Thursday, June 25, 2009

Singles at the Crossroads class at Willow Creek

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.

16 comments:

JAM said...

I appreciate that you are trying to help singles, Al, but your newfangled interpretation of 1 Cor 7:7 -- that the gift Paul is referring to is marital status, as opposed the traditional interpretation of a more rare and idiocyncratic "celibacy", as described by Christ in Matthew 19:11-12 -- has actually created more confusion about a passage that is really quite simple and straightforward.

As Christ said in Matthew 19, not everyone can voluntarily choose to be single for the sake of the kingdom (like the third kind of eunuch), only those "to whom it is given". It's this kind of giftedness that Paul is referring to in 1 Cor 7:7.

Paul does not name "the gift" as singleness or celibacy (or marriage, for that matter). What's more the phrase he uses "ho houto..." does not suggest one of two things, but is infinite and non-specific. For this reason, the editors of the NLT have removed the phrases "gift of singleness" and "gift of marriage" from the latest edition.

Indeed, Paul was speaking to individual differences (created by God) that factor into the personal decision to marry or not marry, further elaborated upon in verses 8 and 9. Verse 7 was never meant to be a big statement about God's sovereignty in assigning singleness or marriage, but rather preamble to verses 8 & 9, which are clearly about making a wise, informed personal choice.

Of course, you could say that God is sovereign and therefore singleness -- even unwanted singleness -- is a "gift", just as John Piper says that cancer is a gift. However, you cannot make this argument from 1 Cor 7:7, because clearly, that wasn't was Paul was trying to say.

Unfortunately, the "all singleness is a gift" interpretation of 1 Cor 7:7 has been used (or should I say, misused, or even abused) to dismiss the valid concerns of so many singles today who are finding multiple obstacles in their way in pursuit of the good goal of marriage. Fortunately, in the past several years there has been a rethinking of the gift of singleness, spearheaded by Candice Watters of Boundless.com (a Focus on the Family website). I think you may be in for a surprising update!

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, JAM. I'm quite aware of Boundless's take on the passage and topic, and I respect their perspective and emphasis on marriage. But their/your perspective seems to run counter to the entire tenor of the whole passage of 1 Corinthians 7. One of Paul's intentions in the passage is to tell people who are skeptical of marriage that marriage is okay (for those who had associated all sexuality, including marital sexuality, as having pagan connotations), but the overall point is that both singleness and marriage are okay, and in many ways, Paul prefers singleness.

In 1 Cor. 7, Paul says that singles can get married. It does not say that they have to get married, or that it’s better to be married than single. Just the opposite. 1 Cor. 7 tends to say that being single is better than being married. But some Christians try to say that God wants everybody to get married. That’s simply not true. It is true that many, even most people will be married at some point in life. But that’s not the same thing as saying that God commands everybody to get married. 1 Corinthians 7 makes it an option.

1 Corinthians 7:8 says that it is good for the unmarried and widows to stay unmarried, as Paul himself is. Verse 36 talks about people who wonder if they should get married or not. Paul says, basically, do what you want. Either way is fine. Get married, that’s okay. You’re not sinning. Decide not to get married, that’s okay too. Verse 37, people are not under compulsion one way or the other, but have control over our own will. You can make up your own mind whether to marry or not. Verse 38 says that he who marries does right, and he who doesn’t does better.

Paul is telling people who are suspicious of marriage that marriage is okay, and so is singleness. We live in a different culture today where the pendulum has shifted, and people are suspicious of singleness. Paul’s word to us from 1 Corinthians 7 is that both marriage and singleness are okay.

Al Hsu said...

Specific to the question of whether singleness is a gift, I think we would agree that singleness is not a spiritual gift (a la 1 Cor 12). The main difference between our perspectives is whether 1 Cor 7:7 differentiates between singles with a "gift of singleness" and those without it. On this point, I think we'll simply have to agree to disagree. It's an assumption on your part that what Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:7 is necessarily the same as what Jesus is referring to in Mt. 19:12 as the third kind of eunuch.

I find it better to take Paul on his own terms, within the context of 1 Cor 7. Throughout the rest of the passage, when he addresses virgins and widows and whatnot, he doesn't seem to make any classification or distinction between those who have a special gift of singleness (and thus should not marry) - he seems to assume that all his Corinthian readers have the option to be single or not, and are not given a binding, restrictive "gift" one way or another. So either all singleness is a gift (and all marriage as well) and should be stewarded as such, or we should simply dismiss the language of "gift" entirely and just talk in terms of living Christianly as either single or married, whichever we happen to be.

John Stott, whose perspective on this I highly respect, argues that there is in fact a calling to singleness, and that this calling is perhaps what Paul means by a gift of singleness. But Stott says that this calling does not necessarily come with supernatural empowering to be single. God equips those he calls, but it's not some mystical, magical gift of happy celibacy.

At any rate, I think both our positions are plausible and well within the bounds of possible interpretations/applications of the passage. Readers can certainly make up their own minds as to which may be best. It's surely a passage and issue that falls within the "nonessentials" category in the classic "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things charity." So I'm not terribly dogmatic on this point. I could be wrong. So could you.

Either way, I think we would agree that Paul affirms both singleness and marriage are good states. Paul doesn't overemphasize marriage to the detriment of singles. If anything, he overcorrects the other way. And that's a neglected message in modern conservative evangelicalism, which often seems to overemphasize marriage to the exclusion of singles. All I'm arguing for is a balanced Christianity where both married and single are fully valued.

JAM said...

First of all, we are in agreement that these scriptures speak in terms of liberty in the decision to marry or stay single. You've pointed to verse 35 (and 36?), and I pointed to verses 8-9.

However, when you say "It does not say that they have to get married, or that it’s better to be married than single. Just the opposite. 1 Cor. 7 tends to say that being single is better than being married.", I would add that this letter also needs to be considered in historical context, most notably "the present distress" mentioned in verse 26 as Paul's reason for why the unmarried in particular would do best to remain as they are.

"We live in a different culture today where the pendulum has shifted, and people are suspicious of singleness."

If anything, today there is much less stigma around singleness than there has ever been. I agree that it is wrong to direct suspicion at "singles", but likewise the idea that "singleness" is a "gift equal to marriage" (regardless of whether you want it!) is also dubious, because it undercuts any discussion of the possibility that singleness be a result of, or a cause of consequences, vis a vis, the individual or society. It makes singleness a "hands off" topic, something you must not question. Yes, people are single due to circumstances that are within and beyond their control -- as such, there can be excesses in both directions as far as too much suspicion/intrusion on one end, and too little accountability on the other.

Would you not agree that "the gift of singleness" has been the source of many unhelpful church teachings to young Christians in the past decade, giving a rather flattering licence to some to languish in a place of pious indecision (perhaps for fear of making the "wrong one"), while others get thumped on the head with the "contentment sermon"?

JAM said...

"The main difference between our perspectives is whether 1 Cor 7:7 differentiates between singles with a "gift of singleness" and those without it. On this point, I think we'll simply have to agree to disagree. It's an assumption on your part that what Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:7 is necessarily the same as what Jesus is referring to in Mt. 19:12 as the third kind of eunuch."

It's also an assumption on your part that Paul is referring to one's marital status as a gift!

"Throughout the rest of the passage, when he addresses virgins and widows and whatnot, he doesn't seem to make any classification or distinction between those who have a special gift of singleness (and thus should not marry) - he seems to assume that all his Corinthian readers have the option to be single or not, and are not given a binding, restrictive "gift" one way or another."

I agree that Paul affirms that it's optional, although he does make a point in verse 9 that if you "cannot contain", you should marry. It is true that some people (probably most people, over a lifetime) are innately less capable of sexual containment than others. Likewise, just because some people are more capable of containing themselves, that doesn't necessarily mean that they *should* stay single (or only marry when containment becomes an issue). People try to make it a black and white issue, but it's not! So, to take Paul on his own terms, within the context of 1 Cor 7 -- a context of being free to choose within the parameters of what's permissible and advisable, giving consideration to your own strengths and limitations particular to you, whatever they may be.

"So either all singleness is a gift (and all marriage as well) and should be stewarded as such, or we should simply dismiss the language of "gift" entirely and just talk in terms of living Christianly as either single or married, whichever we happen to be."

I would agree wholeheartedly with the latter and dismiss the former on the grounds that the scriptures simply do not identify singleness (or even marriage) as a "gift" and using that word to describe it is not helpful...

"John Stott, whose perspective on this I highly respect, argues that there is in fact a calling to singleness, and that this calling is perhaps what Paul means by a gift of singleness. But Stott says that this calling does not necessarily come with supernatural empowering to be single."

With all due respect to John Stott, there is no reference in the scriptures of any "calling to singleness" (with the exception of Jeremiah, whose was told not to marry or have children "in this place")-- and again, I think that's a really unhelpful term, because it gives a lot of young people the feeling that God might "call them" (ie. "tell" them to be single). This is anxiety provoking language that must stop. As Christ said, there are some gifted people who choose to be single for the sake of the kingdom -- sure, they may not have a "mystical, magical gift of happy celibacy", but they may be gifted with a passion for a mission that exceeds their desire for marriage, or perhaps some people are more gifted in their abilities to make big sacrifices for God -- and they must consider whether they can handle being sexually abstinent.

In summary, terms like "gift of singleness", "called to singleness" are extra-biblical and they have the unintended consequence of sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of young people as to whether or not God wants them to pursue marriage. I know you just want to support the integrity of individuals working out their own stuff without excess pressure, but don't you see that calling all singleness a gift only replaces one problem with another?

Al Hsu said...

JAM - Thanks for commenting again. I'm at a conference right now, and I'm afraid I don't have time/space to respond in great detail. I fully agree that all of these various perspectives on singleness/marriage are imperfect and limited and have their own unintended consequences, and every "solution" certainly raises new questions/problems. Boundless's "Get Married" campaign is well-intentioned in terms of encouraging some singles to get married, but has the unintended consequence of marginalizing other singles and making them feel like second-class Christians. My take on singleness and marriage as both valid paths for Christian discipleship might prevent some singles from pursuing marriage, but I think I'm pretty clear that I don't claim any mandate either way - if singles want to get married and have opportunity to marry, they are certainly free to do so.

Naomi and Ruth were both widowed; Ruth remarried, Naomi didn't. Peter was married, Paul was single. Either path is okay and can be used by God. Marriage is a good thing, and I have no problem with folks saying so. I think you can uphold marriage and singleness at the same time; it's a both/and, not an either/or. I'm just affirming that either path is okay.

JAM said...

"Boundless's "Get Married" campaign is well-intentioned in terms of encouraging some singles to get married, but has the unintended consequence of marginalizing other singles and making them feel like second-class Christians."

I would be interested in looking at any examples you can show me from Boundless that you think are marginalizing (ie "must", as opposed to "probably should"). There are a few instance where they overlook some of the obstacles to marriage that Christians face today (ie. "Plenty of Men to Go Around" article that glosses over the shortage of single men in churches), but for the most part, they do addressing societal obstacles to marriage, but also challenge the individual to consider their contribution to them -- is that wrong? How far do our marriage rates have to fall before we challenge the church body -- and the individuals that comprise it? Or is all singleness, in your mind, "valid" (even without a clear "path for discipleship, which btw, Boundless does validate) and therefore not to be questioned?

Even if you don't want to challenge the validity of singleness as a lifestyle choice for such a large group of people, as a single woman in my forties, I must say I find it not validating, but dismissive and patronizing to be told (by married people, usually) that "singleness is a gift equal to marriage". Yes, God can use your singleness, but there are losses that go along with protracted singleness, particularly for women after reaching an age where it's no longer possible to have children.

Single people may be "equal" to married people in God's eyes, but my generation, with its Gothard-influenced teachings that glorified singleness, is proof that singleness is not a gift, let alone a gift equal to marriage. Very few of those singles were really able to stay on that path -- many sheep were lost (see Bradford Wilcox's research on how church attendance and marital status are linked, especially for men -- and it's not just because church environments don't work hard enough to be "single-friendly").

JAM said...

"My take on singleness and marriage as both valid paths for Christian discipleship might prevent some singles from pursuing marriage, but I think I'm pretty clear that I don't claim any mandate either way - if singles want to get married and have opportunity to marry, they are certainly free to do so."

I do appreciate your attempts to affirm the freedom to choose, but by keeping the term "gift of singleness" in operation, you are not debunking the myths about it, but keeping them alive. If you don't believe that there is a connection between the "GoS" and discouragement about marriage, then check out this quote from Don Raunikar's book "Choosing God's Best":

"Before you can determine whom to marry, you must first answer a preliminary question: Does God want you to marry anyone, ever? Or is His plan for you to remain single? Scripture teaches that marriage, like salvation, is an unmerited gift from God (Genesis 2:18). When God wanted Adam to have a wife, He brought her to him. Their marriage was a gift from God. But Scripture also tells us that singleness is God's gift as well."

This is spiritual abuse -- suggesting to singles that they must wait for some kind of charismatic message, when if fact, the Bible never speaks of divine mate-finding or confirmation of assignment, but rather, personal choice and volition when it comes to marriage and singleness. Not surprising though, given the Gothardisms peppered throughout much of the book.

If we are to rid ourselves of the incoherent mess that has come from muddling "single-status-as-gift" with "enablement-to-be-single-as-gift" then the term "gift of singleness" needs to be dropped altogether. You are on the right track, Al, as far as affirming personal choice when it comes to marriage and singleness. I just don't think you go far enough in truly debunking the GoS myth, which would mean rejecting the term outright, as modern Bible editors are now doing.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for sharing so personally, JAM. I think I understand more where you're coming from now! I'm not very familiar with Gothard stuff; it just wasn't prevalent in my circles. I certainly don't come from that perspective!

I'm back from my conference, so I have a little more breathing space to respond. You ask: "Or is all singleness, in your mind, "valid" (even without a clear "path for discipleship, which btw, Boundless does validate) and therefore not to be questioned?" I would put it this way - plenty of Christian singles have "bad singlenesses" just like plenty of Christian married people have bad marriages. Singleness in and of itself is not necessarily "valid" or "good" any more than marriage by itself is automatically healthy or functional. But just like married Christians can develop and improve their marriages to have healthier, more Christian marriages, so too it is with singleness - Christian singles can likewise live more Christianly in singleness. Neither is automatic - both Christian singleness and Christian marriage require intentional discipleship. As Christians, we believe in redemption and transformation and have hope that the power of God can help us live faithfully and fruitfully in either state.

I think part of the dissonance is that for many evangelical circles, the sense is a more simplistic idea that "if you're having a lousy time as a single person, the answer is to get married" without understanding that well, actually, people who had lousy singlenesses often have lousy marriages too! There is often an assumption that marriage is a silver bullet that cures the problems of singleness, without recognizing that marriage has problems and issues too. (Hence our awful evangelical divorce rate! Grass is always greener.)

So my take is that both singleness and marriage have their own challenges and their own pros and cons, and we need to take them on their own terms. If you are married, do your best to live Christianly as a married person and have a healthy Christian marriage. If you are single, do your best to live Christianly as a healthy follower of Jesus. (And that can include pursuing marriage, of course. As I say in my book, one of the freedoms of singleness is the freedom to marry.)

I think my larger ecclesiological concern is simply that as Christians, our fundamental identity is not rooted in our marital status. Many evangelicals focus on marriage (a good thing) to such an extent that it becomes idolatrous. And part of Jesus' message is that marriage is not the most important thing. It is important and to be honored, yes, but the kingdom takes ultimate priority. The family of faith, the church, the body of Christ transcends and includes any marital or biological family commitments. This doesn't diminish the importance of building healthy marriages and families - evangelicals certainly need to be doing all we can to do that. But it's a matter of keeping things in perspective. Marriage is not the most important thing (for either married people or single people) - the kingdom of God gives us new priority and perspective.

Al Hsu said...

[My comment was too long for the max amount of characters! Continuing...]

I hope that clarifies where I'm coming from a bit. I understand that there are all sorts of baggage and history with terminology in all of this. I really don't hold too tightly to "gift of singleness" language, and my take was an attempt to reframe it (if folks want to use the language of "gift", understand it in a non-restrictive way rather than a prescriptive way). If it's not helpful, since different contexts and communities associate particular connotations with the words and phrases, however intended, then feel free to discard it entirely!

It may well be better to move away from confusing and misleading "gift" language and to use other imagery, such as "stewardship" - whether you are single or married, be a good steward of the opportunities you have in that state (understanding that one's marital status may well change). As long as the overall goal and vision is healthy Christian discipleship for all of us, whether we're single or married - all of us are called to participate in the life and work of the kingdom.

JAM said...

"I'm not very familiar with Gothard stuff; it just wasn't prevalent in my circles. I certainly don't come from that perspective!"

Gothard's seminars reached over two and a half million people. Much of what is taken for granted as standard teachings to Christian singles in the last few decades comes straight from Gothard, a man who never married and whose ministry was wracked with scandal, in part because of his teachings on singles. A history that definitely needs to be looked into by everyone who ministers to singles.

"I would put it this way - plenty of Christian singles have "bad singlenesses" just like plenty of Christian married people have bad marriages. Singleness in and of itself is not necessarily "valid" or "good" any more than marriage by itself is automatically healthy or functional...I think part of the dissonance is that for many evangelical circles, the sense is a more simplistic idea that "if you're having a lousy time as a single person, the answer is to get married" without understanding that well, actually, people who had lousy singlenesses often have lousy marriages too!"

I guess where there is confusion about the "goodness" of singleness, it comes down to whether you're talking about singleness as a good moral choice (ie. the first example), or a good fate (ie. the second example) for the individual or society.

I agree that singleness can be a morally acceptable choice, which is what Paul is saying in 1 Cor 7 -- if you can withstand the sexual abstinence, as well as maintain your morale such that you can truly be a servant to Christ. Sounds good in theory, but it's time for everyone to admit that this isn't what generally happens in practice, with the vast majority of Christian singles acting out sexually, many leaving the church altogether. Sure, there are married people who commit sexual sins, and marriage isn't necessarily a cure for someone with a pre-existing problem, but the encouragement of protracted singleness is a certain guarantee that you will see more sexual sin in most individuals and in all societies.

Understand that I'm not trying to demonize sexual sins as worse than any other, I just don't think that you can formulate a vision about singleness and marriage without incorporating sexuality. And that is what Paul was deftly trying to do in verses 1-2 and 8-9.

JAM said...

But what bothers me more is the indifference you show in your handling of singleness as a fate, as if it's no consequence if you marry or you don't! As if "having a lousy time" with singleness is just an attitude, expecting a silver bullet solution -- or even idolatry! And of course the wise married must deign to remind the silly singles that marriage "can have problems too". Here's what Candice Watters has to say about the disingenuous comparison of marriage and singleness as equally good fates:

“that’s not a fair comparison – it equates married people on bad days with singles on their best. People who marry well and are committed to their marriages don’t wish they were single again, and singles who are honest about their desires don’t find consolation in married people having bad days”

It's not just a matter "pros and cons", Al. Marriage and family life may not be "the most important thing", but it is an enormous part of the human experience. When those who wanted to marry don't get to, that is a tragedy, just like infertility (and is a kind of infertility, if you think about it).

"I think my larger ecclesiological concern is simply that as Christians, our fundamental identity is not rooted in our marital status."

You don't think that failure to marry won't impact the sense of identity and self-esteem of those who had hoped they would? Marriage impacts identity profoundly -- for women, it often results in a change of name, and for men who have children, that's your name, your legacy carrying on into the future! Both OT and NT scriptures assume and accept that these things are important to people. Are they "more important" than our identity in Christ? Who said they were?! Being too quick to suggest that this is the problem unfairly pits the desire for marriage against the desire to please God.

I can see your good intentions in trying to take the heat off of those who want to be single, and ameliorate the suspicion and pity that often alienates singles. Negative attitudes towards singles is only a partial source of what alienates them, which is largely about being outnumbered in congregations that are mostly comprised of families. Yes, there needs to be more respect for singles and less assumptions made about them -- Paul's admonishments about busybodies covers that. And certainly, those dealing with unwanted singles still need to live "Christianly", as you put it. However, "encouragement" about singleness is not possible without a realistic appraisal of what it likely entails.

Al Hsu said...

I'm sorry if I communicated indifference. I certainly don't mean to minimize or invalidate anybody's experience. Of course I know that many people deeply desire marriage, just as many infertile couples deeply desire biological children. But all of us would also acknowledge that life isn't always what we expect or want. I didn't expect to lose my father to suicide. I didn't expect that my second son would have Down syndrome. Yet we continue to persevere in spite of the losses we have experienced, because God befriends the bereaved, the childless, the orphaned, the divorced, those grieving losses of any and all kinds. And God is still good.

I'm not sure I can say anything else at this point! Again, thanks for your comments. The Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine upon you, and grant you his shalom.

JAM said...

"I'm sorry if I communicated indifference. I certainly don't mean to minimize or invalidate anybody's experience. Of course I know that many people deeply desire marriage, just as many infertile couples deeply desire biological children."

I know you don't mean to minimize or invalidate the experience of the involuntarily single and that you probably know others dealing with it, but you don't seem willing to communicate much more than a perfunctory consideration of it -- just look back through this thread and the next one. And when the hard facts about unwanted singleness (for the individual or society) as a fate are brought up, you just seem to cut straight to the usual "marriage is not the most important thing, God is".

And maybe that goes along with the blurring of "singleness is good, as a moral choice" (which is can be, under certain conditions), with "singleness is good, as a fate" -- which it is not, for many of those who do not choose it, at least not a fate equal to marriage.

Yes, we are to perservere in faith despite our losses and look to God for comfort. That God can work great good through those circumstances. But that doesn't mean that all fates and circumstances are equally good. I'm sure you would agree that losing a parent (as I did too) is not a good fate, especially when it's through the consequence of free human will (such as suicide, as with your father, and lung cancer, with my mother). Same thing with involuntary singleness. That doesn't mean that singles aren't "equal" to married people. Likewise, a child with Down's is equal to any other in God's eyes, but I bet that you as a loving father would do anything, sell all you had, for a cure if there was one. Everyone wants the best possible fate for themselves and their children.

It is true that life doesn't always give us what we expect or want, and even if things happen under God's sovereignty, under mysterious reasons, directly or indirectly for various purposes, not all things are considered equal. Just look up the word "gift" in a concordance to see what the scriptures do and do not call "a gift".

With all due respect to John Piper, the modern trend of calling illnesses, losses, etc. a "gift" or treating them as fates equal to those good things which are truly gifts not only diminishes the meaning of the word, but reduces our capacity to respond compassionately, it's like "well, it happened, therefore it's God's will, so suck it up, carry on then."

I'm not saying that's what you're doing, but perhaps in your desire to be neutral about singleness and marriage, you end up with lack of clarity when you say "singleness is good" that leads the reader to wonder about whether or not you mean as a "moral choice" or as a "fate". Much of what you're saying here reflects the ideas from your book, so it doesn't sound like much has changed. Nevertheless, I've been meaning for years to give you some feedback. So for what it's worth, there it is.

JAM said...

P.S. One last thing about 1 Cor 7:7, and whether or not Paul's use of the word gift was referring to "singleness and marriage" or was just a manner of speech used to get across the idea that because we're all different (each with a different gift), let each decide for themselves....

...try reciting the passage out loud, saying it fast:

7 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.

8 So to the unmarried I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot excercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Do it a few times and you'll see what I mean. Verse 7 was simply Paul's preambulary disclaimer to set up the real meat of the message, which is hit home in verses 8 & 9. It was like plain as day when our little committee was reviewing this, and when we went to the NLT with it, they agreed and removed the GoS/GoM. The Message has agreed to follow suit.

Amonite said...

While everyone who is single should be content in that and find joy - it's a good time of life, there is a "gift of singleness". If you ever encounter someone who has this gift, you will understand. They are the people who choose singleness for the sake of the gospel, and who feel no compulsion to marry (nor can understand the desire too), nor any desire for children, etc. It is very different from the natural impulse to marry.

In fact, it's a bit insane when people tell my sister (who has this gift) that she is 'wrong' about her feelings, that her desires will 'change', or that the gift of singleness 'isn't a gift at all' and that she is doing single Christian men a disservice by not wanting to marry! There are many gifts of the spirit (in fact every list of gifts in the Bible is different and it is implied there are many more, so we do not get into the habit of defining and restricting gifts on God's behalf).

While I empathize with the plight of singles who are discontent (I am single myself, though I consider it a very good period of life!), we do not have the gift Paul speaks of. We neither 'choose freely' to remain permanently in our state for the gospel, nor do we naturally feel that singleness is the state we are meant to remain in.