Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Gift of Singleness

This is the first of two extended lines of thought that wouldn’t fit conveniently into my post from two days ago. You may remember that one: John Piper was giving advice to a single mother who wondered if she should be looking for a husband.

A couple of common evangelical catchphrases were bandied around in the exchange and caught my attention. First, Piper referred to the “gift of singleness”. Later, the young woman declared she did not feel “called to marriage”. You have probably heard people say things like that. You may have said them yourself.

Both phrases sorta-kinda employ the language of the New Testament, but both do it in ways that can mislead us if we’re not paying attention to the way they are used.

Each Has His Own Gift

The reference to the “gift of singleness” comes from 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul discusses whether or not Christians should marry and considers a number of scenarios. One of the first things he says is this:
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
That’s as close as we get to finding this particular trendy phrase in the Bible.

Now, the need for companionship is entirely normal, and sexual desire is near-inevitable for most of us. Paul does not condemn either of these. I think what the apostle is saying here is that God had given him the unusual ability to live without both the benefits and the distractions of marriage so as to serve Christ more effectively. Still, he recognizes the psychological and physical package with which he had been equipped is not necessarily the same as the one other believers are trying to manage, so he makes allowances for that reality.

Going Off the Rails

If all we take from Paul’s extended meditation here is that some Christians have a special ability from God to serve outside of marriage, just as others have a special ability from God to serve him effectively together, I think we’ve got things roughly in perspective.

Where we might easily go off the rails is if we conclude that the possession of one set of abilities or another constitutes an ironclad heavenly destiny, the violation of which takes us out of the will of God. To assume that is, I think, to go beyond what scripture teaches on the subject.

After all, who knows in advance of marriage or before having lived the single life what sorts of God-given abilities one does or does not possess? I didn’t, and I bet you didn’t either. We can talk usefully about the “gifts” we have been given with regard to abstinence when years have passed and experience has taught us a few things. It is the rarest of twenty year-olds who makes decisions with even the slightest clue how she may feel about them when she is thirty or forty.

The Way Things Really Play Out

We have all heard stories about men who dedicated themselves to a life of celibacy to serve God and found they couldn’t cut it. That one’s almost a cliché. But sometimes it happens the other way around.

Some men and women lose their spouses early and remarry. Many don’t. The reasons vary, but more than a few have discovered somewhere along the way that they have the same “gift” Paul had: they are perfectly fine on their own and excited about serving God that way. Their first instinct is not to go running around looking for another spouse.

Were they wrong to marry in the first place? Absolutely not. They’re grateful for the children God has given them, and most recall their marriages with great fondness. But they feel no compulsion to try to rewrite a narrative they’ve already lived once.

Equally, there are some Christians who never marry, not because they are convinced they possess a “gift” of singleness but because they have yet to find an appropriate, willing partner. They endure the single life, but can’t claim to really enjoy it. They pray their way through it, subject to frequent temptation and always hoping (and even believing) the “right person” will come along. In many cases they don’t.

Are these folks wrong? I don’t believe they are, and I don’t think they refused a “gift” God had given them, nor do I believe they “didn’t pray hard enough”. It’s just that there is an element of choice involved in getting married, as in many other aspects of human life; and it’s further complicated by the fact that marriage requires two willing parties, not just one. Let’s face it: one person’s life-choices often end up limiting the options of others.

Gift is Not Destiny

The thing is, a gift is not destiny. What a God-given ability to live singly provides is a morally-neutral choice about the conditions under which we will serve God. A God-given compatibility with the opposite sex gives us the option to choose that life, but it does not force us to choose it, nor does it make us effective at getting there. The rest is in our hands, not pre-programmed into the stars.

Several times in the passage Paul points out to the Corinthians that within certain clear parameters outside which right and wrong are involved, decisions about the conditions under which they serve Christ are up to them: “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry”; “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity”; “if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned.”

For the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven

This freedom to choose is confirmed by the Lord Jesus in his discussion with the disciples on the subject of marriage and abstinence:
“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.”
The first two groups the Lord mentions never had a choice about their situation, just as nobody chooses to have cancer in their genes or to go bald. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where certain options are closed to us through no fault of our own.

But the third class he mentions are “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. These have “made themselves eunuchs”, the Lord says. Nobody made them choose that path. They chose it voluntarily.

I firmly believe it is very important in the Christian life to understand how we got to where we are and who or what is responsible for our current state. We need to accept the things we can’t change about our situation, but we also need to accept responsibility for making choices when we have options open to us, as these people did in the service of the kingdom.

Who Did What Exactly?

If a man blind from birth tells you he was privileged to give up his sight for the kingdom of God, you’d say he’s a bit confused, wouldn’t you? After all, he had nothing to do with how he was born. If he truly wants to give up something in the service of Christ, he’s going to have to choose what he will sacrifice, and it’ll have to be something within his control.

But I find it equally bizarre when people make a series of life-choices and then act as if the less-desirable consequences of their accumulated decisions (or their failures to decide, which often amount to the same thing) are some kind of cross that Heaven has given them to bear. It just ain’t so.

What is it really? My guess is it’s 50% passive complacency, 20% superstition, 20% paying too much attention to evangelical clichés, a dash of fatalism and maybe even a little fear — in short, sanctified determinism.

It is this sort of mindset that is often (not always) revealed in the use of expressions like the “gift of singleness” and being “called to marriage”.

I’ll deal with the latter phrase here in a couple of weeks.

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