Pastoring Discontented Singles
Let’s attempt an experiment in discourse, shall we? You may recognize a few of the following statements from the chatter of your own social circles.
“Isn’t she just the sweetest thing? How on earth is she still single?”
“He’s single, but he still has great leadership potential.”
“No, I’m not married. Just single.”
Each of these statements refer to the fact of a person’s singleness. But human beings are incapable of discussing bare facts. We hold opinions about those facts—or we could say, interpretations of those facts. Perhaps you could sense the negative interpretations of singleness that sweated through the surface of these statements: If a woman is attractive enough, there’s simply no explanation for singleness; leadership is best proven as a married person; singleness is a reduced status (“just”) compared to being married.
This basic distinction between fact and interpretation is helpful when pastoring discontented singles. By interpretation, I just mean the meaning they confer on their singleness, how it feels to them, what opinion they hold regarding it. If singleness is a fact, then discontentment is the interpretation.
Identifying discontentment as an interpretation does not delegitimize it. But it does help singles process their experience before the Lord. How do we know discontentment is an interpretation? Well, the fact is, not all singles are discontent, and those who are discontent may be so for different reasons, at different levels of intensity, or with different frequency. Some struggle with a more occasional discontentment, triggered by specific interactions or situations, while others struggle with a more chronic discontentment that lays over their life like a fog that never quite clears.
A good pastor has to be a good listener—and after being a good listener, a good guide. This is true of any situation church members find themselves in, including being discontent with singleness. So, here’s a brief strategy for helping someone process their experience of discontentment about being single.
“HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR OWN SINGLENESS?”
Questions like this are an attempt to help singles understand the meaning they’re conferring on their singleness. In the broadest sense, those who are discontent are perceiving their singleness as a form of suffering. So, before you jump to “the gift of singleness” language, I’d strongly advise you to explore why, for them in particular, singleness hurts.
These reasons can range from straightforward loneliness to a broader disappointment that permeates other areas of life. The experience can involve fear of being excluded from intimacy or jealousy of those who appear to enjoy such a privilege. It can include guilt for not being assertive enough, self-loathing for not being attractive enough, frustration for not being pursued, or a general despair over the whole mess.
All these experiences indicate some evaluation of their singleness, that it’s hindering them from something they want. In other words, marriage represents certain values to them, and they are painfully aware of not having access to those values. As a pastor, you want to help them be aware of those specific desires before the Lord. But before we get to how to process desires before the Lord, let’s throw in another contributing factor to their interpretation of their own singleness.
“HOW DO THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU SEE YOUR SINGLENESS?”
Singles are all-too-aware of how others interpret their singleness. Parents and family members are often quite eager to share their opinion explicitly, or to make the kind of comments that drip with implicit meaning, like the statements in our little experiment above. Often, you can help singles immensely by freeing them from the meaning that other people confer on their singleness.
That includes family members and close friends. But it also includes the public discourse they’re part of—the pastors they sit under, the popular bloggers they read, the romantic comedies they watch, even the stories they’ve been told since childhood. What meaning does their culture give to singleness? Often, there’s a lot of unintended error (and even some stupidity) mixed in.
Both their own perspective and the perspective of their culture on singleness needs to be submitted to something higher.
“HOW DOES GOD SEE YOUR SINGLENESS?”
God says at least two things about singleness: It is suffering. And it is a gift.
Don’t jump to the gift part without affirming the suffering part. In the broadest theological terms, suffering is the pain of living outside the immediate presence of God, where we were designed to live in perfect intimacy with him. The benefits of that intimacy are reflected in the marriage covenant he established for man and woman (Gen 2:18). For a person who desires those benefits, not receiving them is a form of suffering, since he or she is being excluded from what God calls good. Affirm these desires. In other words, lacking these values God created as good involves the same kind of suffering acknowledged in the Psalms (for example, Psalms 31, 37, 38, 42-43, 73).
But place these desires in the larger framework of how God leads his children in this present age of waiting. While for some this is the specific gift of singleness (1 Cor 7:6–7), that’s not my point here. My point is that God is clever enough to make even suffering a gift. God often withholds things he agrees are good to compel us onward to things he says are best.
This is Paul’s secret of contentment: that whether good is given or withheld, he considers the value of knowing Christ Jesus as surpassing it all. This was something he acknowledges he had to learn (Phil 4:11). Sometimes, in the rush to get to Paul’s victorious statement about contentment—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—we forget that contentment is learned. And the learning environment is necessarily hard for everyone.
It is a process of learning to continually submit our interpretations to God’s. We consider what he says about knowing Christ as the highest value that orders all values. As singles learn to view their singleness through this lens, they’ll find a growing contentment. This contentment will not be free of pain—since there is genuine suffering—but it can be free of grumbling.
If discontentment is an interpretation, then so is contentment. It’s a single person resting in the fact that what he most suffers from in his or her singleness isn’t permanent. It’s not part of his lasting identity. If Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of any benefit marriage may partially provide, then no single person is shut out from what’s best.
As pastors, we must help singles be patient with the process of learning contentment by not acting like they should be able to see their singleness merely as a gift. For many, it is suffering. But God’s grace will help them suffer well in hope.