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The Gift of Singleness


Of all the worldly choices we will ever face, the decision about whether to marry, and then whom to marry, is as crucial as any. If we desire to shine as lights in a dark world, pointing toward Christ in every facet of life, is it fair to say that one way to do so is to embrace singleness? In order to answer that question adequately, we must pay careful attention to what the Bible teaches about the single state.

Admittedly, this is a subject that is both highly relevant and, for many, emotionally charged and extremely personal. We ought not paint with too broad a brush, as if the answer to the question of marriage and singleness were the same for everyone. Nevertheless, when the impulse of many is to assume marriage as the “default setting” for the Christian life, it will be wise to consider the surprising case Scripture makes for forgoing marital commitments so that one’s anxieties might be “about the things of the Lord” instead of “worldly things” (1 Cor. 7:34).

Family’s Proper Place

When Paul addresses singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, he sets it within a much larger framework than any individual’s relational fulfillment. Eternal verities control his response to practicalities. “The present form of this world is passing away,” he says (v. 31)—and consequently, all of our attachment to the world is to remain light. While we are to be involved in the world, we are not to be engrossed in it. A vibrant Christian faith thus changes our view of all of life’s elements, from temporal happiness and material possessions to death and the prospect of eternity—and, yes, the question of whether or not to pursue marriage.

It is in this wider context that Paul says, “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:29). What does this mean? Paul is clearly not contradicting his earlier teaching, in which he stresses the importance of husbands and wives working hard to fulfill their obligations to each other (vv. 3–5). His emphasis is surely this: Marriage and family life, in all their demands and benefits, do not reduce the believer’s obligation to the Lord and His work. The apostle is not about to allow us to use familial responsibilities as excuses for slackness in the service of the Lord Jesus.

This teaching challenges the contemporary lists of priorities with which we have grown familiar and undoubtedly comfortable. The list is usually given as follows: God, Family, Ministry, Work, Leisure.” But what does having God first on the list really mean for us? It may sound right to talk about being “family-centered,” either as individuals or as churches—until we pause and realize that our true center is to be God Himself, and Him alone. We must try and come to a realistic understanding and application of the words of Jesus, which, frankly, turn a great deal of our comfortable preoccupations on their heads: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

A vibrant Christian faith changes our view of all of life’s elements, from temporal happiness and material possessions to death and the prospect of eternity—and, yes, the question of whether or not to pursue marriage.

Of course, neither Jesus nor Paul taught that we should neglect our family obligations. Rather, they made very clear that an eternal perspective will radically change when and how we spend our time together. As Calvin says,

All the things which make for the enriching of this present life are sacred gifts of God, but we spoil them by our misuse of them. If we want to know the reason why, it is because we are always entertaining the delusion that we will go on for ever in this world. The result is that the very things which ought to be of assistance to us in our pilgrimage through life, become chains which bind us.[1]

The Opportunity of Singleness

So it is that the longing of Paul’s heart is to see men and women given over to God’s service without distraction—and the single life provides unique opportunities in this regard. If you have never been married, Paul says, then singleness may simply make good sense.

It’s not that singleness is necessarily a “more spiritual” road to travel, but it may, in light of its practical advantages, be more sensible and flexible as it relates to spiritual matters.

There are peculiar troubles that attach to marriage, both in life and in death; and while children sweeten our joys, they can also make our misfortunes (e.g., debilitating illness or the death of a spouse) more bitter. As Bishop Lightfoot wrote, “A man who is a hero in himself becomes a coward when he thinks of his widowed wife and his orphaned children.”[2] Married individuals have an inevitable twofold concern: how to please their spouse and care for their household, and how to please the Lord.

By contrast, freedom from distraction can be a huge advantage. The single individual, free from this dual obligation, is able to be more fully devoted to the Lord’s work. A single man doesn’t have to worry about devoting time to a wife and children if he feels a burden for serving God in a field that demands many late nights and weekends. If God calls a woman to missions in a far-off land, she will be able to respond with greater swiftness, with fewer roadblocks in his path. It’s not that singleness is necessarily a “more spiritual” road to travel, but it may, in light of its practical advantages, be more sensible and flexible as it relates to spiritual matters.

In this, there is an implicit challenge to singles to discover the vital role they can and should play in God’s purposes. From the portals of heaven, it must surely be strange to see single men and women missing out on opportunities for Christian service as they instead focus their attention on refining their dating app profiles or trying to unravel the mystery of why God has yet to answer their prayers for a spouse. Whether their state continues through life or is interrupted by marriage, every single has a strategic opportunity to “seize the day” and serve the Lord unencumbered by marriage’s privileges and responsibilities. While it may not always seem like it, that can be a great gift indeed.

A Different Gift

Altogether, then, what Paul is essentially saying is this: If you want to live a life of undivided devotion to Jesus Christ, there can be no question that since marriage brings with it distractions and difficulties, you will be better served if God gives you the gift of singleness.

For those who are married or whom God will eventually call to marriage, this brings with it its own challenge. It means we need to recognize that the familial joys God has given us come with great concerns and responsibilities, about which we must not be flippant. We must beware, lest the very marriage that God gives us becomes a ball and chain that binds us and restrains us from discovering our greatest usefulness in His kingdom.

Meanwhile, there may be some of us who are yet unwilling to accept that the reason that God has not provided us with the marriage we long for is because he has in mind a different gift: that of undivided devotion to His work. If that is so, then it may be time for our prayers to change. It may be time to thank God for that gift and offer up our lives to Him afresh—even if the prospect seems lonely, even if we are uncertain that we will ever enjoy it—trusting that as day follows day, He who shaped our very heart, with all its longings and desires, is able to satisfy us as no one else can.

This material was adapted from the sermon “To Marry or Not to Marry? — Part Two” and the book Lasting Love (©2015), both by Alistair Begg. The latter is published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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  1. John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 159. ↩︎

  2. J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St Paul, Classic Commentary Library (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 231. ↩︎

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