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The Gift Nobody Wants?

Most discussions of human relationships center on questions about marriage and the family, but to be inclusive we must examine another area: the needs of singles. It in no way undermines the God-ordained institution of the family for Christians to recognize that we are in danger of developing an almost cultic emphasis on family that discriminates against singles. Many singles today get the message that their concerns will always come last on the church’s agenda. Pious affirmation of “welcome to our fellowship” has a hollow ring to singles.

I have participated in innumerable church planning sessions where, only at the end of those long discussions, someone has said, “Oh, we probably should do something for singles.” Because of the late hour, those in charge have deferred the problem by asking someone to “look into it.” No, we never exactly forgot those singles—but we never did get any significant programs going, either.

Why not? Why do the needs of singles seem to come last on the programmatic totem pole? I suggest that part of the problem has been unquestioning acceptance of that false equation of marriage with career. As long as we Christians think or teach that marriage is the accepted goal for all women (which by implication means it is for all men, too) we will find it hard to think of singleness as an option, and it will be practically impossible to think of singleness as a gift.

Yet Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:7 strongly suggest that singleness is just that—a gift. He wrote, “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another that.” This entire chapter deals with human relationships and puts a premium on singleness. Have we distorted Scripture so that singleness has become the gift nobody wants?

In recent years there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in spiritual gifts. The women’s movement within the church has expressed one very valid concern that traditional practices make it difficult or impossible for women to use their spiritual gifts. Now we must ask: Has our preoccupation with marriage and the family made it difficult or impossible for single men and women to accept their singleness as a gift and use it for the glory of God?

Single men need support and friendship, being included and feeling wanted. The myth of the single man as always in demand and thus choosing from among a wealth of social invitations is usually just that—a myth. In reality he often spends a succession of solitary evenings on make-work projects to help him pass the time.

Yet since custom still dictates that men control the question of marriage, single women can resent single men (and even men in general) for leaving them in their “unfinished” state. The patronizing term God’s unclaimed blessing leads to feelings of rejection as single women ask themselves: Why didn’t anyone claim me?

A variation of that false notion “form defines function for women” is the saying: “A man is what he does; a woman is what she is.” I suggest that some conservative circles have expanded that to: “A woman is whom she marries, and if she does not marry, she is in danger of becoming a nonperson.”

In her book, Leaving Home, Evelyn Bence recounts a poignant conversation with her father. She wanted to explain her career goals, but her father could not accept her as the person she was. He insisted on discussing her singleness. His comment on her “failure” to find a husband: “It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve been trying very hard.”1 As I read this deeply moving book I thought: With devastating remarks like that, is it any wonder that singleness is a gift nobody wants?

We must understand that whenever we imply or state out-right that marriage is the highest Christian life-style, it forces singles to conclude that they are “losers.” The easy criticism of singles, “You’re just too picky,” quickly translates into, “You’re such a loser, you should be grateful if anyone wants you.”

So possibly one of the most damaging areas of fallout from the unquestioning acceptance of marriage as a woman’s career is this devaluation of single women. Single men are not devalued per se, because marriage has never been considered the ultimate male goal; marriage does not particularly “enhance” men (unless they marry “money” or their professions require a wife who fills the role of a full-time hostess). But as long as society, or segments of society, consider marriage the ultimate female career goal, single women will always be considered “losers.” What a tragic underestimate of precious human resources!

Yes, teaching marriage as the universal goal for all women denies their full personhood, because it indicates that women will only become fulfilled when they marry. Yet neither women nor men gain personal identity through marriage. Women as well as men are complete individual whether or not they marry. How hard even Christians have found it to accept this truth.

We need reminding that in the Genesis 1, 2 account of our human origins God did not pronounce the marriage of the man and woman or their sexual activity “very good.” It was the initial creation of the individual man and the individual woman in God’s image that He describes with these words.

Note that the man spoke the words in Genesis 2:23 (“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh...”) before any rejoining of the two in sexual union. The single man recognized the single woman as a person equal with himself, a person of the same substance and created in the same divine image. Only her creation ended his aloneness and changed his state from “not good” to “very good” and that turnaround occurred when they were both “singles.”

So our common status as human beings forms the basis for human social interaction. Whether man with man, woman with woman, or man with woman, all human friendships have one common denominator: We are the same life form, and God created us both in His image. As we interact together, we do so on that basis, and that is why human relationships can be on a plane far above even the closest attachments to pets.

Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to other people in terms of pure friendship. Our American society has an obsession with sex. The entertainment industry concentrates on exciting human sexuality, and pop philosophers proclaim, “What feels good is good.” Secular society’s acceptance of all varieties of “meaningful relationships” leads many people to think they have a right to achieve sexual gratification and can exercise it whenever they desire.

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with sex makes it harder than ever for singles to form close friendships. Regardless of whether singles become good friends with a person of the same sex or of the opposite sex, society will tend to put the worst possible construction on it. It is not too farfetched to say that it would be difficult for Paul and Timothy to travel about today without tongues wagging, or for Paul to commend Phoebe so warmly without someone wondering if there were not more to their friendship than mutual admiration.

Concentrating on the fact that in the Incarnation Jesus remained single will help singles realize that He does indeed understand their every temptation and know their every need. Pondering passages like Matthew 19:10-12 and 1 Corinthians 7 will help singles dedicate their relationships to the Lord’s service. Certainly if Jesus appeared today and said to a man or a woman, “I give you the gift of singleness,” that would put this whole matter in proper perspective.

Neither secular society nor the Christian community may value the gift of singleness, but God values it, and that is what counts.

So the Christian community must hear the anguish of singles as they struggle with celibacy in a sexually saturated society, and must not add to the tensions of singles by an excessive emphasis on marriage and the family that effectively excludes singles, and must always respond sensitively to the natural human desire of singles for balanced social interaction and for genuine friendships. Any Christian philosophy of human relationships needs to include full acceptance of singleness.

Notes

  1. Evelyn Bence. Leaving Home (Tyndale House, 1986) p. 24.

 

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