In the NBC program 30 Rock, the character Liz Lemon bears a life marked by the “problem” of singleness. Now in middle age, Liz has had a hard time finding a workable romance and spends the show bouncing between various relationships. In one episode, Liz proclaims to her boss, Jack Donaghy, that she has better things to do than worry about relationships. “I would think,” Jack responds, “that the single woman's biggest worry would be choking to death in her apartment.”
Jack’s response represents a conventional attitude toward single people, men and women, of all ages: their singleness is a problem, one that they should spend all their time and energy to fix. At the same time, contemporary culture encourages singles to party it up or live for work or, in Liz Lemon’s case, try to “have it all.”
But when it comes to involvement in the church, singles face even more misleading, complex, and painful issues.
Singles often carry their own particular set of wounds: personal loneliness and disappointment; cultural misunderstanding, along with assumed differences between men and women; hurtful comments by family members and friends who expect their single loved ones to marry by a certain age. And Christian culture has not done much to affirm the lives of singles beyond telling them that if they pray hard enough God will provide a spouse.
As disciples of Jesus and as Reformed believers, however, we have an obligation to view singleness through a different lens. Instead of patronizing people who are single, we need to affirm them as individuals with gifts and stories. And as single people, instead of harboring bitterness or anger, we should name our disappointments as singles and look to live into the community of the church. By naming the difficulties single people face, we can recover a more honest, authentic way of living with each other as sisters and brothers in the family of God, rather than seeing unmarried people as “problems” to fix.
Single for Many Reasons
As someone who has struggled with singleness, I have found it frustrating to hear comments from family members who think that, if I just “put myself out there,” my “problem” will be solved. “We just want you to be happy,” they say. But people do not find themselves single just because they are not “putting themselves out there.”
People of all ages are single for a variety of reasons. Some of us are single because our life circumstances keep us from having a romantic relationship: we are in school or caring for dependent family members or have jobs that require a high degree of time and attention. Other people choose to be single, enjoying their independence and using their free time for service and ministry. Some Christians find themselves single after the loss of a marriage or significant relationship. Some have experienced sexual trauma and are recovering from abuse or violence. And, more often than not, many are single for no discernible reason—no relationship has worked or come along. We do not know why, and we carry disappointment and frustration.
An Unhelpful Message
The response to singleness within the church is often isolating, unhelpful, and patronizing. Take a look at the Christian book section at Barnes and Noble, and you will see a wide range of Christian writers who speak about singleness and relationships, and about our roles as men and women. Books like Captivating and I Kissed Dating Goodbye were offered to me when I was in high school and were meant to help answer my questions about not only relationships, but my identity as a Christian. When I didn’t find myself in these books, I questioned God’s plan for me: was it sinful for me to desire a relationship? If I wanted a career, did that mean that I would never get married? Was being “rescued” really what I wanted from a man, as John and Stasi Eldridge told me? And what was I supposed to do with this prayer from writer Leslie Ludy, whose book Sacred Singleness opens with “Lord, I’d love to be married, but until that day comes . . . please be the Husband of my heart”?
While there is a rich tradition within Scripture and Christian theology that describes our relationship with God in love language (the Song of Songs, for one), that prayer hit me the wrong way—and still does. God presents himself as the heavenly bridegroom, but to appropriate God as the substitute “Husband of my heart” is problematic. Why would God’s love come only in the form of a spouse? What about the images of Christ as my brother and the church as the family of God’s people? And why was I being told to look at God as my husband, while the books offered for men (such as Wild at Heart) told them to be like warriors, just as God is a warrior for their souls?
These books claim a particular story about God’s relationship with us: God communicates his love to us primarily through the image of romantic relationships, and the best way to understand God’s love for us is through the coming of romantic relationships in our own lives. If we are patient enough women or warrior-like men, we will find ourselves in relationships that bless us according to these particular visions of biblical manhood and womanhood.
These books offer a vision of relationships and discipleship that seems based more on popular culture than the story of Scripture, and that proclaims a certain kind of prosperity gospel: if you pray long and hard enough, God will grant you a spouse, either the warrior ready to steal your heart or the blushing bride, waiting for you to “reclaim her beauty.”
While many of my students find deep value in these books, I question how the books will help them—along with my sisters and brothers in Christ who carry questions about singleness and identity—live faithfully into their lives. What will my male students do if the image of a warrior disturbs them? What about the single women I know who live bravely and independently and who do not want to be rescued but to have a companion?
Authors Christine Colon and Bonnie Field, who are well-acquainted with singleness, stress that singles need a different message: “We need a message that will address the complex realities of our situations,” they write, “but too often [singles] are at best ignored or patronized and at worse ridiculed or made to feel inferior or sinful” (Singled Out, Brazos Press, 2009).
A Broader Identity
As Reformed believers, we stand on a different kind of identity, one based on God’s big, ongoing story of creation, fall, and redemption. We believe that God made both men and women good and that we carry God’s image equally. We believe that we are broken by sin and that our interactions with each other, romantic and otherwise, bear that brokenness. We believe that through Christ’s redemptive work we are not only redeemed but made new. And we see the church as a picture of that newness, a growing glimpse of the coming kingdom, where we will truly know who the Spirit remakes us to be in Christ: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .” (Gal. 3:28).
Our Christian identity affirms both singleness and marriage, and that truth should transform our ideas about relationships, for we are all one in Christ.
Yet our practices do not reflect that truth. We preach sermons whose only metaphors are about marriage. We create singles groups focused on pairing up a congregation’s unmarried adults, or we treat singles like they are not fully grown, even if they have mortgages and responsibilities. We pressure our single family members and friends and even criticize them for not having romantic relationships.
The damaging practices go both ways. Those of us who are single and hurt by that can isolate ourselves from those who are married, further separating ourselves from community. We can nurse our disappointments into bitterness, rejecting friendship with married people because they “don’t understand”—forgetting that marriage also carries its own heartaches and loneliness. All of us proclaim the truth of our identity, but we do not know how to live it out, and we risk living an inauthentic, inhospitable Christian life together.
Instead of trying to fix the “problem” of singleness, instead of prescribing formulas or hurling insults, let’s look at the church for what it is supposed to be: a place to wait and work together for God’s kingdom. Henri Nouwen described it this way:
Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow and become stronger in us. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment—that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.
What would happen if we reached out to others in terms of their gifts instead of their marital status? What if our church programs were more intergenerational, mixing single 30-somethings with high schoolers, single 20-somethings with older folks? What if singles groups focused less on their separateness and more on service and shared interests? What if, instead of simply hanging out with people who share our marital status, we made friends the way our Lord did, associating with many kinds of people, seeking to relate to others as human beings rather than stereotypes? What if both marriage and singleness and the other relationships that mark our lives are all ways to live as disciples, and we are called to share in those relationships together?
Each of us has a unique way to live into relationships; there is no specific formula or cookie-cutter approach. God calls his disciples to be imaginative, reaching out in ways that are gracious and original, repenting of harsh words and attitudes, caring for and enfolding each other not according to marital status but as sisters and brothers in God’s family.
Rather than trying to fix the “problem” of singleness, we should seek ways to address each other’s hurts and to kindle the flame of God’s love and truth among us, warmly welcoming everyone into the family of God.
For further reading, Allison recommends Albert Y. Hsu’s book Singles at the Crossroads: A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness (IVP Books, 1997).