It’s springtime, which means things get a little messy. Mum and I have done some backyard gardening, with Dandelion as our “helper.” And with all this new life, my allergies go crazy, so my head is frequently a stuffed mess. Being a permanently single 40-something Christian dealing with other Christians’ strongly held views of singleness? Also messy.
A couple months ago, I was able to have 1½ hour long conversation with my friend, pastor and writer Scott Mehl, about “The Mess of Singleness” for his podcast, “The Messy Podcast.” The episode aired at the end of March, but I didn’t think to mention it here at the time. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to it, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It holds truths, challenges, and encouragements for both singles and marrieds.
Just when I think I’ve said everything there is to say on this topic, someone like Scott comes along with great questions, and I realize there is so much more that needs to be expressed about living the life of a single adult in today’s Christian church environments.
One of the main things I wanted to express is that singleness is vast and varied. From the young 20-something who has just started dating, to the 75 year old man who recently lost his wife of 50 years, from the divorced single parent, to the never-married person in middle age, singleness is not one-size-fits-all.
If the Christian community wants to serve its single people well, it needs to expand its perspective and be ready to truly get to know each individual and what their specific needs are rather than treating singles ministry like a monolithic entity, usually geared toward young adults with the goal of marrying off as many of us as possible.
I’d love to hear what you think of the topics touched on in this interview, so feel free to comment or message me back once you’ve listened! What would you like me to discuss next time? What needs to be repeated, delved into more deeply here on my blog, or what have I missed thus far?
It was a Friday night, and I found myself feeling a little panicked. I NEEDED to dye my hair. Now for those of you who know me, you know well that I’ve been dying my hair various shades of burgundy/red/purple/etc. since the 1990’s, so this is nothing new. But I get lazy and also like my hair to be healthy, so I usually let it go a couple months between home box dye jobs and the used-to-be-dark-brown-but-are-now-pretty-grey roots rarely bother me. That Friday, however, I felt compelled to get my hair back to its fresh, bright, new burgundy.
Why that specific day, you ask? I had an outdoor event to attend on Saturday. With like 15 people. In LA. Gasp!!!
Looking at the RSVP list online, I knew the vast majority of the attendees would be friends – people who have seen me in various states of my life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. They are all supportive, encouraging, lovely people who accept me as I am and seem to genuinely enjoy my presence. People I lived life with for 10 years before moving out of LA. But after 2 years of living the life of a trying-to-keep-my-mum-and-littles-alive-during-a-global-pandemic hermit, my brain was off and running. Insecurities from over a decade ago loomed large and negative views of myself I had overcome popped back up, unbidden. Just – POOF! There they were!
I found myself scrolling through that RSVP list to see who all would be there, and started categorizing the differences between them and myself.
They were all thin and/or fit (significantly more so than my plus size self)
They were all stylish (ah, fashionable LA)
They all had great teeth (well, better than mine, which is not difficult)
They were almost all married (all but 1 or 2)
After this quick assessment, my brain informed me that I would be the one and onely chubby single friend, who had never had braces, in the tent-like maxi-dress.
So that Friday night, I texted my sister and bestie that I was dying my hair because I felt super frumpy. Which my autocorrect changed to grumpy. Appropriate.
Once I realized what my brain was thinking (that doesn’t always happen right away, you know?), I found it fascinating. I spent years in my late 20’s/early 30’s coming to terms with my weight and had decided that, for me, it was healthiest to accept being plus sized and move on with my life rather than keep trying to lose weight and have it constantly on my mind, feeding into my already-prone-to-depression self. It was and is freeing. The concern about fashion was an odd one for me, as I’ve always kind of done my own thing. The thing about being one of the only single people there is something I’ve dealt with for 2 decades now, and doesn’t usually bother me. And the teeth thing? Where did that come from? I don’t think that even bothered me when I lived in LA! So weird!
I sat back and pondered these intrusive thoughts and where they’d come from. Since I have barely socialized these past 2 years, and rarely in a large group, it seems to have brought back some very unexpected insecurities. It was more fascinating to me than concerning to have my mind wander to these places it hadn’t for so long. I could look at these thoughts and go “that’s interesting” but not let them get to me. I think the not socializing for 2 years may have some unknown side effects in my life, which I find intriguing.
As these thoughts were all ones I had processed and come to terms with ages ago, I was able to hold them out away from me and look at them with curiosity, then tuck them safely away with a younger, less healthy version of my past self.
Yes, I did dye my hair that night – but I did so like I always do, because I enjoy having reddish hair. It makes me feel confident and a little punkrock, most like myself. It looks healthier and is easier to take care of. And I enjoyed it because I no longer felt the NEED to look better.
The party was enjoyable, everyone (as I suspected) was kind, happy to see me, positive, and non-judgmental. I was a bit of a wallflower for some moments of it, but that is normal for my awkward self and something I don’t mind. And yes, for curious minds, I was indeed the only plus sized person there, and only one of a couple singles. I didn’t actually notice anyone’s teeth, so can’t make a call on that, and they were all pretty freakin’ stylish, but I somehow fit in just fine.
What’s the moral of the story, you ask? It’s not that kind of a story. This is merely a descriptive personal tale of one moment of my life, not a universally prescriptive parable. The only universal truth in this is that socializing is hard for many of us, and can dredge up some past insecurities we thought were gone forever. When that happens, we’ll all just deal with them the best we can in that specific moment, with the capacity and resources we have available at that specific time. Godspeed to you all as you head out to (safely) socialize once again.
In conversations with many married friends from their late 20s on, the following phrases can sometimes arise:
I didn’t know what unconditional love was until I got married
God uses our husbands/wives to grow us the most
It wasn’t until I got married that I understood how to love
I was young and immature and then I got married and realized how much about myself needed to change
Without my husband/wife I would never have grown in this area
While all of the above statements may indeed be true for that specific person, there is an implied connotation that marriage = maturity. There is a subtle (or sometimes not at all subtle) insinuation that God uses marriage to mature Christians in a way that He uses nothing else, an implication that outside of marriage this level of Christian growth actually isn’t possible.
Biblically, this is incorrect in several ways:
The only perfect, whole, mature Christian to walk the earth was single. That’s right, I’m pulling the Jesus card. And most of the leaders of the early church, the disciples and apostles, were also single.
God has promised to complete the good work He began in us – each and every one of us (Philippians 1:6). This is not limited to married folks.
God uses EVERYTHING in our lives to help us grow. So yes, if you have a spouse, God will use them. But guess what, He also uses roommates, kids, coworkers, parents, siblings, friends, and every other kind of person you interact with.
A lot of maturity happens in the decades in which many people get married. So perhaps maturity has more to do with the age, experiences, and brains of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s than it does the specific relationships they have. Which means single or married, most of us do a heck of a lot of growing up in this time.
And yes, there are indeed people in these middle stages of life who aren’t as mature as others, some of whom are single, which could lead you to believe their non-attachment to a significant other is the reason they never grew up. But I happen to know quite a few immature married men and women who still struggle with adulthood in spite of the responsibilities of marriage and often even parenthood. Marriage isn’t a silver bullet to wisdom and maturity.
Marriage also does not create the sudden ability to love deeply and sacrificially. Thinking that your spouse is the reason you can truly love underestimates the ability for singles to love and commit to loving others wholly. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Our love is not contingent on another person committing to love us ‘til death do us part. We have to love others knowing they may not be available to us. While we are usually lower down on the list of priorities in the lives of others, we keep loving. Love does not require a single lifelong object. We may love more widely, more broadly, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less deep. We are the aunties and uncles, the godparents, the children who will care for our elderly parents, the best friends who will drop everything when you need us, the church volunteers, the committed employees who never miss work, the best roommates ever. We learn to love without expecting another person to love us back in the same way. We get our hearts broken, we feel unappreciated and overlooked. We feel second, third, or fourth best. We are sometimes truly alone. But we keep on loving.
There are incredibly selfish husbands and wives, narcissistic and abusive spouses who care more about themselves than their families. Marriage does not teach true love. God just often uses it in his children’s lives to help expose their need for him and help them develop some level of selflessness. It is not easy, marriage, but neither is being an excellent roommate at the age of 38, or adult child to a parent who is aging. Our ability to love well does not hinge on how well we are loved by another human being. I am wholly loved by God, and that is enough.
God uses more than just people to help season us. Our circumstances and our spiritual disciplines also help us grow more Christlike. Since most people get married in their post college years, it’s easy to attribute all growth to the marriage, but so much more is happening that singletons also experience. We’re all learning how to pay bills, how to rent apartments, how to buy cars, how to find jobs, how to find friends outside of the school context, how to contribute to society. Many of us also experience loss during this time, which is a growth experience of its own. Some of us travel, opening our minds to a more global view of the world. We have trials and suffering, we have successes and joys. All of this happens in adulthood, not just to married people. In fact, singles who have to navigate much of this on our own may “grow up” pretty quickly.
God also uses our spiritual disciplines to help us grow. Spending time meditating on His Word, talking with him in prayer, obeying him, worshiping him, finding good teachers and wise counselors, learning how to lament, and growing in our ability to rejoice in him and love others will inevitably add up to more maturity as a Christian individual. None of this requires a spouse.
Married friends, the next time you find yourself thinking something like this, maybe stop yourself before you say it out loud until you consider how condescending you may sound to any singles around you, or indeed anyone who is struggling in their marriage and might not feel particularly mature or loving due to their husband or wife in that moment. God does use life partners as iron sharpening iron if the two people in the relationship are growing separately in their walks with God, and are committed to helping each other grow. I don’t want to discount the beautiful and meaningful bond that a couple has when committed for life. I’m a fan of marriage and try to encourage and help my married friends as much as I can. But it isn’t the secret recipe to growing up and “adulting” well.
Perhaps it wasn’t just your husband or wife who made you mature and made you learn how to love, but just the fact that you actually, well, just grew up. Like a normal person. Like most of us do, married or not. If the last time you were single was in your teens or 20s, it’s easy to see why you might equate singleness with immaturity. But we singles don’t stay 20 forever, we grow up too, we learn how to love sacrificially just like you do. We singles in our 40s or older have some relationships, experiences, and spiritual growth under our belts which God has used to help us become better versions of ourselves. We don’t stay stuck in our youth just because we don’t marry.
So, single folks, before you worry that perhaps God isn’t pouring as much effort into helping you grow because you don’t have a spouse to prod you on, take heart! He is already at work in you. He is using everything in your life to help you glorify Him and find joy in Him. I see you, I see how well you love those God has placed in your life. I see how much you strive to help your friends and family. I see God growing you into incredibly beautiful, wise, important, loving human beings who bless so many around you. We are as much whole, mature, loving adults as the married couples around us. You are not lacking anything you need to be who God wants you to be (James 1:4). We are all capable of the growth God has ready just for us.