Being Single and the Fellowship of His Sufferings
The Prize And The Price Of Being Single
In my early 20's I chose to give my best years to Jesus. It was one of the best and wisest choices of my life. When many of my friends and fellow students fell in love and married (which is great if it's God's will for your life!), I took all the time, money and strength at my disposal to press into God, fall in love with this Man from Nazareth and pour everything I had into my relationship with Him, deepening and strengthening it so that it would become a well of encounters that I could draw from for the rest of my life. I didn't do it on my own initiative, it was something He offered to me, and I willingly and gladly accepted. Looking ahead, I couldn't resist it; looking back, I don't regret it.
I have greatly benefited from this choice that has kept me undistracted in my devotion, autonomous in my use of time and money for the Kingdom, and free to follow the lead of the Spirit wherever it went (even to other continents) without any responsibilities apart from my own, being exclusively devoted to the Lord. My 20's have been filled with a sweetness and depths in the Lord that I had never even dreamed of. And He led me much better, deeper and wider than I ever expected. Making Him my first and only love was a choice that will be dear to me and even more precious to Him for all eternity. I have no regret whatsoever.
Yet during those years I found that besides cherishing the glorious aspects of singleness and the unsearchable pleasures of intimacy with Him as my heavenly Companion, I can't escape a deep ache within my soul for an earthly companion - the bride He had promised and spoken to me so much about over the years.
As we respond to His sweet call to cast down the crown of our best years at His feet singing, "Worthy, worthy, worthy are You, Son of David", I can testify that He is faithful to provide sufficient grace to walk in undistracted devotion before Him (I'd call it the temporary gift of celibacy), but at the same time I can also testify that there is an ache and a longing that I could never really get rid of.
The Lie Of Yearning-Free Singleness
I have read many Christian books, articles and blog-posts on being single and dating. What I have come across a lot - especially in articles written by singles - is emotional and defensive statements that they have no desire anymore to find their spouse, that they don't care anymore - some even state that they are not even waiting/expecting it anymore -, that they are completely satisfied because "God fulfills their every need", as if they had finally managed to overcome this (wrongly-assumed) "fleshly" desire for another human being. And more often than not this attitude of stoic aloofness earns the applause of the readers and is praised as spiritual maturity.
I assume the best of intentions from the writers. I honor and sympathize with the struggle and pain many of them have experienced. I know the temptation of yielding to such thoughts, and I see that there IS truth to what they say. Yet at the same time, this thinking leads to a disconnect from God's purposes for your life, and whenever I found myself agreeing with it, it wasn't inspired by trust in God or revelation from His Word, but chosen simply because intentional waiting just felt too painful to bear any longer. But by leaving the narrow road for the broad and easy one, we often lose sight of the greater picture, neglect our partnership in bringing about God's purposes, and often end up inspiring others to do the same.
I don't just say that as a critic, but as one who once belonged to this very camp. I advocated this seemingly pain-free singleness where it just doesn't matter anymore whether you stay single for the rest of your life or not. Where your life can be just as fulfilling alone (or even more so) than with a companion by your side. Where you proclaim that you have completely rid yourself of the desire to bind yourself to another human being, and that there's no pain of this need being unmet left in me anymore because "Jesus is my all".
And yet time and time again I would catch my mind picturing my significant other by my side, in moments when there's just an empty seat beside me, or while walking through the woods alone, when I sat on an airplane starting another season of my life by moving to a different country, or when going to the movies with friends. I can't deny that no matter how much I tried to get rid of those thoughts in order to "live undistracted", they would reside. Time and time again I would find myself asking God in prayer: "Lord, how long?"
Just to clarify: I'm not saying that I walk around tortured by an unceasing agony and haunted by unfulfilled, romantic daydreams. Nor am I saying that I haven't experienced seasons of extended grace and contentedness on the "single" road. What I mean to say is that this yearning for someone special to share the rest of my life with has always remained present somewhere in the back of my mind and heart, even if just as a faint whisper at times. I fear that - unless you have the spiritual gift of celibacy - this often promoted state of yearning-free singleness simply does not exist.
I tried to find it, yet I never did. I thought and sometimes said I had it, yet it's never actually been true. I can try to deny it - and so I did - but I can't escape it. A numb heart was the closest I could get. Numbness through resignation or distraction - by giving up expecting that He is actually faithful to what He promised, or by trying to silent the deep longing in my heart altogether. Both, however, lead to a disconnect of my heart from His purposes for my life and ultimately cause me to neglect to partner with Him in bringing them about through persistent, believing prayer (Luke 18:1-9).
I can fool myself with telling myself I don't mind and it doesn't matter. I can refuse to think about the promises He has given me. I can betray my own heart and lie to myself and others by saying I don't feel the things I feel. But with indifference and denial I choose to harden my heart towards Him and His plans for me, and in secret I'm really just cultivating unconfessed disappointment and offense towards God's leadership (and delay implied).
Is it wrong and immature to long for a significant other that you can share your life with? It seems more unhealthy and dishonest to try to suppress these emotions and to run away from them.
The Ache Of Adam
Many people tell you that you are not ready for a relationship unless you have learned to be a happy single. Others say that a spouse will never make you complete, that only God can do that, and that if you are looking for a spouse that makes you complete, you are not ready either. God is the only One you should go to to have your needs met, they say.
I do get the point they are making, and I do see the wisdom within their words. You want to be mature in your relationship, you want to be able to give more than you receive. A clingy, needy, self-centered attitude won't produce a healthy, lasting relationship. So you actually want God to work on your heart and make you as mature and whole as possible because you want to be the best version of yourself when you enter into a relationship.
Yet at the same time these words can be misleading as they cause us to have unrealistic expectations in our relationship with God. I believe that God is so great that He is the highest delight of the human soul, that His love is better than the wine of this world including married love (Song 1:2), even better than all the blessings of life combined (Ps 63:3), and that He is the highest satisfaction to the human heart. He can satisfy and meet every need.
Yet the truth of the matter is that sometimes He decides not to.
Adam walked in perfect fellowship with God. More than any other person on earth he experienced that in His presence there is fullness of joy and that in His right hand there are pleasures forever. Arguably, His undefiled heart in an undefiled world had a greater capacity to enjoy his God than anyone else on earth (Jesus probably being the only exception).
Yet within this state of perfect satisfaction, there remained the ache that while every animal had their mate, "there was no one found for Adam." Although we know that God can fulfill this desire just like any other, He chose not to. Instead, the same voice that caused the universe to be, said, "it is not good for man to be alone." So just as this voice spoke forth light in the darkness, it commanded a desire for a human companion to dwell in the human soul. This desire is God-given, decreed by the Creator, and it's good. Nowhere in the Bible can we see the pure and honest desire for a spouse being criticized by God.
God created humans as man and woman - a union of two parts that belong together (Gen 1:27). That's how He designed it. That's how He wanted it. That's what He in His unsearchable wisdom called "good". Is it wrong and immature, then, to have a longing that basically agrees with His design? This God-given desire for a spouse, that He called good - should we call it immature, false, or even evil?
The Yearning Of The Heavenly Bridegroom
Married love was never just supposed to be a means of "multiplying and filling the earth." Oftentimes in our Christian society a wedding is seen as just another rite of passage in the life of a human. Yet, God's purpose for marriage is so much deeper than it merely being another aspect of human life.
In Ephesians 5, Paul quotes a part of the creation story when he writes, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." He then goes on to say that God's original intent for this reality was not merely to describe married love between a husband and a wife, but that these dynamics of a newly-wed couple are but a shadow of the relationship between Jesus and those who belong to Him.
Multiple times throughout the Scriptures, Jesus reveals Himself as our Bridegroom. On the Cross, He didn't just die for hopeless sinners contributing to their salvation and eternal life, He paid the price to obtain for Himself a pure, spotless and lovesick Bride that He could cherish for all eternity.
We miss the entire point, the weight and the beauty of it all if we don't see the big picture. Namely, that marriage exists solely because God wanted to give us a glimpse into the unfathomable intensity of His endless, affectionate love for us, and reveal to us in a special way who we truly are and how He sees us. Marriage has always been intended to be a doorway into His heart and a picture of the wedding to come (Rev 19:7).
The story of Adam and Eve isn't just another biblical account of how God sends you your Boaz. It's God's handwriting in creation that gives us a glimpse into the fellowship of the Trinity. It's an image of Father-God's desire to present to His Son a worthy Bride that loves His Son with perfect, undivided and voluntary love. This sums up the entire reason and purpose of all of Creation. That's what marriage, what life, what we, are about. We will be the eternal companion of the Carpenter of Nazareth, married to the Lamb forever.
The desire that we find within ourselves - the ache for a partner - isn't just the ache of Adam. It points to the ache of THE Adam, our great, heavenly Bridegroom Jesus.
Jesus Knows What It Feels Like To Wait
Shortly before His death on the cross, His cry cut through the darkness of the night. With passionate longing He cried to the Father: "Father, I desire that they, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am." What consumed Him in the night before the crucifixion was His desire for the nearness of His Bride. Painfully aware of the price He would have to pay for her, and of the following time of separation until His final return in the Second Coming, the dream of being with us for all eternity gripped His heart still more. And with ardent determination He went forth from that place, willing to pay the price and give it all for the ones that He would make His Bride.
2000 years have passed since that day, and He still hasn't returned yet. It's easy to assume that as Jesus entered the abundant joys of heaven, He is now subject to a stoic indifference towards us. We might even think - and probably often do - that we long for His return - the day when we will be reunited to Him forever - more than He, that we care about being with Him more than He does. We cultivated the view of a distant, aloof God that completely misses the Biblical revelation of His heart and emotions.
We mimic what we behold and consequently view indifference and aloofness as the expected, holiest and most mature response to His promises - including the one for a spouse. We pray, "Lord, Your will be done!", which has become an empty phrase meaning, "I just don't have the strength to bother anymore", rather than "God, I really care about Your ways, and will agree with them with obedience and persistent prayer till they come to pass." We take the very words of Jesus, that caused Him to give His life, to excuse our indifference towards His plans for us.
He gave all He had, endured mocking, excruciating pain, torture, poured out His life unto death - for His future spouse. The image of a stoic, distant, aloof God couldn't be further from the truth. It completely ignores that His heart is moved by the very thought of "the day of the gladness of His heart", and that the entire redemptive story and all of creation find their culmination in the Wedding of the Lamb.
Just as Adam's ache remained in the perfect satisfaction of paradise, so Jesus' yearning for His Bride hasn't diminished a single bit in intensity. The One who is the same yesterday, today and forever, the heavenly Bridegroom who is love Himself (1 John 4:16), He is still consumed with this one desire: The nearness of the ones He loves. Surely, He who "always lives to make intercession for us" (Hebr 7:25) is still letting His voice be heard before the Father: "Father, I desire to be with them!" We are continually on His mind and in His mouth as He doesn't cease day or night to remind the Father of His promise to give Him a Bride. It's the ache of the Son of God who - not knowing the day or hour of His return to His Bride - is continually asking "Father, how long? Father, can I go?"
He has been waiting 2000 years, greatly anticipating "the day of the gladness of His heart" (Song 3:11), yearning for the nearness of His Bride with the all-consuming longing of His unquenchable love. Who loves with His passion and ardency? Who has greater love than He? He is the One who loves with all of His heart, all of His soul, all of His mind and all of His strength - who didn't withhold even Himself. His heart burns, His heart years.
And, with all this passionate longing within Him, He knows what it means to wait for a spouse. The emotions we have, the ache of longing, the pain of delay, are not movements that are foreign to Him. He can sympathize with us more than any other. He knows the pain of waiting. He knows what it means and what it feels like to wait for your greatly anticipated companion.
But will you wait like He waits? Will you yearn like He yearns?
The Two-Fold Invitation
Within all of this, there is a greater purpose, and it's a two-fold invitation that is extended to everyone who wants it.
First, the longing for a spouse is a unique gateway into His heart and emotions. In the yearning for an earthly companion I can find the motions of the heart of the yearning, heavenly Bridegroom, who so desired to obtain for Himself an eternal companion.
It's feeling for another human being what He is feeling for us (Eph 5:25). The desire you have to finally be united with the woman/man God promised you is an invitation to feel Jesus' "that they would be with Me where I am" (John 17:24). We underestimate so often the power and intensity of His affection. Yet the places where we are confronted with the strength of our own yearnings, we get a glimpse into the torrent of love and passion that dwells within the heart of the waiting Bridegroom. This is an aspect of His heart that we can only share in under the present circumstances - while being single, while waiting for our promised significant other. Don't miss that unique chance!
Second, it's an invitation into partnership with Him - to pray for our future spouse just as He - the heavenly Intercessor - is interceding for His Bride day and night, never losing heart, not growing weary in the waiting, never yielding to hopelessness, trusting that the Father's ways and timing are flawless. Don't lose heart, don't give up when it takes longer - He doesn't. It's an invitation to be conformed into the image of the role model Bridegroom. Don't passively waste away the time of waiting, actively wait and partner with Him through prayer. You can invest now in a relationship that is yet to come to pass. He never ceases to pray for His future Wife.
Fellowshipping In His Sufferings
This is not a cry of desperation from someone who can't bear the pain of being single anymore. This is a resolve to embrace the ache.
Because this ache is a unique gateway into His heart. It's an invitation to share into the movements of His heart, His ache, the pain of His waiting. It's an invitation into the fellowship of His sufferings, into unity with what and how He feels, a place of encounter with the God-head - a doorway into the experience of a specific aspect of His heart that you can only go through while you're single.
I'm a fervent advocate of staying single for the right reasons. But I can't and I won't deny that there's a price and pain involved in it. Yet this ache is not like a yoke we want to fight or cast off. It's not bad at all, nor unbearable. It's a beautiful, unique invitation to know the heart and affections of our God. Being single is more than a time of waiting for promises yet to be fulfilled. It can become an adventure more valuable, unique and amazing than you've ever dreamed.
So I will embrace the ache. I will embrace the waiting. I will embrace the fellowship of His sufferings.
Like Jesus, I will yearn for my future spouse.
Like Jesus, I will not lose heart in the waiting.
Like Jesus, I won't stop praying and interceding for the one He promised to me.
Like Jesus, I will wait for my Father's flawless timing and trust in His perfect ways.
Like Jesus, I will raise my voice before the Throne of the Father, crying "Father, how long?"
Like Jesus, I greatly anticipate the day when she will be with me where I am.