Singles Q&A: Drowning in Comparisons
- Carolyn McCulley Author & Contributing Writer
- 2006 8 Nov
Are you constantly comparing yourself with others and coming up short? Here’s a detailed letter from a woman in another nation who wrote me about this issue. I did shorten her writing, but generally kept her points intact because I think the details she presents are helpful for discerning the many common temptations we face as single women.
QUESTION: I'm in my mid-30s, a committed Christian, attending an evangelical Anglican church that has organised its services around particular demographics. I go to the service for late 20- to 40-somethings. Many of the people who attend are single, and this service has an informal reputation as a bit of a meeting place – people come from miles around to “meet” people, even if they attend another church in the morning. I live nearby, and wanted to get back to my Anglican roots. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to meet someone, too!
I am convinced that if I marry, I am to only consider another Christian. Having dated a non-Christian, I can see the sense in this, not to mention the importance of obedience to God and His Word. I don't tend to meet many Christians in my workplace. I'm a lawyerand you'd think there would be plenty of single men around in this profession, but I haven't met any Christians who are single. So, the primary place to meet someone suitable is church, or through Christian friends (there seems to be a drought there – the single ones are looking themselves, and the married ones only know other married ones).
I know I have to attend church with the correct motive, which is to worship God, and serve Him and His people. I'm on rosters to do things, I spend time talking to people and listening, counseling, etc. But I seem to favour activities that the fellas in the church don't (e.g. I'm not into mountain biking and playing pool), and I'm not in the in-crowd of younger women that seem to have caught the eye of the guys.
To put it bluntly, I feel invisible, or worse – fat, old and ugly. I've weighed myself up honestly (to take an honest account of myself) and objectively, I'm not really fat, I'm not old, and I'm not ugly, but I seem to take on these characteristics when I step into church. I don't feel this way about myself out in the world.
The men in church who are my age or older (mid-30s to mid-40s and desperate to be fathers, by all accounts) seem to only want women in their 20s who are in “caring” professions such as nursing or teaching or the arts, and seem keener to experience repeated rejection, rather than to ask out someone who they have a realistic chance of being accepted by. Notwithstanding this, I do make conversation, I am friendly, I don't go around acting superior. If anything, I don't go and speak to new guys who come to church because I don't want to seem too eager, and I assume that like all the others, they will think I'm fat, old, and ugly. I feel somehow like I've missed the boat, that I have failed to qualify for a Christian marriage, that I'm on the scrap heap and am not going to be “chosen” from that heap by a man who I would like to be with.
I know I have to trust God with my future, whether it includes a husband or not. I know God's plans for me are good. I know it's a fallen world and the huge number of fantastic single women around who don't seem to be finding husbands is quite possibly a symptom of this.
But how do I continue to go to church when I feel bitter, jealous, and down on myself all the time? How do I continue when I feel anxious that I'm not in the “in crowd” (it's like being back at early high school!), that I'm not being invited to parties where I might possibly meet someone, and that I’m not getting to meet anyone half decent? (Followed by the positively self-destructive thought that if I met them they wouldn't want to know me, anyway.) My friends say I am funny, witty and kind. What am I doing wrong? And how do I live now? How do I maintain hope? I know my bitterness, jealousy of others, backbiting (even to myself) about the people who do not include others and are selective in who they want to know (even though I think they are in the wrong) is wrong, and sinful. But I cannot pretend it’s not happening, and I am finding it such a burden to keep going to church week after week under the weight of all this stuff.
I want to be obedient to God, I want to walk in His will for me, but I’m afraid I’ll never meet a Christian man, never get married, and that somehow I’ve failed to qualify for marriage. The sense of rejection is a huge burden that I feel is distorting my approach to church, other people and God. I compare myself to others who are thinner, prettier, more talented, more caring, more Godly, know their Bibles better – why wouldn't any man choose someone else?
ANSWER: As I read your letter, I had a picture in my mind of someone about to drown. Periodically, you surface with expressions of faith toward God, but most of the time you are fighting to survive the waves that are swamping you. You are physically and emotionally exhausted and need someone to pull you to safety.
So I am going to throw you some lifelines. I hope you can catch them and really hold on, because I believe they are the truths that you need right now. You don’t have to trust me to be able to pull you up, though. These lifelines are anchored in the Rock, and He will carry you through the fiercest storm.
First, let me assure you that I hear you and can empathize. Many others have pulled me from the same storms, so you are hearing from a fellow survivor who has been tempted in all of the same ways. Please don’t mistake any candor for condemnation!
Let’s review your letter paragraph by paragraph, beginning with what you said about your church. I am sure that those who are organizing church services by demographics are trying to create helpful contexts, but I am not convinced that segregating the Body like this is the best way to build a local church. We need to have relationships across many seasons of life. Now, in saying this, I’m only offering an observation. I am not challenging your pastors’ decisions because I don’t know all their reasons for organizing like this. Nor am I saying that ministries serving different demographics within a church are not needed. But when the congregation does not congregate to worship God but instead segregates, it creates a common temptation to put ourselves at the center of worship and push God to the perimeter. I think you are experiencing this at present.
My first suggestion for you is to take a break from this distraction and consider attending another service at your church. This will help you to come to church for the primary purpose of worshiping God and not for seeking the attention of the men around you. I don’t blame you for wanting to meet someone at church – most single Christians do! In fact, I commend you for being committed to dating only Christians. But from all you’ve told me, it seems that right now you need to get off the hamster wheel and adjust your perspective.
I have some thoughts about the following paragraphs, but I’ll get back to those in a moment. I want to get to the heart of your letter, which is found in this sentence: “But how do I continue to go to church when I feel bitter, jealous, and down on myself all the time?” If we were talking over coffee, I would ask you a lot more questions to make sure I understand you correctly, but for the sake of this format, I’ll cut to my quick answer – and remember, this is a lifeline I am throwing to you! From all that you’ve written, you appear to be going to church primarily to seek the attention and the approval of others. You may not be bowing down to a golden statue, but you are controlled by the idol of the opinions of others – even though you may not know accurately what their real opinions are! The bitterness, jealousy, and self-pity you’re experiencing right now is the fruit of that false worship. You will never find freedom, peace, joy, and love in being a slave to what the Bible calls “fear of man.” It’s a crazy, unfulfilling, and – let’s be honest – sinful way to live. But it is our default setting. It’s the way we ALL live until we are set free through clearly understanding our idol-manufacturing hearts and repenting of this false worship. Because Jesus has paid for sins such as these through His atoning sacrifice on the cross, we who trust Him as our Savior can receive the grace to change.
Grace (the unmerited favor and empowerment of God) exchanges bitterness for contentment, jealousy for gratitude, and self-centered pride for God-centered worship. But, as it says in Jonah 2:8, “those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” There is so much more I could say about this, but I don’t have the space for it. So for now, I will say that the best investment you could make is to order Edward T. Welch’s book, "When People Are Big and God Is Small." This book addresses many forms of the fear of man, including craving approval, fearing rejection, and fearing exposure or shame – and shows how to replace it with God-exalting living. I found it to be a real eye-opener, but also a book brimming with hope for change.
I would also suggest that you consider Psalms 73. There we find Asaph, the psalmist, wrestling with jealousy, bitterness, and unbelief toward God. He sees the (temporary) prosperity of the unbelievers around him, which provokes him to think his efforts to live righteously are a waste of time. In verses 21-22, he describes his jealousy in this way: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” This is what we are like when we seek reward, honor, and fulfillment from the creation (which is idolatry) instead of from the Creator. We can stand amidst great blessing, favor, and prosperity God has granted us and be senseless and ignorant of it all because we have our eyes set on some other trinket we think is more valuable.
The perspective adjustment we need is the same one Asaph discovered: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (vv. 16-17). Your current situation is not your final destiny. If you are truly a believer, a new creature in Christ, your actual destiny is too marvelous to comprehend fully! This is what Asaph celebrates in the closing verses of this psalm: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.”
So how can you begin to practically apply this to your life? First, and most important, is to do whatever you can to be unhindered in your worship of God and to repent from any false, idolatrous worship. Second, you probably need to retrain your thinking and speaking patterns. Are you telling of all of God’s great and marvelous deeds? Or are you rehearsing – to yourself and to others – your perceived failures and the faults of others? (This is what you call “back-biting.”) Third, you may need to practice giving your life away. Instead of waiting to be invited to an event, reach out to those who may have less (by any measurement) than you do. Instead of trying to hold back the sands of time and resenting those who are younger, try fulfilling the Titus 2 commands to mentor younger women. By seeking to serve other people, rather than your reputation, you will find a greater freedom! I would also suggest that you not try to tackle all of this on your own, but to seek the accountability, care, and encouragement of at least one older woman, if not several.
Finally, I’d like to offer some minor comments based on the earlier part of your letter. Though you are probably working hard to keep fear of man from being detected, I can guarantee you that others sense it. People usually flee from the burden of crushing expectations and the poison of snarky comments. In the part of your letter that I edited, you described talking to a man you like in an animated way, but then you said that you often ignore the new men because you don’t want to seem too eager. The guys probably notice this yo-yo behavior. Perhaps it would be more helpful for everyone if you treated all of the men evenly, like brothers. And if they like some activities that you don’t, why not try one or two? You might be surprised by how much fun you have. But I would recommend you hold on doing so until you’ve had some time to work on your heart issues and are more grounded in God.
You also mentioned that the older men in your church seem drawn to the younger women in the more “caring” professions. Perhaps you’ve observed this situation accurately, but there may be some other considerations. Is there any possibility that you’ve taken on the less attractive qualities of the legal profession – the aggressiveness, skepticism, and combativeness that make for a great trial lawyer but a contentious life partner? This may be where you have to ask your friends for an honest assessment. Assure them that you won’t get mad at whatever they say in response to your questions, and then … don’t get mad. Or defensive. You may end up hearing some life-altering feedback. Perhaps these men are also making assumptions about your career. If they want to get married and have a family, they may assume you don’t share those goals simply because you are successful professionally. Where appropriate, you may need to be clear about your own hopes and goals.
Lastly, the appearance that these men are drawn to women in the “caring” professions may be a sign that it’s just the caring that attracts them. It seems unfair, but the longer we women are single, the more independent and self-reliant we have to become, practically speaking. That very independence can signal that we don’t want or need others. So we have to work at both extending and receiving care. As one good male friend once told me, “You come across as being competent and self-sufficient. You are going to have to learn to ask for help. And then you’ll have to learn to wait for it, because help won’t always come on your timetable.” How very true! I wish it were different, but countless men have told me they want to know their care will be received, and that in return they will be cared for – and not competed against. It’s the dynamic of partnership, of interdependence. We, who by necessity live independently, must work at cultivating community.
This is a long answer, but it only grazes the surface. My prayer is that you will grab the lifelines I’ve thrown out here and allow the Lord to pull you closer, so that He becomes bigger and fills the vista of your gaze! And in due time, I also pray He brings you a husband, one whom you will receive as a gift but not a functional god.
Carolyn McCulley works for Sovereign Grace Ministries in church and ministry relations. She is also an author ( "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred") and blogger (solofemininity.blogs.com). Carolyn is also a member of Covenant Life Church where one of her favorite ministries is the single women's discipleship program. She highly recommends the resources for singles from the New Attitude conference and blog.
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