Singleness - What Kind of Gift Is This?
- 2004 14 May
One of the many absolutely adorable things about dogs is the way they welcome you home. No one is as glad to see you walk through the front door as Buddy, Max, or in my family's case, Lady Roxanne the Fourth, our chestnut boxer who was as distinguished as her name sounds. We just called her Rox, a name not quite as prestigious but slightly more endearing and definitely easier to say.
When she heard the car doors slam, her entire stocky self shook with pure delight, from the stubby sausage tail that wagged her whole back end to the splitting of gums that revealed the dog smile she reserved for the most exciting of occasions. (I'm not kidding - she really smiled.) Absolutely no one says, "Hey! It's about time you got here!" like a dog.
On those rare occasions when Rox didn't meet us at the door, we immediately knew something was wrong - and our noses usually confirmed it. With a little exploration, the verdict almost always returned the same, with slight variation in location: "She left a gift in the corner of the living room." These are not the kind of gifts dog owners like to receive.
Christian singles hear a lot of talk about the "gift" of singleness. It's beginning to change, but for a long time, the predominant teaching in the church community has been that singleness is a spiritual gift, a supernatural ability given to believers by the Spirit of God at salvation. The lucky chosen few are given some kind of special capacity to live their entire lives in blissful contentment as unmarried people, happily and easily existing without sex and intimate companionship. While I suppose these things are true for some singles, the majority of unmarried Christians don't feel any kind of unique ability or desire to deny sexual urges and be forever content as singles. And a lot of those who supposedly have this gift think of it with the same excitement they'd have for a pile of dog poop in the corner of the living room - a gift they need to discard as soon as possible before it stinks up their lives.
Is singleness really a gift? The short answer, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7, is yes, sometimes: "For I wish that all men were even as myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that." The better questions to ask, it seems, are what kind of gift is it and who has it? Is it a spiritual gift, and if so, why don't we feel unwedded bliss? Is it a stinky gift, and if so, how did we get stuck with it? If I'm single, does that mean I have "the gift"? If singleness is not, as the world says, the gift of self-indulgent freedom, what could possibly be good about it?
Albert Hsu, in his must-read book Singles at the Crossroads, argues convincingly that while singleness is certainly a gift, it is not a spiritual gift, and claiming that it is raises significant problems. For example, if single people want to be married and don't feel particularly content with their singleness, can we assume they don't have the gift of singleness? If they don't have the gift, are they allowed to be discontent? Is it permissible for them to have sex since God hasn't especially equipped them to deny their urges? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is no - contentment and purity are required of all believers.
So, if singleness is not a spiritual gift, what kind of gift is it? Frankly, Paul himself is a little vague on the answer to this question - probably because he wasn't trying to answer it. He was writing to a community with the exact opposite viewpoint that our Christian culture has: they elevated singleness (more precisely, celibacy - even within marriage) above marriage, while we elevate marriage above singleness.
The resounding theme of Paul's arguments in 1 Corinthians 7 is that the Corinthians were focused on the wrong things. They were most concerned about changing their circumstances, and overlooked the fact that Christ was much more concerned about changing them. Like the Corinthians, we have often failed to understand that contentment, spirituality, and abundant life have nothing to do with our circumstances. They can be acquired no matter what life is like.
So, again, what kind of gift is singleness? Sometimes, it's what Paul had - whatever it was that enabled him to live as he did. Do most singles have this gift? I doubt it. Does that mean all singles who don't have it should get married? Not if we believe the rest of what Paul said.
I'd like to suggest that singleness is a gift even if we don't have what Paul had, and we'd rather be married. It may not be a gift like we're accustomed to defining gifts - but, like everything else we receive from the gracious hand of a loving heavenly Father, it is a gift. If you are single, your life circumstances are a gift, and despite what you want to think about it, it's not a stinky gift.
Maybe it helps if we think about this type of gift in terms of tools, things in our lives that we can put to use for God's glory. They are God-ordained conditions of our existence. I happen to be a Caucasian female. I am five feet six inches tall. I am single. These are not disasters or punishments. They describe the God-ordained "gifts" of my existence. My brother happens to be a Caucasian male. He's six feet six inches tall. He's married. None of these facts are disasters (unless he hits his head on a low door frame) or signs of God's supernatural gifting.
Neither marriage nor singleness, Paul affirms, is bad - God does not give stinky gifts. In fact neither is merely neutral - rather, both are good. And both come with certain privileges and responsibilities. Just as my brother has the responsibility (or is it a privilege?) to reach something on a back shelf that I can't, and just as I once had the privilege of helping him match his clothes, so marriage and singleness each offer unique opportunities to serve God and others. Paul's concern is not whether someone should or shouldn't marry - he leaves that open to individual choice. Singleness is a gift that can be exchanged, guilt-free, for the gift of marriage. Paul's primary purpose is to say, "Look, whatever you are - married or single - you need to serve God in your situation. Get busy." Instead of singles worrying so much about how to get rid of what we - and lots of well-meaning people in the Christian community - wrongly assume is a stinky gift, we would find life more fulfilling if we worked harder at living obedient, focused lives as singles.
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.