Reflections on Singleness

by Jonathan T. Engel

Photo by Nick Adams on Unsplash
Thanks to various factors, over the past few months I have, in some respects, felt more hopeful than ever about my prospects for marriage. A huge part of this is that I finally started convincing myself of what others have told me, namely, that it's in no way my fault that I'm single. I've spent most of my adult life persuaded I was single because there's something wrong with me, or because I made a wrong choice somewhere, or because I was otherwise inadequate, unworthy, unqualified, etc. Killing off this belief makes the idea of getting married seem a lot less impossible. At the same time, over the past few months I had this odd feeling that in some sense I was also giving up hope for marriage -- and that doing so was actually a great relief? It was strange, and I couldn't quite make sense of it or put it into words, but I think I finally figured it out.

This weird, relieving sense of giving up hope is actually the other side of thinking that whether I ever marry is a function of whether I'm good enough. Thanks to that mentality, every major life choice, career milestone, health improvement, point of spiritual growth, etc., carried with it the thought, "Maybe when this is done everyone will finally think I'm good enough to get married." I didn't consciously say it to myself during every life development (though sometimes I certainly did), but the thought was always in the back of my mind. That gave a sort of pseudo-hopefulness to each milestone, but there were two major downsides to this belief. First, it led to an endless cycle of disappointments. "Maybe with this I'll finally be worthy! ... I guess I'm still not good enough." The more subtle effect was that it added stress to everything. Yes, there was "hope" that this latest project or move or degree or life lesson meant I'd be allowed to get married, but that meant that in addition to whatever normal stress each situation had, there was the added pressure that my future marriage prospects might well hinge on this. "I've got to chose correctly in this decision, do such-and-such perfectly, finish X as soon as possible, because whether I get married or face a life of loneliness may depend on it!" It is this "hope" that I've given up on.

The key issue is why I believe I'm unmarried. I no longer have the "hope" that if I try hard enough and make the right decisions enough and become good enough, someday I might be deemed worthy to start dating. Let me tell you, it's a relief to be rid of that kind of "hope." Knowing that my singleness isn't about anything being wrong with me makes marriage appear more possible than it did when I believed I was too unworthy, and thus increases my hope in that respect. At this point, I believe I'm unmarried because my Creator, in His infinite wisdom and love, made the choice not to bless me with a wife and instead chose to let me live with the wistful, painful, unfulfilled longing. I believe there's also a sense in which I'm single because I live in a world that is corrupted by sin, where much no longer works the way God intended in the beginning. Based on the way God presented marriage as the norm for human life in Genesis 1-2, I strongly suspect that in a sinless world there would have been no single people (just as there wouldn't be widows or orphans, either). However, one manifestation of the world's sin-damaged state is that God's original order breaks down and some people never find a companion.

This is why I had this sense of giving up hope. If I'm single because I'm not good enough, there's a faint, unlikely, highly stressful "hope" that by working hard at my faults I'll claw my way into worthiness someday. On the other hand, if I'm single because of God's wise, loving choice, and because of the fallen state of the creation, those factors are completely out of my hands and there's no hope that I can alter them by trying hard enough. In case you ever wondered, it's a lot easier to live with singleness when it's because of God's wise, loving decision and because there's something wrong with the entire universe, than when it's because there's something wrong with me personally. Being single because I'm unworthy means living with the intolerable pain of believing it's my own fault I missed out on all these wonderful blessings God wanted to give me. Being single because my almighty and perfectly good Creator made a choice to let my life turn out this way means I can live trusting Him that He has excellent reasons for permitting me to face this kind of suffering.

At this point, looking at the reasons why I believe I'm still single, I think it's totally possible and also unlikely I'll ever marry. I'm not saying it can't happen, and I'm not preemptively refusing to consider any possibility for a relationship that might arise later. Considering that the world is going to remain marred by sin and that whatever purposes God might have for my present state give no hints of being fulfilled yet, marriage doesn't seem probable for my future. In the past, my doubts about marriage were attended by disappointment, a sense of failure, and a desperate desire to somehow change the outcome. Now I can accept the prospect of singleness with a degree of peace that I never had before. I can replace the pressure of false hope and the pain of blaming myself with the comfort of knowing that while there's a good chance I'll never marry, it's not my fault, and God will use it for good.

I'll close by mentioning one good that has come out of all this. I believe that my singleness has helped me understand an aspect of God that I doubt the average (i.e. married young) Christian acquires. My decade-plus of singleness gives me some insight to the pain and sadness found in unfulfilled longing for an intimate relationship. And who has more experience with longing for an intimate relationship and having that longing go unfulfilled than God? Of course, God's desire for a personal relationship with each and every individual human ever involves not merely unrequited love or wistful longing, but wholly unjustified, cruel, persistent rejection at every turn. My experience is nothing by comparison. Nonetheless, I believe that at least in some minuscule way my years of singleness help me appreciate how God longs for a relationship with man and how it must pain Him for that desire to go unfulfilled and rejected. Perhaps now that I've shared this, you can better appreciate this aspect of God, too. And while pain and loneliness aren't happy thoughts, anything that helps us understand God more fully is always a happy thought.