Love and Marriage:

Singleness

Photo Courtesy of Alasdair Elmes

By Nate Dunn

 

Published August 1st 2020

            “Do I matter?” and “Am I loveable?” Two questions that everyone has spent much of their life trying to affirm. Both the person with the eighty hour work week and the person who escapes into endless hours of television believe that they have found the answer. They have answered in the negative. Our whole lives are spent trying to find something that will tell us that we matter and we are loved. Whomever can promise us these two will receive our love unreservedly. We will devote our life and love to that person. But only while we believe it. 

            “Into Today” is a chance to enter deeply into the place where we can find ourselves already inhabiting. Into Today is where we will find the answer to these questions. God has placed you within his Gospel story, pursuing you with a deep passion. However, often our scars do not allow us to feel the gentle touch of a lover. We ignore our pursuer and instead pursue “less-wild lovers” [1]. We choose a smutty, disinterested seductress over the passionate love of God. 

            Today, we are in the throes of the wedding season. Over the last six months, I have received eleven wedding invitations for the summer months of June, July, and August. Whenever I attend a wedding, a paradox occurs. Watching something so beautiful never fails to bring up the conflicting emotions of affection, desire, confusion, and regret. To the bride and groom, weddings are the beginning of an unbreakable covenant and an induction into an elite class within the Church: The Married. 

            Each time I go to a wedding, people ask me if I am dating anyone and when I am going to get married. There is an enormous pressure to get married and have children. Marriage soon becomes the place where congregants seek to answer the questions, “Do I matter?” and “Am I loveable?” Let us turn to the biblical narrative in order to better understand the place that marriage holds within Christianity. 

            Many Christian weddings utilize Genesis 2:18; God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him” [2]. Here, man is living close to God, and yet God sees that man is, in a real sense, alone. The very next scene is God creating women and in the next breath, marriage. Life is perfect here, largely thanks to this new relationship. It is this view of the good life that pastors invoke at the marriage ceremony. 

            However, the good life was stained by the fall, summoning all numbers of attacks against marriage. From this point onward there would be stillbirths, barrenness, eunuchs, and singleness. Throughout the rest of the Genesis account, offspring were not assumed. Children became the sign of divine blessing. Offspring had a prominent place in the post-fall world, as Isaac heard the repeated Abrahamic (Gen. 26:3-4), likewise Jacob (Gen. 28:13-14). Among the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants; offspring were the great divine-blessing.

            By God’s providence, offspring answered both questions posed. “Am I loveable?” Yes, by both your children, spouse, and God. “Do I matter?” Yes, your name and legacy will be carried forth by your children, participating in God’s blessing [3]. It appears as though God’s blessing was directly tied to marriage and procreation, and that dying without sons or daughters was synonymous with exclusion from the promised blessing [4]. Their names would not be remembered, blotted out from the memory of the nation of Israel.

            However, God presents hope. In Isaiah, there is a glimpse of God’s plan for the unmarried and the barren. Here, the prosperity and multiplication of the nation of Israel is challenged by their wickedness. Isaiah begins to hint of the coming blessing for a people previously excluded [5]. The beauty is shown in Isaiah 54,

Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

-Isaiah 54:1-5 ESV

            This pericope follows directly after the suffering servant and His death. “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Is. 53:10 ESV). It would have been odd. At the time of this prophecy, the suffering servant would see his offspring after his death. But we know the whole story — we know how God became man, died, and resurrected. We know how sinful humanity was saved, made into sons of God. Through Jesus, God’s kingdom now gives dignity and meaning to the eunuchs, the barren, and the virgins [6]. The Church is the bride of Christ and, as such, is able to share in the parenting of his children. Outside of the Church, we may be alone and single, but the Church is not a single person. While marriage is a God ordained covenant, it is not necessary (and truly is unable) to fill the heart's longing for love and meaning. 

            So why do I find it necessary to write, affirming the call of singleness? Because, the modern Church has failed its single men and women by making the biological family the nucleus of the Church and of church life. This pushes the unmarried or even the barren to the outskirts, looking in and to the future for their fulfilment. God calls us to enter deeply into today. Into the place he has placed you, regardless of marital statue

            For the Christian, the good life is a liturgical life. Liturgies are daily practices that shape our heart towards something — practices of belief for belief [7]. There are a host of competing liturgies, both sacred and secular. Each one wants your heart. The primary liturgical forces are those that draw us toward romantic love as an ultimate end. 

            Those singles who practice liturgies that show marriage as life’s ultimate fulfilment will eventually find themselves living life for the future and not the present. If you see singleness as a disease, marriage will be the cure. It is my intention to suggest a different liturgy that forms a new love. This new liturgy involves embodied worship, hospitality, and an eternal perspective.

            On March 12, 2017, a professor of mine, Dr. de Rosset told me, “If you have a good family, it is your call to invite others into your home.” The call in Isaiah 54 is for the barren women to “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (Is. 54:2 ESV). The Lord is calling those without children to have faith that God will fill their homes. 

            It is important to note that “three out of four of the matriarchs in the Genesis account, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel all experience initial barrenness before God intervenes on their behalf” [8]. The barren and unmarried can look at themselves as these women and trust that God will be faithful in the same way. God has provided a family for the outcast.

            One of my classes at Moody Bible Institute, taught by Dr. Christopher Yuan, was the Theology of Sexuality. When speaking on the limitations of marriage, he told a story of an elderly pastor who had been married for many long and wonderful years. When his wife died, it was an extremely painful experience and he was left with a choice; to leave the ring on or take it off. In the end, he realized that his vows were complete and fulfilled, and he removed his ring.

            When I heard that story, I was angry at Dr. Yuan for setting this story as an example. It felt like a slap in the face of love. I had been taught through liturgical movies, examples in my church, and by society that marriage is where the place to find ultimate happiness. They could live happily ever after; they could sum up my vision of the good life. I had turned marriage from a sacramental relationship into an idol. Dr. Yuan’s story was challenging those idols to bear fruit and ultimately began the work of tearing down the high places to make way for a truer love, God. 

            In many ways, the unmarried have a unique opportunity. Instead of having a family to put before others, they are able to focus on their relationship with God. As Paul wrote,

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

- 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 ESV

Indeed, while marriage can be an aid to the mission of God, in itself, it is not ultimate. He will one day find himself blessed who will store up treasure for himself, “Where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:20b-21 ESV). 

            The married person consistently participates in embodied liturgies that both express and curate love. These are good actions, and the feelings that they produce are a gift from God, but every gift can be illused. The virtue that one day brought you closer to God could become a vice that strays you from him tomorrow. Love and loyalty can easily morph and become idolatry. They must be parried with other potent holy liturgies designed to create love for God [9].

            Marriage is beautiful and good. At its best, it is a holy bond, unbreakable by man and ordained by God at the beginning of creation. It is a gift from God, for man’s good. I hope to one day participate in such a sacramental relationship. When done rightly, it does bring both man and woman into a closer relationship with God and one another. It is however not eternal and unable to provide the ultimate fulfilment that only God can [10]. It is for the married and the unmarried to serve God first and love him above all others [11]. 

            It has been a failure of the Church that the married lord over the unmarried. As we have seen, the Biblical story has granted the eunuch, widow, and barren a place in the family of the Church. They are given a special calling to be a “father to the fatherless” [12]. As a Church, we must begin to see singleness as a calling and a privilege. The Apostle Paul himself took the road of singleness by choice. A difficult road, yes, but also an opportunity to pick up one’s cross and follow Christ. It is equal with marriage. Jesus said in Matthew 19:11-12, "But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” It is not for everyone, but it is a calling some must be allowed and encouraged to take up.

            Every man and woman asks the questions, “Am I loveable?” and “Do I matter?” Jesus hears these questions and tells his bride that they are loved and they do matter. He has earned our love and admiration. Let us not take it to anyone less desirable or worthy. Let us love Christ, because, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19 ESV). We matter because Christ, the worthy one, chose us.

 

________________________

Footnotes:

            1.  Brent Curtis, Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, (Seattle, Mars Hill Review 8, 1997), 9-23.

            2.  All verses cited will use the ESV translation unless stated otherwise; Note: The ESV translates כנגדו to either “fit for" or "corresponding to."

            3. Barry Danylak, A Biblical Theology of Singleness. (UK: Grove Books, 2007), 7; “For the beginning of creation through the establishment of the covenant with the patriarchs, marriage and procreation appear central to the design of creation and to the appropriation of divine blessing.”

            4. Deuteronomy 7

            5. Danylak, Singleness, 13.

            6. For example; Acts 8:26-40

            7. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 134.

            8. Danylak, Singleness, 6.

            9. Smith, Desiring the kingdom, 134.

            10. See: Mt. 22:30

            11. See: Duet. 6:5, Mt:22:37

            12. Ps. 85:5; 1 Per. 1:16

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