To all my single readers and friends.
It’s no secret that our way of life is a difficult one. We work hard to provide for ourselves, but many of us are forced to live meagerly because of single incomes. We navigate our finances, education, careers and deal with illness and disappointments. Managing the minutiae of our lives makes us look like harried tennis players, sweat-soaked and puffing as we dash around the expansive courts of our days keeping all these balls in the air. We rally as best we can, but let’s face it, things would be a whole lot easier if there was someone sharing the court with us. Instead, we come home to empty apartments, distracted roommates or aquariums filled with silent beta-fish. Oh, we can manage. In fact, being single has made many of us fiercely independent, but we still dream about how nice it would be share our burdens and joys with someone not just available to us, but someone for whom we are a life-long, exclusive priority. No matter how capable, adventurous and independent we are, we single people are human and with humanness comes the desire to be loved.
One of our greatest challenges is to resist making the desire to be loved our idol. A love-idol can lead single people to bad things, like a young woman I knew who gave her body to her boyfriend whenever he wanted it and in return was given a few moments of affection and months of verbal abuse before he dumped her for her best-friend. A love-idol has made far too many of us stay in mediocre relationships because we’d rather be unhappy in a relationship than risk being alone. A love-idol can fill our heads with misty daydreams of romance and marriage until our brains are so fogged with sentiment that we can no longer see the relationships we do have for the valuable things they are. A love-idol can reduce us to unthinking toddlers, our mouths hanging open ready to chew and swallow garbage like the idea that we are incomplete. Worst of all, a love-idol puts us in a position to be wooed away from God.
There is a Siren in our midst singing a very seductive song. This diva belts out a multi-platinum tune that says sex is life’s ultimate experience and it should be indulged as casually and frequently as we desire. None of her lyrics mention the body or soul consequences to these choices. With fireworks, lollipops and cans of whip cream the Siren leads a festive parade of superficiality, devaluing the sacred gifts we have all been given – our bodies, our relationships and true intimacy. Yes, that was an allusion to Katy Perry’s California Girls, but the great seducer I’m talking about is pop-culture with its hot-air message of instant, self-absorbed gratification. Enticements are everywhere — magazines, sitcoms, music, film, billboards, on our computers and iPods — subtle and overt messages wooing us to abandon the good and wholesome life that God has called us to and instead to indulge our desires.
In reality, pop-culture values are not very different from hedonism, a cultural philosophy that threatened to compromise the early Christians. First century hedonists spent their time gorging themselves on whatever they desired from food and wine to dubious sexual activities — without conscience — because they believed that pleasure was life’s only aim. Hedonism mirrors much of the party culture of contemporary young adults. Many of my former college students glorified drunkenness, experimented with drugs and went around “hooking up” with people they hardly knew, all the while ignoring any thought of the consequences. DANGEROUS is a lifestyle that makes a trophy case for pleasure and self-indulgence. The great irony of these lifestyles is that we feel like we are filling ourselves up with good things when we are really hollowing out our souls. The more we gorge ourselves on trifles, the less room we have for God.
There is a great vulnerability inherent to singleness, especially for Christians. We are called to things like purity and chastity, which are very difficult and unpopular expectations to live out in our society. We think we are smart enough to not mistake sex for love or confuse intimacy and commitment with lust and infatuation, but these things are the Siren’s most impressive illusions and we are often tricked. Many singles struggle to make good choices in regards to alcohol, drugs, relationships and especially sex, because the world, and occasionally our friends, make harmful things seem okay. Loneliness increases the temptation to do anything that will make us feel connected to or valued by another person. With few people committed to our accountability, we have only ourselves to lean on in the face of temptation. Under all that weight we’ll probably crumble in on ourselves over and over again. And then there are those of us who are so consumed with a longing to be married that our singleness is a constant, painful chaffing. We reject the ideas of “contentment” and “singleness as a gift” like children do when they are given smelly, sour medicine that has the power to heal. We purse our lips and deny that we need help though we are nearly blind with envy.
Despite our best intentions to live well, we all make mistakes. And so we need a place of refuge from the skewed values and heady temptations of our culture. We need to connect with people who will listen to, understand and care about our struggles. We need to find forgiveness when we cannot forgive ourselves. We need a safe harbor where we can anchor and reorient our beliefs of what life is about to what is always and ultimately true. In the harbor we can fix what is broken, replenish our supplies and prepare for our next sail out into the choppy waves and wind of our daily lives. Friends, the church is our safe harbor. The church is a place of refuge for anyone trying to live healthy and holy lives in a sex-soaked, anti-truth, self-indulgent and love-idolizing society. The church is a place for sinners who realize they are sinners, who don’t want to be sinners and are trying to be more than sinners. Among the sinners dwells a Savior who forgives, heals, redeems and delights in us. Fellowship and worship and the wisdom that comes from the Word refresh and equip us to resist the temptations of life beyond the church doors. With all of this available to us in the church, we should be rushing the doors each Sunday, but we know from statistics and experience that singles are scarce in the church. It’s a perplexing problem. On one side of the church door American culture entices us, on the other side Christian culture undervalues or isolates us. People who are unfulfilled or ill-equipped by Christian community are like scuba divers sent to explore a deep abyss on empty tanks.
My greatest concern is that we single people will look around and believe that the world is more welcoming than the church or that the world loves us better than God. I grieve when I see people (not just singles) hobble away from the church disillusioned and licking their wounds. But friends, if we give up on the church because it is imperfect, where will we find the strength and courage and energy needed to live a God-honoring life? I say this with a gentle push — we cannot let ourselves get stuck in this limbo of belonging. We do belong in the church. It is a place of refuge for all people because Jesus loves all people. At the same time, the church is not, nor will it ever be, perfect. This is a very real and challenging tension in the life of any Christian. But should we abandon the church because it is imperfect and does not perfectly meet our every need? If we want to be Christ-like, then the answer is no.
As a single adult who has felt isolated in the church and at times undervalued by fellow Christians, I’ve learned that it is important and far more helpful to let compassion rather than woundedness guide our thoughts and steer our actions. We need to realize that our married friends don’t deliberately exclude or undervalue us. Like us, they’re busy, preoccupied and stressed dealing with daily joys and struggles. Through no fault of their own they may be completely ignorant of the challenges of being single at 20 or 30 or 40 and beyond. Our married friends need our love, support and grace just as much as we need theirs. To borrow and tweak an encouragement from Gandhi – be the change you want to see in the church. It is our responsibility (dare I say even our privilege?) to help the church become a more welcoming and helpful place for single people. A good step toward a more inclusive community is enlightenment offered in love. Find a way to use your story to help others see how they could be more sensitive to your needs and more helpful in your struggles. The trick is figuring out how to share your experiences truthfully without allowing your angst or pain to become clubs you bash against peoples’ heads. If you make someone defensive, they will become your opponent, unlikely to listen to your concerns.
Above all, this is my main encouragement — you are not alone. I think one of our dangers is that isolation and loneliness can become self-perpetuating. Too much time spent alone can make us lonely; too much loneliness can make us feel invisible. Feeling invisible can reduce confident, capable adults into to wallflowers and wallowers. Loneliness then becomes the tool we use to effectively cut ourselves off from nourishing relationships. Along my own journey I’ve come to realize that loneliness is not the inevitable result of singleness. Instead, I’ve discovered that the single life can be very rich and satisfying. I’ve found friendship so satisfying that I’ve often remarked I wish there were a way it could be my profession. I’m friends with all kinds of people: singles, married, divorcees and widows, men and women, young, middle-aged and elderly, doctors, stay-at-home moms and artists. My friendships are the well of my life, a deep and refreshing source of love, encouragement and accountability. When paired with my relationship with God, I have no unmet needs.
Since I last wrote, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the apostle Paul’s regard for singleness — “one has this gift, another has that.” I don’t think too many Christians see or experience singleness as a gift, let alone a gift that rivals marriage. Instead, I think most of us are reconciled to what we hope is temporary way of life. But a gift implies much more than begrudging acceptance. A gift implies receiving something that will surprise, benefit and possibly even delight us. Every gift comes from a giver; in the case of singleness, the giver is God. Take a moment to think of your life from God’s perspective. He looks at you and really sees you. He delights in your uniqueness. Since God created you and knows you completely, he also knows what you need and what you don’t need, what will enhance your life and your grow faith. For some that gift is singleness, for others, marriage. Whether it be a temporary or life-long gift does not diminish the value of the gift. Right now, singleness is the gift God has given you to enjoy, to learn from and to use as a tool to bless others.
I know many of you are not there yet. It takes time to unwrap a gift, really take stock of its attributes and learn how it adds value to your life. Some of you may never unwrap the gift of singleness, because for you it is a symbol of pain or confusion; you may never see its goodness. For me it took intentionally processing my own singleness, giving myself enough time and space to realize that my life was whole rather than pending, before I could see the richness of my life. A few years ago I realized that I like being single. It has freed me to travel and to experience the adventure of living in 4 states and Canada. I have the time to invest in friendships, to volunteer, to write and to further my education. I’m unmarried but I’m not alone or lonely. I am blessed to drink from an abudant well of friendship.
Most importantly, being single increases my need for God. Most days I don’t know how I, one lone female, can accomplish all that is required of me. My life takes more energy and logic, patience and strategy, care and surrender than I could ever generate myself. In the daily voyage that is my life, God is my mainstay. As I grow increasingly dependent on God, I become increasingly free. Singleness has become a good life, a way of joy.