Singleness

That Beautiful Arduous Hill (reflections on singleness)

Singleness is a long hike up a steep hill with breathtaking views. Chances are, you’re either on the hike yourself or you know someone who is. Everyone has stories to tell of it. (It’s that kind of hike. It’s that kind of hill.)

I’m so grateful for my 34-year ascent up that Beautiful Arduous Hill. It was harder than I could hope to describe, and I’m left with some hardy callouses, a few long-term injuries, and a smidge of PTSD. But I look back at that climb as one of the greatest experiences God has ever entrusted to me.

I’ve been married for nine years now (I didn’t hike nearly as far as some), yet I still smell strongly of the earth and pine of that hill. Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t “arrive” when I finally married; life didn’t “begin” when I got a ring on my finger and a baby in my womb. The path altered significantly, yes—but the Goal and the Guide remained the same.

I think often on my singleness, even occasionally dream about it still. In a crowd of people, I find myself drawn to the woman who also knows the ways of The Hill. In fact, my own story has become inextricably woven into the stories of many single women I’ve met over the years. I’ve learned that we each shoulder a unique load; we each view the hill through different eyes. Truth is, you could talk to a hundred different single women and get a hundred different versions of this hike.

But all of us have agreed on one thing in particular: We’re not meant to go it alone. We’re meant for joyful relationship with Christ and his people. Our one great good is God himself, and one of the best ways we can experience him is by being in relationship with each other.

The psalmist David put it this way:

I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good besides you.” As for the holy people who are in the land, they are the noble ones. All my delight is in them. (Psalm 16:2-3, emphasis mine)

These two things can sound contrary, but in fact they perfectly coexist: God is our only good, and his people are all our delight.

And an uphill climb requires gargantuan good and strong doses of delight. This relational joy we share with each other and our God enables us to do feats otherwise impossible. And, at least in my own experience, singleness sometimes felt like an impossible feat. I knew it was part of God’s good plan for me, and it was the conduit of incredible blessings in my life, but it wasn’t what I had prepared for, and it definitely wasn’t “the norm” in my social circles—hence the uphill feeling.

The problem was actually a good one: as a single woman who loved Jesus and his church, I held a high view of marriage, sex, and childbearing. I was convinced God is the creator and sustainer of these beautiful gifts—gifts he chooses to give most women.

I also understood that marriage would not be the answer to all of my problems. And I wasn’t duped by the notion that a man (or children) would fulfill my deepest desires. Only Christ could do that.

But when almost every last friend of mine had made it to the altar, and I was still standing on the sidelines with half a dozen bridesmaid dresses in hand—I felt somewhat disoriented, even occasionally distressed, as I figured out how to function outside the natural order of things. I deeply wanted what God wanted for me, and on those days when I didn’t want it, I asked him to help me want it. But I was a square peg in a round hole. I didn’t know how to fit into a world made for couples and families.

~ ~ ~

It wasn’t that I lacked friends. I had an ever-expanding social circle and more relationships than I knew what to do with. But for all practical purposes, I was flying solo. I paid my own bills, made my own meals, haggled with the repairman at the car shop, held down high-pressured jobs, cleaned and calendared and dealt with conflict all by myself. (Day after day, year after year.) Even though I was blessed with friends and family and roommates who shared in some of my life tasks, I bore a tremendous amount of responsibility alone.

One of my former roommates, Sarah, expressed my feelings perfectly: “The hardest part of being single,” she said, “is knowing I’m no one’s first priority.” Sarah was not one to view singleness as suffering, but she grieved the reality that there wasn’t one “main person” to do life with and for. I’ve had many single friends echo this sentiment. I felt it keenly myself. What a bizarre experience it was to spend my days in the company of so many wonderful people, to be busy and fulfilled doing work that mattered—yet all the while feel so… on my own.

But to every grief there is a gift, and the absence of a “first priority relationship” afforded me the time and motivation to seek Christ in focused ways. While some of my married friends confessed they were struggling to perceive God’s presence—I was experiencing him lavishly (albeit, undeservedly). He was my First Love, and I felt like his beloved. As much as I didn’t like the Apostle Paul’s enthusiasm for singleness, I had to admit he was right: I was enjoying a unique and beautiful devotion to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

~ ~ ~

Over the years, I came to be considered a strong, self-sufficient woman (an identity not without its own issues), but there was this underlying tone in many people’s comments to me—an unintentional message that I was not as “complete” or mature as my married and mommied friends. We’ve all been guilty of spouting folly in our eagerness to help a friend, yes? (In my twenties, I practically buried people alive with my zealous advice.) But ignorant counsel is a lot like a knife in the hand of a drunkard (cf. Proverbs 26:9), and many a single woman has been slain by comments such as these:

“Motherhood is the most sanctifying thing in the world! I was so selfish and immature before I had kids!”

“Marriage is so hard. Don’t get your hopes up…”

“You’re so lucky to be single! I’d give anything to have a day all to myself!”

“As soon as you’re perfectly content, God will bring along your husband.”

“Maybe you should go on a diet/go to a church with a singles group/get on the new dating app.”

Because singleness is easily misunderstood (and it takes time to truly listen to someone’s heart and pursue knowing them past our own limited experiences), the single woman is often treated as a problem to solve or a lesser citizen, instead of an example to emulate and an integral part of the community.

My single friends who are lovers of Jesus and his Word are wellsprings of wisdom and maturity. They live out their faith in secular workplaces and high-profile ministries; they know how to do life with multiple roommates and in transitory housing. They have diversified skillsets and life experiences that offer invaluable perspective to the one who has ears to hear and eyes to see.

The Psalmist understood it is the power of Scripture, not a particular status in life, that forms wisdom and maturity in us.

I have more insight than all my teachers because your decrees are my meditation. I understand more than the elders because I obey your precepts. (Psalm 119:99-100)

Yes, marriage and motherhood mature us in big ways. We could even say they are the normative plan for life maturity. But when God chooses to work outside the norm, does he leave his beloved daughter stuck in a lower life cycle? Should we automatically assume the 40-year-old single woman has less wisdom than the 40-year-old wife married for two decades, or the 40-year-old mom of 3 teens? Of course not. God desires all of his daughters to grow up into his fullness—and he shows them the way to complete maturity:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)

It takes joyful endurance to stay married.

It takes joyful endurance to parent children.

It takes joyful endurance to be single.

So all of us, in every season of life, have the same shot at maturity—as we remain in the Word and in relationship with each other, and we endure with joy.

~ ~ ~

Endurance in singleness can come in a variety of forms, one of which is the pursuit of purity in a sexually crazed and confused culture. For the woman who believes sex is a sacred gift For Marriage Only—regardless of whether she has heterosexual desires, experiences same-sex attraction, comes from a history of sexual abuse, or has spent years in sexual sin—she faces the Sisyphean task of purity—for years and even decades. (Although, unlike Sisyphus, her task is ultimately fruitful, not futile.)

What’s more, as intense as this war is, single women do most of their battling alone, and isolation can feel more grueling than a bout with the Grim Reaper.

For example, when I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, I began sending out regular email updates with specific ways people could pray for our family. To a certain extent, people “get cancer”—they know what’s at stake and understand the vocabulary. Words like invasive, aggressive, and chemotherapy clearly communicated our family’s grave reality, and as a result, we received an outpouring of love and support.

In stark contrast, I felt incredibly isolated and without a vocabulary for my sexual reality in singleness. How could I describe what it was like to daily deny the strong impulses of my flesh—without sounding disturbing, inappropriate, or desperate? How could I share my struggle just enough to not feel so alone?

But again, grief is accompanied by gift, and when God called me to something as difficult (i.e., humanly impossible) as abstinence into my mid-thirties, he gave me such a breathtaking experience of his presence that I enjoyed soul intimacy with him even more than I longed for physical intimacy with a man. During those years, I knew that Isaiah 62 had been written just for me:

You will no longer be called Deserted,
And your land will not be called Desolate;
Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her….
As a groom rejoices over his bride, so your God will rejoice over you.

~ ~ ~

Community. Maturity. Sexuality. These are just a few snapshots of the Beautiful Arduous Hill. And while many wiser women and better writers have already said all there is to say about this hike, I add my own small voice in celebration of the incredible women in my life who daily wield mighty weapons, endure with joy, and model what it is to love Jesus more than husband, children, and home. To them I say, “All my delight is in you.”