Monday, January 5, 2009

Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye - Pt 1

Let me begin by saying that I always wanted to get married. Then I was going to have between four and six children. I had their names in mind. I don’t especially relish being single, I feel its pain (you can read a poem I wrote here as evidence of that) and I certainly don’t have the “gift of celibacy”, that being some sort of lack of interest in being married, if such a thing exists. So one of the things I appreciated most about this book is that it allows such things to be true and yet points me onwards and upwards in my singleness.

In this post I thought we’d go straight to Chapter 2, which I found to be especially helpful and one of the most important chapters in the book for building and correcting our understanding of singleness (and this is also the longest post of the month, so don’t be deterred by it’s length). As Carolyn mentions, the “gift of singleness” is controversial, but if we are Christians who say we believe in the sovereignty of God, then we need to acknowledge that God has ordered our circumstances, including our singleness. In brief summary, the idea of singleness as a “gift” comes from 1 Corinthians 7: 6-7. The author goes on to make the point, with the help of Gordon Fee, that here it would be best translated as "gracious endowment", with the emphasis lying on the grace involved in the giving of the gift. It’s not a gift that we need to spend time identifying, it’s not an activity or a role, but a blessing—like the free gift of eternal life in Romans 5:15, given without any merit of our own. And if you are single now, you have it—irrespective of how you feel about it.

Being involuntarily single I found such an understanding of singleness to be a very liberating truth. There are times when I personally have wondered if I am single as a result of growing up without a father, or wondered whether I am too tall, too independent and so the list goes on. But as God’s sovereignty is our assurance of our salvation, so also it provides our comfort in our singleness. I found page 30 so helpful in this regard, as a reassurance that singleness is not a result of a deficiency in our person, or in our faith:

Do you see God’s will at work here? Ultimately, we are single because that’s God’s will for us right now ... We are single today because God apportioned us this gift today.
Further to this I did appreciate the correction to the common error of suggesting that single people need first to be content with being single. I am sure we’ve all heard that said. As Carolyn states this 'creates a works-based mentality to receiving gifts, which can lead to condemnation. The Lord doesn’t require that we attain a particular state before He grants a gift. We can’t earn any particular spiritual gift any more than we can earn our own salvation. It’s all of grace'. It is so true that such notions generate the feeling that marriage is something you earn, or can manoeuvre to obtain, and also provoke a person to look sideways and make comparisons. And it can prompt a kind of psychological madness – that of striving to be content with what you have in order to gain something else. That said, it is well to 'humbly listen to our friends and receive their input about cultivating contentment', and 'humbly and peaceably accept God’s will for our lives right now', without designs for our future or expectation of a blessing. (Chapter 4 involves further input on contentment, so we’ll discuss that in more depth then.)

Perhaps like me you have asked yourself the question of how, if God's original plan was that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), singleness can be considered good, let alone a gift. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Genesis 2:18 was written before the fall, before there was a need to spread the gospel or a need for us to be personally conformed to the likeness of Christ. It also lies in reconsidering aloneness and in our understanding of the nature of a gift. A gift is something we too often regard as being positive circumstances, when it is perhaps more rightly understood as the circumstances God has given us, through which we can grow to become more like Christ, know more of him and live to His glory. It is this understanding that enables Elisabeth Elliot to speak even of the gift of widowhood (in The Path of Loneliness, which I have included below as suggested reading).

I have found it crucial to maintain this correct perspective on singleness for my own spiritual health. I know that there are times when all I have been able to see is my singleness on the horizontal and gone spiraling into misery. So I was very challenged to view it from God’s perspective and even more so to view it in the context of the church, as being gifted for the common good. Carolyn’s question on page 31 is worth some serious thought: 'Friends, we have to stop here and ask ourselves if being gifted for the benefit of the church is important to us'. I had to do some probing on whether or not I would be satisfied with that. (On Wednesday I want to provide some additional material on the theology of singleness, and what that means for the church.)

Finally, if you're anything like me, you may have felt relieved in reaching the end of this chapter that Carolyn goes on to discuss the legitimate longing to be married (and this is where some of those who would argue a different interpretation of the gift of singleness falsely make it mutually exclusive to see singleness now as a gift, through which we can glorify God, and yet still long and pray for marriage). Marriage, too, is a good gift of God and it is not wrong to desire it. I do think we need to be careful how we use the concept of "marriolatry", as though anybody who longs to be married has made an idol out of marriage, but Carolyn is right that the desire to be married can become too big—and if being single for the good of the church is of no consequence to us then it is possible that marriage is looming too large in our thinking. I appreciated that she clarified that it is where we are putting our hope of satisfaction that checks whether something has moved into the place of an idol. To quote Tim Keller:

Our idols are those things we count on to give our lives meaning. They are the things of which we say, ‘I need this to make me happy’, or ‘If I don’t have this my life is worthless and meaningless’ (cited in You Can Change, by Tim Chester).
This chapter helped me clarify the reason I am single now, whether I need to concern myself with whether or not I am "called" to singleness, the purpose of singleness and whether I can still hope to be married.

One note: I think to call yourself a single woman (with single as the adjective and woman as the noun) is correct, in the same way that rufous bettongs, a small kangaroo which I used to research as a zoologist, are rat kangaroos, because they are kangaroos which resemble rats, and not kangaroo rats, because they are not rats which are a little like kangaroos. So, I think if you call yourself a single woman you actually do have your words in the right order—and I wasn’t sure what would be a better alternative.

Here are Carolyn McCulley's discussion questions for this chapters 1 and 2:

Chapter 1
  • How's your "graciousness rating" when you've been asked about your single status? Why do you think you respond the way you do?
  • Take a moment to honestly rate your heart. Do you think your biggest problem really has been solved at the Cross? Or if you were to see the Lord returning today, would you be upset or even regret that you didn't get married?
  • Before you read further in the book, how would you now answer the question, "What is God doing in and through your singleness?"

  • Chapter 2
  • Before you read this chapter, what would have been your "working definition" of the gift of singleness?
  • Would you categorize yourself as being undivided in your devotion to the Lord and free from worldly anxieties? If not, what do you think is the impediment?
  • How does the context of the local church affect your view of this gift?
  • What other spiritual gifts do you see in your life and service to the church? Does being single now provide any benefit to cultivating those gifts?

  • Further reading

    Married for God by Christopher Ash, unexpectedly, has a very readable chapter called “Is it better to stay single?” which helpfully expands on 1 Corinthians 7.

    The Path of Loneliness, by Elisabeth Elliot for a better understanding of the nature of God’s gifts to us. Here is a relevant sample:

    Some people see singleness as a liability, a handicap, a deprivation, even a curse. Others see it as a huge asset, a license to be a "swinger", an opportunity to do what feels good. I see it as a gift. To make that gift an offering may be the most costly thing one can do, for it means the laying down of a cherished dream of what one wanted to be, and the acceptance of what one did not want to be.

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