Should We All Just Get Married?
Over the past few years I have read several articles that urge young adults to marry. The reasons given for this encouragement are many. Marriage is said to promote personal maturity, encourage spiritual growth, provide a healthy outlet for sexual desire, and challenge us to sacrifice for others. (Also see: Young and In Love Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage) While Christian authors seem more likely to engage in this discussion, some secular voices have also spoken out, encouraging marriage at a younger age.
To be quite honest, I find many of these arguments to be persuasive. I spend a lot of time meeting with young, unmarried men, and I often encourage them to get serious about pursuing marriage and family. I firmly believe that many young adults should seriously consider getting married earlier in life. I am also convinced that marriage, when undertaken with God’s design in mind, has the ability to powerfully and positively shape those who enter into such a union.
But why is singleness described so negatively? Well, this is largely because extended singleness has become associated with irresponsible living. Some of those choosing to remain unmarried are also choosing to act childishly. Avoiding commitment in marriage is often associated with avoiding commitment in other areas. For whatever reason, young men seem more likely to fall into extended immaturity. This new wave of self-obsessed, overgrown frat boys has frustrated their female peers and led Kay Hymowitz, among others, to ask Where Have the Good Men Gone? While single women do tend express a bit more motivation than do single men, the fairer sex is not immune to irresponsibility. HBO’s successful series Girls depicts a group of young women who also seem content to extend their adolescence indefinitely. There is a right way to be single, but this certianly isn’t the way…
Of course there are also other reasons for marriage to be delayed. Educational and professional goals often take priority over relational ones, and many of today’s young adults are transient, making developing relationships more difficult. While these factors are certainly understandable, many cases of singleness that happen under these circumstances are also influenced by unchecked selfishness and disordered priorities.
There are plenty of bad reasons to be single, and there are also plenty of singles living badly today. I make no excuses for the poor examples of singleness in my generation, and I certainly don’t claim to have mastered the life stage myself.
That said, I am beginning to wonder if all this criticism of the single state is a bit misdirected. Is it possible that our experience of singleness and not singleness itself is the primary problem? Perhaps rather than trying to reduce the number of years people remain single we should instead begin teaching people how to correctly use their years of singleness. Maybe instead of just telling young adults to get married we should seek to help them navigate singleness in a God honoring manner.
If the core problem is irresponsibility and poor character among single adults, marriage won’t necessarily remedy this. It may actually serve to compound the problem. Getting married does not automatically fix a person’s character flaws. In fact, if there is not sufficient maturity between the two parties, a marriage is likely to implode.
What God Has to Say
Scripture does seem to acknowledge that responsible marriage can counteract the dangers of unfocused singleness (1 Tim 5:15), but it also assumes that singleness, both chosen and un-chosen, will frequently occur (1 Cor 7, Matt 19:12).
But those looking to Scripture to support their irresponsible single lives will certainly be disappointed. The picture of singleness painted for us in Scripture is active, focused, and God centric. The expectation, even in the case of widowhood (1 Tim 5:9-10), was that those who are single would use their singleness to serve God and serve others in a special way. Both Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 depict singleness as a state that allows for wholehearted devotion to God.
Paul notably argues for singleness saying:
“But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” – 1 Cor 7:32-35
Yes, marriage usually occured far earlier in Biblical times than it does today, and it is also true that many people today who remain single will ultimately get married. But the Christian paradigm for singleness remains the same. There is no option in Scripture for lazy or self-centered singleness. If you are single you are called live out your singleness in a way that honors God. And no, faithful service to God as a single adult should not be an attempt to manipulate God into giving us a spouse. He must remain in the center, not the periphery, of our desire.
Marriage is one way to embrace personal responsibility, but it is by no means the only way of doing so. In fact, the very realities of single adulthood that often lead to its abuse also provide incredible opportunities. College debt notwithstanding, many single adults have large amounts of expendable income. Since most do not have a family to care for, singles also have more time and relational energy to invest in others. Furthermore, they are often quite mobile, able to travel to places where there are great needs.
One of the deepest sorrows I have about this generation of single adults is that in spite our incredible potential many of us have failed to take full advantage of our singleness for God (though there many hopeful exceptions). Financial resources are not invested in ministry and missions but are instead spent on expensive drinks and wardrobes. Time and relational energy are not used to minister to those around us, but are instead expended in weekend bar hopping extravaganzas. Mobility has also become an excuse for remaining uncommitted to community and church. These critiques are not absolute, but any factual look at the statistics involved here will prove that many single adults have priority problems.
I believe that many Christians are intentionally remaining single for poor reasons, but perhaps a bigger problem is that many Christian adults are using their singleness so poorly. Within the church we have an army of single Christian adults, and yet we fail to see the impact such an army should have. But what if this were to change? What if millions Christian singles were to start consistently using their singleness in daring ways for God? There is no doubt that our church and our world would radically change. Then maybe instead of reading articles encouraging marriage we would read articles encouraging this passionate demographic to continue serving in their singleness.
I get excited when I think about the ways some of my peers are living out this ideal, and I pray that more single adults will commit themselves to using their singleness as God intends. When this happens, watch out!
But It’s Hard
Living as a single adult is certainly not easy, and as the years go by it can get increasingly harder. As someone who remains single at 27, I understand some of the challenges singleness can bring. There are intense seasons of loneliness, and at times the desire for companionship and sexual fulfillment can be overwhelming. While there are no easy answers to these challenges, I am convinced that living the single life as God calls us to do will actually make single life more bearable and more fulfilling than it would be otherwise. On this point John Meyendorff says:
“…the human instinct of love and procreation is not isolated from the rest of human existence, but is its very center. It cannot be suppressed, but only transformed, transfigured and channeled, as love for God and for one’s neighbor, through prayer, fasting and obedience in the name of Christ.”*
Singleness, especially unwanted singleness, can be incredibly challenging. Again, there are no easy answers here, but celibacy and singleness (temporary or permanent) work best when accompanied by intentional devotion to God and to others. Lazy and self-centered singleness will only increase sexual tension and relational discontent.
The cultural forces causing extended singleness are powerful, and in the years ahead we can only expect the delay of marriage to increase. There are good reasons to resist this development, and Christians should not blindly go along with the culture in this regard. Part of our response should be encouraging marriage earlier for God honoring reasons. But we must not blindly push people to the altar either. Instead let’s push each other toward Christian obedience in whatever life stage we are in.
We should, in some cases, encourage others to embrace marriage and not intentionally remain single, but perhaps it is even more important to understand how God does NOT intend for us to live the single life. May all of us who are single live each day actively embracing God’s powerful plan for singleness.
*Taken from Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective Page 71