The Bible nowhere speaks of a “gift of singleness,” but this has become common parlance in recent decades. Singleness is a gift only in the sense that something like chronic illness is a gift—we can trust that hard providences come from the Father’s hand and that He will use them for our good and for His glory. But that doesn’t magically turn afflictions into rosy times.
The Bible does speak of a giftedness for celibacy, though it doesn’t use those words. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7 (bold for emphasis is mine):
1…It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband…. 6But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
See here Paul is noting that a special giftedness is needed to remain celibate, and that it was a gift that he himself had.
8But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
And here we see the nature of the gift—that it is a superabundance of self-control. And it is by no means a common thing. Being single doesn’t mean you have the gift of celibacy any more than being in Latin class means you have the gift of tongues.
Now we go on to look a bit at the context in which Paul is urging those who do have this gift to exercise it:
25 Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. 26I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.
In the face of impending persecution, life is going to be far more difficult for those who have family responsibilities. Doug Wilson writes,
It is one thing to be told that if you don’t deny Christ you will be thrown to the lions. It is another to be told that if you don’t deny Christ you, your wife, and three little children will be thrown to the lions. But this emergency situation was just a temporary one; the “time is short” (v. 29). Reasoning by analogy, we can conclude that the same counsel is good for comparable situations down throughout the history of the church. But even then, even in times of impending persecution, the encumbrances and cares of marriage are to be preferred to trap of fornication (v. 2).
We are not in an analogous time. No one should be urging anybody to remain celibate, especially in a culture where the temptation to sin is so pervasive. Of course there are places in our world today where severe persecution is happening, and a call to celibacy might be in order. But as for 21st century America, show me a man with the gift of celibacy, and I’ll show you a man who, like Paul, is called to life-threatening missionary service. I believe that sort of man is who Jesus is referring to in Matthew 19:11-12:
11But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”
Notice how similar this is to what Paul said—this isn’t for everyone.
I also want to draw attention briefly to the celibacy of Jesus Himself. Some might conclude that men should emulate Jesus by staying single, but step back and remember what He came for—to find and free and save and sanctify a bride for Himself. His example is of premarital celibacy. While this passage is mostly addressing men, and their self-control must be significantly greater to endure celibacy, it can be pretty maddening for unmarried women, too, especially in a hypersexualized culture.
1) I’ve said that protracted singleness is analogous to a chronic illness. How would you serve a chronically ill friend? You’d sympathize with her, though not in a way that encourages her to wallow in misery. You’d pray for her. As wanted and appropriate, you’d help her get access to effective care and healing. Likewise, help spinsters connect with potential suitors.
2) A little more on how to pray: you wouldn’t just pray that a sick friend would be content in her suffering; you’d pray that she’d be delivered from it, right? As you’d pray for healing for your sick friends, pray for spouses for your unmarried friends, not merely for contentment. What would the rest of your prayers sound like if you came at them with that attitude? “Dear Lord, please bless Sadie Schnickelfritz, who just got diagnosed with somethingorotherosis. Make her content with her pain and slow descent into death. And bless the Christians in Killemallistan. Make them content as they face torture and slaughter for Your sake. And bless Aloysius Arbuthnot, who has been out of work for six months. Make his family content with their new home in their ’83 Chevette.” Of course you wouldn’t pray like that. You’d pray for healing for the sick, deliverance for the persecuted, and provision for the poor. You might pray for contentment on top of that, but you wouldn’t pray merely for contentment.
Note: I once had my head taken off for analogizing singleness and cancer. If you are experiencing a ruffling sensation in your feathers, please make an effort to understand my analogy: I am not saying that the suffering of singleness is the exactly the same as the suffering of acute illness or violent persecution or anything along those lines. I’m saying that our response to any hardship should have the same basic outline: a) prayer by and for the ones afflicted and b) efforts by and on behalf of them to alleviate their trouble.
I’d also love to see those who pray publicly in church including prayers for the unmarried in their midst. By my most conservative calculations, I’ve attended over 1,700 services of worship in my life. If I counted the number of prayers I’ve heard for singles in those services, I don’t think I’d make it above double digits. And of those times, maybe a grand total of two or three prayers were for spouses rather than just for contentment and purity.
4) Women who have been previously married or previously sexually active will have an even tougher time with celibacy, so show them particular compassion and keep a particularly sharp eye out for opportunities to help them along the way to marriage or remarriage as appropriate.
5) Encourage single men you know to be like Jesus by getting out there and finding a woman to lovingly lead, protect, and provide for as her husband.