“Engagement Season”: On Being a Single Christian

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Apparently we are now in “engagement season,” as this picture on Instagram that went viral showed. The viral nature of this picture has prompted lots of discussion on marriage/ singleness, so I decided, maybe it’s time for me to start talking about singleness, because, well, I am single. And I think about it a lot. Now let’s up the ante: let’s talk about Christian singleness. 

First a little background.

When I was growing up, I thought that my life would begin when I got married and had children. Even though I was always a high achiever, I considered career goals to be a back up plan reserved for my first few years of marriage prior to the commencement of popping out babies. I had this world view for a disturbingly long time– even in college, I was prepared to meet Prince Charming at any time and leave everything I had to follow him. My identity would be in being Mrs. Prince Charming. That’s where I would find worthiness and wholeness.

I was primed to think this way. My role model growing up was Ariel from The Little Mermaid, which, looking back, is scary, as this Second City skit hilariously depicts. I was idolizing a voiceless young girl who changed her body for a complete stranger who she apparently loves. Not to mention that she is 16. Growing up, I also saw a lot of educated women who stopped their lives when getting married and having children. The rest of their existence was filled with helicopter parenting, militant PTA presence, facilitating parties, and complaining to the principal about difficult calculus teachers. What is a young girl to learn from these models of love, marriage, and womanhood? That being a wife and mom were king. More than anything, those experiences colored one’s identity and guided the rest of a person’s life. Getting a job? Getting a raise? An education? Apparently less exciting and valued than blowing $70,000 on a wedding, as this article from the Huffington Post shows. 

My experience as an evangelical Christian with dating and marriage has been much, much worse than my experience with singleness in the dominant culture. Things get elevated when moral and divine components embedded into discussion. As a teenager in an evangelical church, I was given rhetoric like, “God’s plan for your perfect mate,” a poem that can be summarized by the following: God wants you to have the perfect marriage. Just wait. Draw close to him, and when the perfect time comes, he will give you more than you could ever ask or imagine in a mate. I heard things like, “If you dance with God, he will let the perfect guy cut in,” and, “God is writing my love story.”

I drank the Kool Aid… for a while.

I patiently (well, not that patiently, let’s be honest) waited for Mr. Right to march in, and (cue the crickets). It hasn’t happened. Theologically, this has been problematic for me. Am I not being a good enough Christian? Am I not holy enough? I’ve been having this really long dance with God, and it’s super awesome, but when is this awesome guy going to cut in? Maybe if I learn this lesson… and that one… GOD AM I BEING PATIENT ENOUGH YET???? (Crickets). Okay, guess not.

There is this strange theological view of God as a cosmic matchmaker who is facilitating billions of chick flicks. What about those of us who haven’t gotten cast? What about those of us who haven’t gotten the ring by spring? Are we missing something? Are we not good enough? What about people who never get married? Or who get divorced? Or who are in abusive relationships?

In my despair over being single, I’ve poured over Christian literature on singleness (and marriage). I remember reading a book based on the story of Ruth, which described how she patiently waited for Boaz. I read it every time I was lonely, which was a lot. Over the years in church, I have gotten the consistent message that a primary concern of the Christian life is getting married. I saw marriage portrayed like a massive party with balloons, blow up toys, and awesome cake. You could finally have sex. The instructions that Paul gives about lifelong celibacy? Contextual, apparently.

Unfortunately for me, I’m not willing to be this single Christian woman who prays daily for my future husband and cultivates the traits of “sweetness and submission” to male authority figures. After years of therapy and theological education, I will not wait on the edge of my castle in a Cinderella dress waiting for my Mr. Jesus-Right to sweep me away. Yes, I pray, and yes, sweetness and submission can be beautiful and godly things, but I think that God is much more concerned about how I live and love others where I am than wistfully cry myself to sleep and read Mark Driscoll, who obviously understands the plight of single women (oh wait…).

Jesus talks about a lot of things. Poverty is a big one. The oppressed. Healing. However, the Bible does not talk much (anything?) about picking a marriage partner in the way that our modern culture conceptualizes marriage. The Bible can generalize to things like marriage, and there are clearly examples of marriage being a blessing in the Bible, but the Bible is not a guide book for dating or marriage. It is so much more than that. In addition, the way that the current evangelical church has defined dating and marriage are not inherently cornerstones of our faith. Just because many Christians are married and God can work in marriages doesn’t mean that marriage should be “the” ideal for every Christian adult’s life. Clearly marriage is not a mark of holiness and godliness in and of itself because Jesus and Paul both chose celibacy.

The evangelical emphasis on marriage is so pervasive (google the books/ articles written on marriage by evangelicals), I wonder if it borders on idolatry. The implication of the dance-with-God–then-the-perfect-guy-will-cut-in phrase is that you stop walking with God when a guy comes around. God is like your wingman who desires you to have a greater good… MARRIAGE. Isn’t that kind of problematic? Christian Mingle, a site that appears on my facebook page incessantly, has the verse Psalm 37:4 on its home page, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Then right below it, it has a picture of a couple gazing into each other’s eyes. If I recall correctly, Psalm 37:4 is not really talking about marriage– it is talking about delighting in God. Not God… so you can get a better husband. Not God for anything. God for himself. Elevating marriage over God is something that I have struggled with doing in my own life, but I think that a lot of Christians– including pastors– do that as well. And their beliefs are conveyed to teens in youth group and divorced single moms and single twenty or thirty-somethings attending baby showers every weekend, and it hurts. Yes, marriage is something to strive for and is something to be celebrated, and yes, churches are right to address marriage, but marriage cannot be seen as the only (or “preferred”) path, because it’s not.

Recently, I read an amazing post by Christena Cleveland called, “Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults.” It is beautiful, and you should totally check it out. She writes, “In a Church that was founded by a single guy, singles are terribly marginalized.” Cleveland also has some helpful tips for churches so that singles are not treated like second-class citizens or oddballs. Also importantly, Cleveland has the experience of being unmarried herself. I appreciate how Greg Boyd, a married pastor, invited Cleveland to speak with him about singleness to his church so the voice of an unmarried individual was heard.

You know what is annoying? When people who are not single think they have the right to talk about singles. I grit my teeth when I hear someone say, “I was exactly like you, and then this guy came along, and everything changed! But I totally know what you’re going through.” Pastors are historically annoying about the topic. I can’t find statistics about this, but from my own experience: most pastors I know are married. And they got married at 22 to their high school sweetheart. And then they preach to their churches about marriage and have marriage seminars and have the audacity to say they understand singleness? You haven’t been single since you were 18. You’re done now.

If there is one thing I learned in seminary, it is this: it is hard to live in the tensions: between what you want and don’t have, between what is and what should be, between what you know and don’t know. I am not willing to settle for pat answers about… most things. Marriage is one of them. I am not willing to accept the evangelical cultural mandate for a certain kind of marriage. Yet, I am looking for a Christian man. This leaves me with a small pool of potential relationship partners, but it is a risk I am going to have to take because I am not willing to lose myself and my convictions for some guy just because he loves Jesus. Consequently, I am not willing to date a guy who is not a Christian just because he happens to be more accepting and liberal.

In lamenting about our lack of choices of single men, my roommate joked that Rachel Held Evans should start a dating service so we can filter out all Christian guys who are expecting us to submit to them for all major decisions. We would both sign up. Neither of us are joking. However, until then, I will be content learning more what it means to love the other, following the Spirit imperfectly, and realizing that in Christ, I am enough. I am enough with or without a husband, with or without a family. Until that right guy comes along, if he ever does, in the dance that is life, I will be awkward dancing in a corner eating Sour Patch Kids and laughing at my own jokes. Honestly, and this has taken me years to say that, I am okay with that.

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