The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake for the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:10–12
The gift of unity, whether with other people or with God, does not depend in any way on marriage. In fact, the New Testament teaches that a deeper dedication to Christ may be found by giving up marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Those who renounce everything for Jesus, including the gift of marriage, are given a great promise by him: he will be especially near to them at his return (Rev. 14:1–5). Whether such people find themselves without a life partner because of abandonment, death, or lack of opportunity, they can find a much greater calling than marriage if they are able to accept their singleness in the depths of their hearts. They can dedicate their lives in a special way to undivided service for God’s kingdom.
To live fully is to live for Christ.
Every man and every woman on earth who desires to follow Christ must be completely transformed by him. This challenge takes on a deeper meaning for those who are single (for whatever reason) and who carry their singleness for Christ’s sake. Such a person will find a special relationship to him.
A life lived for Christ is life in its fullest sense (John 10:10). We must never forget this; it is our deepest calling. If we truly love Christ the Bridegroom with undivided hearts, we will be immersed in him just as we are immersed in water at baptism. If we live in Christ, our love for him will guide our love to our Christian brothers and sisters and to all those around us.
The story of Saint Francis of Assisi and his friendship with Saint Clare shows in a wonderful way the significance of brotherly and sisterly love – even when it does not lead to marriage. When all of Francis’s brothers and friends deserted him, he went to Clare. In her he had a friend he could rely on. Even after his death she remained loyal to him and continued to carry out his mission, despite opposition. Here was a relationship that had nothing to do with marriage but was still genuinely intimate – a friendship of true purity and unity in God.
There will always be women and men like Clare and Francis who remain unmarried for the sake of Christ. Yet we must recognize that the gift of a relationship such as theirs is not given to everyone. In struggling for purity, most single people are no different from married people. Even a life committed to celibacy is no safeguard against impurity – in every heart, purity requires constant watchfulness, a daily fight against the flesh, and a firm attitude against sin.
If we allow him, Jesus can fill every void.
The Scriptures never promise us the removal of temptation. But we do have the assurance that it need not overcome us (1 Cor. 10:13). If we prove ourselves in patience and faithfulness, God will help us. This is not to say that it is possible to keep pure by the strength of our own will. Yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the help of caring friends and family members, it is possible to find freedom and victory (Gal. 6:1–2).
For those who do not find a partner in marriage but feel no special calling to remain single for the sake of Jesus, there is a danger of bitterness. If a deep yearning for marriage remains unfulfilled, especially over a long period of time, it can harden the heart. Then only God’s grace can protect the soul and enable it to let go – to give up marriage and still find peace.
Cynthia, an unmarried woman in her mid-forties, offers her insights on how to avoid an empty life and find lasting fulfillment:
“Me, single for the rest of my life?” Many of us must face this reality. Why? – because we have chosen to commit our lives to God first. He needs tools that are unattached to family to serve him. Does this mean less fulfillment, stunted growth, withdrawal from full involvement in life? Not if one can embrace, instead of rebel against, God’s plan for one’s life. In fact, a dedicated life of service awaits those who sacrifice or renounce marriage in order to keep themselves completely at God’s disposal.
Think of single people like the writer Amy Carmichael, who traveled to India as a young missionary, not knowing what kind of service God wanted of her. She soon had a growing orphanage of children rescued from virtual slavery in the clutches of the Hindu temple priests. Or think of Mother Teresa, who founded an order of sisters to look after the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Her order has spread all over the world. Or think of Paul and others of the apostles who, because they were single, were able to travel ceaselessly to spread the Gospel.
Of course you don’t have to be a missionary, nun, or apostle to find fulfillment in a life of singleness. I could have felt bitterness and frustration at not being married, but instead I have found plenty of opportunities to serve others on a daily basis right where I have been placed.
Almost weekly I visit inmates at the local jail. During my last visit, the women in the jail were eager for bible study, so we read the story of the Good Samaritan and talked about its everyday applications. After a discussion of who could or couldn’t sing, we all joined in singing spirituals and hymns like “Precious Lord” and “Amazing Grace.” Needless to say, not every evening is satisfying in this way. Loneliness can be a reality in any single person’s life. It may tempt one to self-pity, but like any temptation, it can be refused. In her book Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot advises: “Accept your loneliness. It is one stage, and only one stage, on a journey that brings you to God. It will not always last. Offer up your loneliness to God, as the little boy offered to Jesus his five loaves and two fishes. God can transform it for the good of others. Above all, do something for somebody else!”
Here is the clue: service rendered to others. Teaching, nursing, counseling, or visiting prisoners in jail – any of such activities can lead to a fulfilled life. For there are many hurting people in the world who need an extra touch of love, and those of us who are single are uniquely free to take up the task of being there for them.
The process of letting go of one’s own desires is never easy, and it may at times weigh very heavily on a person. But when single people are able to surrender their own hopes and dreams completely, Jesus will fill the void that might otherwise burden them. They will remember how he ended his life on the cross, and they will find joy in bearing singleness as their sacrifice for him. Those who continually long for marriage, despite the fact that God has not given it to them, can never attain this joy. Marriage is a great gift, but to belong completely and undividedly to Christ is a greater gift.
Ultimately, we have to be willing to be used by God as he wills and find contentment in whatever circumstances we find ourselves (Phil. 4:11–13). We should never think that God does not love us. Such a thought is of the devil.
Naturally, no matter how dedicated a single person is, he or she will still experience moments, days, or even weeks of sadness and struggle. The knowledge that marriage and children are beyond reach will always bring pangs of longing and a sense of loss. But rather than dwell on these things, it is better (even if harder) to look to God and to turn to one’s brothers and sisters in the church. Bonhoeffer writes:
Pain is a holy angel who shows us treasures that would otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men and women have become greater than through all the joys of the world. It must be so and I tell myself this in my present situation over and over again. The pain of suffering and of longing, which can often be felt even physically, must be there, and we cannot and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time, and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain; that is, the one of joy in God.24
Singleness can be accepted as a burden – or as a special calling.
Single men and women must not fall into the trap of estranging themselves from life and love in bitterness. They must not stifle what is best in themselves or give themselves over to dreams or to desires that cannot be satisfied. They must not let self-circling fantasies block the unfolding of all that God has given them. If they are able to accept their singleness as a gift or a special calling, they will let none of their energy or love go unused. Their longings will be fulfilled in giving: in a stream of love that moves away from themselves, and toward Christ and the church. As Paul says:
An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32–35).
Earlier in the same letter, Paul refers to another blessing of singleness: the lack of care and worry over spouse and children, especially in times of hardship. “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:28).
Widows, like the unmarried, are also able to serve the church and the needy at times when a married person could not. Paul says, “A woman who is really widowed and left without anybody can give herself up to God in hope and consecrate all her days and nights to petitions and meetings for prayer” (1 Tim. 5:5 Jerusalem Bible). In the early church in Jerusalem, widows were appointed to serve the poor or entrusted with other responsibilities. “Even in the smallest church community, the overseer had to be a friend of the poor, and there was at least one widow responsible to see to it, day and night, that no sick or needy person was neglected.”1
How sad it is that today it is very often the widows – and other single women and men – who are themselves neglected and lonely! May the church always be ready to meet the needs of such people (1 Cor. 12:26). Especially with the collapse of the family, we must find new ways to show single members extra love and care and to involve them in the lives of our families or fellowships. This does not mean pressing them to find a spouse and then pitying them if they don’t – that will only add to their pain. It means welcoming their gifts and services in the church, providing them with meaningful tasks, and drawing them into the inner life of the church so that they may find fulfillment.
No matter our state, all of us are called to love.
Those of us who are married should recognize that our happiness is a gift – something to be shared and passed on. We should reach out to those who struggle with feelings of loneliness. This is why in my congregation every single person is “adopted” into some family. Here they can give as well as receive. Most important, all of us, whether married or single, should remember that true fulfillment and joy is found in serving one another in the spirit of community. We are called to a love that gives unconditionally – not to the grasping love of a cozy marriage nor to the indulging love of isolated self-pity.
As Christians, we know that true love is found in its most perfect form in Jesus. Many of us have been touched by Jesus, or been called and used by him. But that is not enough. Each of us must ask God to let us experience him personally – in the very depths of our hearts. Our eyes must be fixed on him and him alone so that we can see him as he really is, and not grow weary and lose heart (Heb. 12:2–3).
The span of life is short, and as Paul warns us, the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29–31). What we need most in our time is Christ, but not only as a guide or an image before our eyes. He must become a living reality in our daily lives. He said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49).
Where is Christ most clearly revealed as he was and still is? We must seek for him with our brothers and sisters. We must ask that he is revealed today and every day among us. More than that, we must ask for the courage to witness to him before others just as he is, with tenderness, meekness, and humility, but also in truth, clarity, and sharpness. We must not add or take away anything from his gospel. That is the essence of single-heartedness, and the service of singleness.
1. Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians In Their Own Words (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997), 15.