marital norms in North America, which has been done elsewhere (e.g. Koons and Anthony 1991; Smith in Fagerstrom 1988; Schwanzberg et al1995), the present reality is continued expectation and strong pressure for adults to marry (Koons and Anthony 1991, 37). Such personal anticipation of marriage within modem Western culture is accurately expressed as follows:

Growing up in [North] America meant that your dreams would come true, and you would be right in step, walking the aisle to wedlock, eventually owning your own home, raising 2.5 children, owning at least one R.V. [recreational vehicle], a speed boat, or a small vacation cabin, and living happily ever after. The dream was a Noah’s ark (two by two), “traditionally marrying” culture (Fagerstrom 1988, 25).

Thus marriage is traditionally viewed as the natural order of things, the “expected norm” or “normal lifestyle,” the “right” choice to make in life.

Conversely, singleness is considered something negative or deviant, a “wrong” choice, or a failure to achieve something positive in life (Ibid). Hence the pressure which singles feel from family, society, and their own inner selves to fit in with this societal norm. Failure to marry is generally viewed negatively; for example, even social psychologists have habitually referred to singles as “those who fail to marry,” or as “those who do not make positive choices” (Ibid, 44). Koons observes,

If singleness is discussed at all by these writers, it is generally in terms of stereotypes and assumptions. They see singles as hostile toward marriage or toward persons of the opposite sex; not having cut the umbilical cord from their parents; possibly being homosexual, unattractive, or having physical and psychological reasons for not finding a mate; afraid of involvement or commitment; lacking social skills for dating; having unrealistic criteria for finding a spouse; unwilling to assume responsibility. And the list goes on (Ibid).

These perceptions, together with many other myths of singleness, result in “a culture-induced pressure toward marriage, even an identity crisis of sorts that may elicit self-doubts and varying degrees of anxiety about being unmarried” (Koons and Anthony 1991, 36).

Unfortunately, the Church has traditionally reinforced such cultural prejudices instead of upholding scriptural truth concerning marriage and singleness. The presumption that “marriage is God’s perfect will” continues to be proclaimed from many pulpits today, deeply impacting the self-view of thousands of Christian singles. In addition, instructions are given with respect to “waiting on God for the perfect person” (Fagerstrom 1988, 25). This advice often accompanies the pernicious teaching, which seems especially prevalent in the evangelical sub-culture, that singles are only “half” persons who need to discover their other “half” in order to become “whole” or “one;” As Koons and Anthony note:

…[C]hurches have often preached that a person is not fully “complete” until associated with a marriage partner. Women had been reduced to second-class members in a couples-oriented society. These half-persons were destined to live in a kind of limbo until they could finally locate “God’s will” for them. For the unmarried women, life became a quest for the “missing piece” -which was usually defined as “husband” (1991, 87).

This kind of teaching in the Church only intensifies the soul-searching process which singles often undergo. First, it begs the obvious question, “Does being single, especially if never married, represent an incomplete, less than optimum, state-a failure to develop normally as a human being?” (Ibid, 36). If so, how is the Christian single to understand this concept in relation to our ultimate calling of spiritual growth “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4: 13)? If the only life that was ever lived perfectly was lived by a single person (Jesus Christ), how can anyone presume to teach that singleness is second-best?

Second, such teaching triggers emotional and spiritual anxiety, particularly when it is sprinkled with proof-texts concerning God’s faithfulness to those who diligently seek him. Specific promises are often taken out of context, such as Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Or Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (i.e. interpreted as marriage and family) will be given to you as well.” I personally recall conversations with well-meaning married Christian friends who assured me with all sincerity, sympathy and support: “You just need to pray and God will provide a husband for you.” How does one respond, then, when God does not “provide” on cue? Natural logic would suggest that either there is something wrong with oneself, with one’s faith and prayer life, or with one’s God. And so the defeatist cycle of questioning is fuelled.

As long as such teaching persists in the Church, singles will continue to be viewed as the “unfortunate few” who could not find or keep a mate, and who must be pitied and prayed for (Koons and Anthony 1991, 177-178). Singles will then persist in viewing themselves as the incomplete misfits which they are generally deemed to be by the Church and society. Such self-perceptions became quickly apparent at a short course I attended on “The Church’s Ministry with Single Adults” (Daystar University, Nairobi, 1996). Visiting lecturer Dr. Bill Flanagan had us form small groups for discussion, with the first question being “What are some of the responses you hear or feel when you hear the word ‘singleness’?” Within very few minutes, the following responses were voiced by a group of eight single adult Christians between mid-20 and mid-40 years of age, mostly Kenyans with a few North Americans:

  • outcast
  • unfulfilled
  • immature; viewed as still being young and hence expected to act young
  • leftover
  • irresponsible
  • suspect (particularly as a threat to seduce married partners)
  • selfish (on the assumption that the person has placed self-ambition over marriage)
  • too selective (with respect to a marriage partner)
  • inferior; not good enough to measure up to standards
  • rejected
  • in need of counsel (e. g. regarding character deficits)
  • in need of assistance (e.g. in matchmaking)

With the pervasiveness of such impressions, fed by the Church and society, is it any wonder that singleness is branded as “the one gift that nobody wants”?

The challenges of being a single adult struck me personally when I was making the transition from life in Canada (where I had been studying at Regent College) back to Africa in 1994. Before returning to Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya, I had the privilege of accompanying my mother on a ministry trip to Angola to speak to women’s conferences organized by the Brethren Assemblies. It was a profoundly moving experience for us to return together to Angola, where my parents were medical missionaries fur ten years, and where I was born. Yet in spite of all the joys of being reunited with Christian friends from thirty years ago and seeing the remarkable expansion of the Church despite seemingly endless civil war, it still marked the re-entry point for my adaptation to African culture. And with that came the face to face encounter, yet again, of what it means to be a single adult in Africa.

We were involved primarily with an ethnic society known affectionately as the “cheeky Chokwe” for their boldness and forthrightness. That provides the context for the following incident, which may best be relayed through an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend in October 1994:

Sometimes it’s just really hard to go against the current of an entire culture. I wouldn’t have thought that things like status and credibility were important to me, but then you try going without and it’s another story! To give you an example, on our first full day in Angola we were taken to visit the girls’ camp just outside Luanda. They asked Mom to speak in the morning, and then asked me on the spot to share something in the afternoon. So 1 did, a combination of testimony and some thoughts about Mary (of Nazareth, on whom I had recently written my master’s thesis) …. Feeling fairly contented with what God had allowed me to share spontaneously, I then opened it up for questions about anything fd said. No exaggeration, this is the exact sequence of questions fired one after the other. Number 1: “Do you have a boyfriend?” Well, the answer is no. Number 2: “Why not?” (!!) I made some garbled attempt to avoid platitude and give some answer to what God alone knows, at the same time trying to fight the choking sensation that rises in my throat. Number 3: “Are we going to learn sewing?” I kid you not! I mean, case closed, or what?!

What may seem a trivial incident evoked many tensions that for years had simmered within me as a single adult in both African and Western cultures. If only I could be recognized and responded to on the basis of who I am as an individual and not whether there is a male partner beside me. If only the expectations for marriage were not so pervasive and so deeply ingrained within our cultures. If only I could know the fulfillment of a marriage corresponding to the desire and the potential within me. After all, would I not then have more love to give to others, as an outpouring of my own growth in an intimate personal relationship? Would I not have a stronger testimony in terms of knowing God’s faithful provision of a husband, instead of the misguided perceptions at times of being abandoned by God? Would I not be more respected in ministry, both with married and single people? Especially here in Africa-why would God call me to this culture, and then not provide what is so important in terms of identity and credibility within this culture? Lord, if only….

How Shall We Respond?

While seeking to avoid trite answers to life’s unknowns I think it is crucial to place our reflections in a much wider context so that we can gain better perspective on the possible “if onlys” of single adulthood. For we are certainly not the first to bring such questions to God. Long ago, two women poured out their anguished “if onlys” to Jesus, and with good grounds for doing so from a human perspective. They had a very genuine need: Their brother, who was also Jesus’ close friend, was seriously sick. So the two sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (Jn 11:3, NIV).

What was Jesus’ response? The Gospel of John records a seeming paradox: While clearly affirming that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5), the text literally continues: “When therefore he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v. 6, NASB). Why would Jesus delay in responding to the urgent plea of his beloved friends? Why would he not immediately attend to their genuine need? After all, were they not his close followers diligently seeking him? ‘

In order to resolve this dilemma, some indication is provided in the conjunction joining verses 5 and 6, variously translated as “therefore” (as above), “yet” (NIV) or “accordingly” (NRSV). D. A Carson notes, “This means that the two-day delay was motivated by Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus” (Carson 1991, 407; emphasis original). How can this be so? The previous verse indicates Jesus’ initial response to the news of his sick friend. When he states that “This sickness will not end in death” (v. 4, NIV), he does not mean that the illness was not fatal, for indeed it was (v. 14). Rather, he explains that it would not end ultimately in death, since he would restore Lazarus to life again. Instead, according to Jesus, the illness would serve a dual purpose. First, “It is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (v. 4). And second, Jesus eventually affirms the fact of Lazarus’ death and declares that “for your sake I am glad I was put there, so that you may believe” (v. 15, emphases mine). These two themes, the revelation of God’s glory, particularly through the Son, and the invitation to believe, are central to John’s Gospel.

The first theme, God’s glory, is to be understood in its present context of John 11:4 as “a revelation of God, or as the intervention of his power in history (Jn 1:14; 2:11; 11:4; 12:41)” (Brown et al 1976, 48). Jesus’ declaration here, regarding Lazarus’ illness, reinforces his teaching in John 9 concerning the man born blind. When Jesus and his disciples saw this man, his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). Their question betrays their assumption, prevalent among Palestinian Jews of the time, that there was a direct correspondence between sin and suffering. Despite the Book of Job which refutes such a simplistic equation the general principle continued in Jewish thinking, as summarized by Rabbi Ammi: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity” (in Morris 1971, 478). Here was an individual suffering; therefore individual sin must be the cause of his condition, either his own sin in the womb (as some Jews believed was possible) or his parents’ sin in which he was in some way implicated (e.g. when his mother was pregnant with him; Carson 1991, 361-362).

The important thing to note for our purpose is that Jesus firmly refused both alternatives in the question posed to him. While it is undeniable that suffering may be due to sin, with many examples from biblical evidence (e.g. Miriam’s revolt in Num 12; cf Jn 5: 14) and from common experience, Jesus definitely refutes the generalization that personal suffering is necessarily a direct result of personal sin. Hence he replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned … but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (emphasis mine). In other words, Jesus clearly contradicts the assumption of the contemporary culture, including the religious sub-culture, in order to provide the divine perspective on the man’s condition.

Jesus’ Perspective

What, then, would Jesus say about the “condition” of single adults today? As noted above, African and Western cultures, including the evangelical sub-culture, have often viewed adult singlehood in a similar way to how blindness was viewed in first century Palestine: as a personal defect, an embarrassment, a poor reflection on the individual and/or the parents. In stark contrast to this human perspective, Jesus offers the divine perspective through his response to both the man born blind and the illness of Lazarus. Milne expresses it clearly, as follows:

Jesus’ attitude to sickness here [with Lazarus] is parallel to 9:3: the sickness provides a platform so that the “work of God might be displayed in his life.” What is true here at the level of physical illness can be extended to all the trials we face as Christian disciples. Our natural response is to rebel against them as alien intruders, which must be expelled from our lives as quickly and painlessly as possible by every means available, including God’s miraculous intervention. With hindsight, however, another perspective is possible. We can offer our trials to God for him either to remove or retain as he pleases, thereby bringing glory to his name and deepening our faith, and possibly that of others too (Milne 1993, 158).

So while the disciples succumb to human reasoning, asking the cause of the man’s blindness, Jesus reveals the divine view, answering in terms of its purpose (Brown 1966, 371). In the same way, much of the speaking, writing, and programming for single adults has focused on what to do about one’s unmarried state, when the more vital need is to consider what to do with one’s singleness (Koons and Anthony 1991, 209). How might God manifest his work in our lives even in, or especially in, our singleness?

This is not to suggest that singleness is equivalent to a “sickness” or “disability” or even necessarily a “trial” Rather, it is simply one of the circumstances of our lives-whether self-chosen or not, temporary or not-which provides the conditions for God to reveal his grace and glory. Like Paul with his “thorn in the flesh,” we may plead with God to change our present marital status, yet ultimately we need to know the sufficiency of his grace despite our life experience (2 Cor 12:7-10). The challenge is to discover the kind of joy and fulfillment which the Apostle Paul models for us when he writes from prison,

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).

So whatever our circumstances, whether we are in good health or ill, blind or sighted, married or single, free or imprisoned, the crucial question is: How will we respond to the situation? Will we allow God to be glorified in our lives regardless of the circumstances? Will we truly believe in Jesus, as he invites us to (e.g. Jn 11:15, 25, 26, 40, 42), no matter how incomplete the situation might look from a human perspective?

A brief consideration of how the sisters Mary and Martha fared may shed further light on our discussion. Interestingly enough, both sisters voice the identical lament to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21, 32). Whether or not their words contain any sense of rebuke, as debated by scholars, they certainly express the deep sense of despair and disappointment so characteristic of the “if onlys” we pour out to God when we are dissatisfied with life’s circumstances. Yet in the midst of that anguished cry, both sisters also affirm continued confidence in Jesus. Martha immediately proceeds to say, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 22). And Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, in the same stance of worship she previously displayed in Luke 10:38-42. While neither Martha nor Mary could possibly conceive of what Jesus was about to do (cf v. 39), both sisters express utmost confidence that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death had he been there. Thus in spite of the human loss and pain, they still speak from the standpoint of faith.

The outcome of such tenacious faith is indeed startling. In the first encounter, with Martha, what ensues is a significant theological discussion between Jesus and a woman! It is common knowledge that the contemporary Jews did not normally educate women, let alone entertain theological dialogue with them. Yet once again, Jesus goes entirely against the current culture to disclose himself to one whose heart is open to him. The result is one of the most striking “I Am” sayings recorded in John’s Gospel, when Jesus proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). After elaborating further on this truth, Jesus confronts Martha with the crucial question, “Do you believe this?” (v. 26). The response from this grief-stricken woman bursts forth like sheet lightning against a storm-beaten sky: “‘Yes, Lord,’ she told him, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world’” (v. 27). Thus, even from the depths of human sorrow, Martha voices the most astounding acknowledgement of Christ’s identity. Indeed, her confession is not only on par with the great messianic confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:16), but even more profound in its proclamation of who Jesus is. Morris notes,

Taken together these three affirmations give us as high a view of the person of Christ as one well may have. Martha should be known to us from this moving declaration rather than from her worst moment of criticism and fretfulness [i.e. Lk 10:38-42] (1971, 552).

It becomes evident, therefore, that the painful circumstances of Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ delay create significant opportunities in Martha’s life. First, the difficult situation allows Martha herself to deepen in faith, as Jesus probes her theological understanding and prompts her great messianic confession. Second, like the man born blind, she certainly provides visible evidence of the work of God in her life as she allows Jesus to “reshape her hope radically” (Milne 1993, 164) even in the face of death. And third, the agonizing experience affords her the opportunity to reach out to Mary in her need, and to gently direct her towards a personal encounter with Jesus (vv. 28-29).

Contemporary Applications

All these opportunities are equally available to single adults today, regardless of how we view our own situation. As with other circumstances in life, singleness can prompt us to deepen in faith ourselves, fur the aloneness invites us to discover more fully who Jesus really is. Against the common temptation to find one’s identity and security in a human partner, singleness is especially conducive to the discovery of God’s all-sufficiency. Hence the Psalmist encourages us, whatever our present experience, to recognize this profound truth:

Yet I am always with you;
         you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
          and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
          And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
          but God is the strength of my heart
          and my portion forever (Ps 73:23-26).

Single adults today can also provide powerful demonstration of God’s work in our lives as we cut across cultural dictates in order to have our hope “radically reshaped” by Jesus. Martha, like her ancestor Abraham, was able to exercise faith in God’s purpose despite all the evidence which mitigated against hope. Reflecting upon this spiritual capacity, Paul writes in Romans 4:18-22:

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead-since he was about a hundred years old-and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being folly persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness” (emphasis mine).

Abraham was fully aware of all the natural reasons to disregard God’s promise; nonetheless, he consciously chose to believe God and to allow God to determine his own destiny. Like this forefather in faith, we single adults today are called to find our ultimate fulfillment in God’s purpose for us. Against all that our culture prescribes, from the toothpaste ads to the faulty pulpit preaching which says marriage is the only or supreme way to fulfillment, we are urged to have our hope “radically reshaped” by the God who has his own designs upon our lives. God’s promise to us may not be that of a miraculous child, as in Abraham’s case, nor even of marriage. But what God does promise is our steady transformation into Christ-likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18), and in that prospect lies our deepest fulfillment. For as Paul reflects further, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20).

Furthermore, just as Martha extended Jesus’ message to Mary, single adults are in a strategic position to reach out to others experiencing similar needs to themselves. Paul urges such active identification in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” With the escalating number of single adults in our midst, including the never-married, the separated, divorced, and widowed, the need for sensitive ministry to singles has become increasingly important. No one is better placed to help meet such needs than one who has shared a similar experience of singleness, yet, having met Christ within the process, can extend Christ’s invitation for a personal encounter with the One who meets all our needs (Phil4:19). In all these ways, therefore, single adults have the opportunity, like Martha, to bring glory to God in a manner that has enduring impact for God’s kingdom.

While Mary’s experience of the situation does not receive the same amount of description as Martha’s, her tenacious faith likewise has an astonishing outcome. If Martha’s lament to Jesus leads into a theological discussion, Mary’s lament leads into a theological demonstration. Jesus has just disclosed himself to Martha, inviting her to recognize the awesome truth that: “Resurrection life which triumphs over death is not confined to the distant future, but is present here and now in him who is the Resurrection, the embodiment of the promised life and salvation of God” (Milne, 164). Jesus then demonstrates that truth in an entirely unexpected way by restoring life to the dead Lazarus. Thus “… the raising of Lazarus becomes a paradigm, an acted parable of the life-giving power of Jesus” (Carson 1991, 414). Not that Lazarus’ return to life signified the ultimate resurrection at the end of the age, nor was it equivalent to the unique resurrection of Jesus, which it foreshadowed. Rather, “… the resurrection of Lazarus, occurring before that of Jesus, could only be a pale anticipation of what was yet to come. It was, in fact, a ‘sign’ …, rightly the climactic sign” (Ibid, 419). For as the Gospel of John presents it, the Lazarus miracle was the catalyst for the death of Jesus in that it provoked the meeting of the Sanhedrin which determined to kill him (vv. 46-53).

So by voicing her “if onlys” to Jesus, Mary together with Martha served to set the scene fur this amazing demonstration of Christ’s resurrection power at work here and now. This in turn triggered the events which led to the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus’ saving mission in his death and resurrection. These two women, then, model for us the honest encounter with Jesus which, even in our day, enables us to see demonstrated the life-giving power of Christ.

Another important point which John reports most candidly is Jesus’ profound display of emotion at the scene of death. When Mary falls at his feet expressing her lament, she cannot contain her tears. Nor can the Jews who accompany her, and seeing this, Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (v. 33). As Milne points out, “Jesus is not remote from the sufferings of his fellow humans. The fact that he is one with us in humanity means that he is one with us in agony” (Milne, 164). His complete identification with humanity also meant his full participation in the suffering, and hence the remarkable fact that “Jesus wept” (v. 35). The assurance we gain from this is that “Jesus is one with us in our need; he feels our pain; he lives our experience from the inside; his tears at that moment authentically expressed the emotion of his heart” (Ibid).


The reality of the sympathizing Christ is perhaps the most fitting concept with which to conclude my discussion of single adulthood in Africa and in the West. For whatever our experience of singleness, be it freedom and joyous fulfillment or agonizing aloneness, our life this side of eternity will never be what God originally intended in creation. Regardless of our marital status, we cannot escape the human condition of fallenness. Rather, with all of creation, we “groan inwardly” until God’s redemption is perfectly completed (Rom 8: 18-23). So whether the moments of suffering are few or frequent, we have the Son of God himself to identify with us in the pain and confusion and “if onlys.” And we have the full assurance that “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Pet 5: 10).

Like the cairns that guide a climber to the mountain summit, John’s Gospel provides “signs” that reveal God’s glory. A man born blind receives his sight, and so the work of God is manifested in his life. A dead man is restored to life, and so his sisters discover the Resurrection and the Life. Midst the glimpses of glory in our present existence, however, it requires no great discernment to recognize that many blind people long for sight but do not receive it. Many bereaved people long for loved ones to return to life here but do not enjoy such reunions. And many single adults long for marriage but do not experience it. Milne’s comments concerning the man born blind are therefore appropriate:

It is true that in many cases where suffering is submitted to God then God’s work is displayed, possibly by a healing or deliverance, as here, or alternatively by a courageous acceptance of the suffering, enabling a discovery of God’s strength in our weakness, as was Paul’s experience (2 Cor 12:7-10). But in the end there is a dimension in suffering which defies all “explanation.” In a fallen world, exhaustive explanations are in principle not· available. The nearest we come to plumbing the mystery is at the cross, and even there a “why?” could not be suppressed (Mt27:46). “We can ‘make sense’ of a dark world only by believing in the one who came to be the ‘light of the world’.” (L. Newbigin, in Milne 1993, 138).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus beckons us to such belief. He calls us to “reshape our hope radically,” even in the most bleak situations of life. He invites us to offer our “if onlys” in exchange for his greater glory. And he demonstrates that glory to a fallen world through those who seek him above all else, including culturally-conditioned claims to finding self-fulfillment. Those like Wa T, who could have found security as a farmer’s wife in the U.S. Midwest but instead poured her life into three generations of Kenyan women. Those like Leslie, who perhaps forfeited remarriage in order to live the gospel in rural Kenya. Those like my Kenyan colleagues, women and men whose allegiance to Christ supersedes the dictates of traditional African culture regarding marriage. Such glimpses of glory are enough to fuel that radical hope which transcends the “if onlys” of life this side of eternity.

So whatever circumstances life brings us, may the Lord grant us the grace to fall at his feet in worship, like Mary, and to exclaim with Martha, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Only then will we discover true fulfillment, when, whether married or single, we freely embrace the one who alone is the Resurrection and the Life.


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