I'm in the midst of teaching a 3-week class about singleness at Willow Creek, based on my book Singles at the Crossroads. Video for the first week is available here, and you can download an mp3 of the talk here. I never like watching myself on video after the fact. I know you're supposed to review yourself so you can learn from it and improve your presentation skills, but I always feel like I look and sound goofy. One of the things I like most about book publishing is that it's a way of sharing and teaching without having my physical traits get in the way. (I caught a cold over the weekend, so last night my voice felt all scratchy and strained. Managed to get through most of it without too much coughing or hacking.)
Anyway, things have been going pretty well so far. First week I gave a basic biblical/theological/historical overview of how Christians have thought about singleness and marriage over the years, and last night I ran through seven myths about singleness and marriage. Whenever I present on this topic, it seems that the part that folks respond to as most helpful is my take on the "gift of singleness." Here's an excerpt:
In 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul says, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another of a different kind.” This is the verse that some say is about the "gift of singleness." Sometimes people refer to the gift of celibacy or the gift of chastity. They usually mean something like if you have the gift of celibacy, you don’t want to be married or are specially empowered to resist sexual temptation or whatnot. Some Christians look at this verse and think people with the gift of singleness don’t desire marriage, and that if you desire marriage, that means that you don’t have the gift of singleness and ought to get married.
I think that confuses things and implies things that aren’t really there. The passage doesn’t say anything about people not having the desire for marriage. There’s no “gift of singleness” that magically makes people happy singles.
So what is the gift of singleness, if there is such a thing? How do I know if I have the gift of singleness? What if I don’t want the gift of singleness? My answer is pretty simple. Here’s my take. If you are single, you have the gift of singleness. If you are married, you don’t; you have the gift of marriage. Simple as that. Paul just says that some have one gift, some have another. Paul’s just saying some are single, and some are married. Paul isn’t making a distinction between singles who have some supernatural gift of singleness and singles who don’t. He’s saying that some are single, and that’s a gift, and some are married, and that’s also a gift.
The confusion comes because people think that the gifts in 1 Corinthians 7 are the same as the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. In chapter 12, Paul says that folks have different spiritual gifts – teaching, healing, leading, etc. The Holy Spirit empowers people to exercise their gift in ministry. That’s why they’re spiritual gifts.
But that’s not the case in 1 Corinthians 7. Nowhere does Paul say that marriage or singleness are “spiritual” gifts – only that they are gifts. In other words, he’s describing an objective status. These gifts are descriptive gifts. If you’re single, you have the gift of singleness. If you’re married, you have the gift of marriage. Neither one is a promise that the Holy Spirit will spiritually empower you to have a healthy marriage or a happy singleness. They’re not spiritual gifts. They’re not in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul doesn’t say that someone with the gift of singleness will not desire marriage or will be free from sexual temptation, any more than he says that those with the gift of marriage will be always happy with their marriage or not be tempted to stray. He just says that both are gifts and are to be valued and honored as such.
And if you don’t want the gift of singleness? Paul would say, you can get married. It’s not a restrictive gift, just a descriptive gift. If you have opportunity with someone who is willing to marry you, you can get married. When two people get married, they exchange the gift of singleness for the gift of marriage. When you exchange a gift at the store, you can’t exchange it for something of greater value. You can only exchange it for something of equal value. So singleness and marriage are equal gifts of equal value. Sure, both have their own opportunities and disadvantages. Both have their own sets of problems and challenges. But neither one is more spiritual or more valuable than the other. Both are ways to serve God. The challenge is to make a success of the single life if you are single, and to make a success of the married life if you are married.