With talking so much about the heart of marriage last week, and because the Bible directly addresses singleness, I thought we’d spend a Sunday on singleness before we get to Easter Sunday and then the book of Jonah. Obviously, you may not be single, but we all know singles, and we have a good number of them here part of our church. And honestly, as I mentioned last week, we need to hear God’s Word on life phases different from our own because we’re called to help others become more like Christ, and that includes both single and married people. And, so, this is an incredibly important topic, even for those of us who are not single.
I’ve only been married coming up on seven years, so I remember pretty well what it was like to be single. I remember what it felt like to desire a girlfriend, even more than that, want someone who I would one day call my wife. I remember the incredible uncertainty of dating. For those of you who are single, you know very well how awkward dating can be. You’re trying to be vulnerable with someone, or at least trying to meet someone that you could be vulnerable and open with, but all of this is without the security of a covenant called marriage.
It’s difficult not knowing if someone is “the one”, or perhaps even more than that, it’s difficult not knowing if you should even be worrying about dating at all. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s also a vast difference between being single at 20 or 30 and being single at 50, or single at 80. Today’s text speaks directly to those of you who’ve never been married, and also to those of you who’ve been married and are either divorced or have lost your spouse. But it also speaks to all of us on how we can best encourage single people to live for Jesus, just like Ephesians 5, last week, spoke to all of us on how we can best encourage married people to live for Jesus.
Now, I think we may be a bit surprised at what Paul has to say about singleness. So what I’d like to do is just read it, and then we’ll unpack it. 1 Corinthians 7, we’re going to read a pretty good chunk, verses 17-35.
17 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. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 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. 35 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.
Alright, a pretty long passage of Scripture, but it’s a great one. A few thoughts on singleness from Paul. The first two go right together, so I’ll mention the first two rather quickly, and talk about both of them before going to the third. #1:
- Singleness is a Gift (vs. 7).
To prove this to you, I actually want to take you to a verse we haven’t read, verse 7 of this same chapter. Paul says, “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.” He’s referring here to singleness and marriage, and he calls them both gifts!
Now you may be here today not quite convinced that singleness is a gift. Why? Because singleness is hard, sometimes! Particularly for those of you who want to be married, or at least are looking forward to being married one day. Or if you’re a widow or widower, singleness can be difficult. So singleness being considered a gift may not jive well in our minds, and yet, Paul calls it a gift! You know what else he calls it? Thought #2, these go right together:
- Singleness is a Calling.
Look at verse 17: “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.” He’s saying marriage and singleness are callings, the states that God has assigned for us in this moment, which is why we should not try and force changing it. You may become married one day, or become single one day, but we should never try and force that to happen. In fact, that’s what he’s getting at in Verses 18-19… read that with me again:
“Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
This may sound like an unusual argument, but his point is that we should not try to force change upon our current state, whether single or married. Just because others are married, doesn’t mean we have to be. Just because it may be some unspoken cultural expectation, especially in the church, doesn’t mean you have to get married! What matters either way? Obedience. The end of verse 19, what matters is that we obey God no matter what phase of life we’re in! He continues with this argument in 20-23:
Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.
Again, Paul is making the point that your current state as circumcised or uncircumcised, or as a slave or a free person doesn’t really matter within the reality of Christ. Your primary identity is not as a single person or a married person! That’s not the first thing you tell people when you meet them. Because being single is not our primary identity, right?!
The same goes for being married, though. “Hi, my name’s Ryan and I’m married.” “Ok…well, I wasn’t interested.” Again, being married or being single is not our primary identifiers as Christians. Nothing outside of ourselves determines our identity. This is why he uses this paradox of sorts in verse 22, “He who was a bondservant is a freedman in the Lord, and he who was free is a bondservant in Christ.” His point is that these outward things don’t really matter as to our primary ideneity, what really matters, the thing that defines us, is Christ.
And I love how he finishes this section, “You were brought at a price!” We belong to Jesus, not to our relationship status. No one can project on us any identity outside of Christ and be successful. They can’t relegate us to circumcised, uncircumcised, free, slave, single, or married. I belong to Jesus, and that’s my primary identity, which is why he repeats again in verse 24, “So brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” This doesn’t mean you have to accept where you’re at, and don’t ever seek to change your status. That’s not what this means. It means that the point isn’t necessarily that you’re with a spouse or without a spouse, but that you’re with God in his plan, in his calling.
This can help us a lot on dating, the fact that your primary calling is as a child of God, and then, secondarily, right now, as an unmarried child of God. At times I know it may be difficult to see friends get engaged, or friends post things about their families and their children, some of you may struggle with desiring that. It could turn into discontentment, and a felt need to feel wanted by another person. It is at this point when it may be easy to try and find joy and satisfaction in another human being as opposed to finding your significance and refuge in Christ. At that point, in particular, it probably becomes quite difficult to consider singleness a gift.
But I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the gift of singleness, the calling of singleness, is a gift from God Himself. A gift is given to us, not necessarily something that’s chosen, and this particular gift is that of absolute satisfaction in Christ, and in no person. A neat quote from Elizabeth Elliot:
Having now spent more than forty-one years single, I have learned that it is indeed a gift. Not one I would choose. Not one many women would choose. But we do not choose our gifts, remember? We are given them by a divine Giver who knows the end from the beginning, and wants above all else to give us the gift of Himself.
Singleness is a gift and it’s a calling. What might help convince you of this 3rd thought on singleness. #3:
- Singleness has its Advantages.
In verse 25 and following, Paul goes into the urgency of the time, which might be referring to just the urgency of the Gospel and not knowing when, exactly, Jesus is coming back, or perhaps he’s referring to specific issues the Corinthians are facing at this time, like famine, or whatever. But whatever it is, he feels compelled to make sure that the Corinthians know that singleness has advantages, particularly in the second half of verse 28. After saying very clearly that there’s nothing sinful about getting married or remaining single, he says, “But those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I want to spare you that.”
This one statement has caused some to think that Paul had been married at one point, and that he didn’t have that great of an experience. There’s not really evidence for that, but either way, some take these verses to reveal that Paul had a really negative view of marriage. But this just isn’t the case. He clearly recognizes it as the norm and as a Godly way to live the Christian life. We saw that last week from Ephesians 5. The point here is just kind-of matter-of-fact. Marriage is hard. We mentioned at the beginning of our time today, that singleness is hard, right? Well, guess what? Marriage is hard too! Marriage has its benefits, but so does singleness! But, each also have their difficulties.
Why is it that marriage can be difficult? Because marriage is the fusing of two sinners. And think about this: within marriage, what also often happens? Children! More sinners! Right? Two sinners come together to create more sinners. What a beautiful picture! With marriage and children comes a beautiful God-ordained thing, but also a difficult thing, two sinners raising a whole bunch of little sinners all being sinners under one roof! Marriage is beautiful, but it also brings trouble.
Now he goes on to explain what he means by “marriage brings trouble” in verses 29-31. His point in these verses is that our human relationships are secondary to our relationship with the Lord. This is what he says in 29-31:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
The point here is not actually that we’re to live like we’re not married, so on and so forth, but to make absolutely sure, in the midst of living in the last days, that we order our priorities! Our human relationships are secondary to our relationship with the Lord. Everything we have to do on the earth is secondary to our relationship with the Lord. One of the BEAUTIES of singleness is that you have one less human relationship to be tempted to put before your relationship with Christ. While there are many other potential distractions as a single person, your husband or wife isn’t one of them. He finishes making this point in the last few verses that we read, verses 32-35, which I want to read again. Here’s what he says
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.
It’s just true, plain and simple, that I cannot spend as much of my time, as a married man with a son and foster son, sharing the Gospel with the lost, or praying and reading the Word and focusing on my relationship with Christ. Why? Because I have a bride and two boys to provide for, and to spend time with and love. Now, this is part of what it means to follow Christ as a married man. Don’t think that it is ungodly to serve and focus on your family, that’s exactly what we’re to do! But as a single person, there are things that you can do that I can’t necessarily do. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to follow Jesus as a single, but that it’s different.
A single can spend extra time and focus on making disciples, reading the Word, investing into the Church body, going on mission trips, whatever else. Singles could up and go to Indonesia for a month, and still have things to plan and worry about, but not necessarily a family to plan for. This doesn’t at all mean that families hold married people back, that’s just not true. In fact, for the married person, one of your biggest outreaches and missions opportunities is in and with our families. Paul’s point is simply that you can be fully devoted to expanding the Kingdom in a way that a married person cannot. The married person is fully devoted to the Kingdom in a way that focuses pretty heavily on his or her family.
Just for clarity, Paul in this entire message, he never prohibits or even bashes marriage, even though it may seem like that. In fact, in the last verse we just read, he said “I say this not to lay restraint upon you,” but to do what? To “secure your undivided attention to the Lord.” You don’t have to stay single, but you need to make sure that you are squarely focused on Jesus Christ, whether single or married.
One of the things particularly younger singles often struggle with is waiting. There is nothing wrong with desiring marriage. Please know that. In fact, if you read the last few verses of this chapter that we didn’t read, you’ll see that. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to be married. But my encouragement for you who are single today is this:
Desire Christ more. Focus on Jesus. Be absolutely devoted to Him, and use your singleness for the Kingdom. Invest your time and energy into the Body of Christ, investing in to the people of this Body. See your singleness as a gift and a calling, maybe not a permanent calling, but a calling nonetheless.
You know, for Christians, none of us will remain single forever. Did you know that? Revelation 19:6-8 says this:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure.”
Who’s the bride?! We are! The Church is the bride. Who’s the Lamb? Christ! The church has a bridegroom, and he’s far better than any human being on earth. We’re to prepare ourselves not for an earthly spouse, but for an eternal bridegroom. We’re to be fully devoted to the eternal marriage that will be fully realized one day in heaven.
Loneliness can plague single Christians, but honestly, the biggest thing I want you to walk away with today is this: Marriage will not bring you contentment. Only Christ and the absolute love and satisfaction He brings will give us lasting contentment. This doesn’t mean we can’t desire marriage, or that we shouldn’t, it means there’s more to desire in Christ!
It’s easy to obsess over what we do not have, whether it be marriage or anything else. It’s part of the human condition to desire to rule our own lives, and gain whatever we think will bring us happiness and contentment, but we have submitted to the loving rule of our Creator. He knows what is best, and is working all things out for the good of those who love Him. Here’s the question: do you believe that, truly? If God is sovereign over marriage and singleness, then he can be trusted to do what is best for us.