The Choice: Married or
"I really want to marry. But if it's better for the kingdom of God, I will stay single." The young man who said this is an eligible bachelor already much used by God. It sums up the conflict felt by many Christians. Should I marry? Or can I be of greater service to God if I remain single? Is celibacy a higher calling than marriage?
The pressures are not only spiritual ones. Practical considerations make the choice a difficult one.
"We've talked about everything under the sun concerning ourselves, our ambitions and fears, our attitude to each other and our attitude to marriage. We've had violent arguments, we've had really good times. We've even had one or two of our precious weekends together so busy that we've hardly seen each other. I feel as though I've had all the fantasy beaten out of me and I still want to marry him. Mind you, I reckon it's a high-risk venture, to use some business jargon."
The decision to marry is indeed risky. But there is an element of risk in remaining single, too. It is perplexing because it is not a straightforward choice between good and evil. Rather, it is a choice between good and good, and that is much more complex. To remain single is good. For some people it is the pathway to wholeness. To marry is also good. God calls most people to pursue the vocation of marriage. Yet doesn't Paul claim that celibacy is to be prized more highly than marriage?
The advantages of singleness
Paul certainly accentuates the advantages of singleness. He reminds us that the unmarried person enjoys freedoms which are denied to married people. This detachment of singleness frees a person to serve God in any place and at any time. His
devotion to God can be undivided (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). It can be greatly used to extend God's kingdom.
When we worked in partnership with an unmarried vicar, we appreciated Paul's point of view. Our vicar gained access to places we did not. He worked late into the night with students, uninhibited by a wife nagging him if he arrived home in the wee hours. No babies interrupted his morning prayer.
I am aware that the grass is always greener on someone else's patch. So let a single person spell out the joys this freedom brings:
Freedom to travel, freedom to follow a career, freedom to develop and expand personal interests, freedom to widen one's circle of friends, freedom to choose between company and solitude, freedom to grow as an individual, freedom to give time, money and talents to whatever cause pulls at the heart-strings. The list could stretch on and on.1
I am not suggesting that the personal freedom of the single person is unlimited. Many have dependent relatives to care for in a sacrificial way. But, as Margaret Evening warns, "There can be so much freedom in the single life.....that one has to guard against selfishness."2
Some people value the benefits of singleness so highly that they are prepared to forgo the pleasures of marriage altogether. They feel like the girl in the children's poem:
If no one ever marries me
And I don't see why they should,
For nurse says I'm not pretty
And I'm seldom very good
If no one ever marries me
I shan't mind very much;
I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,
And a little rabbit hutch...
And when I'm getting really old,
At twenty-eight or nine,
I shall buy a little orphan girl
And bring her up as mine.3
Such independence and self-indulgence were not the characteristics Paul applauded in 1 Corinthians 7, however. The celibacy which Paul advocated demonstrates the ultimate in self-sacrifice. This self-renunciation is prepared to burn out for Christ. It is motivated by love for Christ. This love comes from God and reaches out for Him. It is a zeal which is sturdy enough to withstand being stripped of all advantages. As someone put it to me rather dramatically: "I vowed that naked I would follow the naked Christ."
This is the singleness which Paul would promote. This is the life-style which he labels "better" than marriage. Is this the singleness you would choose if you decided not to marry?
Is your present life-style consistent with your intellectual response to that question? How?
The disadvantages of singleness
Given the choice, most people choose marriage. They know that the sacrifices required from the single person are exacting. Paul Tournier writes, "No, it is not easy for a woman, for any woman, to accept celibacy. A spiritual miracle is absolutely necessary, without which the supposed acceptance is only chagrin and repression."4 The renunciation of sexual intimacy is traumatic. This is equally true for men and women.
But sexual deprivation is only one of the disadvantages of singleness. It is accompanied by a deeper problem. Some single people suffer an incurable lonliness. A single woman in our church explained how it catches you unawares, like the jab of a thorn when you are picking roses. We were bunching flowers for Mothering Sunday when she explained how she both loved and hated the moment when the children presented the posies to their mothers. She rejoiced in the happiness radiating from them. But she dreaded the wounding this inflicted on her. "I reminds me that I belong to no-one; I matter to no-one." This bitter-sweet experience is reflected, too, in a wistful prayer of Michel Quoist:
It's hard to love everyone and to claim no one.
It's hard to shake a hand and not want to retain it.
It's hard to inspire affection, to give it to you.
It's hard to be nothing to oneself in order to be everything to others....
It's hard to seek out others and be unsought oneself.5
This aloneness is deepened on occasions when married people delight in their togetherness. As couples travel to church together, exchange news after a busy day, luxuriate in their unspoken oneness as partners, the single person remains alone. Loneliness stings.
This sting is aggravated by the stigma society attaches to singleness. The assumption is made that all single people want to marry; that they are without status until they do. The playful teasing at weddings, "It will be your turn next," often rubs salt into an already festering sore. The implication is that the single person is missing out on life. And some are.
But, clearly, others live fulfilled lives. They serve God with undivided loyalty and devotion. These single people are an inspiration to any married person. They demonstrate that wholeness comes, not through marriage, but through being in complete alignment with the will of God.
Are you prepared to renounce marriage if that is what God asks of you?
How do you feel about remaining single?
The advantages of marriage
To claim, as I have done, that there are disadvantages in remaining single implies that there are advantages in being married. Can anyone deny this? The Creator Himself exclaimed, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). It was for this reason that He instituted marriage. What are the benefits of the lifelong relationship established between two people in marriage?
From the beginning, the marital relationship became a place of healing. Just as this was true for Adam when the wounds of solitude were soothed by Eve (Genesis 2:23), so it is one of the characteristics of healthy marriages today. Couples bring old hurts and insecurities to their marriage. As a new pattern of loving is established, those scars and bruises are
gradually touched and healed by God through one another. Then they lose their restrictive power. Marital love often frees persons to love others. Marriage can therefore double a person's effectiveness in the service of God.
A couple's usefulness is enhanced by their completion of each other and their complementarity. As at the beginning, marriage is that point where two sexually incomplete but compatible persons of the opposite sex unite. In fusing their bodies, they create a whole, new, third person, "us." There is no loss of identity in this fusion. Rather, this combination of resources is an investment from which both gain. The dividends are mutual strength, encouragement and support. As these "two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other," to borrow Rainer Maria Rilke's phrase, they in turn find themselves able to reach out to others. This is love's overflow. It is one of the reasons why Christian marriages are greatly used by God.
For marital union is not just sexual. Christian marriage can be that place where two loves meet; the human and the divine. The author of Genesis unveils his mystery (Genesis 1:28-29). Adam and Eve met the Lord God who talked to them, instructed them and walked with them in the garden.
The joys of family life, moreover, are frequently applauded in the Old Testament. It does not even mention a word for "bachelor." It would seem that marriage was the norm in those days.
Then what does the New Testament teach about marriage? Jesus places a strong emphasis on the sanctity of the marital bond. He reiterates the responsibility couples have to leave the past behind so that they are free to unite to form a one-flesh relationship. Jesus not only acknowledges marriage; He blesses it with His presence (John 2), rescues embarrassed newly-weds with a miracle, and promises that couples who work at "leaving and cleaving" will, gradually, become one (Matthew 19:4-6).
And although in one place (1 Corinthians 7) Paul suggests that celibacy is "better" than marriage, this is not a complete summary of his teaching. Clearly celibacy is a gift for some and in the face of impending persecution, and in the light of
the imminent return of the Lord, could be described as "better" than marriage. But let us not lose sight of Ephesians 5:21-32, where Paul speaks of marriage in superlatives. Marriage is about mutuality and sharing; it is about person-making. As Jack Dominian reminds us, Ephesians 5
is the acme of spiritual vision. Nothing finer nor more exalted is to be found anywhere else ..... Here St. Paul, following the prophetic imagery of the covenant between God and his people, goes on to affirm that the union of two in one between husband and wife is a union with a relation that parallels, imitates and participates in, so far as is possible, the closeness and love exchanged between Christ and his bride, the Church. The significance of this new revelation lifts marriage for all time into the realm where absolute love reigns, the love of Christ for his Church.6
Moreover, Paul owed much to a Christian couple, Aquila and Priscilla. They supported him and worked alongside him as he founded the church in Corinth. They also discovered the potential in Apollos, instructing and encouraging him.
The Bible's view of marriage seems to be of two persons interlocking. They are designed to fit into one another, like a two-piece jigsaw. This unit in turn slots into the support framework of God's love. It is the divine love which holds the pieces together. The partners are the objects both of the other's love and of God's love.
This is the great advantage of marriage. This love sustains the woman who needs to be valued, respected and comforted. It also nurtures the man whose need is for a companion, someone who will be all for him, who will be on his side in times of stress. Virginia Satir expresses it succinctly. In marriage:
I make you more possible,
you make me more possible,
I make us more possible,
you make us more possible,
and us makes each of me and you more possible.7
Thus you, me and "us" all benefit. Or, to borrow a Dean of
Durham's phrase, marriage is that place where "two 'I's' become a 'we'."
This love includes fearlessness, trust and versatility. It is rooted in belonging, in knowing. It is therefore a magnificent platform from which to reach out to others. The unity which comes from the cluster of unions of marriage has to overflow in effective Christian service.
But it is at this vantage-point that the disadvantages pinch. And marriage has many disadvantages.
The disadvantages of marriage
Paul Tournier summarizes the problem: "Marriage is not just a question of sex. It is also a school for self-forgetting."8 And who wants to forget "number one"? Who wants to sacrifice selfish desires? That is the last thing most people want. And so, while the rewards of marriage attract, its demands repel.
Marriage is offensive to some because it requires complete renunciation of personal independence. But independence and self-actualization are twentieth-century gods. We are instructed to worship them. What then is to happen?
What does happen is catastrophic. People use marriage as a means of self-discovery: "The intimacy of the marital relationship and the joys of parenthood will draw out my full potential, to help me to discover who I am." But this attitude imperils a relationship which demands the abandonment of purely personal goals, ambitions and satisfaction. This attitude results in disillusionment. It is as Jesus warned, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it" (Luke 9:24).
Then what is to happen? Marriage must be viewed as the "school of self-sacrifice" and a paradox must be recognized. It is those who allow their needs and concerns to be swallowed up in an enterprise which rises above selfish desires who discover the meaning of life, the truth about themselves and the rewards of marriage. Those who actively pursue self-satisfaction rarely find it. When the limitations of marriage are accepted, when we resist fretting about "me" and "my needs," a miracle takes place.
At least, that is how it has been for us. When we least sought them, personal growth, fulfillment and emotional
wholeness began to creep up on us. They came to stay. They arrived as a gift from God.
This wholeness is a gift we offer to the other. It is not something we grab for ourselves. That is why marriage chafes. The point is that the reason for living changes course when we marry. If I choose to marry, I decide to renounce my right to happiness, usefulness and comfort. Instead, I adopt a new set of priorities. These priorities insist that, from now on, I will seek to give love to my partner. I will make the other happy.
Do you feel called to the vocation of marriage with this partner?
Are you prepared for the re-orientation of priorities which this vocation demands?
What sacrifices are you prepared to make to ensure that your love works?
I have tried to show in this chapter that celibacy is not a higher calling than marriage. Rather, it is different. Single people are not necessarily more useful to God than married people. They bear fruit in different ways, achieve wholeness in different ways and learn the art of selflessness in different ways. For self-actualization is not to be realized in marriage or in singleness. Its source rests in God. Each Christian needs to discover this truth. The secret of my identity is rooted in God. Richard Jones puts it well:
God alone is the ultimate good. He is the source of all value, all goodness, all worth. All other "goods" are derived from Him. To worship and adore Him is the supreme end of our existence, besides which nothing else is of importance.9
If we are to discern this call and act upon it, we shall have to discard all that is not of God. Our peace of mind rests in Him. And if we truly seek His will, we shall find it. But the discovery of His chosen path calls for obedience. It demands sacrifice. It leads to a closer union with God. It will only be God who knows what we leave behind and what we choose to sacrifice. It will only be God who replenishes the inner joy which makes the choice of a high-risk proposition possible.
Do you want to marry?
How do you feel about this statement: "Marriage is not the best way of life for everyone but the way of self-giving love is"?
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1. Margaret Evening, Who Walk Alone, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, p. 218.
2. Who Walk Alone, p.220.
3. From "If No One Ever Marries Me" by Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, from Realms of Unknown Things, Garnstone Press.
4. Paul Tournier, Escape from Loneliness, SCM Press, 1962, p.78.
5. Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, Gill and Macmillan, 1968, p.50.
6. Jack Dominian, Christian Marriage, Libra, 1977, pp.24f.
7. Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking, Science and Behavior Books, 1972, p.127.
8. Escape from Loneliness, p.85.
9. Richard Jones, How Goes Christian Marriage?, Epworth Press, 1978, p.109.
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