I’ve been single for a long time...At first it was just a quiet patch in my somewhat tempestuous love life (and a bit of a relief to be honest).
Then it became a dry spell – interrupted by a couple of guy friends declaring their undying love (I tried falling in love with them; they were my friends after all. I just hurt them.)
Then it became a problem, where I was lonely, embarrassed and resentful of everyone else’s love life.Now – it’s just life. I can see the pros and cons of relationships; of marriage and of being single. For the most part I can say with Paul, ‘I have learnt to be content with whatever I have.’(Philippians 4:11) But it’s been a journey – and I don’t suppose I’m at the end of it yet. But one thing I have learnt.
Self-pity is not a good thing.Many of us, when we are single live in a sort of temporary world, living like this “just for now, until I meet a man”. Snoozing like Sleeping Beauty or like Snow White – tolerating the dwarves until we get a better option. Thinking, “If only Prince Charming would come along I’d live happily ever after.”
Often we attribute all our struggles, insecurities, loneliness and pain to the fact that we are not in a relationship. “If I only had a man – everything would be ok!” The truth is that in the same way that the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz cried, “If I only had a brain!” when he already had great intelligence, we need to face the reality of what we already have and that a guy will not fix it all; only God can do that. Sure there would be someone to hang out with on bank holidays, someone to give us a cuddle after a bad day, someone to feel guilty when they forgot Valentine’s Day/ didn’t notice our hair cut/ left the toilet seat up; someone to be in love with. But a guy, no matter how great he is, will not fix all our struggles and insecurities; he is not the saviour of our world...that is Jesus!We don’t say it often, but it’s a form of idolatry, ‘Mr Right as Saviour’. And it is really common but completely false. I know we’ve all watched Patrick Swayze/ Matthew McConaughey/ Brad Pitt save the girl and make her life complete, over and over again. But that is no more real that Bruce Willis saving the world from an asteroid the size of Texas or a leather-clad Batman swooping in to solve the social ills of our city. It’s a fantasy.
It is also deeply oppressive to men.
We so often set the bar so high, expecting them all to be Mr Darcy (who had deep psychological problems and could have done with therapy in my opinion.) When our boyfriend/ fiancé/ husband fails to live up to the ideal of ‘Rom Com hero’ we so often become disillusioned and critical of him. And often when our insecurities, work pressures and other struggles don’t vanish in a puff of blissful romantic smoke we wonder what is wrong with the relationship, or wrong with the guy – rather than recognising that if we are insecure it’s probably more complicated than just about singleness, and that ‘solving’ single does not mean solving insecure.It also says a lot about how we view God. We might sing that he is sufficient, that he will meet our every need, that he is the one we worship... but very often rather than run into the Father’s arms – we long for the arms of Brad. At one level that is completely understandable; physical affection, emotional intimacy and companionship are something all humans need. God was right when he said, ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ (Gen.1.18) but Brad cannot meet our every need. Even if we have a great relationship with him and love him deeply; he cannot save us from our sins. He is a flawed human being just like we are, and expecting him to make it all better is unreasonable and unfair.
The ‘not good to be alone’ also doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship. Regardless of whether we have that or not we still need loving relationships with other people too; friends, older wiser counsel, teachers, comforters, children, brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible is clear that Christians are intended to be part of a community, the Body of Christ, with a network of different relationships as well as a deep sustaining relationship with Father God. Married or not, that network and diversity is vital for a healthy life and faith. Marriage is to be honoured highly; married couples are a covenanted partnership but, ‘Just the two of us’ (as the song goes) is not a Biblical value.
In a world (and often church) seemingly geared entirely to couples, self pity about being single is understandable (trust me I know!) but it isn’t a good thing. Sure, to have a little wallow from time to time is fine, to pour out our heart to God is a good thing to do, but to live in a permanent state of ‘woe is me’ isn’t helpful, healthy, honouring to God or other people.
I knew a woman once who refused to go to weddings – her reason was because they weren’t hers. It was so painful for her to watch someone else walk down the aisle that she stayed at home while everyone else celebrated. Now, don’t get me wrong – weddings can be hard and I fully understand wedding fatigue, I have averaged seven weddings per year for the last decade. (I met a young single woman recently who went to 15 weddings in one year! 15! Can you imagine?) But it seems to me that the Bible’s pretty clear when we are told to, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’. (Rom.12.15) One part of the body being blessed is a good thing for all of us.“My sister/ brother in Christ has been blessed with a great guy/ girl.... I’m delighted for her/ him, Praise God.”
rather than“Why isn’t it me? When is my turn God? What are you playing at? It’s not fair!”
You might argue, “but I can’t help it – it’s how I feel,” but we actually do have choices – even if our emotions are bouncing us all over the place. Paul calls it ‘taking our thoughts captive.’(2 Corinthians 10:5) Grabbing hold of the internal temper tantrum we are throwing and making a choice. “I will praise God because he has blessed someone else”. Habakkuk is great at this. After a long argument with God about why he isn’t acting in the way Habakkuk thinks he should, he prays a beautiful prayer of faith;
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the live fails and the fields yield no food;
although the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the LORD is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
That is a great mentality to adopt.
“Even though I would love to have a relationship, even though I would love to be with someone, even though I’m not and they are – yet I WILL praise the Lord. He has saved me and blessed me in so many ways. I will worship him.”A really helpful way of training ourselves in the spiritual discipline of praise and worship (and it IS a spiritual discipline) is to practice gratitude.
Making lists helps me. When I’m struggling at the end of the day I make a list of everything I am grateful to God for. Whether it’s a breakthrough at work, a good chat with a friend, an answer to prayer, a delicious piece of cake – whatever, I rack my brain for the blessings I have. I am saved and forgiven for my sins; I am healthy; I am warm in bed; I had enough to eat today; I am loved and trusted by the Lord to teach his people; I have wonderful friends.Rather than spending all my energy on what I DON’T have. That doesn’t mean we can’t bring those petitions to the Lord, of course he hears and cares, but this activity is training us in seeing our blessings; training us to see the benefits of being single; the time, freedom, flexibility, independence we have; training us in gratitude and gratitude is the opposite of self pity.
From time to time I come across people who have found their identity in being ‘poor Sarah/ Jane/ Nelly ’. I wonder if they actually WANT to be happy or if misery has become their default option. We need to encourage (gently) those people who are trapped in self-pity to aspire to more.
- To aspire to be content; at peace.This is not a mandate for us to be judgemental, smug married, or lack compassion on those who are sad and struggling. When the high priest Eli rebuked Hannah for pouring out her broken heart he made a complete chump of himself. (1 Samuel 1:14) Jesus doesn’t slap people and tell them just to ‘buck up’, in fact it is often very difficult for those in relationships to offer comfort to struggling singletons. But if we want to be healthy, happy, godly women we need to learn how to be grateful and throw ourselves on Jesus, not the next guy to walk through the door!
- To aspire to understand how loved and precious they are to God.
- To aspire to a live a life they see has value - is making a difference to the Kingdom of God.
- To have an eternal perspective on their existence, marriage is only temporary after all – ‘till death us do part.’
One of the things that has helped me most significantly over the years is seeing my friends’ relationships and marriages in action. I have been privileged to talk, laugh, cry and pray with them about those situations. Given what a hopeless romantic I used to be, I think I’ve had an awakening to the reality of marriage, the sheer hard work of making it work and the utter devastation when it doesn’t.When the romance wears off, when the hormones simmer down, when love is a choice not a gushing feeling, when situations are hard, when money is tight, when their husband is long term ill, when people are attracted to someone else, when babies mean they haven’t slept properly for five years. Relationships are sacrificial and hard, not just comforting and supportive. They are about giving much more than receiving.
Singleness can be lonely – so can marriage.Singleness can be sexually frustrating – so can marriage.
Singleness can mean having to make decisions alone – marriage can mean struggling to make them together.Yes, Christmas can be hard, coming in from work to an empty house can be hard, who to go on holiday with can be hard – but all those things are hard for people in relationships too.
- The politics of whose family to visit this Christmas?Everyone is not having blissful family time on a Saturday when you don’t know what to do. They are probably battling with Tesco’s or screaming children, trying to get the DIY done or frustrated cos. Mr Right just wants to watch the footy. They are probably envying your leisurely bath and slob in front of the TV before you go out with a friend tonight. As Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 7, realism about how hard relationships are, and the blessings of independence are good to ponder, not just the fantasy of an idyllic riverside picnic gazing into the eyes of an adoring Brad!
- Having to work long hours or resenting your partner’s work schedule that takes them away so much.
- ‘Childcare in another setting with fewer toys’ (as one friend described their family holiday to me).
We need to pray for our friends’ relationships – that God will give them the strength to conduct them in a Christ-like way. We also need someone who will pray wisely with us when it’s hard to be single. We may need to be brave and honest with people when their behaviour is unreasonable or makes us feel dreadfully alone or excluded. But we also need to accept that God can do ANYTHING. Gabriel tells Mary, “For God nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37) So if he hasn’t answered your prayer there must be a reason – a good, kind reason. There must be something else he wants you to put your time and energy into right now; Something of eternal value, something that you are the right woman for.Martha and Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Suzanna, Lydia, Dorcas, Phoebe – all apparently single women in the New Testament who served Jesus, who undoubtedly had challenges in being unmarried in the 1st century, but who illustrate that sometimes the freedom that comes from being single is a wonderful opportunity to see the world changed in the names of Jesus.
We have a choice, and a journey. We might be single, but we are not alone – we have a father who adores us, a saviour interceding for us, his spirit at work in us, and his people all around us. Let’s worship Jesus, not Mr Right, and trust that the Father will give us good gifts; a hope and a future - one way or another.
Ruth Perrin is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry. She is the author of the Cloud of Witnesses website.