Well, this morning’s sermon subject is: being single. And I want to say straight off that this is a sermon for the married - for two reasons. One is that, unless the Lord Jesus returns first, death will make 50% of us marrieds single again. So it’s not a past issue for any of us. The other reason is that we who are married need to understand and support and honour the singles in our church family. I’ve heard many a sermon on supporting and honouring marriage; hardly any on supporting and honouring the single. And yet the Bible chapter we’ll look at this morning honours singleness in some ways above marriage. And it’s also worth saying that single adults in our church actually outnumber the married.
The other thing I want to say straight off is that I’m conscious there are many different experiences of singleness represented here. Some of us are in our early twenties - and singleness means a positive freedom with good social life among a large, also-single peer group; and the option of marriage feels pretty certain. But go up into your late twenties/early thirties and singleness begins to feel different: the freedom can seem more negative and as your peers begin to marry, the dynamics of friendships with them inevitably change. Move up into your later thirties and then your forties and increasingly you feel you fall between most social stools – that you’re living in a world and a church largely designed for couples. And the option of marriage now feels far less certain. But there are more experiences of singleness than that. There’s the experience of coming to accept singleness as permanent (as far as you can see); there’s the experience of becoming single again after the death of your spouse, or after divorce.
Now I’m not for a moment saying that all singleness is involuntary or unhappy. But a lot of singleness is involuntary, and either way, it can face the single with big emotional and relational challenges. And I want to say to those of you who married early that you almost certainly don’t understand the experience of the singles for whom singleness is less brief – or permanent. And you need to work very, very hard at understanding and supporting them.
Well, this morning we’re going to look at the Bible passage on this subject, so would you turn to 1 Corinthians 7. Let me explain the background: some false teachers in Corinth were wrongly saying that sex is somehow bad – they thought it was rather ‘unspiritual’. So they were putting pressure on married people to suspend their sex lives, and on single people not to marry. So the Corinthians wrote to Paul to clarify things. So look at 7.1:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to marry”. [Or if you look at footnote ‘a’ that literally reads, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”]
So in v1, Paul is quoting back to the Corinthians what the false teachers were saying. He’s saying, ‘Now for the matters you wrote about – namely, that some people are saying “It’s good for a man not to have sex (and therefore not to get married).” So that’s the issue behind this chapter. And Paul basically says: ‘The false teachers are wrong to say, “Singleness is good because it avoids sex.” Because sex within marriage is good and not to be avoided as if it wasn’t.’ But having said that, Paul does say that singleness is good because it has certain advantages over marriage. So this part of God’s Word puts a very high value on singleness and its opportunities – despite its undoubted challenges and difficulties. So that gets us to heading 1:
Firstly, HAVE A GOSPEL PERSPECTIVE ON SINGLENESS AND MARRIAGE (vv25-31)
The first thing Paul does is to call us to see how both singleness and marriage fit into the ‘big picture’ of God’s plan for the world. So look at v25: where Paul says:
25 Now about virgins...
In the first half of this chapter Paul has addressed the already married - and told them to stay married and maintain a healthy sex life. From v25 onwards he addresses the unmarried. And the original word translated ‘virgin’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘sexually inexperienced’ – it was commonly used to describe the not yet married. So, v25:
25 Now about [the not yet married]: I have no command from the Lord, [ie, if you’re asking, ‘Should I get married?’ The answer is, ‘The Lord isn’t going to tell you either way; you’re free and it’s your decision (depending, obviously, on opportunity).’] but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis [which Paul will explain in a minute], I think that it is good for you to remain as you are [ie, single]. 27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. [That’s a very poor translation because Paul has already said in v25 that he’s now addressing the unmarried. Verse 27 literally reads, ‘Are you bound? Don’t seek to be loosed.’ So he must be talking about engaged couples – ‘Are you engaged? Don’t seek to break it off as these false teachers are pressurising you to.’] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned [as the false teachers were implying]; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
[And now he explains what he meant in v26 by ‘the present crisis’:] 29 What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
And that’s the present crisis we all live under. The present crisis is that at any moment, the Lord Jesus Christ could return to wrap up history, bring on the judgement and separate all who’ve ever lived into those who’ve accepted his forgiveness back into relationship with God and those who’ve not. And that’s the perspective from which we must look at everything.
And I’ve tried to picture that:
The crown stands for God, the box underneath stands for history since the creation. The Lord Jesus has come a first time to die for our forgiveness back into relationship with God. And he will come a second time, as we say in the creed, ‘to judge the living and the dead.’ And once, when asked about life beyond then - to the right of that big black arrow of his return – the Lord Jesus said this:
‘When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Mark 12.25)
Ie, marriage is one of the things which, as v31 says ‘is passing away.’ It’s part of this creation, but it won’t be part of the new creation – partly, I take it, because the quality of all relationships will be equally perfect, so that all loneliness will be a thing of the past, forever. So marriage is only temporary – only ‘till death us do part’ which, compared to how long we’ll live in eternity, is brief. So the most important application this morning is this. Whether or not we marry is not of ultimate importance. What is of ultimate importance is whether or not we come back into relationship with God through Jesus before we meet him as Judge. Because marriage (if it comes our way) will affect our well-being for maybe 40-50 years - if we’re given that long. Whereas relating to Jesus – or not - will determine our eternal happiness or misery. (And can I say if you’re unclear about Jesus and how he makes relationship with God possible, please do pick up a copy of the booklet Why Jesus? at the Welcome Desk and read it.)
So from that perspective, look again at what Paul says to the married in v29:
29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none...
Which doesn’t mean ‘neglect your marriage’. It means, to use the word in v31, ‘don’t be engrossed in it’ - as if marriage was of ultimate importance. Because it isn’t. What’s of ultimate importance is whether or not you’ve heard about and responded to the Lord Jesus - and then, once you’ve done so, how you prioritise your time, your energy, your money, your marriage, your life to see that others get the opportunity to hear about him and then get built up if they too come to faith.
And from that perspective, look again at one of the things Paul says to singles at the end of v28:
28 But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
I think it was Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher who famously said, ‘A wife is a great help to a man in all the troubles he’d never have had if he’d stayed single.’ Because as well as its blessings, marriage brings extra burdens and, ultimately, great bereavements. And Paul says to the single: be realistic about that, because it’s easy to think that marriage will solve all our problems. Whereas in moving from singleness to marriage you simply move from one set of problems and advantages to a different set of problems and advantages. And it’s vital to see that there’s no problem-free state this side of the new creation. So, eg, there can be loneliness and difficulty in marriage, and heartache over children who go off the rails, and fertility problems and so on. And, single or married, we mustn’t regard marriage as the state which will solve all our problems and meet our deepest needs. There’s only one relationship which can ultimately do that, and that’s our relationship with God through the Lord Jesus. So, single or married, we need to find our identity and self-worth and sense of belonging above all in him – because although human relationships can contribute something to those needs, only Christ can meet them fully.
From there Paul goes on to say,
Second, UNDERSTAND THE CENTRAL ADVANTAGE OF SINGLENESS OVER MARRIAGE (vv32-35)
Looking back to v26, Paul has said, ‘If you’re currently single, it is good to stay as you are. And from v32, he explains the central advantage of singleness over marriage from the gospel-perspective we’ve just looked at. Look at v32:
32 I would like you to be free from concern [ie, free from being anxious about this whole subject. Remember: false teachers were wrongly pressurising people in this area of life]. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world - how he can please his wife - 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you [ie, I’m not trying to put pressure on you either to stay single or to get married], but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
So what is the central advantage of singleness over marriage? It’s that you can give your attention to ‘the Lord’s affairs’ in a way that’s undivided by the concerns of marriage. And ‘the Lord’s affairs’ means the business of giving time and energy to get to know the Lord better; and the business of giving time and energy and money and possessions, and so on, to play our part in spreading the gospel and building up the church. And Paul says: single men and women can give themselves to the Lord’s affairs in a way that’s undivided by marriage commitments. Whereas, start of v34, the married person’s interests are divided. And he’s not saying that’s bad. He’s just saying it’s a fact.
So, eg, take the business of getting to know the Lord better. I know married friends with young children who simply cannot give the time they used to, to their own Bible reading and prayer and reading Christian books. So if you’re single, cherish and use the time you have – which is more than the marrieds’, even though you’re equally under pressure from other things like work. Or, eg, take the business of playing your part in spreading the gospel and building up the church. Up until getting married earlier this year, I could do things like going away for a week to speak on a university mission without it impinging on a wife. Now I can’t. I don’t mean I can’t still do that sort of thing, but it now impinges on someone else, and doubtless that will in future rule out some things that I could do while still single. Or take things like holiday club and summer youth camps. It’s no accident that it’s single people who are able to offer the whole week rather than part of it, or to do two camps rather than one. Because they’re not divided between ‘the Lord’s affairs’ and marriage commitments. And in fact JPC and many Christian ministries and charitable works would grind to a halt without the ministries of single people.
So if you’re single, I know that to a lesser or greater extent you may feel the downsides of it - and the desire not to be single. But this part of God’s Word calls you to recognise the opportunities you do have in your current singleness, and to accept them and use them - rather than missing them through the preoccupation of wishing things were otherwise.
Having said that, we need to realise that because of that advantage, the single can easily become over-committed and expected to do more than in is good for them – simply because they’re available. So you often hear it said that married people need to protect time for one another, and maybe need to drop some church commitments to do that. Which is right. But when did you last hear it said that single people also need to protect time to make and maintain friendships? If you’re single, you need to make time and protect time for friendship, and to avoid the trap of thinking, ‘I should be doing more in church (or work or wherever) simply because I’m available.’ Because it’s all too easy for the single to get into the cycle of taking on more in church (or work or wherever) and therefore having less time for friends and therefore by default taking on more in church (or work or wherever) and therefore having less time for friends... and so on. And that’s not an unhealthy spiral.
Well, so far Paul has said, ‘Have a gospel perspective on singleness and marriage. Understand the central advantage of singleness over marriage. Then, he says:
Third, BUT DON’T THINK YOU THEREFORE ‘MUST’ REMAIN SINGLE (vv36-40)
Paul is not saying, ‘Singleness is best for everyone.’ He is saying that if you’re presently single and coping OK with it, that’s a good situation - and from a gospel perspective, better for you right now than being married (assuming you’re using it well for the Lord’s affairs). But Paul recognises that plenty of people don’t cope well with singleness and feel they need and want to marry. Eg, look back to v8:
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves [literally that reads, ‘If they are not controlling themselves’ – if they’re both struggling and failing to be sexually holy], they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Sexual holiness is generally more of an issue for men than for women; and it is an issue for most men. And obviously the need for sexual self-control doesn’t go away once you are married. But it’s easier in healthy marriage than it is in singleness. And Paul says: that issue alone should lead some to think, ‘I need to marry and should seek to’ – even if there’s no immediate opportunity on the horizon.
But then look on to v36, where he addresses those who do have an immediate opportunity:
36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning [as the false teachers implied]. They should get married.
So v36 addresses someone who’s engaged – but it applies equally to people much further back in a relationship or even just beginning to think about going out with someone. And Paul says: if someone wants to pursue an appropriate relationship (that is, with someone who’s a fellow-believer and not already married in Gods sight), they should.
So although Paul is saying, ‘Singleness is an advantageous state over marriage,’ he’s not saying, ‘Therefore you must stay single’. This chapter is often misread as Paul putting pressure on people to stay single, whereas in fact Paul is writing to remove the pressure in peoples’ minds to think they ought to do one thing or the other. He’s saying: you’re free to make your own decision, given the opportunity.
Fourth, FURTHER APPLICATION
As I said to begin with, I’m conscious there are very different kinds of singleness within our church family. And many of us singles are in theory free to marry – that is, those of us who’ve always been single or who’ve become single again because of the death of a spouse. But that’s in theory. What if you want to, but there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity on the horizon? How do you handle the desire to marry? The answer is that you have both to pray for and seek marriage and at the same time to work at singleness.
On the seeking marriage front, I speak as one who was slow and incompetent. But let me say some things. One is that you can want to get married but keep quiet about it because you feel that even talking to close friends would be embarrassing – talking to them about hopes and fears; maybe about a particular person, or about the problem of there being no-one on the horizon. Well, if that’s you, can I say: do talk. We go about these things far too individualistically, and we need the help of friends and of older and wiser heads (married and single) in the church family. And talking through your desire to marry can be the first step in seeing some way forward. To the men, can I say: if you feel you need and want to get married, then be active in getting to know people and taking the risk – which it is – of asking someone out if there’s someone appropriate on your radar. And to the women, although it’s better for the men that you hang back from doing the asking, you can take initiative in the sense of being around the appropriate circles – especially the circles of any particular guy you’re interested in. And all of us can – and should – help in creating those circles where, without pressure, people can just meet and get to know one another a bit.
But to finish, I want to come back to the need to work at singleness. Because there are no guarantees of marriage - and we need to work at carving out a liveable, single lifestyle rather than just putting our lives on ‘hold’ in the hope that marriage is just round the corner. So we need above all to work on our relationship with the Lord. We all – single or married – need to find our identity and self-worth above all in him. Because even the best of human relationships can only supply those things partially. And we all need to accept our current situation as the place where God has us, in his sovereignty, and that he is using it for our good even when it doesn’t feel good. Then, we need to work at friendship and church family. I want to say that singleness doesn’t equal loneliness, but it does make you more prone to it than does healthy marriage. So make time for friends; try to avoid that over-commitment spiral; try to plan your social diary first, not last; plan well ahead for days off and holidays – which the marrieds among us need to realise can be really difficult for the singles to find company for. And to the married can I say that during my experience of singleness, being away from my own family, those married couples who gave me a standing invitation into their homes and family life were invaluable. So if you’re married, can I ask: what single people are you doing that for? Are some of the singles among us regularly in your home and at your meal-table? Because they should be. Finally, we need to work at sexual holiness. And if that’s a particular struggle for you – which it is for many men, not just single – then, again, talk about that with another trusted Christian. Seek accountability - and below you’ll see one place to go for accountability in the face of internet temptations.
There is much more that needs to be said. And I’m conscious that what I’ve said no longer comes, as it would have done five months ago, from a single person for single people. But it is how God’s Word sheds light on singleness; it’s what sustained me in my own singleness; and it’s what, I trust, will sustain me once more if death makes me single again.
[The Single Issue, Al Hsu, IVP – a very good, Biblical perspective on singleness and managing life as a single person
Boy Meets Girl, Josh Harris, Multnomah – good, but culturally slightly American, book on courtship and engagement
www.covenanteyes.com – for accountability where the internet is a temptation]