We know you are there—almost sixty million of you in America. And we are listening. One of the most important things we have learned is that we do not know what it is like to be single in America today—at least not the way you know it. Margaret Clarkson made this very plain to us:
Because married people were all single once, they tend to think that they know all there is to know about singleness. I suggest that this is not so; that there is a vast difference between being single at 25 or 30, with marriage still a viable possibility, and being single at 45 or 50 or 60, with little or no prospect of ever being anything else. Singleness has a cumulative effect on the human spirit which is entirely different at 50 than at 30.1
What I would like to do in this foreword is try to let single people do as much of the talking as possible— people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul and some contemporary men and women who serve in the single life. This way we will be listening and speaking at the same time. I realize I am going to filter all of this through my happily married lens. It is futile in one sense for me to write this chapter, except that I do not put it forward as something definitive about the single experience today, but as a call to married folks to listen and a statement to single folks that this book and this issue have to do with you, even though many of its chapters deal with marriage. Enough singles have read this foreword already to let me know that some things I say hit the nail on the head and some things do not fit their experience at all. My hope is to listen closely enough and speak truly enough that married and single people will be helped along in the conversation.
We also pray that in the process there will be tremendous encouragement and challenge for your faith and ministry. We believe the vision of manhood and womanhood in this book is utterly relevant for single people. Why this is so will become clear before we come to the end of this foreword.
We hear at least eight important theses on singleness when we tune in to Jesus and His contemporary single followers.2
I. Marriage, as we know it in this age, is not the final destiny of any human.
My mother was killed in a bus collision near Bethlehem in Israel in 1974. She was fifty-six years old and had been married to my father for thirty-seven years. As the grief began to heal, God gave my father another wonderful wife. I rejoice in this. But it has caused me to take much more seriously the words of Jesus to the Sadducees concerning marriage in the resurrection. They told Jesus about a woman who was widowed seven times. “At the resurrection,” they asked, “whose wife will she be?” Jesus answered, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
This is important to me because it means my father will not be a bigamist in the age to come. Why? Because in the resurrection, marriage as we know it will not exist. This has profound significance for singleness in this life. It means that if two wives will not be one too many, then no wives will not be one too few. If love in the age to come is transposed into a key above and beyond the melody of marriage in this life, then singleness here will prove to be no disadvantage in eternity.
In fact, there is some warrant for thinking that the kinds of self-denial involved in singleness could make one a candidate for greater capacities for love in the age to come. No one has left anything for the sake of the kingdom, says the Lord Jesus, who will not receive back far more (Matthew 19:27-30). Many unmarried people have strengthened their hands with this truth. For example, Trevor Douglas, a single missionary with Regions Beyond Missionary Union, working in the Philippines among the Ifugao people, wrote 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. As I have applied his promises in Matthew 19:27-30 to myself, 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’ll trade 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.3
II. Jesus Christ, the most fully human person who ever lived, was not married.
In 1987, I wrote an editorial for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune during a volatile controversy over advertising condoms on television.4 The concern of the networks was to help curb the spread of AIDS. My basic point was: “In the act of endorsing protection from disease, the ads also endorse its cause, namely, sexual promiscuity.” I said that the claim that condoms make for “safe” sex betrayed an incredible naiveté about human nature.
My argument went like this: “Personhood is deeper and more significant than what is physical. Only a superficial view of personhood says we will be ‘safe’ if we can avoid a disease while pursuing acts that Western civilization has overwhelmingly called immoral and that the Bible indicts as dishonoring to our creator. . . . Not only the Biblical teaching but also the testimony of human conscience in varied cultures around the world have said for centuries that extramarital sex and homosexual activity are destructive to personhood, to relationships and to the honor of God, who made our sexuality to deepen and gladden the union of man and woman in marriage.”
You can imagine that this did not go unchallenged. I got a letter from one young man who spoke for a certain group of single people when he said, “My girlfriend and I have lots of good sex together. We think your ideas are repressive leftovers from the Victorian era that make people neurotic and miserable. We think our sexuality is part of our personhood, and not to enjoy it is to be incomplete people. We have no intention of getting married to meet the expectations of any puritans. And we think a life of slavery to virginity would mean being only half human.”5
When I wrote back to this man, the centerpiece of my response was this: The most fully human person who has ever lived, or ever will live, is Jesus Christ, and He never once had sexual intercourse.
This can be powerfully liberating to single people who may think at times, “This one thing I will never have, sexual relations, and in not having it I will not be all I was meant to be.” To this thought Jesus, the virgin, says, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). We will always have mountains of truly human Christ-likeness yet to climb, but sexual intercourse is not one of them. For He never knew it. And He is infinitely whole.
The paradox we may feel in this is captured in the title of Luci Swindoll’s book on singleness: Wide My World, Narrow My Bed. Single by choice at forty-nine (when she wrote the book), she shows that the narrow path of the Son of Man, who had no place to lay his head (not even on a woman’s shoulder), leads into a wide world of wonder and freedom and joy and love.6
Cheryl Forbes illustrates how she and other single women and men have been inspired by the “wideness” of Jesus’ single life:
Jesus is the example to follow. He was single. He was born to serve. . . . He had deep friendships among all sorts of people—men, women, single, married. That was his work, an intimate part of his ultimate mission of dying on the cross for our sins. . . . His relationships with Mary, Martha, Peter, and the other disciples helped prepare him for his death. No one can love in the abstract. He allowed himself to be interrupted by needy children, distraught fathers, hungry men and sick women. . . . Jesus sought to make himself vulnerable.7