7. Some Practical Advice For Singles (1 Corinthians 7:1-9, 25-40)Related Media
November 12, 2017
When John Wesley was a 32-year-old missionary in Georgia, he fell in love with a beautiful 18-year-old girl. He was torn between being committed to celibacy or marrying her. A friend suggested drawing lots to discern God’s will. Wesley agreed, so on one slip of paper, the friend wrote, “Marry.” On another, “Think not of it this year.” On the third, “Think of it no more.” Wesley closed his eyes and drew out the note that read, “Think of it no more.” The young woman married another man and Wesley was heartbroken.
Fifteen years later, Wesley married a wealthy widow, but the marriage was a disaster. He admitted later that he did not marry for happiness and he did not find it. He was gone a lot and wasn’t an easy man to live with. His wife eventually left him. When she later died, Wesley didn’t even know of her death until after the funeral.
How do you know if God wants you to marry and, if so, who is the right person? We all know that at the very least, Christians must marry Christians. But beyond that, how can you know God’s will on this important decision?
I’d like to offer some practical advice to singles, based on Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7. He was writing to a church in a pagan, sex-saturated society. There were problems with immorality even among the members of the Corinthian church. Apparently, in reaction to the sensuality of the culture, some in the church were saying that the celibate life is the truly spiritual life. Even some who were married concluded that it was more spiritual to abstain from sexual relations in marriage. So Paul addresses these and some other problems. I can’t deal with the chapter in detail, but Paul’s main point for singles is:
Singles should pursue a path that leads to the greatest devotion to Christ and His cause.
That principle applies to every Christian, single or married, of course. Every Christian should ask, “How can I best seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33)?” But it is especially Paul’s word to singles. I offer three main thoughts:
1. If you can remain single and be devoted to the Lord in purity, stay single.
While marriage is God’s plan for most people, He has gifted some to remain single so that they can serve Him without the encumbrances that necessarily go along with marriage. When Paul says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1), he is using the word “touch” as a figure of speech that uses the physical relationship in marriage to represent marriage as a whole. Thus, he means, “It is good to remain single.” He restates the same idea in verses 7-9, and discusses it at length in verses 25-40. He is not commanding being single, since he recognizes the single state as a gift which God only gives to some; but he is strongly commending it, since it was a gift he himself had, and since it provides a number of advantages for serving the Lord that being married precludes.
This probably needs to be said more often. Many Christians put pressure on singles, especially older singles, to get married. Sometimes we convey an unbiblical attitude: “I wonder what’s wrong with him (or her) that he’s not married? He seems like a nice person.” But Paul teaches that being single is good if a person is gifted for it, since it opens some opportunities for serving Christ that are closed to married people. To say this is not to deprecate marriage, which both Paul and other biblical writers esteem as God’s good gift (1 Tim. 4:3; Heb. 13:4). It’s just a matter of how God has gifted a person.
A. Being single has several advantages:
There are at least four advantages for the person who is gifted to remain single:
(1) Singles have more freedom in difficult times. Interpreters differ, and so I can’t be dogmatic, but I think that Paul sensed an impending time of persecution against the church (1 Cor. 7:26). In such times, it’s easier to be single than married. Paul is quick to add (v. 28) that a person who marries at such a time has not sinned. But the married person will have more trouble (the Greek word means “pressure”), and Paul is trying to spare him. It’s one thing to be imprisoned or martyred for your faith as a single person. But it’s much more difficult, both for you and your family, if you’re married. So in a situation where persecution is likely, being single means that you’ll have more freedom than if you had a family. In the same vein …
(2) Singles have more flexibility to go to difficult places with the gospel. If you sense God’s call to take the gospel to a place where you may suffer persecution or severe hardship, you may want to remain single. There are notable exceptions: Don Richardson and his wife took their infant son with them to the cannibalistic Sawi people of Irian Jaya, as told in his classic, Peace Child [Bethany House]. They not only survived; they also saw the Sawi people come to Christ en masse. And that infant son, Steve Richardson, is now the director of Pioneers mission. Another example was Elisabeth Elliot, who went with her young daughter to live with the primitive tribe that had murdered her husband and four other young missionaries. So it’s not an ironclad rule. But it is easier to go to difficult places as a single person rather than taking your family.
(3) Singles have more freedom to devote themselves fully to God and His service. In verses 32-35, Paul points out that the single person has more time to devote to the things of the Lord than a married person does. Marriage carries with it certain responsibilities that take time and effort which otherwise could have been given to the Lord. Of course, both married and single people can be fully devoted to the Lord. But Paul’s point is that if a single person gives himself fully to the Lord and His service, and a married person does the same, the single person can do more, since he does not have the family obligations that the married person has.
Or, if you have a ministry that requires long periods of travel, it might create such a strain on your family that it would be better not to get married. I have read of missionaries whose long absences from home damaged their families. C. T. Studd left his wife, who was too ill to travel, in England while he went to Africa. They were only together a couple of weeks during her last eleven years of life. David Livingstone left his wife and children for years while he pioneered in the interior of Africa. They suffered greatly as a result.
For over 15 years, Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, was away from his family an average of ten months each year. When he visited home, he often didn’t even unpack his suitcase (Marilee P. Dunker, Days of Glory, Seasons of Night [Zondervan], pp. 79, 91-92)! He used to say (p. 103), “I’ve made an agreement with God that I’ll take care of His helpless little lambs overseas if He’ll take care of mine at home.” But his marriage ended in divorce, one daughter committed suicide, and the daughter who wrote about their family had to struggle through a lot of emotional trauma.
While God accomplished much good through these dedicated men, I believe their witness was marred by neglecting their families. I think that if God is calling you to be a missionary, your first responsibility is still to your wife and children. Singles don’t have to be concerned about those responsibilities.
(4) Singles have more freedom to give sacrificially to the Lord’s work. Raising a family is expensive! While many married couples give generously to the Lord’s work, they cannot give as much as an unencumbered single person who is committed to the Great Commission. A single person doesn’t have to worry about buying a home large enough for a family; paying for all of the food, clothes, medical bills, braces, college educations, and other stuff that rearing a family requires. A single person only has to provide for himself. He’s free to give more to the Lord’s work.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “If staying single has all these advantages, then why shouldn’t we all stay single? Why get married?” Paul says (v. 7) that remaining single is a special gift from God. While he wishes that everyone had that gift, he recognizes that this is not so. From this chapter and other Scriptures, we learn that …
B. Being married has other advantages:
(1) Marriage provides a God-given outlet for sexual desires. Paul is very practical and realistic when he says (v. 2), “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.” He adds (v. 9), “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.”
If you’re single and find that fighting sexual temptation is a constant battle, then you probably don’t have the gift of celibacy. You need to pursue marriage. Paul is not saying that it is impossible for a single person to resist temptation, because he says (1 Cor. 10:13) that in every temptation, God provides the way of escape. Every Christian can be pure in thought and deed. But if fighting the battle for purity is all-consuming, the best solution is not more self-control, but a wife (or husband). Of course, temptations don’t end with marriage; you still need self-control. But God has given marriage as a legitimate outlet for sexual desires.
(2) Marriage provides companionship to relieve loneliness. Here I’m going back to Genesis, where Adam was in a perfect environment, in unbroken fellowship with his Creator, and yet God said (Gen. 2:18), “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him.” If as a single you can reasonably control your loneliness through Christian fellowship, then you may be able to remain single. When I was single and in my mid-twenties, my mother gave me a book titled, Single and Satisfied. She meant well, but in spite of having some good friends, I was single and unsatisfied! I was lonely. I never read that book, but I kept praying in line with God’s Book, which says, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him.”
(3) Marriage is the God-given context to raise up godly children. Children need the influence and example of a godly, loving father and mother so that they will grow up to know, love, and serve the Lord. Even when I was single, I loved kids and wanted my own. Even now when my kids are grown with their own kids, I miss the time when they were in our home. If you love kids and want your own, you probably don’t have the gift of celibacy.
(4) Marriage and children provide opportunities for witness to those without Christ. Of course, singles have opportunities for witness that married couples don’t. But as we’ve seen, marriage is to be a picture of Christ and the church. As the world sees a husband’s gentle, Christlike love for his wife and the kind, loving way they deal with their children, it is a witness for Christ.
So if you marry, it should not be for self-centered fulfillment. The idea of getting married and settling down in suburbia with your nice home, two cars, a good job, weekend recreational hobbies, and, of course, a church for the weekends when you’re not doing something else, is worldly. While marriage and children are good gifts from God that bring great joy and happiness, you should marry because you can better serve Christ in line with your spiritual gifts as a married person. All Christians are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. If you get married to seek first your own happiness, you’ll come up empty (Matt. 6:33; 16:25).
2. If you’re not gifted for celibacy, pray and look for a godly spouse.
When I was single, Paul’s words (v. 9), “Let them marry,” often frustrated me. He makes it sound so simple! Okay, so how do I go about doing that? There’s a lot of living packed into those three words! I don’t have specific chapter and verse for everything I’m about to say, but along with the apostle Paul (v. 25), I give my opinion “as one who, by the mercy of the Lord, is trustworthy” (of course, Paul was inspired in saying this; I’m not!). Five suggestions:
A. Focus on personal growth in godliness.
You can use your time as a single person to sit around feeling depressed and lonely. Or, you can fill all your time with being around people. But I’m suggesting that you use some of your alone time to seek the Lord in His Word and in prayer. If you use your time to read and study God’s Word, to pray, to read good Christian books, and to serve the Lord in some capacity, when God introduces you to your life partner, you will be mature enough for the responsibilities of Christian marriage. If you want a godly mate, you’ve got to become the kind of person the kind of person you want to marry would want to marry, namely, a godly person!
When I was single and on active duty in the Coast Guard in the Bay Area of Northern California, I was very lonely. That area has a lot of temptations! But I spent many evenings sitting in a coffee shop or in the University of California library, reading the Bible and Christian books. On my way back to the base, I would pull off alongside the harbor and spend time praying. It was a lonely time in my life, but I was much better off than if I had yielded to the temptations of the flesh.
B. Never consider marriage to an unbeliever.
Burn it into your thinking: It is never God’s will for a Christian to become unequally yoked with a non-Christian in marriage (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14-18). For some reason, it is usually Christian women who get tangled up with “nice” (they’re always nice!) unbelieving men, rather than the other way around. I don’t care how nice he is, if he is not committed to Jesus Christ and if he is not denying himself daily to follow Christ, then you’ll be miserable being married to him. Your children will suffer. Your devotion to Christ will be hindered. Don’t do it!
C. Guard your moral purity.
As Paul writes (1 Cor. 6:18), “Flee immorality.” Your body belongs to God, whose Spirit dwells in you. Therefore, you are to glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Paul says (1 Cor. 6:16) that even if a man gets involved with a harlot, he becomes one flesh with her. Having sex is more than just a physical union. Physical intimacy, even in a so-called “one night stand,” creates the illusion of personal intimacy. But it clouds and confuses the real issues that need to be the foundation of a Christian marriage. It creates guilt. It carries the risk of STD’s. It defiles you and your brother or sister in Christ. As Paul states (1 Cor. 7:1-5), the sexual relationship is proper in marriage, but only in marriage.
To guard your moral purity in our sex-saturated society, you’ve got to plan for it. If you visit the Grand Canyon and don’t want to fall over the edge, plan not to go near the cliff! If you want to guard your moral purity, plan not to get yourself into tempting situations. Garrison Keillor used to have the pastor in Lake Wobegon say in his talk on sexual purity, “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?”
As a guy speaking to guys, don’t go out with a girl with the agenda of seeing how far you can go physically. Even if you don’t intend to go all the way, if your focus is on sex, you’re sinning. Your aim should be to build up your sister in Christ and to get to know her, not to indulge your lust. Plan for purity!
D. Study godly character qualities so that you’ll know what you’re looking for.
If you needed to shop for a new car, you’d probably do some research so that you wouldn’t spend a lot of money on a lemon. And yet many Christian singles never give any thought to what qualities they should be looking for in a godly mate! I’ve seen girls end up married to abusive men because they were looking for a macho, good-looking guy, not a man of God. If a man doesn’t treat you with respect, gentleness, self-sacrificing love, and other godly traits, don’t marry him. You’re not going to transform him! Study the deeds of the flesh so that you know which traits to avoid. Study the fruit of the Spirit so that you know which qualities to look for (Gal. 5:19-23). While no one is perfect, you want a person who is committed to growing in godliness.
E. Be wise, but not super-spiritual.
By this I mean, God expects you to pray and wait on Him, but He also expects you to use appropriate means for finding a mate. Sometimes we get super-spiritual, thinking that God is going to rain down manna from heaven, when He expects us to plow our field and plant some seeds! There’s nothing wrong with putting yourself in situations where you may meet a godly mate. That can include involvement with a church college group or a campus ministry, attending a conference for Christian singles, or carefully using a Christian online dating service. I said, “Carefully!” I’m not saying that looking for a mate should be your only reason for going to a church college group. But it can be one reason!
Also, even though godly character should be primary, it’s not unspiritual to be physically attracted to someone. Read the Song of Solomon; the lovers there aren’t extolling the finer points of each other’s spirituality! In its proper place, there’s nothing wrong with physical attraction.
Also, don’t be so super-spiritual that you overlook liking the person. You’re looking for a companion, and a lot of companionship involves liking the person’s personality. You should have some common interests and be able to enjoy just being together without having to do things. You should be able to accept the person as he or she is, without major remodeling. Also, seek the counsel of those who know you well, especially your parents. Any strong opposition from parents should be weighed very carefully.
So, if you can remain single and be devoted to the Lord, do it. If you’re not gifted for celibacy, pray and look for a godly mate.
3. Marriage is not the final solution to your problems; God is!
Marriage is a wonderful gift from God. As Proverbs 31:10-12 exclaims, “An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.” Amen! Next to Jesus, Marla is the best gift God has given me! And my children and grandchildren are right after that!
But at the same time, if God is not at the center of your life and your mate’s life, marriage will create more problems than it solves. Without the Lord at the center, marriage brings together two self-centered people expecting the other person to meet his or her needs. That doesn’t work. Put God at the center of your life. Pray that He will bring you a mate with the same commitment. Then joyfully follow Him together.
Psychologist William Marston once asked 300 people, “What do you have to live for?” Nine out of ten were simply waiting for something to happen—a better job, a new house, a trip, etc. They were putting in time while they waited for an uncertain tomorrow.
But as Christians, our mentality should be that of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: the time is short and eternity is just ahead. Our focus should be on the Lord and His kingdom. If He graciously gives you the blessings of a Christian marriage, enjoy it thankfully. But don’t put your hopes for fulfillment in a family. Hope in the Lord! Whether you’re single or married, your purpose should never be to seek self-fulfillment. Rather, your purpose should be to pursue a course that leads to the greatest devotion to Christ and His cause in these days that remain before His coming.
- Do Christians put too much emphasis on marriage as a key to fulfillment and happiness? Should we put more emphasis on the legitimacy of remaining single?
- In what ways is the American dating system anti-Christian? Should Christians “kiss dating good-bye” or use it cautiously?
- Practically, how can we avoid allowing a good thing (marriage) to take the place of the best thing (devotion to Christ)?
- How important should physical attraction be in deciding on a marriage partner?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Related Topics: Singleness