On the Care and Feeding of Spinsters, Part 5: The So-Called Gift

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unwanted gift 2The 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):

1It 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).[1]

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.

APPLICATION

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.


[1]Touching a Woman and the Present Distress

_________

Other posts in this series (I’ll add links as I post them):

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Jephthah’s Daughter

Part 3: The Little Sister

Part 4: The Widow and the Orphan

Part 6: He Sets the Lonely in Families

11 responses »

  1. Do you follow the twitter account: guardthatheart ?
    I found it through my sister, whom I think actually knows the author in real life– anyway, sad and funny advice she has received from people in the church about her singleness. Some of it is funny, some disturbing, and all of it makes me more sensitive.

  2. One does hear some dumb things, that’s for sure. But I’d love to hear the author’s thoughts on what she honors and respects in the line of encouragement and advice to singles. People need to know how someone wishes they’d get it right, not just what someone thinks they’re doing wrong.

  3. I spent some time today perusing that feed. She actually slams a lot of articles that I that I think are well-reasoned and biblically grounded. I have a feeling she’d find much to criticize in my posts were she to find them.

  4. I understand your singleness/cancer analogy, but I disagree. I use the singleness/missing limb analogy. Singlenes is not a disease (though I think many in the church avoid me for this reason, thinking for one to be single-never married at my age it might be contagious), but not being married I feel incomplete. We were created for marriage and I, for some God ordained reason that I struggle to accept and understand, was born disabled. Hmm…I wonder if I can collect Disabliltiy Insurance for this????

  5. Hi, Barb. Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t comparing singleness to cancer as a disease, but as an affliction. Every analogy breaks down at some point if you try to push it too far. That’s why someone got angry with me about it — he was pushing it too far and wasn’t listening to the analogy I was actually making.

  6. I am watching the series by Voddie Bauchum and he doesn’t even mention about “Love and Marriage,” staying single. Thanks for this article. It is hard to be single and want to be married. It’s like no one takes it seriously that some one wants to be married in a church. We need help. God please help people who are single Christian women to find Godly Christian men. Thank you.🙂

  7. Today was my first time to stumble upon your blog, (and I love it) as I saw a link to this particular blog article as a comment on a Gospel Coalition blog about singleness. http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/four-things-god-says-singles

    As a pastor I wanted to do a little bit of studying and digging into this apparent disagreement between “singleness” or “celibacy” being the gift. What I found is that many theologians are simply making the jump from celibacy to singleness…equating the two as one in the same.

    Seems that except for physical deficiencies whereby celibacy is not a choice, that if a man/woman is choosing to live celibate, it is the same as choosing to remain single. I’m not ready to say that I fully understand and have a grasp on what God is telling us, but it does seem that many fall here.

    Either way, I have perused some of your other entries and think you have a very interesting take. I will be pushing others in your direction.

  8. Hi Valerie, I just found your blog. I’ve enjoyed your comments on the Wilson blogs for years. I’ve started praying more persistently that the Lord would give my unmarried sister a husband, and would you believe it, I asked the same for you as well just yesterday. He’s the one who said it’s not good for man to be alone. I want to pray those words back to Him on y’alls behalf. Cheers to you!

  9. that if a man/woman is choosing to live celibate, it is the same as choosing to remain single

    The way I figure it is as follows:

    “Chastity” is the maintenance of sexually appropriate behavior and attitude.
    – If one is unmarried, this involves avoidance of sexual activity (including auto-eroticism and pornography).
    – If one is married, this involves being exclusively available to and enthusiastic about one’s own spouse.

    “Celibacy” is the active avoidance of sexual intercourse.
    – This is a virtuous (and sensible) course of action if one is unmarried.
    – It is a cruelty and a sin if one is married and employs in against one’s own spouse..

    “Singleness” is the state of being unmarried – no more and no less.

    One can be celibate but unchaste – it would be better for that one to be married.

    To say that “choosing to live celibate is the same as choosing to remain single” is as good as saying that one must engage in sexual intercourse to indicate interest in getting married – which is the foolish way of the world and … doesn’t actually work. If it did, then marriage rates in the US would be much higher than they are.

  10. Arwen — Thanks for the helpful clarification. Of course the biblical gift of celibacy would only be possible for unmarried people, and I suspect is what harpertx was saying about celibacy was also intended to mean only in the unmarried state: a choice to live celibate has to mean choosing to remain single, because, as you note, to do otherwise would be cruel and a sin.

    Incidentally, that is what I find appalling and slanderous about the notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It would not be righteous within the context of marriage. Someone once defended it to me by saying that it was OK because Joseph was old and past it. Well, I’m no expert on such matters, but I’m guessing that a man who was still capable of doing the demanding physical labor of a carpenter in a pre-industrial society would have been still capable of having a normal sex life with his wife. And we know that 12 years into their marriage he was hale and hearty enough to make it from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back (70-75 miles one way, according to my 3 minutes of Interwebz research), most likely on foot. Not exactly the behavior of a frail old geezer.

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