There is a constant danger within the church to take book-sized concepts and reduce them down to Tweet-sized statements. I have seen and experienced this practice of sharing well-intended (but ultimately unhelpful) encouragement to single Christians.
I like to refer to them as “fast food graces.” These are morsels of truth-like statements that fit into a text, tweet, or meme. They sound good, but can be quietly destructive. Let’s explore a few common examples so we can ultimately consider richer, more God-honoring ways to truly encourage those walking in the tension between contentment and desire for marriage.
Problems With Fast Food Graces for Singles
- A Lack of Actual Counsel
“If Jesus isn’t enough for you while you’re single, Jesus won’t be enough for you when you’re married.” Yes and amen. So, now what do I do?
Sometimes counsel stops right before any word of actual guidance or encouragement is offered. Truth reminders are of no use if they are not applied to real life. The inner hardships of prolonged singleness don’t always exist because a man or woman doesn’t know enough truth. Oftentimes, our greater struggle lies in figuring out how to practice truth in the inner man, in our minds, imaginations, affections, and wills.
When dear friends and acquaintances have made truth statements such as, “Just be content with Jesus. He’ll be enough for you,” I’ve often found myself thinking I believe that’s true and it sounds quite wonderful. I just don’t know what that really means or how to do it yet.
There’s great encouragement in knowing the Apostle Paul learned how to be content in every situation (Phil. 4:11-13). He trained himself in the discipline of contentment in plenty, lack, persecutions, and peace. He did not have full measures of contentment in Christ automatically, but he had access to it, as every believer does today. Still, he had to search it out. He had to study. He had to pray. He had to grow in knowledge, understanding, obedience and holiness.
God, in his grace, granted Paul contentment in due time. Single people often need humble instruction in how to pursue that sweet satisfaction Christ alone offers. This is where counselors and friends have great opportunity to honor Christ by coming alongside singles in richer ways than fast food graces can offer.
- Presuming Upon God’s Reasons for Prolonged Singleness
“God won’t give you a spouse until you are content with being single.” I see two major problems with this phrase.
1. It expresses an oversimplified view of how God works. Job’s friends did this. They accused him of hidden sin where God was simply about his mysterious work. The fullness of God’s purposes in our circumstances are often hidden. It is totally possible that a single man or woman can be walking in faithful contentment in Christ, desire marriage, and face God’s repeated denial of a spouse for reasons that are simply beyond us.
The only purposes that can be assumed are those clearly revealed in Scripture, namely, God’s glory in all things (Rom. 11:36), and our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3).
2. Also, this particular phrase can be twisted in the hearer’s mind to be understood as, “When I am content, God will give me a spouse.” Besides the problem of mixed motives (i.e. using contentment to get a spouse from God), this reasoning is wrong because God as Sovereign is not required to grant earthly desires of his children in response to their obedience. We do not earn spouses through contentment. We obey God’s call to contentment, because it pleases God.
A spouse is a gift, unmerited and undeserved from the hand of our gracious God (Prov. 19:14; Prov. 20:6). No one has ever earned a spouse just as no one has ever earned salvation. This gives great hope because it unties God’s grace from human performance. God’s grace goes far beyond our feeble attempts to obey and please him.
- Declaring Marriage’s Hardships is Not Always Helpful
“Marriage can’t make you happy.” “Spouses come with sins too.” “Marriage is a lot of hard work. The honeymoon phase ends eventually.”
Again, if we stop here, we have truth-reminders without actual help to guide single men or women to greater measures of joy in the Lord. Reality checks are good. Those with Disney-inspired ideas about marriage and romance need it. But not all singles are there.
Many have come to a mature understanding of the real hardships within marriage, and yet the desire remains. Paul offers this kind of reality check in 1 Corinthians 7. He writes that married men and women have a large set of troubles that singles are free from. These are costs to consider. And yet, even as Paul unfolds the advantages of singleness for our careful consideration, freedom to marry (and to desire marriage) without condemnation is expressed.
Skip the Drive-Through and Come to the Feast
So then, how ought we counsel and encourage? How do we grow in helpfulness towards those wrestling in their singleness? To start, we must go to the Feast and bring a few others along.
The Lord calls us to come and feast at his table at the foot of the Cross where rich, soul-satisfying, delicacies in abundance can be found. This includes a deeper understanding of God’s infinite wisdom, his faithfulness, his companionship, and his goodness towards us. This leads to trust in the mysterious brilliance of his design in our circumstances.
Prolonged singleness is God’s call out of obsession and fear. We must feast regularly in the presence of the King, acquainting ourselves with him, coming boldly to his throne to plead for help, lest we stumble and faint from the malnourishment of fast food graces. Then we must go out and guide others to the Feast we’ve found.
This is the beginning of God-glorifying biblical counsel. Friends, when you see your brother or sister starving, bring him in and offer him food. Real food. Living food. And lots of it. In the varied issues of life in Christ, empty sayings simply won’t do where tattered Bibles and bruised knees are called for.