Single adults are forming a higher percentage of our population as each decade passes. In the U.S., between 1975 and 1985 they grew from 47 million to 68 million. Australians also are marrying later and divorcing more.
You are single, possibly through circumstance or chance rather than choice.
My first word is an apology. By and large the church has failed to minister adequately to single adults. Only recently have books about the joys and frustrations of singleness been published – and some of them are, frankly, unrealistic. Some churches are particularly cruel to separated or divorced persons. Just when these hurting people need love and acceptance, they often get the ‘evangelical cold shoulder.’ Pharisees are still with us! Widows and widowers, in their loneliness, don’t have an easy time in most churches either. And yet it’s obvious that the church (and its missionary organizations) would fall apart without the faithful ministry of its singles.
I’m not single: I’ve been happily married for 33 years, and have four children (two of them single). So I really have only two qualifications to talk to you about singleness. First, Jan and I have had a special ministry to adult singles, and we usually have one or two staying in our home as loving – and loved – members of our family. Second, many adult singles actually pay a fee to talk to me. About half of all the adults I counsel are single (4000 hours to date!). And we talk about all aspects of their lives.
Singles comprised the majority of Jesus’ close friends. That was no accident: because singles often suffer from feelings of marginalization, they were and are specially dear to him. And because he was single he was ideally equipped to understand their special needs. Then, as now, single adults are freer in many ways to devote extra time and energy to our Lord’s service in the church and in the world.
However, as we said at the outset, most adult singles would prefer to be happily married. Most are lonely. Many, after their late twenties, find that their field of choice is alarmingly narrow, and in the church single women outnumber single men by two or three to one. A minority have deliberately chosen to live a ‘solo’ lifestyle, and a few of these have made a choice or even taken a vow of lifelong celibacy. Some, of course, have homosexual inclinations and for them the idea of marriage to someone of the opposite sex may include feelings of fear or even repugnance.
In this talk I want to say three general things to you, then focus on seven of the most common challenges facing singles.
So, first, three general statements:
(1) Whilst it’s God’s will for most people to marry, it’s not his will for all to marry. But God doesn’t elevate marriage over singleness, as the church does: both states are equal before him.
(2) Singleness, as we said before, is not easy. There’s an aweful aching loneliness in many singles who’d love to be special for somebody. But then marriage is not easy either. As M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, life is difficult – for all of us. Maturity is all about how we handle inevitable trouble. We have two simple choices: the pain of loving or the pain of not loving. So being single isn’t easy; parenting isn’t easy; being a manager isn’t easy; being a teenager isn’t easy; being a Christian in this kind of world isn’t easy. Accept the fact that you’ll generally be in the minority, especially in Christian circles. It’s OK to be different.
(3) Singles have very similar needs – in most respects – to other human beings. Their differences from others are fewer than their ‘samenesses’. Singles’ groups are good; but it’s also important to belong to mixed groups. In a book called It’s OK to be Single (ed. Gary Collins, p. 17) Nancy Hardesty says: ‘Singles have essentially the same needs and struggles as do those who are married. All persons must find their own individual identity, must come to terms with themselves in their aloneness. They search for security, a place to belong, a home, a “family” in which to love. They reach out for intimacy, for closeness, touch, union with another. They strive for achievement, a sense of accomplishment, of mission, to give life meaning.’
There are seven basic needs of singles: acceptance, self-worth, combating loneliness, companionship, money, sexual concerns, and learning God’s will for their lives. Let’s look at each in turn:
 ACCEPTANCE. This, of course, is a universal human need. The single person who feels a little ‘odd’, who’s lived with a dreadful expression like ‘old maid’, who feels left on the shelf, really has a hard time. The best remedy for anyone who has received negative messages from others is to know they’re accepted – totally accepted – by God. Jesus accepted people who weren’t accepted by others or themselves. Jesus is ‘the human face of God’. He is ‘God’s Christian name’.
Singleness is a viable lifestyle for a Christian. Marriage is not the only way to live together in community. There are many reasons for singleness, and no person should be made to feel a second-class citizen – or Christian – on the basis of their marriage status. I’m sick and tired of ‘do-gooders’ who say such things as ‘Why isn’t a nice girl like you married?’ or ‘She’s an undiscovered jewel’. Such phrases can be very hurtful; they touch a raw nerve. Such a woman may have just broken off a relationship, or ended a tragic marriage, or may want to be married but isn’t. I know a single lady who can’t bear to watch commercials on TV with happy families in them: she just switches it off.
The most important thing about being single is not that you’re not married. It’s that God loves and accepts you and you’re special to him. There’s no way he could love you any more than he loves you now. He wouldn’t love you any more if you were married. He doesn’t love you any less because you’re single. If you feel that members of the ‘opposite gender’ have ignored you, haven’t asked you out etc. please don’t under-rate yourself because of that. You – each of you – is ‘attractive’. Societies are very arbitrary in the way they define beauty. For example, in some African cultures a woman with a large bottom, or large lips, or elongated ear-lobes or whatever is a very appealing person to men. Everybody’s beautiful, in their own way.
 SELF-WORTH. You are unique. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God’s creation. He is your father, and you are a delight to him. You may not believe you were a delight to your biological father, but you certainly are to God. When God made you he didn’t make a mistake. He made someone who has infinite worth, someone he planned to create and love, before anything else was made!
A sense of worth comes from realizing all this, and living in the enjoyment of one’s aliveness. Keep growing, accept challenges, take risks. Self-worth is also a function of having some life-goals that involve the enrichment of others.
At this point let me suggest something very practical: develop some skills in particular areas. I think it’s important for singles to have some home-making talents, too. Whether you’re male or female, why not become a gourmet cook? Or develop skills in children’s ministries? Attend a course in something each year – not only something useful, but something beautiful or artistic.
Back to cooking: if you live alone, don’t get sloppy with your meals. Tom Howard was right (in Splendour in the Ordinary) that a meal, whether a cheese sandwich or a cheese souffle, is an image of the eucharistic feast and ought to be treated as such. Entertaining people is a marvelous thing to do.
What interests you? Would you get a piano if you were married? Well, get one now!
You can become the very best in your profession or job. If you’re a doctor, become a better diagnostician. If you’re a cleaner, polish everything as if Jesus were visiting that place soon. But you must be careful: some singles ‘sublimate’ their loneliness in their career, and are ‘married to their jobs’. God wants all your life to become integrated into a unity, and be balanced between work and play and rest; between solitude and company; between relating to various interests and relating to God and others. An over-developed career and under-developed (or non-existent) friendships are a lopsided way to live.
 LONELINESS. God did not intend a man or a woman to live alone forever. We are all made to live in community. That doesn’t mean that family or community must live under the same roof as you do. But you need others, to talk with, laugh with, cry with, pray with, and with whom you can check your thinking.
Single people are the loneliest people I meet. And whereas there are pensioners’ clubs, senior citizens’ clubs, lots of things for kids, it’s hard to find a singles’ group with whom many singles can find an affinity. Some singles tell me they feel quite embarrassed in some groups they go to, and won’t go back. Either they are blatantly propositioned by a member of the opposite sex, or else the group is geared to a particular kind of person and they don’t feel at home.
Now a tough word: NO ONE NEEDS TO BE LONELY! And another: SOME PEOPLE ARE LONELY BECAUSE THEY’RE SELFISH! If you are a committed Christian, sincerely in love with God, and loving and serving others without any expectation of reward, you are less likely to be lonely. I’m not just talking about the helping professions here. It’s possible to go into social work, or welfare work, or nursing, or child care, or teaching, or into the pastoral ministry for that matter, and do your helping thing professionally – and derive a lot of satisfaction from that. What I’m really saying is: outside the parameters of your professional life, are you in ministries where you are spontaneously moving towards others? How many people do you briefly phone or write to to cheer them up?
Of course, I could ask myself the same question: how many people would I be helping if I weren’t a pastor?
Singleness is like marriage here: a happy marriage is the result of two people wanting to please the other, so the secret of a happy single life is to give yourself to others. Many singles have only themselves to please, unless they have children or parents to care for… Join a few things. Get into a small group in your church. Join the choir. Get involved with a missionary society. Serve others – but without becoming their slave…
Avoid putting expectations on people. Some just don’t know how to relate to singles – or anyone ‘different’ for that matter. People who ‘don’t know what to say’ to a member of a particular group often aren’t deliberately avoiding you: they just don’t feel comfortable. This is especially so in cases of bereavement and separation/divorce.
By the way, don’t try to help people who don’t want you to help them. As a pastor to a lot of people, I experience – as many pastors do – many who want to be my friend, to help me, or be my confidant or even my counselor. I’m reminded of the saying by Thoreau: when you see someone coming towards you with the obvious intent of doing you good, run for your life! People have a right to be left alone if they want it that way!
 COMPANIONSHIP. One of the most important things families can do is open their homes and love to singles, and thereby create ‘extended families’. We all need other homes we can drop into and be welcomed, whatever that family is doing. It’s a fortunate single person who can eat a family meal with others regularly. And holiday times can be especially lonely for singles.
Adult singles also need a few children among their special friends. Some have no nieces or nephews, and so look beyond their relatives for meaningful relationships with children. And there are all sorts of reciprocal benefits here: you can take the kids out for special trips, or baby-sit and let a harried mother have some hours off. Sharing delightful happenings with kids is one of the richest experiences God allows anyone to have.
It’s also important for the ‘never married’ to have a few married people among their friends. Although many single adults feel terribly alone when everyone else is paired off, this is a situation you just can’t avoid. And things which can’t be changed have to be accepted with serenity, as the famous prayer has it.
A word of warning: for the single adult who’s starved of love, there’s a danger of ‘smothering’ the person you’re especially fond of. We have to learn to allow the other to have the dimensions of private space they particularly need. You’ll have to be open about how often you ought to be ‘around’. Many singles I know are super- sensitive at this point: they either demand too much or too little. Sometimes they over-react to an apparent ‘slight’ by withdrawing, or even storming out of the friendship altogether. Happy is the person who can talk freely with their friend/s, and know where companionship begins and ends. Total dependence on one person is not healthy – even after marriage one has to keep working at getting the right balance between the relationship and other areas of one’s life. No one other person will satisfy all your needs.
A word about friendship with a member of the opposite sex: don’t let the opinions of others panic you into a marriage that is wrong for you. The only thing worse than waiting is wishing you’d waited! While you ‘live in hope’, the essence of the spiritual life is the enjoyment of the ‘present moment’. Some adult singles who’d like to be married can’t find the balance between openness to that possibility, and yet make the most of their singleness. The question: ‘Should I actively look for a mate – or just wait for the right person to come along?’ is not easily answered. Don’t let either choice become an obsession. If it’s God’s will for you to marry later, that’s OK: he’s not bothered about age-limits; his timing is perfect. Treat living as an adventure in the meantime: make the most of opportunities for work, fun, meeting new people, serving others.
Many singles have lost confidence in themselves, and so their appeal to a potential ‘mate’ is lessened. This is where self- esteem comes in again: work on it. Develop communication and assertiveness skills. Treat yourself well – every day. Set goals – attain them, and set others. Be the sort of person another would delight to live with: if you are aimless and unsatisfied, you won’t be attractive to others. And by the way, it isn’t true that it’s harder to attract a partner when you’re over 40 or if you have children. All kinds of people find partners – people with one leg, people who are skinny or fat, short or tall. Your only limitations are your thoughts!
Ask others for a date: the worst thing that can happen is that they will say ‘no’ – and that’s their privilege.
Learn skills about ‘breaking the ice’ with a stranger. It doesn’t really matter what words you use, so long as you have a friendly demeanour. ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Been coming to this group long?’ ‘What church do you stay away from – oops go to?’
The battle is not between being married and being single, but between the peace of God in your heart and mind, and the unrest and despair Satan puts there. If getting married means so much to you, Satan will enjoy the havoc he can cause in your life if your frust- rations with singleness go beyond certain bearable limits. Satan has all sorts of weapons in his armoury – bitterness, resentment, self-pity, anger, paranoia, depression, acute loneliness, withdrawal from others, even acute despair and suicidal tendencies. He wants to lower your self-esteem, and your attractiveness to yourself and others, and also to lower your spiritual and moral standards.
If you want friends, you’ve got to be friendly. And if you want plenty of friends, practise Philippians 2:4 (look it up!). Don’t wait for others to invite you to their home: entertain them in yours (and don’t keep a record of who doesn’t invite you back!).
How do I know if I have found the right person? Ask yourself: would I be prepared to make a life-long commitment to this person – no matter who I might meet later on? Make sure you agree on basic issues – who does what (role expectations), children, religious faith, and handling money.
To those in a singles group who’ve become exclusive friends – same or opposite sex: be sensitive to others. In a group you should, in my view, act as singles, not doubles. It’s a sign of weakness and insecurity and insensitivity to others to be obviously pairing off or cuddling while those around you are unattached. I don’t worry about singles groups becoming thought of as ‘dating bureaus’. Having a special friend is a need of all of us, and we’d better frankly recognize that. Maturity means facing up to our needs and acknowledging them, and getting on with it.
 MONEY. Just a brief note here: God loves a cheerful giver, and in these days of nearly-equal opportunities you’ll (theoretically) have more money to give away than a wage-earner supporting a family. Generosity is a sign of an open heart, and your money and time and talents will be made available to others – in the church, in missionary societies, to help the poor, here and overseas. And one of the most beautiful things anyone can do for others is give gifts anonymously…
And a practical note: many singles have difficulty managing money, investments, tax returns etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help here. And that extends to practical jobs you find difficult. Some women – even younger ones – I know need someone else to change light globes. There are many practical people out of work at the moment: give them odd jobs around your place and pay them $15 an hour to do them.
 SEX. A big and exciting and dangerous subject. A single Christian, who is unable to express their sexuality fully in a lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous relationship, will have all sorts of challenges all the time in our culture. David Pawson in one of his tapes summarizes the Christian teaching about sex in four propositions: God’s standards are right for us; God’s standards are good for us; God’s standards are difficult for us; and God’s standards are possible for us.
The Bible is clear that chastity outside marriage and fidelity inside marriage are God’s intention for us. Now Christians have differing views on what this means. An item in last week’s Newsweek describes an American Presbyterian Church report asserting that because sexual gratification is a human need and right, it ought not be limited to heterosexual spouses or bound by ‘conventional’ morality. A couple of decades ago a British Quaker report said something similar: sexual behaviour ought not to be governed by rules or laws. Those who espouse so-called ‘new morality’ ethics say ‘nothing is prescribed except love’.
At the other end of the spectrum on this issue are the Pharisees who are utterly prescriptive and highly selective in their indignation against sins of the flesh rather than sins of the spirit. Jesus got very angry with this sort of hypocrisy.
Back to chastity and fidelity: these are prescribed in the Old Testament, and it’s interesting that our Lord (a celibate single) made it even tougher: we are to keep to these not just in deed, but also in thought. That’s frankly pretty hard, with the sort of films we see, and the freedom single adults have these days.
But God is no wowser. He’s made us this way. Nowhere does the Bible say ‘sex is sinful’. In fact the very first commandment says ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ – ie, ‘Have sex!’ God’s in favour of sex. He doesn’t make laws to spoil our fun but to protect us from our worst selves, and provide stable, loving homes in which children can be secure and grow into emotionally healthy adults. A book Sex and Culture by J D Unwin, examines 80 different societies and 16 ‘civilizations’ throughout 4000 years of history and comes to this conclusion: ‘Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation.’
These biblical standards are difficult for us. But in the ministry of Jesus we hear him saying to a woman caught in the act of adultery: ‘I do not condemn you; go and sin no more.’ The woman at the well had had five husbands, and the man she was living with was not legally married to her, but although Jesus knew this and told the woman he knew it, she stayed and talked with him. Prostitutes and other sexual sinners knew Jesus loved them. He did not approve of their lifestyle, but he honoured them as people.
So the Christian faith holds our sexuality in tension between law and love. Law is to love what railway tracks are to the train: they give direction, but all the propulsive power is in the train.
Jesus and Paul introduced a new ethic of love into male-female relationships. Jesus, unlike his religious male contemporaries, treated women with great respect. Paul exhorted husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (and gave his life for it, Ephesians 5:25). Peter similarly commanded husbands to treat their wives with understanding and respect (1 Peter 3:7).
Psychologist Paul Wilson has suggested that most Australian male-female relationships are based on what he calls the ‘sex-love’ bargain. He wants sex, she wants love, and one is given for the promise of the other. Which explains why it’s most often the male who comes on with the line ‘If you really love me you’ll do it…!’
When we come to the question ‘Well, what part does a physical/ sexual relationship play in a friendship?’ my response is that of Walter Trobisch in several of his books. If you are committed Christians and heading for marriage all aspects of your relationship – spiritual, emotional, and physical – should be ‘in sync’. If one gets ahead of the rest the relationship is awry. Each couple has to talk freely and frankly about all this, and realize that, sexually, the woman will usually have her foot somewhere near the brake if he’s got his on the accelerator!
To be more specific, as a father giving guidance to our two teenage daughters, I’ve made this suggestion: ‘Keep full sexual intercourse for the honeymoon…’ Old-fashioned? Well, perhaps. But I’ve found that Christians who practise this sort of discipline are also most disciplined about other areas of their life.
But let’s come full circle and affirm that though marriage might be God’s normal intention, it’s not his only one. Although God performed the first marriage ceremony in Eden, when he came among us he came as a single. If you say you’re deprived sexually as a single, I guess my response is that married people are deprived in other ways. Whether single or married you will never, in this life, always get what you want when you want it.
How about non-sexual touch between males and females? Great – and good – but I frankly think there isn’t any such thing between heterosexuals as ‘non-sexual touch’. That said, we all need physical touch, but we have to be careful. Even the church at one stage had to define exactly what a ‘holy kiss’ was. Some women – and men – are not ‘huggers’, so let us be careful and sensitive to one another’s feelings on this score. Some guys I know think they’re God’s gift to women and go around greeting them with a hug or kiss when it’s entirely inappropriate. Some of you girls need to know that when a fellow cuddles you, it may be more of a ‘sexual’ act for him than for you. Be aware of that possibility.
There are some dangers in stress-related sexual behaviours. I have known missionaries who have engaged in homosexual activity and later regretted it, but they were lonely in the early years of adjusting to a strange culture. An initial decision made about homosexual practise is an anchor in times of pressure. My advice is to make a deliberate decision to abstain from homosexual acts, or heterosexual intercourse outside marriage: such a decision can be a great strength when the test comes. Many who say ‘It can’t happen to me!’ are later disillusioned. When you are lonely or stressed, the temptations can be overpowering.
A quote from a doctor who counsels missionaries, Dr. Marjorie Foyle: ‘Masturbation, another problem area, is in my view often no more than a pressure cooker blowing off steam. Usually some life adjustment resolves the problem… [in times of tension] the pressure cooker blows: in anger, in masturbation, or in other ways.’ (‘Overcoming stress in singleness’, EMQ, April ’85, pp. 141-2). If a habit like masturbation becomes compulsive, get professional advice.
 GRATEFULNESS AND THE WILL OF GOD. God loves you, and has a good plan for your life. His plan for Jesus and Paul and Maria Teresa and plenty of other beautiful and useful people is that they accept celibacy as a gift. If that is so for you too, be grateful.
You’ll know God’s will for you by staying close to him. Develop a rich devotional life. A single female Baptist minister I know (in another country) spends a beautiful hour and a half with her Lord every morning. She is in love with him. She has a special place to meet him, lights a candle there to symbolize his presence, and employs many of the devotional aids available to us these days.* In unhurried quiet (and married people usually find that commodity difficult to come by) she relates to him as an intimate friend.A single life can be rich and satisfying, fulfilled in the highest sense (see 1 Corinthians 7:32-33).
He knows your needs. He feels your pain. He waits for your love.
I conclude with the words of a 60-year-old single lady: ‘Ours is a redemptive God. Where we will allow him, God moves into our human sorrows with healing and sustaining grace. He gives himself to us intimately and personally, meeting us with sufficiency for all our needs, enabling us to live richly, creatively, and joyfully. This he has done for me all my life. This he is doing for countless others the world over…’
And this he will do for you also…
By Rowland Croucher