The single Christian life is also often seen to be one marked by a lack of personal fulfilment.
In the last half a century, we evangelicals have continued to stand at odds with the world around us on important matters such as the significance of marriage and the purpose of sex. However, when it comes to the world’s insistence of the centrality of romantic love as necessary for ultimate happiness and fulfilment we haven’t always been as discerning.
To be fair, this issue isn’t simply a modern one. The great reformer John Calvin once wrote that, “the wife is, as it were, the completing of the man”. Yet, what is distinctive about our modern church communities is that they are contexts in which we very often elevate marriage as the ultimate place in which we can experience genuine human intimacy. We don’t so much speak of “soulmates” as we do of a “Godmate” – the one whom God has created especially for us, the one who will fill the “spouse-shaped void” he created us with (yes, “spouse-shaped void” is a concept that is out there). In this sense, the single Christian – whether never married, divorced or widowed – is very often understood to be living an unfulfilled life, deprived of genuine intimacy and ultimate happiness.
The single Christian’s lack of fulfilment is also frequently understood to extend to their sexuality.
You see, the culture around us argues that the freedom to act on our sexuality is core to our individual sense of identity. Sadly, we Christians have absorbed elements of this secular perspective. In particular we tend to think of sexual lust as the one temptation that the Christian will ultimately be unable to resist.
As Cólon and Field explain, “[t]he supposition is that [Christian] individuals can’t say no to sex; they can only wait. And the hope is that Christian singles will get married before eventually giving in to the temptation”. As a result, Christians all too regularly regard the virginal or celibate life as both pitiable and hopelessly idealistic – as Martin Luther himself put it, without marriage the Christian person “will be bound to commit heinous [sexual] sins without end”. Ouch.
This is where the so-called “gift” of singleness – defined as a special empowerment of the Holy Spirit for a select few so that they might live a perfectly contented single life without any romantic or sexual frustration whatsoever–comes into play (but we’ll need to leave a discussion of thattopic for another time!).
If you recognise the bleakness of this picture for the heterosexual Christian who has never married, is widowed or divorced, let me encourage you to spare a thought for the single Christian who struggles with an exclusively same-sex attraction. While we rightly encourage these brothers and sisters to refrain from engaging in homosexual activity and instead commit themselves to celibate living, we also simultaneously argue that such a life is doomed to be ultimately impossible! Not only does this rob our same-sex attracted Christian friends of hope, it also suggests that there are restrictions upon the Holy Spirit’s ability to cultivate the spiritual fruit of self-control within us (Gal. 5:23).
Finally, we understand the single Christian life to be absent of any sense of real purpose. Let me explain what I mean by that. When we think about marriage, we don’t simply consider its functional purpose as the context in which we nurture intimate relationship and have children. We also rightly speak of it as having an intrinsic theological purpose. Marriage is something that points all of us (married or not) towards the heavenly wedding that will take place between Christ and his Church (see Eph. 5:31-32). Even though human marriages are frequently messy, we understand there is something good about the essence of marriage that transcends this human messiness.
Yet, the same cannot be said for our understanding of singleness. We tend to only understand singleness as good insofar as the single Christian lives the good single life – that is, when the single Christian uses their singleness to serve.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. When that happens (and it should!) it is a wonderful thing. However, by locating theultimatepurpose of singleness solely in how the single life is livedwe reduce singleness’ goodness to simply being a matter of utility, rather than having anything to do with its essence.
This not only prompts a lot of single Christians to be primarily motivated to gospel service because of a sense of duty and even guilt, but it can also create an unhelpful dichotomy between the ability of both single and married Christians to live a life of practical and godly devotion to Jesus through their unique life situations, in response to their salvation. More on Christian living.