Singleness ... With a Mission
- Wednesday, April 14, 2004
Singleness has been compared to the Island of Misfit Toys in the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Through no particular fault of our own, we often feel like we've washed ashore on our own intangible island, far from the real world where marriage is the norm. We are misfits - especially in the church - isolated in a little understood place where the most earnest attempts at rescue come in the form of blind date offers.
It's really nothing new for singles to be misfits. Ever since God gave Eve to Adam, marriage has generally been the expected and preferred way of life. While history is full of notable exceptions who chose the single life when they very well could have married, for most singles, singleness is what happens to us when we don't get married. It's definitely Plan B, and the majority of us scramble to figure out how to do it - or how to get out of it.
If ever a culture revolved around marriage and the family, the Jewish culture of Bible times did. With a fuzzy concept of the afterlife, the Jews viewed marriage and family as a very tangible kind of "eternal life": the family name would live forever through descendents. Such a perspective made it unthinkable for a Jew to remain unmarried, and once married, it was nothing less than God's curse if a couple remained childless. Understandably then, barrenness brought horrible shame, and it also signaled the end of the family name. Consider Sarah and Abraham and the extreme action they took to have a child. Hear the words of Rachel to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die!" This may sound a bit melodramatic, but it makes clear that marriage and family formed the overriding purpose of life in Jewish culture (Genesis 16; 30:1).
Into this culture came the Incarnate Son of God, who lived the misfit single life well past the expected age of marriage and died without a solitary descendent to carry on the family name of Joseph and Mary. I wonder sometimes what people thought and said about this situation. It seems likely that, somewhere along the way, well-meaning friends hinted that there were plenty of nice girls in Galilee and certainly one of them would make Jesus a fine wife. It's not hard to imagine that at some point, His family asked if it wasn't time He stopped traipsing all over the countryside with His little club of boys and settled down to start His own family.
Given the cultural priority of marriage and family, I have little trouble believing that such things occurred during the life of Jesus, and I dearly wish the gospel writers would have included just one of these incidents so my single friends and I could finally have the perfect answer to give during such awkward encounters. It would have been nice if they had clearly spelled out how Jesus handled the day-to-day challenges of the single life. It would have been helpful if Jesus had given direct answers to the seemingly all-consuming questions of singleness, like "What if I never get married?" and "How do I make it through lonely holidays year after year?"
But God didn't answer these questions when He recorded the life of Jesus for us. Jesus Himself actually talked very little about marriage and family, giving us scant material to use as a "how-to" manual for single living. Perhaps He bypassed these issues because they are really only symptoms of deeper issues. They are like a rumbling stomach during Sunday morning church - the growl is not the real problem; hunger is. Address the hunger, and silence the rumble. A deep hunger gnaws at our souls, a craving for significance and purpose. Why are we here? What should we do with the wisp of time we have? What really matters in life? Address these intense issues, and the rumble of circumstances will be silenced. For the majority of people in Jesus' day (and a majority of people in the twenty-first century American church) the answer seems simple: "Get married and have a family. That's what ultimately matters in life." Interestingly, God never answers our gnawing questions this way because the true hunger goes beyond the rumbling desire for marriage and family.
God's message in the Gospels redirects us to the answers that Jesus' life gives for much bigger questions. You cannot read these four books without the impression that Jesus lived a life of purpose and focus. His decisions were defined by clear intentions. He knew exactly why He was here. If I asked you why He was here, you might say He came to die, to pay the penalty for the sin of the world and make a way for us to stand righteous before God. Everything He did drove Him toward that goal.
You'd be right, but have you ever wondered exactly how He did this every day? What did it mean for His entire life to be defined by His mission? Did He wake up in the morning and say, "When I grow up, I'm going to be brutally beaten and nailed to a cross"? Did He play, or not, with His neighborhood friends on a given day because of His mission? Did He choose His disciples' lesson for the day with this purpose in mind? Did He stay a day longer here or there because of the impending cross? Perhaps, but Jesus was human and sometimes human existence is pretty mundane. We take out the trash, wash behind our ears, change the sheets, and pick broccoli out of our teeth. None of these activities seem very important when we think about mission and purpose. They're just, well, they're just life. How did such a big mission, such as dying on the cross for the sins of the world, define the commonplace routines of Jesus' daily life?
Jesus had a mission that superceded His eventual death on the cross. It was a mission that ultimately led Him to the cross, but it was also a mission that He could pursue when He was five, fifteen, and twenty-five. The defining purpose of Jesus' life was to obey God all the time. We first hear Him voice this mission at the fresh-faced age of twelve when His distraught parents finally found their "lost" son expounding on the intricacies of Jewish Law with the silver-haired religious experts in the Temple (Luke 2:41-50). Jesus called it being about His Father's business or doing the will of His Father, and it was an intention He would repeat often to His followers for the remainder of His life. He lived every day to do whatever God wanted Him to do, to be obedient every step of His thirty-three years, all the way to the cross.
Our mission as children of God is essentially the same - whether we are single or married. We are called to live every day to do whatever God wants us to do, to be obedient every step of our unknown number of years, all the way to wherever God plans. Through our obedience, we carry God's message to places it might not have reached before. God has put within our individual orbits people that only we can reach and places that only we can go. Accomplishing our mission demands that we obey Him faithfully, taking His message to those people and those places.
Excerpted from A Match Made in Heaven: How Singles and the Church Can Live Happily Ever After, copyright 2003 Wendy Widder. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Mich. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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