I was taken aback. Who says that I can never be truly happy unless I am married with children?
Well, just about every book, play, film, TV show or advertisement that has ever been written for starters. Society, churches, our families and friends. We all ‘know’ from childhood that ‘happy ever after’ has to include a lifelong romantic relationship and at least the prospect of children. And if we haven’t learned that message early on in life it comes at us from all sides as we grow up and continues to do so throughout our lives.
I went into my room and sat on the bed. And realised that if I continued to believe this refrain that had been playing in my head for as long as I could remember – I was made to be a wife and mother, I can never be truly happy or fulfilled without being married and having children – I could be setting myself up to be miserable for the rest of my life.
And that when you start to think about it, as I did, sat on my bed in the conference centre, it is not what God says, and it is not what the Bible says (though you could be forgiven for thinking it is, given the messages on the subject given out in most Christian circles). It might be how I felt, but it was not the truth.
Bible verses tumbled into my mind:
‘You are complete in Christ’ (Colossians 2:10)
‘…it is good…to stay unmarried.’ (1 Cor 7:8)
‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.’ (Philippians 4:11)
‘I am come that [you] might have life, life in all its fullness.’ (John 10:10) (There is no caveat saying ‘but only if you are married with children’. This promise is for all of us, regardless of our circumstances. Fullness of life is on offer whatever your marital status.)
I also realised, strangely for the first time, that the two pre-eminent figures in the new Testament are both single. Jesus and Paul. Both gloriously single, fulfilled, living in deep relationship with God and with others, surrounded by friendships that go even deeper than familial ties, and living full lives doing God’s will. (Of course many people since have suggested that they can’t possibly have been single and living fulfilled lives without wives, children, and, apparently most unbelievable of all, sex. It just isn’t possible is it?)
Nowhere does the Bible say that our primary purpose in life is to be married with children. Verses sometimes used to suggest that marriage is superior to singleness are taken out of context and misinterpreted. God’s word says that we are made to live life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It says that fullness of life comes from him, not from our circumstances. That we are created to worship him and that this gives us purpose and fulfilment. It says that we are made to love and be loved by God, and to love and be loved by others. Made for deep relationships with others, yes. But that doesn’t have to be in a romantic/marriage relationship.
I didn’t leave that conference happy to be single. I did leave with a new hope that maybe, if I was willing, God could change the way I felt about being single. And with a determination to challenge my own and other people’s deeply rooted, and mostly unhelpful, views on singleness, and to live singleness the best I possibly could, one day at a time. To ask myself, and God, each day how I could best live that day for him in my current circumstances, even if they were not the circumstances I would have chosen.
Each time the ‘I was made to be a wife and mother…’ refrain started in my head I refuted it, declaring that it was not from God and that I refused to believe it. I waged war on unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about singleness, talking back at them, quoting scripture at them, refusing to listen to them, and slowly they, and the feelings that accompanied them, began to change. There were still painful moments and experiences but over time they gradually became less frequent.
Along with a small group of Christian singles between 35 and 60, I started a search for material that would celebrate and value singleness the way marriage is celebrated and valued, give a true biblical perspective, and empower singles to work through their struggles and live fulfilled lives whether they remain single or eventually marry. There was (and still is) shockingly little out there but Al Hsu’s book The Single Issue is a book which took us all several steps further on our own personal journeys.
Within a few years I found myself devising a day conference for Christian singles with a friend; preaching on singleness; putting together and running a weekly course for Christian singles that encouraged people to change their view of singleness by both celebrating singleness and supporting them in their struggles with it; and doing my Masters research on issues facing single women in the church.
There was talk one year of me being asked to speak at New Wine. I wasn’t even well enough to get to New Wine even if I’d been officially asked. The Rev Kate Wharton ‘stole’ my gig! She followed it up by writing what is possibly the best book there is on the matter: Single-Minded. Recommended reading for all Christians, single or married, and essential reading for church leaders. (If you haven’t read it, get it here) Much of what she says is almost identical to my sermon, course, and research material. (So much so that when I read it I panicked that I had nicked her material. Until I realised that mine was written several years before hers! God has taken us on very similar journeys.)
Learning to live a content and fulfilled life as a single person is an ongoing journey, just as marriage is an ongoing journey. It helps to see it as a challenge and an adventure that you are determined to make the best of, however hard it may be at times, and to do it in partnership with God and with others.
Thirteen years after I attended that conference, I can honestly say that I have discovered that it is possible to learn contentment and find fulfilment in singleness, and that the Bible backs that up. Not always easy, no. Determining to find a way to live a content and fulfilled life as a single person, for however long that lasts, in a world and a church that constantly tell you, implicitly and explicitly, that marriage (or at least coupledom) is best, sex is essential to a happy life, children are vital for fulfilment, and that singleness is inferior, and inevitably sad and lonely, is a countercultural and radical act of defiance. A countercultural and radical act of defiance through which the power, grace, and transforming love of God can shine more brightly than you could ever imagine.
Everybody, married or single, has unfulfilled desires in their life. They are part of life; part of being human. The challenge for all of us is to find ways of living a fulfilled life in spite of our unfulfilled desires.