During my first year in college, my friend Suzanne and I used to sit in her room and encourage ourselves with Paul’s words on singleness (oddly, from the King James): “Art thou free of a husband? Seek not a husband!” I desperately wanted to be dating; neither Suzanne nor I had ever had a boyfriend. We believed the proverbial grass was greener on the other side, we longed to experience it, and we worked hard to keep ourselves from despair by listening to Paul’s words.
Now, almost fifteen years later, after lots of dates and lots of longing, after healthy relationships and unhealthy ones, after years of service in ministry and the blessing of the freedom of singleness, I am getting married.
The Gift of Singleness
In 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul addresses singleness and marriage, he says, “But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” And then he adds: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”
In my early twenties, I heard people talk about the gift of singleness as if it were a spiritual gift—you know, something permanent and God-given that one is supposed to use to glorify God and serve others. That interpretation terrified me. Did it mean I had to be single forever? And if I didn’t feel like I wanted to be single forever, was I being disobedient to God?
Al Hsu’s Singles at the Crossroads was a breath of fresh air. Al debunked the idea of singleness as a spiritual gift and revealed it to be something much less scary. He writes:
The two gifts of 1 Corinthians 7:7 are simply singleness and marriage. Neither is a supernatural empowerment, and the gift is not some special grace to live as a single or married person. Paul is telling singles and marrieds alike to acknowledge that both statuses are gifts from God, to be honored and treasured.
Thus began my journey to treasure and honor my gift of singleness.
It took so very long for me to grow into a woman who was comfortable in her skin—a woman who recognized her leadership abilities and who was whole without a significant other. I never stopped longing for a partner, but that longing gained a friend in the journey: wisdom. With wisdom I could both long for the gift of marriage and simultaneously delight in the gift of singleness.
What has it looked like to delight in the gift of singleness? For me, it has meant pursuing things like full-time ministry and graduate school without having to be concerned about how it will impact my spouse or children. It has meant following God’s call to a different part of the U.S., and traveling to Kenya and Thailand for weeks at a time. It has meant being free to watch my friends’ kids for the night so that they can have much needed breaks. It has meant spending occasional Saturdays in bed until noon with coffee and a good book. All of these things have been incredible gifts!
Paul’s further reflection in 1 Corinthians 7 reminds me of another gift of singleness:
The unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. (v. 34)
Paul seems to be elevating singleness above marriage; in other parts of Scripture, paying attention to the world rather than the Lord is criticized. But I think that Paul is being pragmatic here. It is just true that for most people who marry, a section of their available “bandwidth” ends up being devoted to one person (their spouse), and then sometimes other tiny people who might come into their lives along the way. This heavy investment by a husband and wife in each other and in their immediate family can demonstrate the specific love of God.
Singleness, on the other hand, can demonstrate the wide and open love of God, lavished broadly on many because of the freedom (in time and affection) that singleness allows. As I move from singleness to marriage, this passage reminds me to count the cost. In choosing marriage, I am most likely narrowing my abilities to love and serve broadly, and that freedom has been a source of joy in my life.
The Difficulty of Singleness
However, dear (single) reader, I know you might be thinking, She’s getting married. No wonder she’s seeing the singleness she’s leaving behind with rose-colored glasses! I hope my words are not causing you to become embittered.
I am well aware that singleness is not all sweetness. Kathleen Norris’s words in The Cloister Walk regarding monks and nuns who choose celibacy come to mind:
They have also helped me to recognize that celibacy, like monogamy, is not a matter of the will disdaining and conquering the desires of the flesh but a discipline requiring what many people think of as undesirable, if not impossible—a conscious form of sublimation.
Sublimation—the act of rerouting one’s desires for the sake of what is good—is hard. The loneliness and frustration of singleness are hard.
These difficulties have helped me understand that a godly life requires sacrifice and includes unfulfilled desires. Those are truths that I carry with me—eyes wide open—as I prepare to enter marriage. Sacrifices and unfulfilled desires will not go away; they will likely just change. I am thankful for this kind of spiritual formation.
Gifts in Equal Measure
I have chosen to marry. I have found a man who balances me and who will help me to live fully, a man who is kind and good. I am not exchanging a lesser gift for a better one. For me, the gift of singleness for the gift of marriage is an equal exchange. I will sacrifice and I will gain, and it will take time both to learn what I need to mourn and what comes to me as a delightful surprise. I am not dumping a curse or burden for a blessing. I am giving up something beautiful for something else that is equally beautiful.
Amber Nelson spends her days helping staff and students build cross-cultural partnerships as InterVarsity’s Director of Global Programs. She lives in Madison, WI, where she enjoys cooking for friends, cross-country skiing, and over-feeding her former roommate’s cat. She is getting married to her fiancé, Nathan, in April. The cat gets to come too.