The Gift of Singleness
Many Christians have taken “the gift of singleness” to mean some special capacity to cope with it. It’s an unusual endowment that enables certain chosen people to survive as single. It’s like a superpower.
And, like a superpower, we presume it must be rare and unusual. The whole point of superheroes is that their powers are abnormal. That’s part of the appeal. They are set apart from the rest of us. And so those with the gift of singleness must be a select group who can cope with singleness in a way the rest of us cannot. It seems to fit what Paul is saying and to fit our experience of what singleness is like. But there are a number of problems with this way of thinking.
1. It is ultimately another way of denying the intrinsic goodness of singleness.
Think about it: if singleness requires a special spiritual superpower just to survive it, it must be really terrible. Al Hsu compares the gift of singleness to anesthesia during surgery: “Between the lines is the idea that nobody would ever make a conscious choice to stay single if he or she had the opportunity to marry.”1This reinforces a number of common and faulty ways of thinking, that a life without marriage is not really life to the full, and therefore that people desirous of such a life, even if for the sake of the kingdom, are ultimately choosing something quite unhealthy. Singleness, in and of itself, has nothing good going for it and so requires a special “gift” to make it bearable.
2. It can encourage bitterness rather than the pursuit of godly contentment.
For those who are single and unhappily so, this thinking can be a way of writing off the contentment others may have in being single—“they obviously have the gift of singleness, whereas I don’t.”
God’s Word is never contradictory. Acceptance of one part of it never, ever involves denying another part of it.
3. It unwittingly permits disobedience.
What if certain singles are convinced they don’t have the gift of singleness yet find themselves in a situation where the only opportunities for a romantic relationship involve sin? Imagine they have always been exclusively same-sex attracted, or that they are in a context where there are simply no eligible Christians of the opposite sex to marry. What is the answer? Either way, God seems to have gotten something wrong. And if the choice is rejecting the idea that they don’t have the gift of singleness after all, or rejecting the idea that same-sex or spiritually mixed partnerships are wrong, I know which they will most likely choose. I’ve seen it time and again. I think of a woman who married a non-Christian, justifying it, because “I know God doesn’t want me to be unmarried.” I think of another individual whose rationale for getting involved in a same-sex partnership was, “I’m not called to celibacy,” and so effectively had no other choice. Notice in both cases it is ultimately God’s fault. He puts us in a situation where we have no capacity to obey him.
But we know this is not how our loving heavenly Father works. He is one. He is perfectly integrated in all he is and says and does. His Word is never contradictory. Acceptance of one part of it never, ever involves denying another part of it. Obeying one word never involves disobeying another. To think any situation necessitates sin denies the perfect unity and integrity of God. It makes him like us, inconsistent and contradictory. It also denies his goodness, suggesting he is in the habit of stitching us up: calling us to do something and then withholding all ability to do it.
4. It is hard to see why someone should not apply the same logic to marriage.
I know one or two people right now who are really unhappily married. One, Steve (not his real name), and his wife exist together solely as coparents of their children. They don’t have a friendship of their own anymore. They don’t even like each other. It is easy for him to spend as much time away from home as he can. He is in Christian ministry and can therefore fill up his evenings and weekends with work to avoid what is a horrible situation at home. I know he looks on my singleness with enormous envy. What is to stop him from concluding, “I’m married, but I clearly don’t have the gift of marriage and therefore I need to leave my family”? This would be “tantamount to calling God the cause of divorce.”2 If there is a “gift of singleness” that enables only some to thrive as single people, there is no reason to say there is no corresponding “gift of marriage” that enables only some married people to thrive in their marriages.
The fact is, marriage is not easy. Thinking that singleness uniquely requires a special gift masks the extent to which marriage is also very challenging to sinners like us. It is not for nothing that the Book of Common Prayer warns that marriage is “not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”
5. Tim Keller also points out that this way of thinking about gifts does not fit with Paul’s teaching more generally:
In his writings, Paul always uses the word “gift” to mean an ability God gives to build others up. Paul is not speaking . . . of some kind of elusive, stress-free state.3
Gifts (as Paul will go on to explain later in his letter to the Corinthians) are about building up the church rather than feeling a sense of individual, personal fulfillment. It is about serving others and not about feeling a special sense of peace. Keller continues:
The “gift-ness” of being single for Paul lay in the freedom it gave him to concentrate on ministry in ways that a married man could not. Paul may very well, then, have experienced what we today would call an “emotional struggle” with singleness. He might have wanted to be married. He not only found an ability to live a life of service to God and others in that situation, he discovered (and capitalized on) the unique features of the single life (such as time flexibility) to minister with very great effectiveness.4
This is good news. As Vaughan Roberts says, it means that “none of us is missing out.”5 All of us get something of the goodness of God. It doesn’t deny that there are challenges with both marriage and singleness. But it serves to remind us that, even in the midst of those challenges, we can taste something of the goodness of God.
- Albery Y. Hsu, The Single Issue (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 55.
- Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 207–8.
- Vaughan Roberts, True Spirituality: The Challenge of 1 Corinthians for the Twenty-First-Century Church (Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), 88.
This article is adapted from 7 Myths about Singleness by Sam Allberry.
What Christians mean by singleness is often very different to what our secular friends mean by singleness.
The ways we misunderstand singleness reflects the fact that we’re looking to marriage in unbiblical and unhealthy ways.
In God's economy, blessing our spiritual family becomes a blessing to us.