9 Ways to Pastor Those Longing for Marriage
Shepherding single Christians who desire marriage and battle discontentment is not always easy, but it is a privilege. And it is a stewardship entrusted to every pastor.
Here are nine things to teach and emphasize to discontented singles in your church.
1. “Contentment is demanded of all Christians, not just single Christians.”
It’s vital to remember, and to communicate, that single Christians aren’t some special class of humans who really need to work on contentment. We all do.
Discontentment, after all, isn’t a feature of single hearts; it’s a feature of human hearts. It’s “common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13), polluting every life stage since Adam and Eve weren’t content to trust the word of God over the whisper of the snake (Gen. 3:1–7).
If we’re honest, discontentment can feel rather small compared to other sins. But it’s not small. It’s serious, because it tells a lie about God: that he is insufficient to meet our needs.
Single or married, no one has to be taught discontentment. We all have PhDs in the subject already. Even the apostle’s discovery of the “secret of contentment” didn’t come naturally; he had to learn it (Phil. 4:11). He enrolled in the school of contentment, and so must we.
Cultivating contentment, then, is less like medicine and more like a healthy diet. It happens over the course of months and years, not hours and days.
So, tell single Christians in your church what you tell every Christian in your church: God’s ultimate aim is not to change your circumstances, though he might. It’s to change you.
2. “Contentment doesn’t mean you can’t desire or pursue marriage.”
I hope this goes without saying, but I’ll say it just in case: To the degree that “God is sovereign; be content” is code for “God is sovereign; stop desiring or pursuing marriage,” it is lousy advice.
The human heart is complex. It can both long for marriage and long for God’s will—even if that will doesn’t include marriage. Jesus himself experienced an unfulfilled longing while bowing to his Father’s plan (Matt. 26:39).
In fact, it’s a mark of spiritual maturity for a believer to bring their longing for marriage to heaven’s throne, pouring out their heart before the God who hears and cares. Resignation is a feature of Stoicism, not Christianity.
3. “You are not a human-in-waiting.”
Being single isn’t an obstacle to being fully human; it’s an expression of it. A woman’s life, for example, doesn’t “really” begin when she becomes a wife or a mom, but when she becomes a royal image-bearer of God.
Pastor, gently remind the discontented single person that their marital status is not their defining characteristic. Words like “single” and “married” are fine, but they make far better adjectives than nouns.
Many well-meaning people have a tendency, I think, to make singleness either everything or nothing. Someone who’s made it everything will always lead with some variation of “Are you seeing anyone?” Someone who’s made it nothing will prescribe contentment like medicine—the “God is sovereign; be content” misstep mentioned above. As pastors, we must affirm both the discontented single’s desire while at the same time not act like it’s the only thing going on in their life.
Of course, no observation bears greater significance than that history’s most complete person never had sex and never got married. If singleness is deficient, then so was Jesus Christ.
4. “You can uniquely picture the gospel.”
Along these lines, Scripture is clear that marriage is a gospel mirror, reflecting the union between Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:32).
But does this mean the single Christian fails to mirror the gospel? Not at all. Godly singleness reflects the church in this age as we wait, with expectant hope, for our Savior’s return. In fact, I think single people can enjoy a special kind of solidarity with Jesus that married people cannot. He is, after all, awaiting his wedding day (Rev. 19:6–10).
Sam Allberry puts it like this: “Both marriage and singleness point to the gospel. The former reflects its shape, the latter its sufficiency.” Pastor, help single Christians in your church to see how they can uniquely reflect the sufficiency of the gospel as they await the ultimate wedding.
Speaking of the chaste single woman, Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) went so far as to write:
When she gives herself willingly to [Christ] in love, she has no need to justify herself to the world or to Christians who plague her with questions and suggestions. In a way not open to the married woman her daily “living sacrifice” is a powerful and humble witness, radiating love. I believe she may enter into the “mystery” more deeply than the rest of us.
5. “Your singleness is a gift and a calling.”
We live in an erotic age in which human beings are routinely reduced to their sexuality. The insistence, then, that chastity is a gift to embrace and not a cross to bear is as countercultural as it is biblical.
Paul could not have been clearer that singleness is a good gift from God:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. . . . So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. (1 Cor. 7:7–8, 38; cf. Matt. 19:10–12)
Now, simply informing someone that singleness is a gift is not always helpful. There’s such a thing as an unwanted gift, after all. Labor to show them why the gift is beautiful in heaven’s sight. Help them see the possibilities that lie beneath the wrapping.
Singleness isn’t the kind of gift you unwrap and put on the mantle; it’s the kind you put to use. And the gift isn’t addressed to the single person only, but to their entire community. Everyone benefits from the life of an unmarried person who has embraced this calling—this deployment—from the King himself.
In his book When the Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman makes a striking observation:
Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 7 was not to ask how singleness fits into God’s kingdom plan. Paul was addressing the issue of how marriage fits into his kingdom plan. Single people are already with the program. They are “concerned about the things of the Lord” (v. 32). Married people are the ones who need help sorting out their priorities.
Single Christians aren’t in a holding pattern, awaiting their job responsibilities in God’s kingdom. Let’s not communicate otherwise in our churches.
6. “It’s likely you’re strategically positioned for gospel good.”
This one is tricky, since there’s a fine line between telling singles they’re likely able to extend themselves more freely for the gospel and implying they’re expected to. The former is encouraging; the latter is not. The former puts wind in the sails; the latter adds weight to the boat.
The world champions the single life because of all you can do for yourself. The Bible champions the single life because of all you can do for others. Where does the beauty of singleness shine brightest? Not in exotic trips or Netflix binges or waking up on Saturday at the crack of noon, though those things can be nice. Singleness shines brightest in the ability to serve, to rise to the occasion, to drop everything at a moment’s notice and—as one single friend was able to do—make travel and funeral arrangements for a family who’d suddenly lost their child.
So encourage singles in your church to embrace their relative freedom and flexibility as the strategic deployment it is. This doesn’t just have implications for their ministry (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:32–34), but for their friendships, too. As Allberry observes:
For those of us who remain single, we might not experience the unique depth of intimacy with one person that a married friend might, but we can enjoy a unique breadth of intimacy with a number of close friends that comes from having greater opportunity and capacity than married people typically have to invest in close friendships.
7. “God is with and for you now.”
One of the best ways you can love someone desiring marriage is to help them see that God is always sovereign and wise and good to his children—and he’s not about to stop with them. He knows what’s best for them (wise), he wants what’s best for them (good), and he will bring about what’s best for them (sovereign). Charles Spurgeon put it beautifully: “Remember this: Had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.”
This is not a flippant or flimsy platitude. It’s rock-solid truth on which the Christian stands.
It’s difficult to improve on Paige Brown’s words in her remarkable essay, “Singled Out for Good”:
Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.
8. “You are part of the ultimate family already.”
Late-modern Western culture conflates sex and intimacy, but Scripture does not. God’s people, gathered in kingdom outposts called local churches, are meant to be the most intimate communities on earth.
For a man or woman in Christ, nothing ultimate about them is single. They are a child in the Father’s house (1 Tim. 3:15), a member of the Son’s body (1 Cor. 12:12–27), a stone in the Spirit’s temple (Eph. 2:21–22).
And, unlike their marital status, these realities will endure forever.
In his book God, Marriage, and Family, Andreas Köstenberger makes the interesting observation that Scripture unfolds, if anything, in a pro-singleness direction:
- Singleness in creation: nonexistent
- Singleness in the Old Testament: uncommon and generally undesirable
- Singleness in the New Testament: advantageous for kingdom ministry
- Singleness in the final state: universal
To be sure, you’re called to lead your church in honoring marriage (Heb. 13:4). But take care not to do so at the expense of singleness—a stewardship entrusted to some of us now that will characterize all of us forever.
9. “Jesus is enough. Really.”
The local church is indispensible to the Christian life, and the ultimate reason is because of its all-sufficient cornerstone and head, Jesus Christ.
I once heard my friend Bethany Jenkins remark that if Jesus isn’t sufficient for her when she’s single, he won’t be sufficient for her when she’s married.
Don’t you love that?
Pastor, remind the singles in your church that they already have access to the deepest and most meaningful love relationship there is. Period. If they get married, that’s great, but it will only add a dollar of approval and love to the billion-dollar net worth they already possess.
Again, contentment in singleness doesn’t show up as a muted desire for marriage. The most beautiful thing, in fact, is when single Christians acknowledge their longing for a spouse—and yet testify to the sufficiency of Jesus in the midst of the struggle. The world has a category for a single who acts like marriage isn’t a big deal. But what it doesn’t have a category for—what the world can neither understand nor explain—is a single who longs for marriage while declaring, “His grace is sufficient for me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
As Allberry puts it, “The key to contentment as a single person isn’t being content in singleness; it’s being content in Christ, as a single person.”
SHEPHERD THEIR GAZE
Far from being a second-class calling, godly singleness is a vital stewardship entrusted to many of our brothers and sisters—some for a season, others for life.
As you shepherd those longing for a spouse, don’t miss the opportunity to listen, to comfort, and to speak truth in love. And the best way you can love them is to direct their gaze not ultimately to their circumstances, but to the greatest single person who ever lived.
Posted: 20 March 2017