A Word About Singleness

An Excerpt from the booklet: Sensible Relationships: How to Avoid Indiscreet Relationships by Ajith Fernando in 2006

…because single people have a unique situation with unique challenges, I would like to say a brief word especially to singles, though this will help married people too.

An Important Call. Singleness is a noble calling from God which Paul held in high esteem (1 Cor. 7). It is true that singles cannot experience the satisfaction of having sexual relationships and in that sense they are deprived of one of the joyous experiences of humans. Ruth Tucker in her biographical history missions has a chapter that outlines the great work done by single women missionaries. But she also says that one thing that most of these great single missionaries experienced was loneliness and even depression.i

So can we say that are they missing God’s best for their lives? We cannot, if we take what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 seriously, for he recommends that those who are not married remain single, especially in view of what he calls “the present distress” (verse 26). The abundant life which Jesus said he gives (John 10:10) must surely be available to singles. Actually Jesus was single and he was the happiest man who ever lived. This is why he said that when he gives us his joy our joy will be full (John 15:11). It is interesting that this statement was made just before he was going to suffer the greatest suffering any human experienced as he took upon himself the punishment for the sins of the world. So Christians can be fulfilled even when they seem to be deprived according to the world’s standards.

The problem is that we live in a world which seems to have made sex into a god. The warped sense of values which comes from this suggests that those who do not have sexual relationships are deprived of a basic necessity of life. But research has clearly shown that this is not true. People who abstain from sex can be perfectly healthy individuals.ii

A key reason for Paul’s recommending singleness is the unique way in which they can serve God without the burden of caring for a family (1Cor. 7:32-35). In my study at home I have a photo gallery of twenty-eight Christian heroes who have excelled in the fields that interest me most. Eight of them are singles: Amy Carmichael, John Chrysostom, Henrietta Mears, Blaise Pascal, John Stott, Sadhu Sundar Singh, John Sung and Corrie ten Boom; and one, C. S. Lewis, married in his late fifties and was widowed four years later. The ratio of great singles to married people here is much higher than the average in society. Ruth Tucker quotes a Baptist missions official who wrote, “I estimate a single woman in China is worth two married men.”

Unfulfilled Desires. Yet singles will still have sexual desires which are not going to be fulfilled. What do they do with these? Let me say that all Christians will have situations similar to this at some time in their life. I believe I am in the last third of my life, and my wife and I have to prepare for one of us leaving and going to heaven. After thirty happy years of marriage that is something that is going to be very hard for the one who remains. We would like to die around the same time, but that is unlikely. So we have to prepare for life alone after being so used to life together. We know it will be hard. But we also know that God always remains with us through hardship and give us a joyous life. Christian joy can survive even the separation of loved one through death.

We find situations where a Christian marries a psychologically immature person and has to live with a relatively tough marriage until death separates them. It will be hard, but God will give the needed strength. Some who are married are unable to have healthy sexual relationships because of psychological or physical reasons. While there is healing for many of these problems and they should patiently seek that healing, some of the problems are not going to be healed.

These are exceptions to the norm which God permits some to go through. But he is bigger than the problem and will enable those enduring this to experience the abundant life he gives to his children.

Holy Longing. What then does one who has no fulfilling sexual experience because of singleness or some other problem do? I want to suggest the biblical discipline of “holy longing.”iii Christians are people who have tasted of the blessings God intends for them, but who know that what they now experience is only a foretaste of the fullness. Therefore on earth they will experience frustration so that they will groan as they long for the fullness. Paul explains this in Romans 8:18-25. In the Psalms we find the faithful panting (Psa 42:1) and thirsting (63:1) after God. This is a thirst which will not be fully satisfied until we get to heaven. The Song of Songs applies this principle to the love between a man and a woman where they eagerly await the consummation of their relationship in marriage.

Singles and the others mentioned above will encounter severe pressure because of their unusual situation. There is pressure from the sexual orientation of society. There is pressure from well-meaning relatives and friends who want them to get married and keep asking insensitive questions about that. There will be pressure from their own human desires for romantic love and sex. They cannot deny that such exist. But they can transform their desires into holy longing. God has perfection planned for us. That will be fully realised only in heaven. In the meantime he may give the gift of marriage at a relatively young age or at a later age. Or he may call some to singleness. They can long for the fullness that God has planned and remain pure so as not to destroy God’s beautiful plan for their lives.

Because sexuality is God’s gift they can long for sexual satisfaction, always saying that if God does not will that for them they will still remain happy and pure. So they will not settle for the second best. No sex before marriage. No giving in to the boy friend who wants to have sex before marriage. No giving of my body as a play-thing for someone who does not truly love and respect me and is not willing to devote a lifetime of commitment to me. No trivial romantic relationships without an idea of marriage because romance is a beautiful gift intended to last a lifetime.

We had four single Asians in my seminary dorm when I was a student in the USA. On Friday evenings our dorm was deserted with all the Americans having gone on dates (I must confess that I find it difficult to harmonise the western practice of going steady without plans for marriage with the high view of romantic love as a lifetime commitment found in the Bible. I am distressed to see how, with the influence of western media, this practice is gaining popularity in Asia). On Fridays we Asians would sometimes exclaim to each other, “I want a wife!” This was a holy longing for romantic and sexual satisfaction which is part of God’s usual pattern for humans. I knew, of course, that if God called me to singleness I would have to live with a sense of incompleteness in some areas till I die. But I rested on the truth of Psalm 138:8: “The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (Psa. 138:8).

The great hymn-writer Fanny J. Crosby (who is also in my photo gallery of 28 Christian heroes) was blind from the time she was six weeks old. A remedy for a slight inflammation in her eyes as a result of a cold went horribly wrong causing blindness. She expressed holy longing in her hymns that spoke of the wonder of heaven and the foretaste of it. The most famous of these is the hymn “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine.” A Scottish minister once told her it was unfortunate that God did not give her the gift of sight. She startled him by responding, “If I had been given a choice at birth, I would have asked to be blind… for when I get to Heaven, the first face I will see will be the One who died for me.”iv Holy longing!

Crosby was married to a blind musician, but her only child died in infancy. Here’s what she says about the man whose mistake caused her blindness. “In more than eighty-five years, I have not for a moment felt a spark of resentment against him, for I have always believed from my youth up that the good Lord, in his infinite mercy, by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do.”v Her songs exude with the joy of the Lord.

Fanny Crosby exemplifies an attitude which should characterise all Christians and which will help them remain sexually pure and happy whether married or single. This is an attitude of a deep satisfaction in God mixed with a yearning for more of the blessings God has planned for us. Single people should not harbour resentment over people they had hoped to marry who let them down. If God permitted that, he surely has another happy and blessed plan for them. This happiness and contentment in God and his will helps us to overcome the temptation to finding fulfilment in ways that displease him.

The Church’s Responsibilities towards Singles. There are some needs which singles have that the church must ensure are looked after.

  • The proclamation of the church must place before its members the important role that singles play in God’s programme, and the unique way in which they can contribute to the cause of Christ. They should do whatever is possible to discourage in the church the practice of making insensitive remarks which hurt and embarrass single people.

  • When single people get ill or have some special physical or emotional needs, it would be good if they know that there is a home to which they can go for some “tender loving care”. My wife often keeps single women in our home during their times of sickness and emotional stress.

  • Single women need to know that they can rely on some men who will help them in situations where a man’s presence would be very helpful. And single men would enjoy some healthy mothering, especially if their parents are not nearby.

  • We must ensure that single people have friends who are both of their own sex and of the opposite sex, so that they can experience the richness that comes from such friendships. Many churches in the west have developed specialised ministries to singles. This is an encouraging development. But it does not take away the need for singles to have happy, pure and helpful friendships with married people.

i Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 233).

ii I read this in Herbert J. Miles, Sexual Understanding before Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971).

iii I discovered this term in Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

iv Taken almost verbatim from Jane Stewart and Betty Carlson, Great Christian Hymn Writers (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997), p. 64.

v Stewart and Carlson, Great Christian Hymn Writers, p. 59.