- Religion and Philosophy
The Biblical Role for Single Adults
I just can’t get away from the fact. This is not everyone’s favorite topic, and I feel sure that is why it took me nearly a week to write this hub.
Even if you’re a dedicated student of the Bible, you won’t find yourself naturally attracted to the subject matter. That’s because it deals with a state of mind and a cultural role that many people, especially Christians, do not care to ponder if they can help it.
But I have a lot to say, so I hope you’ll pardon my considerable and lengthy reflection on the subject of this hub.
I’m talking about God’s plan for some individuals to be single.
Most people who comment on God’s role for single people in his Kingdom just ignore a few important instances of His approval that are so very obvious in scripture. Before the unmarried Apostle Paul and his statement “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am,” God gave us a few examples for our consideration. And it’s so like the Lord to do this. In my Bible studies, I’ve noticed that important concepts are never found just once in his Word. They’re always found at least twice, and sometimes quite a few times.
And so it is with the fascinating unmarried characters – yes, more than one -- that God placed in the scriptures
So let’s look at some prominent single people in the Bible.
The Prophet Jeremiah
The Prophet Jeremiah
Jeremiah, one of the major prophets, was also called The Weeping Prophet. That’s because he endured some of the worst abuse, physical punishment, and mocking that the unbelieving world could dole out.
The Lord specifically ordered the prophet in Jeremiah 16:1-9 not to marry or produce any offspring, because “They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like refuse lying on the ground.” To add to Jeremiah’s miseries, God told him that he was not to attend festivals and funerals. As you might imagine, this did not go over well with Jeremiah’s family members. As the NIV Study Bible puts it, “In Jeremiah’s culture, it was unthinkable not to show grief publicly.”
Yes, before the “gift of singleness” (one of the gifts of the spirit described in the New Testament), before courtly love in the medieval era and the introduction of romance, before post-modern angst and discontentment with the single life in the 21st Century, there was a prophet in Judah who was told to forget about finding a mate. Old Testament prophets were often ordered to do some pretty strange and outrageous things -- in fact, the Lord told Jeremiah to wear a yoke around his neck -- but the prohibition of marriage was probably the most humanly difficult requirement of all.
We don’t know what Jeremiah thought about this, but likely he wasn’t very happy about it. We do know that he cried out to God many times in misery, but continued faithfully to declare words of prophecy to countrymen who ignored him (Jeremiah 20:7-10).
So What About It?
Now I want to stop right here, because I think there’s a modern-day application.
If you are single, divorced, or widowed and you long for a mate with all of your heart, and you’re determined to let Christ direct your life, you have probably gone to Him and asked the hard questions. You’ve also sought counsel from friends and relatives. Why doesn’t God reveal to me his plan for marriage or singleness in my life? Why can’t I know and just get on with life, and not vacillate between planning a settled life or keeping everything loose and unfettered, just in case my mate shows up? When is God going to reveal His path for me?
I used to ask the same questions, but I can tell you that no, you do not want to know the answers to those questions. God is being kind and merciful not to let you have advance knowledge in this important area.
Another thing you have, as a currently single person – never married, widowed, or divorced – is a sense of adventure for your life that long-married people can only dream about. This is not “how your life turned out.”
Hope is a better state than knowledge and resignation. And the last statistics I consulted showed that 95% of the people in the U.S. will marry at least once in life.
The revelation to Jeremiah was unusual and drastic. So don’t even go there.
Daniel in the Lions' Den
The Prophet Daniel – Single by Default
Most people wouldn’t think to include Daniel as an outstanding example of a godly single man. That’s because, tragically, Daniel was a eunuch. He wasn’t born that way, but became one when he and some of the best, brightest, wisest, and most good-looking young men in Judah were carried off into Babylonian captivity. This fulfilled prophecy was originally given to King Hezekiah in Isaiah 39:5-7:
Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Daniel began a remarkable life as an advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar, when the king consulted Daniel for dream interpretation. Daniel lived true to his spiritual training, and refused to defile himself by eating the king’s food. And Daniel became a trusted administrator for King Darius once Darius forcefully took over the Babylonian kingdom.
Daniel was on the fast track to an even higher governmental position, when the jealousy and bitterness of a group of satraps serving under him caused the group to conspire against Daniel. They tricked Darius into passing a decree that anyone caught praying to a god other than Darius would be sentenced to death in the lions’ den. The king put his decree into effect, and when it was discovered that Daniel still prayed to God three times a day, Daniel was thrown into the lions' den. But an angel of the Lord shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel survived the ordeal without any harm.
Daniel continued to prosper for many years in the Medo-Persian kingdom, and gave us, through his prophetic book, keys to understanding God’s plan for the ages. Also, there is a direct prediction of Yeshua Ha Meshiach, (Jesus the Messiah) in Daniel 7:13-14.
A single man served for about 60 years at the highest levels of government under Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. If Daniel lived to see the fruition of Cyrus’ goal of repatriating Judah with the Babylonian captives, he was very blessed indeed.
Jesus discussed divorce and re-marriage in Matthew 19:11, and speaking of those who would not marry, he said,
Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.
Daniel was a eunuch “made by others.” In this life, there are also some who were born with a physical or mental disability so bad that they will never marry or produce offspring. But they have a unique and special place in God’s plan, too, and certainly, Daniel’s excellent life proves that you can be alone and accomplish much for God.
Raising of Lazarus
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Now we’re getting a lot closer to modern-day Christianity. While Jesus lived on the earth, he had three very special single friends in this remarkable little family.
The biblical accounts make it clear that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus often made their home available for Jesus to stay in during his travels and ministry. No doubt their friendship flourished from their common ground. And no doubt, Jesus enjoyed refreshment and relaxation at their home during a time when he was the target of death plots from Pharisees in Judea.
We know from scripture that Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, were all single. The verse in Luke 10:38 describes Jesus going to “Martha’s house.” It’s possible and even probable that Lazarus lived with Mary and Martha and served as their protector and provider. If Lazarus were married, you would also know that from scripture, and he was not married. In fact, in the story of Lazarus’ illness and death, when Jesus tarried and did not return when his friend was ill, Martha says, “Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If Lazarus were married, his wife would have asked Jesus this question.
I like to picture Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as being orphaned during their teen years. I see them being in their late 20’s or early 30’s, although they could have been a lot older than that. And I remember, one time, a friend and I got into a discussion about their lives. We did think it just a little odd that two spinsters and their bachelor brother lived together. We even speculated that they might have grown up in a dysfunctional family, and they had not been able to surmount difficult relational dynamics.
Most Hebrew young persons of their age would have been married by their mid-teens. The fact that these two women and one man were not married was definitely considered odd and unusual for that time. But they weren’t ostracized in society. Mary and Martha are special women, and we have few to no other examples of single women in the Bible. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, probably died before Jesus’ ministry, so Mary, his mother, would have been a widow from that point on, making her one of those other rare single women in the Bible with a name.
Is it possible that one or all of the three siblings married at a later date? Absolutely! All we know is that at the time of Lazarus’ fatal illness, they were all single. Each of these three has a modern counterpart somewhere in our society today. I wish I knew more and could tell about it.
So much for speculation about young Jewish households led by bossy, organized oldest sisters.
One more observation. Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus Christ performed his most important miracle on earth in John 11? And who did he pick to raise from the dead? Lazarus, a single man. If that isn’t a clue to how special God thinks that single people are, I don’t know what else would be!
The Apostle Paul and the Gift of Singleness
Paul, the greatest Christian who ever lived, was not married at the time of his epistle writing and missionary journeys. That’s according to his statement in 1 Corinthians 7:7. That doesn’t mean that Paul never married. In fact, he could have been a young widower. Paul said in Acts 23:6 that he was “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.” Also, in Galations 1:14 he said of his life before his conversion, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” To be anything other than traditional in every way in the system of Judaism in Paul’s day would have been detrimental to his career aspirations. That’s why I like to think of him as a widower at the time of his first appearance in Acts.
Did Paul have the gift of singleness? After his conversion, I would have to say yes. No one can speak about his pre-Christian life, though. Before the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the New Testament gifts of the spirit did not exist. No one had a reference point to the possession of gifts such as exhortation, hospitality, mercy, or singleness.
However, God changed Paul completely on the road to Damascus. Saul of Tarsus got a new name (Paul), was healed from blindness, and received eternal life from the Savior. It’s possible that, at that moment, God granted to Paul the gifts of evangelism and singleness.
Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul by Rembrandt
The Role of Singles in the Early Church
As far as Paul’s place in Christian society as a single man, I think it important to mention that in the early church, and for the next several hundred years, people had a different mindset about marriage and singleness. One important reference is in 1 Corinthians 7:25-31, which is a passage about the “time being short.” Paul says, “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” New believers in the early church thought that they were living in the last days, and that Jesus would return soon, so they necessarily figured a change of priorities would be in order.
According to historical sources, the early Christian era was the only time in human history that single people tended to exalt their unmarried state above that of their married brethren.
As The Oxford History of Christianity puts it, “The superiority of virginity and sexual abstinence over marriage was generally taken for granted.” Surprisingly, these sentiments were interwoven with pagan attitudes about the subject. Various personal, pagan, and Greek philosophical expressions collided with the new ideas that Paul was preaching about. It must have been a confusing time for many. That’s one reason why Paul needed to write the letter in 1 Corinthians 7 -- to reassure believers that sexual relations are good in the context of marriage and that believers are not sinning if they feel a need to marry.
Based on all of these conditions present in the early church, I feel certain that Paul was more understood and accepted as a man living the celibate life than he would be living in our culture.
What is the Gift of Singleness?
I’m as good a person as any to hold forth with an opinion. I speak as one who was single my entire life until age 48, when I got married. My marriage ended in divorce after about six years.
Did I have the gift of singleness? I think not. After I reached adulthood, I always yearned to be married, and I believe that desire came from the Lord. My family never pressured me in any way.
Perhaps the gift of singleness means that there are few to no yearnings for marriage. If you’re reading this, and you have never met anyone without longings for the wedded state, then you haven’t lived long enough.
I have personally known two Christian men who never wanted to get married, (but I don’t know where they are today). There have been a number of female missionaries with the gift of singleness, such as Audrey Wetherell Johnson, missionary to the China Inland Mission (CIM) and founder of Bible Study Fellowship. And a contemporary lady who has been unapologetically single her whole life is a Christian author, lecturer, and opera singer named Luci Swindoll. God has given all of these extraordinary singles much contentment and satisfaction in their lives as they served Him.
Whether the gift of singleness lasts a lifetime, I don’t know. There are a lot of former nuns out there, or just women and men who totally changed their attitude toward marriage. It almost goes without saying that women are more content being single, for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s easier for them to live without sexual involvement and (2) they tend to have emotional support from women friends in their lives.
At any rate, if the gift of singleness exists, it’s a rare gift given to a few. So that leaves most of us with a desire for marriage, which is good, because that is God’s plan for humankind.
But How Does This Play Out?
Here’s where it gets difficult. You say, I really would like to get married. But does that mean you should get married to this person who’s just come along and thinks that you are made for him/her? Maybe not. I really, really long to be married, you cry. But perhaps you’re 55 years old, and you feel that life has passed you by because you don’t see any prospects around you. Does this mean that God has ignored your prayers all of these years? Not necessarily. You haven’t reached the end of your days, and you don’t know what is around the next corner.
I have to say that although I longed to be married, I didn’t pay enough attention to acquiring spiritual knowledge about God’s plan for marriage. I grew up with a particular set of circumstances in my life, and when I consider the socioeconomic level of my parents, my own educational goals, and a host of other things that contributed to my being a strong independent woman, I see where I went wrong. This doesn’t mean that I regret being married one bit. I honestly would not go back and change one thing about my personal milestones, but, on reflection, perhaps I could have spent a little more time discerning God’s will instead of getting sidetracked in the search for a mate. And where am I today? I have no plans for remarriage. I’m happier than at any other time in my life.
Where is God leading you as a single person? I don’t know, but for some reason, he sees that the church would not be complete without some single people. Celebrate this season of your life. God does.
As the title of a Luci Swindoll book says: You bring the confetti. God brings the joy.