Genesis 2:18 “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’“.
There have to be unique reasons why it wasn’t good for Adam to remain alone, but it’s just as bad for anyone to live in isolation from other people. We haven’t been made to spend our lives like the statue of Nelson on top of a column. There was a psalmist who was experiencing awful loneliness at one time in his life; it was such a bad time for him. It really got under his skin, and this is how he described it, “I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof” (Ps. 102:6&7). That’s not good for anyone; God has made man in such a way that we depend on our parents for the first 15 of so years of our lives, and then for the rest of our days we have to work alongside other people getting from them what we couldn’t provide for ourselves and working for them in return. No one can live in isolation.
For the Christian it’s particularly true that it’s not good for him or her to be alone because God puts every new Christian into the living body of Christ. An amputated Christian cannot survive; he is bound to die separated from the body. He is doomed to be a non-Christian. The Lord tells us that it is by the love we show to one another that the world will know that we are his disciples. A congregation is called a temple, and Christians are compared to living stones which support and strengthen one another. The Bible also teaches a doctrine of ‘corporate sanctification.’ What do I mean by that? One of the ways we grow more Godlike is in the influence we have over other Christians in the body of Christ and they over us. We are called to support one another, and pray for one another, and counsel one another, and exhort one another, and submit to one another, and love one another – there are many such exhortations in Scripture. That is one of the reasons God puts us into the church and so we don’t hurry off and have nothing to do with another Christian except for our brief encounters on Sunday mornings. No. We are 24/7 part of the body of Christ. God’s work of changing us into the image of Christ advances as he blesses the words and prayers and influences of other Christians over us and our effect on them. So on many different levels it is not good for anyone to be alone, especially Christians.
But God doesn’t say to every one of you silly billies what he went on to say to Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone so I will make a helper suitable for him.” The Lord said that to Adam, and then he did provide a helper, a spouse, for Adam. We know that God didn’t say those words, for example, to Paul, because that apostle said, “It is good for [the unmarried and widows] to stay unmarried, as I am,” (I Cor. 7:8), and to Jeremiah God said, “You must not marry and have sons and daughters” (Jer. 16:2). But to those of you who already have a husband or a wife God hasn’t said those words to you, has he, silly billies? He said those particular words about the single life to Jeremiah and to Paul. The Lord didn’t even say them to the apostle Peter because he was married. Some ministers are married and some are not. Rome can impose singleness on every one of its ministers, but God doesn’t do that. There is a blessed divine vocation of being single as there is a blessed divine vocation of marrying. God alone gives that blessing, not mother church.
The great majority of the people in this congregation, as in most British churches, are single people, but they are not lonely people, and they are not disengaged from other Christians unless there is a period of terrible backsliding in their lives. You’ve all had to listen to sermons on marriage. If only for that reason it is necessary and right for you married people to listen to a sermon on being single. Of course there is a vast difference between being single as a teenager or a student and being single at 45, 50 or 60. I guess that apart from the children everybody else can remember what it was like to be single at 18 and during the following few years, and so we think we know what there is to know about being single. “We have experienced it – been there . . . done that,” we husbands and wives think. That is not the case. At 18 or even 30 marriage is still a viable possibility, but at 45 or 50 or 60 there is little prospect of being anything other than single, and we’ve come to terms with that, but then the Lord is the God of surprises.
I have found some helpful materials on the subject of being single. Margaret Clarkson’s So You’re Single (Harold Shaw Publishers 1978) is a splendid treatment on the subject, as is Gini Andrews’ Your Half of the Apple (Zondervan, 1972) and they are both available (from the branch of the chapel library found in the Manse!). I particularly liked John Piper’s Foreword entitled “For Single Men and Women,” in the book of essays he helped to edit with Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway Books 1991), and I have referred to that essay throughout this sermon, as also to a sermon preached by Joel Nederhood in June 1988 in the Radio Pulpit of the Back to God Hour.
So this is a topical sermon, but it is going to be biblical and exegetical even though we are not going to be restricted to the first two chapters of Genesis. My concern is this, that it would have been disastrous for the prophet Jeremiah or the apostle Paul to have read Genesis 2:18 and become obsessed with the notion that God was telling him, “Hurry up and find a wife.” That was not the Lord’s call to either man, and it is not God’s word to some Christians today. It would be a disaster for some Christians to read these words, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and it upset them into believing that a single life for them is impossible; “I cannot live by myself!” you cry. How do you know? Consider a woman in our congregation, the late Miss Esther Jones, and the blessing her life of singleness was to this whole church. There are millions like her.
For some Christians God’s will is singleness, for others that they marry but have no children. For one mother and father whose story has been told in the newspapers this week God’s will is that their three sons have a genetic disease which means none of the boys will live to adulthood. For God’s own Son God’s will was that he die at the age of 33. Some say, “When you know something is the will of God it is easy.” The cross was not easy to Jesus though he knew it was God’s will. God can give us the wine of astonishment to drink. God always gives grace to do his will, whether that will is to care for a sick relative, or care for a large family with all the restrictions that that brings to those he commands to marry. God will also give to others grace to be free of those burdens and live a rich single life. Adam could not be alone because he was the father of the human race and he had to marry and have sons and daughters, but every one of us does not have to marry, and all of us don’t have to become parents. Think of King Henry VIII utterly obsessed with marrying, having a son and heir. That resulted in divorce and horrible execution for some of his six wives. It is a perfectly gruesome story, and it begins by a man insisting that he’s got to have a son whatever the cost.
There are more single people in the United Kingdom than at any time in its history. There are a number of causes for this, some good and some bad. Women today generally survive childbearing and tend to live longer than men. That’s good. At age 40 there are 96 males for every 100 females, at age 60 there are 87 males for ever 100 females, and at age 80 there are only 57 males for every 100 females. We are delighted that women are living longer, but that fact results in there being more women than men. Again there are almost the same number of divorces as marriages each year and the amount of broken marriages results in there being more single women. Again there are increasing numbers of men and women of marriageable age who are choosing not to marry and they will probably stay unmarried for the rest of their lives.
There is a godless way of dealing with singleness, and that is by being determined to have as much ‘fun’ as possible. Here are people who have dismissed the responsibilities and commitment that marriage entails. Here are people who put bumper stickers on their cars which say I Love Being Single. These are people who live for the evenings and weekends, who turn every innocent remark into a double entendre, who like to party and to chase sex. They are not going to marry and they don’t intend to let anyone catch them. There are even a growing class of older folk – people my age – who adopt a racy lifestyle as they try to make the most of their singleness – remember the Golden Girls? I am not opposing people working hard at making their singleness as positive an experience as possible and who conduct themselves very morally. I am not suggesting that single people are more prone to immoral behaviour than married people. No, all alike, married and singles, are depraved, but I think there is an obviously damaging way of responding to being alone. Let me spell out some basic attitudes to singleness and marriage.
1. MARRIAGE IS NOT THE FINAL DESTINY OF ANYONE.
The Sadducees, you will remember, came to Jesus with a question about a woman who had been widowed seven times. “‘At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’ Jesus replied, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven’” (Mark 12:23-25). In the resurrection marriage as we know it won’t exist. There won’t be double beds and single beds in heaven! Singleness will be no disadvantage whatsoever in eternity. We will all be brothers and sisters. Knowing that makes us literally more single-minded.
See how this conviction has helped Trevor Douglas, a single missionary with Regions Beyond Missionary Union, working in the Philippines among the Ifugao people, who wrote these words in 1988: “In the end, however, Christians know that Jesus will more than make up for every cost incurred by being a single male missionary. I have applied his promises to myself, ‘Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”‘ (Matt. 19:27-30). I see a tremendous exchange taking place in eternity. The social cost of not fitting in a couple’s world will be exchanged for socializing with Jesus around his throne. I’m going to exchange the emotional cost of loneliness and the family hurt for companionship with new fathers, mothers, and families. I’ll exchange the physical cost for spiritual children. And when I’m snubbed, I love to think of eternity and the privilege of going from the last of the gospel preachers to the head of the line. The rewards are worth everything.” (quoted in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway Books, 1991, p.xviii). So marriage is not the final destiny of anyone; it is the temporal phase of some people.
2. JESUS CHRIST, THE TRUE AND PROPER PERSON, WAS NOT MARRIED.
The Lord Jesus Christ was God’s great definition of what a true person is. He is the archetypal man, and yet he was never married. I was taking a mission in Bangor University once and a first year student protested to me that she was a homosexual and that she had as much right to sexual relations as I did. She would be half human without that, she claimed, but my point is this, that the most fully human being who has ever lived, or ever will live is Jesus of Nazareth, and yet he never married – whatever hocus pocus Dan Brown has devised in the Da Vinci Code claims – and Christ never had sexual intercourse.
The Lord Jesus says, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Lk. 6:40). Be like Jesus! Don’t be like the proponents of birth control devices promoting condoms in the schools. Don’t be like the feminists or the humanists or the secularists. Here is the best of all teachers. He made himself vulnerable as a single man, and yet gave himself to people. He loved fervently Peter, James and John – he is the one to follow. He also loved the two Mary’s and Martha with a pure heart – he is the one to follow. He held children in his arms and blessed them without one impure desire – he is the one to follow. He had deep friendships of single people and married people, young and old – he is the one to follow. He let himself be interrupted when he was teaching and they started dismantling the roof to reach him – he is the one to follow. When he tried to get away from them and go to a wilderness the crowds found him there and he taught them patiently – he is the one to follow. He had nowhere to lay his head, not even on the shoulder of a woman, and yet what transformation he wrought in the lives of all those who knew him! What freedom and joy and peace he gave to them! He is the one to follow.
Being an authentic human does not consist of taking drugs, and getting drunk, and having all kinds of sex. Please! That is not maturity; even animals are wiser. Consider Jesus Christ! Don’t you want to be a mature person? Are you going to be a Hugh Heffner – the owner of Playboy – for ever, a Peter Pan figure, the teenager who never grew up? Consider Jesus Christ. He never married and yet he was available and inspiring. After being with him people felt loved – though he never hugged them. They were warmed by his presence and believed that through him life was worth living. They knew that their sins were forgiven when they trusted in him. He walked a narrow path and helps us each step of the way.
3. IT IS GOD WHO ULTIMATELY CHOOSES WHO IS TO MARRY AND WHO STAYS SINGLE.
The Lord must give a spouse; I dare not snatch one without his provision. The Lord must give a child; I dare not impregnate some eggs and then destroy some of them when I get the desired number of children that I’ve planned. I must bow to the rule of God in these matters. No good thing will he withhold from those who do his will. I may not sing a particular hymn of Horatius Bonar and then grow self-pitying and plaintive and bitter if I don’t get what I want;
“Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be;
Lead me by Thine own hand,
Choose Thou the path for me.
I dare not choose my lot;
I would not if I might;
Choose Thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
Choose Thou for me my friends,
My sickness or my health;
Choose Thou my cares for me,
My poverty or wealth.”
If I could summon Canadian writer and hymnist Margaret Clarkson to speak a word of testimony at this moment then this is what she would say; “Through no fault or choice of my own, I am unable to express my sexuality in the beauty and intimacy of Christian marriage, as God intended when he created me a sexual being in his own image. To seek to do this outside of marriage is, by the clear teaching of Scripture, to sin against God and against my own nature. As a committed Christian, then, I have no alternative but to live a life of voluntary celibacy. I must be chaste not only in body, but in mind and spirit as well. Since I am now in my 60’s I think that my experience of what this means is valid. I want to go on record as having proved that for those who are committed to do God’s will, his commands are his enablings.
“My whole being cries out continually for something I may not have. My whole life must be lived in the context of this never-ceasing tension. My professional life, my social life, my personal life, my Christian life – all are subject to its constant and powerful pull. As a Christian I have no choice but to obey God, cost what it may. I must trust him to make it possible for me to honour him in my singleness.
“That this is possible, a mighty cloud of witnesses will join me to attest. Multitudes of single Christians in every age and circumstance have proved God’s sufficiency in this matter. He has promised to meet our needs and he honours his word. If we seek fulfillment in him, we shall find it. It may not be easy, but whoever said that Christian life was easy? The badge of Christ’s discipleship was a cross.
“Why must I live my life alone? I don’t know. But Jesus Christ is Lord of my life. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I accept my singleness from his hand. He could have ordered my life otherwise, but he has not chosen to do so. As his child, I must trust his love and wisdom” (Margaret Clarkson, So You’re Single, Harold Shaw Publishers 1978, pp.14&15). So it is God who ultimately decides who marries and who stays single, and he makes no mistakes, but we make plenty, so that if we should change our state from single to married we know we are going to exchange one set of problems for another. We also know that to be a Christian single is to be much happier than a Christian locked into an unhappy marriage.
4. SINGLENESS AS MUCH AS MARRIAGE IS A GIFT FROM GOD.
The New Testament in particular says that both marriage and singleness are good states. This is particularly clear in the seventh chapter of I Corinthians, written by the apostle Paul, who himself was single. The chapter begins with the surprising statement that “it is good for a man not to marry,” but that may be an issue that the Corinthians have asked Paul to comment on, a question dividing them at that moment. Paul answers by describing the practical value of marriage and strongly discourages anyone from getting a divorce.
First Corinthians 7 refers to both marriage and singleness as gifts from God. Paul himself was glad that he had the gift of singleness. He felt it freed him to serve God with total dedication in a hostile world, and he wished openly that other people might have the same gift he had. But – and this is the main point – each person “should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (v. 17). Paul goes on to describe the great advantages of being single. In fact, parts of what Paul writes are so strong that they embarrass some people who stress the importance of marriage. Consider the following, for example, “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – 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. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Bachelor ministers like John Stott and Dick Lucas and even John Murray (who was single for the first sixty years of his life) achieved more through being without the ties of marriage.
The chapter ends by stating that a woman whose husband dies is free to marry again, so long as she marries a Christian. Yet the apostle’s final statement is quite amazing: “In my judgment, she is happier if she stays [single] – and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (v. 40). All the world will say she’ll be unhappy while she is unmarried. “She’s got to get married again if she is to find happiness.” No! says Paul, happier if she stays single. You would expect him to say that she will be more useful and have less responsibilities and more time to herself if she does not marry, but old Paul, full of the Spirit of Christ, says if you are looking for happiness stay single. If you are going to marry then it must be with the certainty that this is God’s will for your life, not “I am searching for happiness and can only find it in marriage.” What can we say about this vocation to be single? Three things;
i] In the first place, we must not consider singleness the opposite of marriage. If it were the opposite of marriage, singleness would have an opposite characteristic for every characteristic of marriage. Singleness is rather an alternative to marriage. Actually, the opposite of marriage is cohabitation – a man and a woman living together. Whereas marriage involves public commitment to one another until one of you dies – that’s how much you love one another – living together involves a denial of such commitment. Whereas marriage is pure and chaste, living together is a continuous violation of God’s commandments. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Get married.
In contrast to cohabitation, singleness is an honorable state – it can be chaste and pure, and for many people it may well endure for the rest of their days. The state of singleness, when chosen because of devotion to the kingdom of God, received the highest approval of Jesus Christ himself: after speaking of those who “have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew19:12). It’s important for us to realize that singleness and marriage are the two divinely appointed callings. There are not three – living together is not a divinely appointed vocation. As 1 Corinthians 7:17 says, “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.“
ii] Both marriage and singleness are callings, or vocations. The idea of calling, or vocation, is not one we often use, but it is very significant. When we view our lives as a calling from God, we believe that God has arranged for us to enter a certain state, and God qualifies us to live in that state, and God will use us in that state to bring in the kingdom of God. That is also true for the Christian whose spouse has died, and it is true for the Christian whose spouse has walked out and deserted him or her. Now you have a vocation from God to be single. That is your calling and you can live positively and productively as a single person; you were once single and glorified God by that, and then you were married and you glorified God by that and now you are single again, and that was not bad luck or chance but the will of God, a good gift from the Lord. Jesus said that anyone who can accept this gift should accept it. Let me say quickly that to be sure, no one would expect such a person to think about the advantages of singleness immediately after some traumatic event that has made him or her single, but God reigns and God keeps us all.
iii] Thirdly there are certain advantages to singleness and they should be used to the full. Being single certainly has its share of disadvantages, and those who are involuntarily single often dwell on these, but the married state too has its own share of disadvantages. Each state has its pros and cons; a single person must consciously choose to make the most of the many advantages of singleness. Many single people say, “I like this way of life, and I wouldn’t want to change it for anything.”
5. SINGLENESS BRINGS ITS OWN ADVANTAGES.
Consider the extraordinary achievements of single people, of what an Elijah did, of what a Jeremiah did, of what a Jonah did, of what a Daniel did, of what a Philip did, of what a Stephen did, of what a Paul did. Then in the history of the church what triumphs have single people wrought over the last two thousand years because they were people whose Father was God, whose husband was the Son of God. They have been able to do more for a land by their prayers and tears than many people in government, and many leaders of industry through their workers. They have been the ones who have turned away the wrath of God and brought into the church his mercy.
Why then should singles hang down their heads? Why not lift up your hearts and cheer up? God is our best friend. He keeps us at his own cost. He grudges us nothing and thinks nothing is too big or too small to give us. He loves us dearly and is very tender in his dealings with us. He can’t bear it when we are hated and despised; he won’t allow us to lack any good thing. If it is friends we need then we shall have them. If it is satisfaction in our work then we shall have it. If it is the fellowship of a caring church he will give us that too. If it is to be used by him in our lives then we shall have that also. Let us rejoice that heaven is ours, and the earth is ours and God is ours, and Christ is ours. All things are ours, and so we are not going to be plaintive because a wife or husband is not ours.
Think of your present blessings;
i] You have a special freedom. Here are the words of a single woman missionary in Kenya; “Being single has meant that I am free to take risks that I might not take were I a mother of a family dependent upon me. Being single has given me freedom to move around the world without having to pack up a household first. And this freedom has brought me moments that I would not trade for anything else this side of eternity.”
Here are the words of a single man who is a missionary in the Philippines; “The first advantage of being single is that it’s best adapted to perilous situations. In rugged life among primitive tribes, in guerrilla-infested areas, or in disease and famine, the single man has only himself to worry about. The single lifestyle enables one to get the most out of the time God gives for his work. One of my chief delights is that I don’t have to fit my ministry around a family schedule. I don’t have to be home at a certain time each night.” So you have a freedom that your married friends do not have, and along with it opportunities to travel and serve the church.
ii] You still have our own masculinity or femininity. Masculinity and femininity are rooted in what we are by nature. God made us male and female and that is what we will always be – unless we allow obsessive thoughts about “being a woman trapped in a man’s body” dominate our lives and that we begin to buy and wear women’s clothing. That is asking for trouble. People only know themselves when they know Jesus Christ as their own God. My main point is this, that you don’t become male when you get a wife; you don’t become female when you get married. Our sexuality permeates our whole being, in its very depths. I think and feel and shop and talk and enthuse and look at life as a man does. My masculinity conditions every aspect of my life. So it is with a woman; she is not less sexual for not being married. When I talk about her sexuality I am referring to her whole personhood as a woman, how she is and expresses herself to others. She treats every man who is her age and younger as a brother and she treats older men as her father. She likes to hear men talk about things in a masculine way (not a dirty misogynist way); she is a real, pure, holy feminine woman when there are men around. Her impact as a woman is seen on her home, yes, but also in her every relationship. The title of one of Elizabeth Eliott’s books is spot on, Let Me Be a Woman. That is the vocation of every single woman. And let men be men!
iii] You have meaningful friendships. Joel Nederhood says that “This is a special possibility for single people, in contrast to those of us who are married. The obligations spouses have to each other limit their ability to develop friendships. Single people, having more flexibility and freedom to socialize with more people, can better discover the fullness of friendship. I should say, in this regard, that single people’s friendships must be enjoyed and expressed in terms of Christian principles. God’s laws governing sexual relationships apply to single people just as they do to married people. Amid our hypersexed age, single people who are committed to Christ and who want to live the Christian way will protect one another’s integrity and purity. When a sexual element intrudes into a friendship between two single people, their friendship is exchanged for something sordid, for something that is ultimately dissatisfying. Friendships are extremely important for single people. What God said in the beginning about the man he had created- “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) – applies to all of us, including singles. Any single person who does not associate with friends will miss the rich social life and fellowship that God wants his people to enjoy” (“Singleness,” in the June 1988 edition of the Radio Pulpit of the Back to God Hour).
6. THE CHURCH’S RESPONSE TO ITS SINGLES.
We are to love our single neighbours as we love our married selves. We are to love our married neighbours as we love our single selves. What does that entail? How would a Christian single want to be loved?
i] Remember that though some single people would like to marry this is rarely the constant focus of their lives. They are not lonely and unfulfilled, any more than all married people are happy and fulfilled. Singles don’t seek for pity – please!
ii] Single people are individuals worth knowing in themselves. They often have a wide variety of life experiences, are used to handling themselves alone in social situations, and usually know how to make conversation easily. They appreciate being invited to meals. Inviting them several weeks in advance is far more pleasant than thinking of them suddenly at church on the given day. No one likes to feel like an afterthought and this is also true for married people.
iii] Single people are often very busy. They should not be pressured to join committees or take on church tasks under the implication of not having a family that needs them at home. They do all the tasks alone that a husband and wife usually share: financial management, grocery shopping, meal preparation, housecleaning, ironing, vehicle maintenance, work in the garden, DIY – and all of this they do in the evenings or Saturdays because they have a full-time job as well. Mind you, don’t overlook them from being asked to serve on committees. They may have a lot to contribute.
iv] No single should feel that some married people always raise the topic of their not being married when they visit them. Of course it can’t be avoided if it happens to arise naturally. The single person usually suffers embarrassment, not at the fact of being single, but at the poor handling of the topic or situation. If children ask what may seem to adults as a forward question, answer them in a normal tone of voice and neither make a mountain out of the moment nor rush past it so quickly that it feels as if the unmentionable has been swept under the carpet.
v] When praying, no one should lump together single people with, for example, the sick. Imagine, by comparison, praying, “Be with the sick and the married”! Rather, pray for people in their individual circumstances. Single people do not appreciate being asked by mere acquaintances “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend yet?” People think that single men need cajoling about their lack of a girlfriend in a way they wouldn’t dream of talking to single women. Such banter is very personal, and assumes a greater level of intimacy than a casual acquaintance warrants. If the person wishes to tell you about their personal friendships, well and good. If not….
vi] Single people take responsibility for drawing themselves into friendsh
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