Have you noticed that we humans tend to excel at viewing the world through a lens of either/or? That thing is either big or small. It is either fast or it is slow. It is either enjoyable or it is boring. And so on. Not only that, but we usually consider our designation of something as either this or that as clearly self-evident. After all, the Titanic was obviously big, Sydney buses are definitely slow and COVID lockdown is clearly boring!
Humans tend to excel at viewing the world through a lens of either/or … But things aren’t always that simple.
But things aren’t always that simple.
The reality is that our perception of something as being either ‘this or that’ very much depends on the perspective from which we are viewing it. The Titanic appears big, until you compare it to a modern cruise ship. Sydney buses appear mind-numbingly slow, until you compare them to the alternative of walking. Lockdown is patently boring, unless you are a frustrated introvert at heart! Perspective is important.
When it comes to considering singleness in the lives of members of our churches—or considering those single brothers and sisters themselves—we can very easily find ourselves falling into a similar either/or trap.
We are told that some single Christians are single by choice. They have intentionally set out to pursue singleness in response to a God-given ‘calling’ which they have discerned. Sometimes you’ll hear such people described as those who have ‘chosen singleness for the sake of the Kingdom’ or those who are ‘vocationally single’. On the other hand, there are single Christians whose unmarried situation is seen to be incidental. These men and women have not exercised any personal agency in the matter, but have instead ‘found’ themselves single. In fact, for many of them, their unmarried situation is seen to be largely beyond their control. It is purely circumstantial.
Christian singleness is a case of either choice, or circumstance. Or is it? Could it be that taking the time to consider our perspective about singleness and single Christians might help us to understand the importance of being more nuanced in our thinking about it, and about them?
Putting Choice, Circumstance and Complexity in Perspective
It is important to perceive that a single Christian’s situation is usually characterised by some level of complexity that moves us beyond the simple either/or of choice and circumstance. Let’s consider the situation of two (hypothetical) single Christians in order to explore that a bit further.
Jane is an unmarried 33-year-old Christian woman. She’d always expected to be married by this stage in her life, but, well, she’s not. These days she rarely has the opportunity to meet single Christian men in her everyday life. She’s tried internet dating and it hasn’t resulted in any serious potential matches. She sometimes struggles with contentment in her singleness, but she isn’t sure what else she can do to change her situation. From this perspective, we might firmly consider Jane to be single by circumstance
But what if we were to change our perspective somewhat?
Jane is an unmarried 33 year old Christian woman. She’d always expected to be married by this stage in her life, but, well, she’s not. Throughout the course of her adult life Jane has met quite a few single Christian men. Some of them weren’t interested in exploring a relationship with her. But likewise, Jane was not interested in exploring a relationship with some of them either! And so, at various times she has chosen not to create or pursue a potential relationship with certain men. Jane also has a number of single male colleagues in her workplace whose company she really enjoys. If only they were Christians, she thinks. But they aren’t. And so Jane has chosen not to pursue any possibility with those men. Recently Jane has also chosen to close her internet dating accounts because she has found the experience somewhat disappointing.
Jane’s singleness is a result of both circumstance and choice.
When we look at her situation from this perspective, we are able to see that Jane’s singleness is far more than simply circumstantial. We can see that her singleness is a result of both circumstance and choice.
Peter is a 56-year-old Christian man, who has only ever experienced attraction to other men. He believes that the Bible teaches that God has designed sexual union to be experienced only within the context of marriage, and that God has designed marriage to be between one man and one woman for life. As a result, Peter has pursued a life of unmarried celibacy. From this perspective, we might firmly consider Peter to be single by choice.
But that’s too simple. Peter didn’t choose to be attracted to men. He didn’t intentionally cultivate it throughout his life. There are even times when he has wished it wasn’t so. But these are the circumstances he finds himself in. Peter believes it would be sinful for him to act upon those sexual attractions. He believes that, for as long as he does not have a wife (and he expects he probably never will), God’s will is for him to remain celibate.
So Peter’s singleness is also a result of both choice and circumstance.
Despite our best attempts to reduce Christian singleness down to a simple either/or, it almost always involves a complex interaction of circumstantial factors beyond personal control and intentional decisions that are the result of personal choice—and most significantly, personal choice concerning godly obedience. Sometimes circumstances put us in the position of needing to make a choice. Sometimes making a choice leads to certain circumstances. For the single Christian these two things are very rarely unrelated to each other.
Putting Choice, Circumstance and God’s Sovereignty in Perspective
But there is another aspect of our perspective on circumstance and choice within singleness to consider, and that is the place of God’s sovereignty.
In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul writes to his readers that ‘in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God’ (v.24). Now there is much that could be said about the significance of these verses, particularly in the broader context of a chapter largely about singleness and marriage. But for our purposes here, there is one particular aspect of this passage that is worth noting. Paul kicks it off in v17:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
When looking at this verse from God’s perspective, we see that there is far more overlap between choice and circumstance than we usually recognise. Paul is urging the Corinthian Christians to regard their life situation as the ‘call’ of God upon them.
From this perspective we ought to appreciate that any clear divide between choice and circumstance is very blurred indeed! Both are caught up within something far more foundational, God’s sovereignty.
God’s sovereignty—his ‘assigning’ of our life—wraps under, over, in and around all our notions of circumstance and choice.
Now, over 2000 years of ink has been spilt in Christian discussions about the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. We do not presume to solve that important question here! But thinking about God’s sovereignty ought to warn us against reducing singleness to a simple matter of choice or circumstance. God’s sovereignty—his ‘assigning’ of our life—wraps under, over, in and around all our notions of circumstance and choice. It compels us to understand singleness in the Christian life from a far more theologically and pastorally nuanced perspective.
Putting Things into Perspective
How might putting choice, circumstance, complexity and God’s sovereignty into proper perspective change our approach to Christian singleness, and Christian singles themselves?
- It will urge us to be cautious about contemporary discussions which exclusively celebrate a ‘call’ to singleness (i.e. ‘chosen singleness’) while lamenting the situation of one who does not feel so ‘called’ (i.e., ‘circumstantial singleness’).
- It will lead us to recognise that all are called to lead the life which God has ‘assigned’ to them, and thus caution us against viewing any single Christian as a pitiable victim of mere circumstance.
- It will help us to see that single people have both the privilege and responsibility of exercising godly agency in their situation—to make wise choices within their assigned circumstances—while remembering that it is Jesus who is the good Lord and sovereign Ruler of their lives.
Finally, remembering God’s sovereignty should lead us to reject the increasingly prevalent temptation to divide single people between those noble heroes who have chosen to be single, and those unfortunate victims who find themselves there circumstantially. We are to love all our single brothers and sisters in the complexity of their choices and circumstances.
Putting singleness into the right kind of perspective will teach us to honour Jane, Peter and all godly singles as those who themselves seek to honour Jesus within the life God has given them.