Frankincense, Gold, Myrrh ... and Singleness
- 2004 15 Dec
Earlier this month, I encountered a single friend carrying shopping bags of Christmas gifts while tears coursed down her cheeks.
She had been discussing Christmas plans with her family. All her siblings were married with children and the family had decided to just give gifts to the children this year, skipping the gift swap among the adults. Christmas is really just for the kids anyway, they said. Of course the spouses would still give each other gifts. So suddenly it dawned on my friend that she would not have any gifts to open on Christmas — and the lonely awkwardness of that scene overwhelmed her.
“It’s not that I’m being cheap,” she said between sobs. “I don’t mind giving gifts and I really don’t want a lot of stuff. But this decision just makes me feel, well, unimportant, I guess. Am I being selfish?”
My friend is ten years younger than I am, and is just now encountering the cumulative effect of being single longer than her siblings and peers. I knew exactly what she was trying to articulate.
“I understand your reaction,” I said gently. “The same thing happens to me. And it’s not that I want any more stuff. It’s just that being single often pushes you to the fringes of Christmas, and it’s a poignant realization.”
Three days later, I was having the same discussion over lunch with another group of single friends. It seems this year is a popular one for the “just kids” idea. As we talked, someone wondered aloud if we should point out this inequity to our families. While I think it could be helpful in some cases, I wondered what the long-term solutions could truly be. The circumstances are what they are for each of us — and there’s wisdom in curtailing the money-shuffling at Christmas. The things we really want as adults are often what you can’t reasonably afford or even purchase, so it seems silly to circulate gift-certificates among ourselves just for the sake of commercial traditions.
Unwrapping the Gift of Singleness
Why then does it feel so bitter to be sitting solo with an empty stocking at Christmas? I think because it often highlights for us the perceived “emptiness” of this gift of singleness that we have. That’s what the Bible calls this season — a gift (1 Cor. 7:7). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul, a single man himself, wrote this and called it a good gift — which may be surprising to some. In fact, Paul calls both marriage and singleness a gift from God. The Greek word Paul used here is charisma. There are several Greek words that could be translated as “gift” in English. One word denotes a gift presented as an expression of honor. A second euphemistically infers that a gift is more a matter of debt or obligation. A third denotes a free gift of grace, used in the New Testament to refer to a spiritual or supernatural gift. This is the word Paul uses in this passage — charisma.
Despite all the modern connotations associated with the word charisma, it means much more than the nuances found in either the Pentecostal/charismatic theology of spiritual gifts or the functional “identifying your spiritual gifts” lists common in evangelical circles. As a gift of grace, it stresses the fact that it is a gift of God the Creator freely bestowed upon sinners — His endowment upon believers by the operation of the Holy Spirit in the churches. Theologian Gordon Fee says that Paul’s use of charisma throughout this letter to the Corinthians stresses the root word of “grace,” not the gifting itself. In fact, Fee writes: “There seems to be no real justification for the translation ‘spiritual gift’ for this word. Rather, they are ‘gracious endowments’ (where the emphasis lies on the grace involved in their being so gifted), which at times, as in this letter, is seen also as the gracious activity of the Spirit in their midst.”
Are you still with me here?
This grammar lesson is important because we need to understand what kind of gift we are talking about when we discuss “the gift of singleness.” It’s not a gift that we have to spend time trying to identify, and even worrying that we may have forever. If we’re single today, we have the gracious gift of singleness today. How we may feel about it—“Do I like being single? Do I desire marriage instead?” — is not part of the equation. The emphasis here is on a gracious God who gives good gifts, and ultimately on His purpose for giving them. It’s also not a “spiritual gift” in the way we’ve come to use that term in our churches today. It’s not an activity or a role, but a blessing — like the free gift [charisma] of eternal life (Romans 5:15) that was given to us without any merit of our own.
We have this “gracious endowment” to be single. But for what purpose? We find it just a few chapters later, in 1 Cor. 12:4-7. It reads: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (emphasis added). Then, after giving a list of ways the Spirit can be manifested for the common good, Paul writes in verse 11: “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
We have each received a variety of gifts. 1 Corinthians 7:7 says that as a single woman, I have received the charisma of singleness. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 lists other gifts that I may also receive. I may yet one day receive the gift of marriage. However, two things are important to remember about any spiritual gift:
- “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor 12:11);
- “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).
Given as God Wills
Let’s consider this first point. Do you see God’s will at work here? Ultimately, we are single because that’s God’s will for us right now. That’s it. It’s not because we are too old, too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too quiet, too loud, too smart, too simple, too demanding, or too anything else. It’s not wholly because of past failures or sin tendencies. We are single today because God apportioned us this gift today. (If you are single again due to divorce or death, I realize it can be challenging to reconcile your current experience with the concept of a gift that God has allowed or even willed, but this is the testimony of Scripture. I trust the expanded definition of “gift” has helped you to understand better your current situation.)
Will we always be single? We can’t know. God’s will is revealed to us on a day-by-day basis. I know many single women who feel they need to know now if they will always remain single so that they can plan their lives accordingly. They see biblical womanhood coming to a fork in the road — one path for the terminally single, one path for the wife and mother. I will make a case in future columns, Lord willing, that this way of thinking is a worldly model and that the Bible presents women with a seamless model of femininity that easily transitions from one season to the next.
One more thought: I’ve often heard married people say to singles that we won’t get married until we’re content in our singleness, but I humbly submit this is error. I’m sure that it is offered by well-meaning couples who want to see their single friends happy and content in God’s provision, but it 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. However, we should humbly listen to our friends and receive their input about cultivating contentment; we just shouldn’t attach it to the expectation of a blessing.
Given for the Common Good
Now let’s look at the second point: Spiritual gifts are given for the common good, the implication being the local church. The good news here is that the singleness is not about you — either your good qualities or your sinful tendencies. You have a “gracious endowment” that is for the good of those around you! (So the next time someone asks you why you’re still single, you can reply with a straight face: “It’s for your own good!”)
To amplify Paul’s point, let’s see what the apostle Peter wrote. In 1 Peter 4:10, it says “as each has received a gift [charisma], use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” I’ve been quoting from the English Standard Version, but the New International Version translates this passage as “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” A steward is a good administrator. She knows her purpose, employs her resources, and brings in a good return.
This passage from 1 Corinthians 12 shows us that singleness gives us a context for the other spiritual gifts we may have and is a resource to be faithfully administered. But this passage also goes on to give us a place to invest our gifts. Verses 14 through 26 present the analogy of the church as literal members of a body, and emphasize the interdependency of the members. Verse 15 says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” Do we ever act like that foot? Are we saying (in thoughts, words, or actions) “because I am not part of a couple, I do not belong to the body”? We are part of the body, and we have a vital function within our churches. Those other members need us and we need them.
Without the context and eternal purpose of the church, singleness can seem like the waiting room of adulthood. With the context and eternal purpose of the church, singleness truly is a gift for the common good of others. We can love the bride of Christ by joyfully investing the “firstfruits” of our resources, affections, and time in our churches. If God has marriage for us, He will bring it about. In the meantime, we should want to live to the fullest of this “gracious endowment,” pouring His gift of singleness into the church — the place and people He loves.
Gifted for Christmas Day
So back to that dwindling pile of presents. On Christmas morning, we singles may not have numerous gifts to open, but that’s okay. Those trinkets don’t have eternal value. We really only need the one gift that we’re commemorating on that day: the gift of eternal life that comes to us through the birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As single adults who put our faith and trust in the One who took the punishment for our sins upon Himself, we have something so vastly precious we can barely comprehend its worth. Whether we marry in this life or not (and it’s okay to desire and pray for that — I still am!), the gracious endowment we have for either season points beyond ourselves to God and the true meaning of Christmas. My prayer is that each of us will esteem the gift of singleness we have now because of the eternal gift of mercy and life we will always possess.
Want to hear more? … Tune in this week to your local broadcast of FamilyLife Today or listen online at www.familylife.com as hosts Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine talk with Carolyn. The show topics are “Jumping the Hurdle of Loneliness,” “Unwrapping the Gift of Singleness,” “What Single Women Want Single Men to Know,” and “Juggling Life.”
This column continues a series adapted from "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred" (Crossway, 2004) by Carolyn McCulley © 2004. (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.gnpcb.org.) The book is addressed to single women, but male readers are still welcome to learn more about their sisters in Christ.