A very common belief within Evangelical circles is that for someone to remain single for a lengthy season of their life, at least happily so, would then mean that they have the “gift of singleness.” While in one sense I think that is true, what is typically meant by “gift,” is a type of given ability to remain in that, er… rather less desirable position. However, this is not what Paul means when we take a closer look at what he is actually saying in I Corinthians 7, where this “gift” belief arises from. Within the wider context it is clear that Paul is referring to his own state of singleness as he writes:
Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.
What is clear is that singleness is a gift, what we are taking a closer look at is what type of gift singleness is. Is it some kind of supernatural ability to cope with the burden of all that singleness entails? Or, could it actually just be a gift. Picture it, singleness all wrapped up in a pretty box, it’s even got a bow on top, and it’s Christmas morning, and guess what, you get the gift of singleness. Not an ability, but a thing. As Sam Allberry helpfully puts it, “[Paul’s] point is that both marriage and singleness are gifts. Marriage is a gift, and so too is singleness.”1
Now, this may sound odd to a culture that is so one sided when it comes to marriage and romance, I mean, how on earth could singleness actually be a gift in that sense? And if it is, we hope it comes with a return-receipt, right? But we have to let Scripture speak on its own terms, and be willing to readjust our own views if we find them contrary to what God says, even if that means coming to terms with singleness itself being a gift.
When we start to see singleness in this light, it changes our expectations for what we expect singleness to be like. As Tim Keller notes (quoted by Allberry)
In his writings, Paul always uses the word “gift” to mean an ability God gives to build others up. Paul is not speaking.. of some kind of elusive, stress-free state.2
Although Keller uses the term ability, think carefully about how he is directing us to think about what the gift enables us to do. Think about it, when we’ve typically considered if someone, perhaps even ourselves, has the gift of singleness, what do we usually do? In most cases, we look inward. We go to the subjective emotional state, and following Obi One Kenobi instead of Scripture, we “search our feelings.” If singleness isn’t satisfying our emotional needs, or the needs of those whom we are counseling, then the gift must not be present.
And yet, what Allberry and Keller are helping us to see is that the giftings of those within the church have outward benefits for others in the church. Singleness is a gift that allows one to have “undistracted devotion to the Lord”(I Cor. 7:35). When singleness is seen more as a state of living in which a believer is gifted to better serve the Lord, rather than an internal “superpower” that allows one to “deal with it,” we are drawn to see several important things.
First, ultimately singleness is a good thing, not something that needs extra power to survive. Next, it causes those who are single to seek contentment and not grow bitter, questioning why God would leave them in a state when they don’t have this mysterious gift to cope with it. Furthermore, it prevents those who are single from taking hold of un-Godly excuses that justify a variety of sins: since God hasn’t given me this gift, he must want me to sleep with her, or marry this unbeliever, or reinterpret passages on homosexuality. Finally, this reorientates our understanding of marriage, reminding us that just as there is no specific gift for dealing with the difficulties of singleness there is no promised escape from the trials of seeking marital contentment; marriage is not an escape from some intrinsically more difficult state, indeed, Jesus, with the help of some exasperated disciples, reminds us that for some it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:11).3 No matter what season of life one finds themselves in, we should all give thanks for whatever gift we have received from the Lord, whether it is in this manner or in that.
- Sam Allberry, 7 Myths about Singleness, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 37
- Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 207-8; sourced from: Ibid. 40
- These points are drawn from Allberry; see: Ibid. 38-39