Jennifer Holberg teaches English at Calvin College.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay originally appeared in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought (Ocotober, 2002). Used by permission. It was written by Jennifer Holberg, an assistant professor of English at Calvin and co-editor and co-founder of the award-winning Pedagogy.
I have decided that asking God for a husband is like the Israelites asking for a king: they only wanted one because everyone else had one and once they got one, it was all downhill from there.
Don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t refuse a husband if he showed up. After all, God clearly has excellent taste and sent the Israelites someone that my students would term a “hottie.” The King James version puts it quite nicely: Saul was “a choice young man, and goodly and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he” (1 Samuel 9:2). I could definitely go for “choice and goodly”—in fact, if one can discount Saul’s little issues later on with anger management and spear-throwing, he seems like quite the catch, especially given the choice of available men for women over 30.
No, I’m not anti-marriage at all, but when was the last time anyone heard a sermon on the latter part of 1 Corinthians 7? This chapter clearly valorizes the single life, praising in particular the ability of single people to focus on the work of the church and encouraging them to remain unmarried. It is notable that in this text and related ones throughout scripture, Christianity assumes a respect for the single life, and in Pauline terms, one could argue almost a downright bias towards it. But one wouldn’t know it from contemporary Christian culture.
The Church seems to have so completely bought into the larger culture’s ideas about what marriage means.
While most single Christians I know don’t mind the myriad sermons preached on marriage each year (married people are after all the overwhelming majority and clearly need all the spiritual encouragement they can get), while they tolerate the very occasional (almost always lame) attempt by the politically correct minister to include them in sermon illustrations and the like, and while they try to charitably answer the well-meaning people in their church who say sensitive things such as, “You’re such a great gal—I can’t believe no one’s snatched you up yet,” what I do think is difficult for most single Christians is that the Church seems to have so completely bought into the larger culture’s ideas about what marriage means.
A case in point: this past spring I thought about joining a Bible study group run by a well-known national organization. I had heard that they had a thriving singles’ study and, I’ll be honest, I had decided that perhaps I should “make an effort” and try to meet some single people. (Okay, read: single men). At least, I rationalized, I would be increasing my knowledge of scripture, particularly if none of the men turned out to be “choice and goodly.” So during coffee after our morning service, I approached a woman in my church who was involved with this ministry and expressed my interest. I should have instantly known I was in trouble when she immediately turned to her husband and said, “Honey, Jennifer’s interested in Bible study. We should introduce her to Jim (not his real name) -- he’s [and yes, she really said it] such a great guy!” The classic words of Monty Python, “Run away, run away,” began to reverberate loudly in my head, but I ignored them and began to marshal all my energies toward resisting the deadliest form of “the set-up,” that done by members of one’s church who, like Star-Trek’s Borg, believe that resistance is futile. Instead, her husband responded, “Oh no, remember--he’s not in that study anymore.” Curious, I inquired into the sad fate of poor Jim and found out the following: 1) that this singles’ group was in fact called the “Young Adult” study; 2) that this “Young Adult” group had an age limit of 35; and 3) that after 35, one could no longer attend, but was forced to leave the co-ed group and join a single sex study. Unlucky Jim—I almost took his number out of pity. Tossed out of his Bible study at 36 and when he probably needed it most. What was more troubling for me, though, was when this woman then inquired as to my age and chirriply remarked: “Why you’re just under the wire.” What a comfort—I still had at least a year before being exiled forever into a warm puddle of estrogen.
Certainly, it is often implied, that like an adolescent, the single person has unlimited supplies of free time and an endlessly flexible schedule.
Thankfully, it turned out my racquetball league conflicted with the study, and I got over my obviously rash decision to “make an effort.” But the underlying assumptions of this group unfortunately reflect the attitudes of Christian culture in general about the single person: first, that “young” and “single” are synonymous. Last summer, for example, when Christianity Today ran a special issue on the single Christian, most of the articles were written by singles in their 20s. Their early 20s. While I’m not denying that this group of singles has legitimate issues with which to deal, it is also laughable to pretend that that demographic has any clue about single life in the 30s and beyond. Christianity Today’s failure to seriously address mature single life lends credence to the idea that if one is single, one has an extended adolescence at least until one’s mid-30s, if not permanently. Certainly, it is often implied, that like an adolescent, the single person has unlimited supplies of free time and an endlessly flexible schedule. Moreover, if one is unmarried and childless, life must be one long vacation, full of fun and self-indulgence. Or if it isn’t, at least it’s not as bad and time-consuming as endless schlepping the children around in the mini-van. To be honest, most people (married and single) wouldn’t admit it publicly, but deep down they have bought into the idea that maturity only comes after one says, “I do.” While I admit that, from my own observations, marriage certainly does require a great deal of forbearance, the maturity formed by the peculiar combination of self-reliance and loneliness that is the single’s lot is rarely acknowledged, even by singles themselves.
Of course, if we pretend singleness is only a function of youth, then it makes sense to assume, as the Bible study group did, that after 35 there is no real need for a special group for singles. I mean really, this seems to suggest, if it has taken you until now to find someone, you must be beyond hope. And, in some ways, I agree that segregation by marital status can be tedious. After all, most of my closest friends are married women with children, and naturally, I prefer hanging out with them. And, I do believe that single people should be fully involved in the life of the church—in every ministry opportunity and at every social event. At the same time, however, the either/or mentality of this group and many churches is troubling: one can either be single or one can be adult. It seems to me that a better option would be to offer a range of studies, based on age and marital status, that would provide an opportunity, if one desired, to meet with like-minded people. That doesn’t mean that I might not choose to go to the study with a variety of women, but it would show greater Christian charity, a greater effort to build everyone up, to concede that there will be times when everyone is more nourished by being able to share his or her concerns with others in similar circumstances (in much the same way that no one balks at a ministry for mothers of pre-schoolers or study groups for young marrieds). Everything in its season.
The Bible teaches us a much more complicated formula: we are only completed by Christ’s redemptive work, never by each other.
Neither of these assumptions, I think, arises from malice or bad intentions. Instead, in an attempt to combat the rising tide of broken homes, promiscuity, and a general decline in public morality, the Church has focused on elevating marriage and family to almost salvific heights, thereby unintentionally trading a rich theology that proclaims fulfillment in Christ for the more popular Jerry Maguire syndrome: “You complete me.” This syndrome is definitely very romantic, even if it is ultimately intellectually analogous to the tradition when I was in junior high of couples wearing halves of a heart around each’s neck. While the rhetoric is tempting, the math is all wrong: ½ + ½=1. But the Bible teaches us a much more complicated formula: we are only completed by Christ’s redemptive work, never by each other. The wonder of marriage is that two completed people, mysteriously, can become one. This implies, of course, that as Christians, we move towards wholeness as we acquire more and more the heart of Christ—not the junky jewelry version of a broken-hearted man.
To acquire the heart of Christ means I must strive to be content with the life he has given me. That doesn’t mean becoming complacent or defeatist and it also doesn’t mean not acknowledging disappointments. But to believe that my own disappointments are greater because I am single than those disappointments that occur within the lives of my married brothers and sisters would be a grave error. Our dissatisfaction is really claiming that God hasn’t given us exactly what we think we need, that we know how our lives should be and God doesn’t. I guess I’m ultimately not willing to say that. Or to spend my time pining over something that God doesn’t think I need at the moment. I like the fact that “content” makes a nice pun: we are most content when we are full of content. I want to be that person of substance, not some empty vessel waiting to be “completed” by a relationship, a job, or a possession. By cultivating a spirit of thankfulness, we continually remind ourselves of our dependence on God and help counteract our desire to have a king like everybody else. Instead, we can focus on the real work of all of our lives: to love our friends and family extravagantly, to serve our God faithfully, and to live out our salvation joyfully.