Love Is for Singles Too
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:1–9, 1 Corinthians 7:25–38
God is love (1 John 4:16). Your ears might be attuned to this truth. But some people around the world might take deep offense to it. For example, Islam has 99 names for Allah that the faithful try to memorize and recite. But not a single one of these names is love. God is love. It is a mystery that can only be explained through a trinitarian understanding of God who must have eternally known perfect love between Father and Son, Father and Spirit, and Son and Spirit. We worship a God who is in no need of love yet freely gifts it to his people without ever decreasing, for he is truly and fully love and the perfect embodiment of it.
Throughout our study of Song of Songs, we have embarked on an exposition of a human manifestation of God’s love for his people in the love between a man and a woman. There is in the intimacy of the erotic romantic love between a husband and a wife a shadow, a model, a representation of a dimension of God’s love for us that we won’t be able to fully comprehend in this life, but one we should long for because it points us to his husband-like live for us as his church that we will experience throughout our eternal honeymoon. But love is not only for the married: love is for singles too. And I will argue from the word of God today that we should not only experience a model of this within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman, because I will also draw out from the word of God the goodness of singleness and the beauty of emotionally and spiritually healthy intimacy. Together we shall look at marriage, singleness, and intimacy.
Marriage is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. The Bible story starts with a marriage in the garden of Eden, and ends with a marriage in the new Jerusalem. Marriage is great, beautiful, and delightful. Paul himself speaks of marriage as a mystery in that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). Marriage should be the place where selfishness comes to die as each spouse truly seeks the good and benefit of the other. There is a mutuality in marriage that is not found in any other human relationship (nor should it be!): he is hers and she is his. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (v.4). Wrong would we be if we were to think that marriage is the place we come to find satisfaction of our wants and fulfillment of our needs. In fact, that is probably one of the main reasons for conflict within marriage: fallen people put such a high burden on the spouse who is also fallen, and find faults where perfection was never meant to be.
At the time of Paul, the ascetics in Corinth were arguing that the married should practice celibacy, or abstinence from sexual intercourse within marriage, because of the false argument that the future spiritual state had already happened. They thought they had already become like angels, neither marrying nor given in marriage (Matt. 22:30). Paul refutes this false belief by exhorting both husband and wife to be initiators in giving the other his or her rights (v.3), and warns against the withholding of such rights lest they be tempted (v.5). Yes brothers and sisters: sex is commanded within the confines of marriage, for this union in one flesh represents in ways nothing else can, the church’s union to Christ. Sexual intimacy is not the fulfilment of one’s need, but rather the giving of oneself to joyfully fulfill the need of the other and to serve the spouse in a most intimate way. How our world would be different if everyone had this view of intercourse! God has made us sexual beings. Therefore, sex is good. But it has one place only. And anything else that is outside of that place, whether premarital or extramarital, homosexual or heterosexual, adultery or fornication, polygamy or polyamory, pornography or prostitution, is sin.
Sex should not be outside of marriage. Nor should it be used as a weapon within marriage, by withholding it from a spouse. The romantic and erotic loves within a marriage display a dimension of God’s love for his people that any defilement of such a love distorts it in an idolatrous way that dishonors God and disregards his love. It is no wonder that he is angry at sexual sin. Any and all attempt at fulfillment outside of marriage will burn you: it will never satisfy. Any thought that such fulfilment within marriage would fully satisfy you, will lead to frustration. The only place we find ultimate fulfilment is in Christ who is the source, embodiment, and ultimate object of love.
Marriage is great but is not perfect. It comes with problems and anxieties. It was never meant to be the ultimate consummation. But like the Old Testament temple and the sacrificial system, they were pointers to what is to come, a foreshadowing of Christ, models of the atonement and the new kingdom. Similarly, marriage is itself a foreshadowing of what is to come, a model of Christ’s marriage to his church that one day we will all participate in, when by faith, all believers enter together with joy to receive the promises at one table with him. Let us beware then of making something that is good – indeed very good – an idol. Too often it is good things that we idolize. And I fear we may have sometimes idolized marriage so much that we have come to consider the unmarried as infidels to such an idol, to see singles as strangers in a foreign land.
Herein comes the apostle Paul with godly wisdom and spiritual insight to help us rediscover singleness. Paul is blatantly clear that he is not issuing a commandment from the Lord, but he is offering wise counsel and a corrective exhortation, which are inspired and canonical. Paul who was himself single, differentiates between the state of singleness and the gift of celibacy (v.7). Singleness is a state every human being finds him or herself in at one point in life – or maybe more than once – whether it’s due to circumstances, health or financial reasons, inability to find a spouse, death of a spouse, or even a desire to serve the Lord in singleness. As such, singleness is a circumstance ordained from the Lord that can last a lifetime. While celibacy is a charisma that some might receive but others don’t. It is wrong to command celibacy as the Roman Catholic church has historically commanded its clergy, for it lays a heavy burden that can be unbearable, and it assumes a charisma that may not be permanent. Paul is again clear that for those who do not have the gift of celibacy or the ability to self-control, those singles who are burning with passion, it is ok to marry. Marriage is a proper alternative, but let us be warned: it is not the remedy. Marriage is not the cure to temptation or sexual passions. Any sin we domesticate before marriage will rear its ugly head after we say: I do. Many have fallen to this false belief: let us not fool ourselves or one another into such wrong thinking.
Let us not also think of singleness as second-class or a lesser state. It is a good state; maybe not the best state; but definitely not a lesser state. How many times have we heard things like: “God is still sanctifying you before he gives you the spouse?” or “You must be content first before God gives you a spouse?” We have come to think of marriage as the epitome of sanctification, and the reward of a good faith. How absurd! We have so normalized the state of being married that we have come to see as abnormal or even disorderly the state of singleness. There is a current in the church that sees singleness as an illness, maybe even a sin. And the older a single becomes, the more suspicious we become of him or her. “Why is he still single? Is she weird because she is single? Or is he single because he is weird? If she is so wonderful, why is she not married? Maybe there is some disobedience in his life and God is punishing him by keeping him single.” Where is love or charity that does not think ill of other believers? There are even churches that do not have a category for a single man to be a pastor. Even Paul, John the Baptist and Jesus would not qualify.
But here is Paul reminding us that it is his preference as an apostle of Christ that the unmarried remain single (v.8), male or female, for the sake of pleasing the Lord and being holy in body and spirit, devoting themselves to the things of God without having the worries or anxieties that come with marriage (v.32-34). Today we see that in many churches, singles are the work horses of most ministries. They have freedom, spontaneity, and no wife or children to run things by. But still, we seem not to prioritize them in relationships. We have normalized marriage and the nuclear family to the point where most programs, activities, and relationships become centered around families and children. If we feel benevolent enough, we will create a single and single again group to further isolate them and to feel better about ourselves. We may turn to the singles – obviously if they are not too old or too weird – to watch our kids, but when was the last time we truly did life on life with them in a credible community where they saw what truly happens in a marriage, how husbands and wives resolve conflict, how children are not angels, and how the most beautiful relationship can also be the most difficult? How the relationship that the world who worships autonomy has made it so easy to walk away from is also a great mystery that is far more worth than what the world offers in its stead, and that it is worth fighting for – tooth and nail? How the fake happily ever after promise of filmmakers is merely the publicity of the pagan, but the joy of godliness is eternal? Romance will die down; happiness will ebb and flow with circumstances; but the Christian will pursue joy as a deep, unshakeable mystery even when – especially when – circumstances are hard, whether single or married. And Christians will seek to make a godly marriage work through the perseverance of love even after romance dies down. What if we were to bring in the singles in our church to these realities? Or to bring families into their realities, where almost every meal is alone, or every conversation at home is with oneself or God?
We have come to think that singles are unfulfilled or lacking, even in the experience of love. But have we stopped to think that we may have contributed to such lacks? We seek relationships with those who look like us: married with 2 kids; empty nesters; parents of newborns etc… Have we stopped to consider people who are not like us who we might want to pursue friendship with? Life on life between a family and a single woman who can see the real inside version of your marriage, away from doctored Instagram posts and the airbrushed Facebook perfect little family dinner pictures? Or life on life between a family and a single man who may play with your kids and help parent them when they may not listen to you?
Yes friends: singles may have more time than you do. But they also have more freedom than the married do, because they have less of the anxieties of a marriage. So they can have more freedom to visit or be visited; more ability to do ministry; less constraint on travel for mission trips or for volunteering. Take advantage of that, church, both in building bonds with and in making good use of singles. But I also admonish you not to hide yourself behind your family and forsake the things of the kingdom or the single people in the body.
And here I want us to rediscover intimacy and love in their proper context. You see, there is an illusion that sexual intercourse is the one intimacy that can satisfy. For the believers, it is often thought of within the context of marriage. For the unbelievers, it is often thought of as an end in itself, regardless of place, time, person or circumstance. There are movies, TV series and talk shows that make fun of those who grow older and are sexually unfulfilled. But I want us today to grasp this truth: to live is Christ (Phil 1:21), not to experience sexual intimacy. People can be having a lot of sex without experiencing intimacy, while intimacy can be experienced without ever having sex. Otherwise, Jesus Christ who was the perfect man would have himself been found wanting. One would argue that Solomon who wrote Song of Songs did not believe what he preached for he had more than 700 wives and 300 concubines, only to find out at the end that it was all meaningless and never brought intimacy or satisfaction. He may have even been experiencing soul-crushing and bone-rotting loneliness. People can live in a house full of people – spouse and kids and all – and be some of the loneliest people on earth, while singles can be living alone in an empty house yet not experience loneliness and be satisfied. What I am arguing is that similarly to how proper sexuality within a marriage is a representation of a dimension of God’s love for us that we won’t be able to fully comprehend in this life, such a dimension can be experienced by individuals in a state of singleness by committing themselves to the holiness of God and through godliness to the love of other believers, without ever even experiencing sexuality.
Our thinking has been warped to imagine that intimate relationships between people outside of marriage, but especially of the same gender must be of a sexual nature. We may be failing to see what God intends to be experienced in the body of Christ. People think that David and Jonathan must have had some homo-eroticism; but they fail to see that David who knew many women may have only experienced emotionally healthy intimacy in his friendship with Jonathan, and in it he found a dimension of God’s love that he did not know elsewhere (1 Samuel 18:1). Because God himself is love, he gifts himself to us in a way that none of us ever can, even for those we love most. Yet still: all such attempts represent a dimension of his divine love for us that he intended for us to know and to give. And we can practice such representations in healthy ways in all aspects of our relationships. In his love for us, God is never in need, but always a giver – unlike us. But I think we can try by his grace to practice the giving of love and of intimacy as a gift without being overtly needy, and in that we can have a shadow – a model, a mystery – of what his love is like. I do not think having a need is wrong; I believe God wired us in a way that we can crave love with the ultimate fulfilment being in experiencing God’s love for us. I think this is what makes us nearly euphoric after we first believe. And as C.S. Lewis would say in The Four Loves: not experiencing a need for such a love is probably the most proud and highest of selfish dispositions one can have. Augustine said: God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. I would add: until they find their satisfaction and their fulfilment in him and his love. Without this experience, loneliness is inevitable.
Yet for the believer, Rebecca McLaughlin says: loneliness is the only form of suffering that should not be allowed in Christianity. In singleness, the desire to fall in love and be married can be overwhelming; it can lead to severe loneliness. But in the body of Christ, members should not feel lonely: Christianity’s radical view of singleness and of the love a gospel community can intimately share with all its members proclaims to the world a mysterious joy and a gift through which all believers are helped by the holy Spirit to intimately unite together, to flee sexual sin and to seek holiness. Christ’s love for his bride should be modeled by his children’s love for one another in an emotionally and spiritually healthy intimacy that seeks to serve and give the other, and considers others better than oneself (Phil 2:1-11).
Conclusion and Application
A few years ago, I ran into a Christian I had not seen in a couple of years: “Are you still single?” he asked me. I was really tempted to reply: “Are you still married?” The truth is most people would not think twice about the first question, but might find the second quite offensive. Why? Why is it that we have relegated singleness to a merely undesirable state, one to seek escape from, one to be freed from? Marriage is good. No, marriage is great! It is God’s design for most people to marry, have children, and fill the earth. It is within marriage that erotic love and the making of love are to find exclusively their expressions. No wonder there is an entire book dedicated to this type of love: Song of songs is full of love. It is an exquisite treatise of a relationship of love between two lovers, and God has given this to us his people to learn from. Love is great. Couples get excited about it. The married relish it. But what about the rare breed of single adults in our churches? Song of songs is for singles too. And there is a threefold repetition in it that warns all the unmarried: do not awaken love until it pleases (2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Romance can be exciting. Desires can be enticing. Passions can be compelling. It is not a sin to marry if one is burning with passion; but it is not the remedy. And in the church of Christ we truly have a God-given commission to intimately unite together as one body under one Head and experience dimensions of his love for us with the help of the Holy Spirit that the world around us cannot, and that can truly deepen our love for one another and for the Lord and protect both our marriages and our singleness from little foxes and lurking wolves.
Married brother and sisters: life is Christ. Godliness is good gain. Spiritual maturity is in a godly character not a state of life – married or single. Do not treat singles as second-class citizens. Remember that the body of Christ is the entire church. Single should not equate lonely just as marriage does not necessarily equate happiness. Encourage them, minister to them, and stop saying nonsense. Make it so that everyone who has left houses or brother or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for Christ’s name receive a hundredfold family members in the body of Christ, both in this life and in the life to come (Matt 19:29). Then fix your eyes on heaven and rejoice in the promised eternal joy.
Single brothers and sisters: singleness is a gift from God: thank him., and let us not waste our singleness. It has advantages: use it for the kingdom and devote yourself to the church. It is hard: ask him for grace and do your best to be godly. It is perfectly possible for one to be single and to be content and to still desire marriage and seek a spouse. If you desire marriage: seek it but do not burn up, and be content. Singleness is not permanent: fix your eyes on heaven and rejoice in the promised eternal joy.
Our Bible story begins and ends with marriages. The first is temporal. It is never perfect. It does not last forever. But it is good. And God has ordained it for most people. He who finds a wife finds a good thing (Proverbs 18:22a). It is a beautiful model of Christ’s sacrificial love for his church and her devotion to him. Despite its difficulties, where else can two completely different wills unite into one, which takes a lifelong commitment to make work, and in which each is growing in kindness, humility and love, and decreasing in selfishness, autonomy and independence?
Nonetheless, the last marriage is the real deal: perfect, glorious, and eternal. There will truly be happily ever after, 10000 years and then forevermore. In this life, there are both singleness and matrimony: either is good; neither is right nor wrong; neither is sinful. Sam Allberry says: if marriage gives us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency (7 Myths About Singleness, 120). In the age to come, there will be no marrying nor giving in marriage, so hear this: God is preparing each of us for eternal singleness vis-à-vis one another with consummate intimacy in our future corporate marriage as a church with the Lamb, where we will all fully and truly experience all dimensions of God’s love for us in ways we can never fully comprehend in this life.
I think that is why one of the most famous verses in Song of songs, ch.8 v.6, says romantic love is strong as death, fierce as the grave, and it is the very flame of God. No wonder we are warned not to awaken it. Yet also no wonder we are given it because it opens our eyes and ears to a dimension of his love for us: that our Maker is our Husband, our Savior is our Lover whose love is stronger than death, fiercer than the grave, and is the very flame that will usher us into our eschatological wedding feast where we shall all find ultimate fulfilment, eternal fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore.
Did Paul Prefer Singleness? Thomas Schreiner. 9Marks. 03.20.2017. https://www.9marks.org/article/did-paul-prefer-singleness/
4 Things God Says to Singles. Vaughan Roberts. The Gospel Coalition. 09.02.2014. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/four-things-god-says-singles/
What (Not) to Say to Singles. Mary Van Weelden. The Gospel Coalition. 02.14.2023. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/not-say-singles/
4 Popular Lies About Singleness. Elizabeth Woodson. The Gospel Coalition. 05.03.2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-popular-lies-singleness/
The Apostle Paul on Marriage and Singleness. Focus on the Family. 2011. https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/the-apostle-paul-on-marriage-and-singleness/
Where Are All the Single Pastors? Sam Allberry. Crossway. 02.27.2019. https://www.crossway.org/articles/where-are-all-the-single-pastors/
The Song of Songs for Singles. Eric Ortlund. Desiring God. 02.14.2023. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-song-of-songs-for-singles
Single but Not Lonely: Living Well While Unmarried. John Lee. Desiring God. 01.28.2023. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/single-but-not-lonely
Receiving Singleness as a Gift. Sam Allberry. The Gospel Coalition 2021 Women’s Conference - Breakout session. 04.10.2021.
7 Myths About Singleness. Sam Allberry. Crossway. 02.28.2019.