Let’s dig right in: I think one of the most damaging presuppositions about the Christian life is that singleness is temporary, and I’ll explain why.
A month or so out of college, I Facetimed a wise, blunt friend with great hair. While I sprawled on the bottom bunk in the room I shared with my sister, feeling very not cool at all, I explained to my married friend that I felt a little aimless, I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of life, and I felt so overwhelmed about the sea of choices that were apparently well within God’s will for me. As I spoke, I projected mostly career options into my mindscape: writing tutor, nonfiction writer, ceramicist, TV screenwriter, cat furniture craftsman…
“Well, do you want to have kids?” she asked me, tilting her head to the side and making her Active Listening Face. Her hazel eyes flitted to the side, and then she refocused on me.
“Um,” I said, caught totally off-guard. “I mean…yes? But it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Like at all.” It freaked me out.
“That’s something to think about though,” she says, and she’s right, technically. It’s not bad to think about. Probably wise. And I know she has only the best intentions and hopes for me.
But I don’t know if I’ll get married. I don’t know if I’ll have kids. And I can’t plan my life around people who don’t have the potential to exist yet.
I feel like I’m floating untethered beyond the life stages. We all joke about the stages: high school, undergrad or trade school, grad school or career, marriage, kids, mid-life crisis and career switch, retirement, grandkids maybe, and then the hope of dying peacefully in your sleep, or martyring yourself to save your surrogate family from gangsters, like Clint Eastwood. There is some truth to the jokes and to the stages, because a lot of people do end up marrying and having kids. But I think we tend to allow ourselves to talk about life as if the stages are guaranteed for everyone or must be progressed through at a certain rate, and that’s where the problems begin.
I’ve gotten the good-natured, “Well, what’s next?” from the person on the ordering side of the register at the coffee shop. I feel the pressure descend, because I have about thirty seconds to validate myself to this person, and the question demands an answer that suggests clear movement towards the next life stage. I always feel like I simplify my plans into a description that no longer resembles what I really want to do, and by extension, I make myself out to be something I’m not. I simplify my rhetoric to align my identity with others’ expectations of me.
And that’s it: I speak out some stripped-down, paint-by-number default answer about my career plans because I don’t have a significant other. My conversation options in that brief moment — even though we all know life is much more complex and nuanced — are basically Career or Family or Both. This simplification doesn’t clarify understanding. It reduces. I truncate my dreams to communicate them quickly. And I find that a feedback loop seems to form: I talk about my life simply for the sake of time, so I think about my life in simple terms, and this narrowness of thinking manifests in me believing there are only a few valid ways to live, and so I think this way, talk this way, act this way, and so on until I feel suffocated by the boxes I’ve talked myself into. I start to believe that unless I have a career that’s easily explained or a nuclear family with biological children, the Christian communities I am a part of will not value me. I know this is not true. But I lose my understanding of my role in God’s wild and complicated Creation when I dumb it down for other people. I believe everyone does this, and I believe it’s created a Christian culture at large that idolizes marriage to reduce life into simpler terms and fewer options.
Consequently, we reduce our understanding of singleness in the way we discuss it. When we talk about singleness as if it will be temporary for everyone, some incredibly damaging fallacies slip into the rhetoric: we begin to build our identity around the needs and desires of a generic future spouse. It’s very subtle and it’s everywhere all the time. Usually, misconceptions enter our language through compliments and positive reinforcement.
As a Cedarville freshman, I happened to be under the authority of the best Resident’s Assistant I think I’ve ever met in my life. Her name was Claire. She was tall and thin, with corkscrew-curly hair, a sunbeam smile, and this intensely nurturing presence. When I walked into the dorm and met her for the first time, she already knew my name and bear-hugged me tightly for at least ten seconds. Stop. Count out ten seconds on your hands slowly. Yeah. She’s the kind of person so intentional, thoughtful and kind it’ll make you squirm. Claire took her job very seriously, and planned a lot of events and scheduled time to leave her door open for residents to pop in. She loved to cook, and hall meetings always included some original treat, like homemade peanut butter hot chocolate with vanilla ice cream or cardamom butter cookies.
One night, a fellow resident bit into that week’s jam tart and said, “This is incredible. You’ll make such a good wife someday.” And we all agreed, because it was true, and a very high compliment. But something about that statement unsettled my stomach. I chewed it over in my mind for a dew days, and then wrote an impassioned note of encouragement: Any quality that people say, “That’ll make you a good wife someday!” makes you good daughter, friend, or RA right now. All of your good qualities are as excellent for the present as they are for the future.
Telling someone that they will make a good spouse or parent is high praise. However, if that compliment dominates the way that we encourage growth in each others’ lives, we are always projecting our identities and their worth into the future, onto pleasing another person we haven’t even met yet and children not guaranteed to us. For the sake of specificity, I’m mostly going to discuss this in terms of my own experience: I’ve heard plenty of girls only talk about developing skills and abilities to become a good wife or a good mother, and their whole life plan is dependent on meeting and marrying a man before their child-bearing years are up. This rhetoric is jokingly encouraged in church, college chapels, youth group, ministry work, and many other settings. Many little girls are given baby dolls and kitchen play-sets in their formative years to begin playing wife and mother roles, and pre-teen girls are told not to wear skin-tight clothing partly because their prepubescent bodies are intended for one man to enjoy in their adulthood, and covering the body becomes paramount to fostering an attitude of modesty and protecting a future marriage. The talking and thinking about marriage starts so young, and it shapes our personalities, our bodies, our attitudes and our identities, for better and for worse.
We talk about marriage so much in this way that we orient the social makeup of Christian society around marriage and the family to an unhealthy extent — it is getting harder for me and other people to be single. I don’t fit in places I used to fit because I have fewer and fewer single friends. Because I unconsciously still feel that I’m not progressing quickly enough into the exalted “life stage” of marriage, I sometimes feel that there’s something wrong with me. A large part of this is because if I view life in stages, then I equate maturity with a clear and sensible progression through the stages, meaning that not progressing in the “right way” (focusing solely on my career) or stalling out (not dating or marrying) will be seen as a lack of maturity or the suggestion of some mysterious character flaw. We often equate marrying with maturity.
Okay, I feel that it’s time to remind everyone that I believe marriage is fundamentally good. The point of this blog post is to point out unhealthy ways we talk about and view marriage: marriage is not an indicator of maturity, success, or worth. If you are only learning to cook and clean to care for a spouse, you might be disappointed when you find yourself only cooking and cleaning for yourself for a few years or your whole life. If you’re only an engineering major to make enough money to support a family, you might be disappointed when you have a decent savings account and no plan for how to spend it if a spouse is nowhere to be found and kids aren’t on the horizon. If we continue to talk about singleness like it’s a temporary stage of life, we focus the entire development of our identities on becoming “the perfect person” for someone who might never materialize.
I know that at this point, dear reader, you may be saying, God wouldn’t do that to me, right? Or, God wouldn’t withhold marriage and family from this person I love, right? But we can’t know!
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).
Our mortality limits our capacity to understand the Lord’s goodness. God stripped Job of every material blessing in his life for the sake of His glory and eventually returned it to him, but there is no mortal rational explanation for God’s method. God killed Ezekiel’s wife, isolated him from his communities, and asked him to perform bizarre, painful tasks to allude to prophecies for the nation. And somehow this brought glory and extended love in ways we cannot fathom. But! The Lord promises to care for us:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matt. 10:29-31, ESV).
Each human being has inherent value independent of whether he or she marries and has children, and we need to start recognizing that and talking about in more complex ways as a Christian culture. Be wary of discussing “stages of life”. Recognize when you are cultivating qualities in yourself specifically for someone you haven’t even met, and instead choose to cultivate those qualities in yourself to become a better friend, son, daughter, sister, brother, student, teacher, boss or another role you already play. Correct yourself when you equate maturity with a romantic relationship. Value your singleness by prioritizing the things in your life that you already love. Recognize when you discuss marriage as an idol or a solution to a problem, and correct your thinking and conversation. It will take a long time and vigilance. But the cultural changes are subtle, and begin with individual thoughts and words.
It’s an infinite and magnificent world! Family is a much broader and more beautiful thing than just a man and a woman and their kids. According to Jesus’s adult life, sometimes a family is a nomadic middle-aged radical prophet and his twelve closest male friends, some of whom were teenagers, causing political and religious insurrection all over that slice of land next to the Mediterranean Sea. Life is weird and temporary. Singleness is weird and temporary. Marriage is weird and temporary. All we can do is be present and embrace it.