I need to make a declaration right at the outset, for the purposes of transparency. If there were an official register of bloggers’ personal interests, I would be duty bound to make an entry. So here we go: I’m an unmarried man. There, I’ve said it. Not an easy thing to admit to as a Christian in your late forties. Particularly in a social media driven culture where your ‘relationship status’ is considered to be a key aspect of your identity.
Not the gift I would have chosen
I’m unmarried not by choice, but rather by circumstance. When I came to faith in Christ some twenty-four years ago, I was involved in a same-sex relationship. I immediately left that relationship out of love for and obedience to Jesus. To leave my long-term partner was tough. But I have never once regretted that decision.
Despite much prayer over the years, I still battle against same-sex temptations today. Again, I should stress that I don’t find people of the same sex attractive by choice. Believe me, I’ve tried to muster up opposite-sex attractions! I even had a lovely friendship with a Christian girl in my late twenties, which I hoped and prayed might lead to marriage. But it didn’t. I simply wasn’t convinced that I could make that commitment to love her “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
So yes, I have a vested interest in being positive about the single life. But that said, I genuinely do consider it to be a great thing. Not that I’m against marriage – far from it. I just believe that being unmarried is a gift too. And the reason I believe that is because the Word of God tells me so. In 1 Corinthians 7 – the one chapter in the Bible that deals extensively with both marriage and singleness – the Apostle Paul (an unmarried man) says this:
“I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (1 Corinthians 7:7)
The gift I’ve come to appreciate
My aim in these two articles is not to tackle the singleness ‘issue’ in full. Instead, I simply plan to outline five positive aspects of the unmarried life; two in this article and three in the next. In doing so, I fully acknowledge that there are some negative aspects of being unmarried too. Those reading this who, like me, are unmarried will undoubtedly be aware of those. But here are some positive truths that I’ve discovered in the Bible and found personally helpful:
- I’m often able to cope better in a crisis
Really? This might seem completely counter-intuitive. To face a crisis at all is difficult enough. The loss of a job, caring for a sick relative, financial worries, a stressful situation at work and so on. To face such things as an unmarried person, with no spouse to support, encourage, or counsel me – well, how is that better? As the saying goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved.’
Well, the saying does go like that. But is it always true? Paul certainly didn’t think so in writing to Christians in 1st Century Corinth. He doesn’t believe they would be better off married, in order to face their crisis. Quite the opposite. “Because of the present crisis”, he writes, “I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (1 Corinthians 7:26). He then writes that those who haven’t made a pledge, or commitment, to marry should “not look for a wife” (verse 27).
Now it’s difficult to know for sure what crisis Paul has in mind here. Some commentators suggest that he’s referring to the crisis associated with the imminent return of Christ. Others believe he’s referring to famines in Greece, or to persecution that the Corinthians were facing. Still others that he’s thinking about the marriage crisis, i.e. the sexual immorality that was rife in the Corinthian Church. This is not the place to discuss the various merits of each theory and, in any event, minds much greater than mine don’t agree!
Whatever crisis Paul has in mind, he believes that it’s good for unmarried believers in Corinth to remain as they are. Should we then take this is a general principle for all Christians in all ages? Well, not necessarily, no. But I can certainly think of a number of personal crises in my life where being married would not have halved my problems. Instead it could have multiplied them.
Some years ago, for example, I was signed off work for nearly a year with anxiety and depression. I was the Pastor of a London Church at the time and eventually recognised that I needed to step down from this role and take a complete break from pastoral ministry.
That was certainly a time of great crisis for me. Different to the Corinthian crisis, of course. But as I look back on what was a very difficult period in my life, I can see that being married at that time probably would have doubled the trouble, rather than alleviated it.
Imagine if I’d had a wife and children to consider and if I had been the sole earner in my household. Suddenly the pressure would have really been on. Not being able to work for a long period would have had a significant impact on others. It could have added to my sense of anxiety. Where would we live? How would we pay the bills? Would we have to move to a less expensive city? If we did, what about the children’s schools? How would my wife cope with moving away from her network of friends?
So yes, being unmarried does often enable me to cope better in a crisis. Not always. But often.
- I’m spared the “many troubles” of marriage
Let’s be clear that Paul is not laying down a law in 1 Corinthians 7. He’s not telling the Corinthian Christians that they mustn’t get married. Far from it. He writes, “if you do marry, you have not sinned” (verse 26). That said, marriage does come with a warning in the very same verse: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.”
Paul’s concern, then, is to spare these believers from facing “many troubles in this life.” Now, again, we should perhaps be cautious about assuming this to be a general principle for all Christians in all generations. Quite possibly the “many troubles” are directly related to “the present crisis” Paul mentions earlier.
But with that word of caution in mind, it doesn’t take take much observation to recognise that married people do face many troubles in this life. All kinds of troubles. Financial, relational, parental to name but a few. And then there’s the likely trouble of how to cope with bereavement when your spouse passes away.
Now yes, as an unmarried man I face troubles too – of course I do. But sometimes unmarried people are tempted to believe that getting married would be the solution to all our problems. The problem of loneliness, for example, or the problem of lust.
The stark reality, though, is often quite different. One psychologist has coined the term ‘living together loneliness’ or LTL. I’m sure many of us will have witnessed a married couple eating together in a restaurant, but not saying a word to each other. No conversation. Just awkward silence. So even within marriage, people can experience loneliness and isolation, or lose that sense of closeness and intimacy.
As for lust, well it’s true that Paul gives this as a valid reason for getting married in 1 Corinthians 7 – “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (verse 9).
Marriage doesn’t ‘solve’ lust, though. When I served as a church pastor, quite a number of married Christians confessed to me that they still struggled with lust. One friend of mine, recently married, tells me that he now struggles with lust more than he did when he was single!
Personally, I’ve learnt to thank God that I’m spared the “many troubles” of marriage. True, I have to deal with the troubles of not being married. But these are different. And in dealing with them and working them through, I don’t have to consider the needs of my spouse. I only have to concern myself with pleasing the Lord.
But I’ll say more about that in Part 2.