“You’re quite wrong,” I corrected my friend, “I do believe in purgatory. It’s called Christian singleness.”
If I thought I meant it merely in jest, the nervous laugh that followed gave me away. I did think singleness was a kind of purgatory. In my experience: most who were there didn’t choose to be; if you were there, you prayed to leave soon; and Christians who had escaped constantly reminded you that it’s ultimately for your good.
To that point, singleness had been the silent struggle. Any unmet desire for marital love had to be swallowed because, as I often reminded others, Jesus was enough.
But secretly, I was growing tired of being the perpetual third-wheel. I was tired of enduring quiet Friday nights alone. I was tired of watching friend after friend leave their mother, father, and me behind to unite with their spouse. I was tired of feeling like I’ve fallen through the cracks — even in the body of Christ. And I was tired of hearing the well-intentioned (and even correct) exhortations to be satisfied in the Lord alone — from those who then go home to their wife and children.
So, I lived the next few years searching for her — my good thing (Proverbs 18:22), my lily among brambles (Song 2:2), my jewel, whose worth and beauty would make all of earth’s stones blush (Proverbs 31:10). I lived to find her. The faceless she was the prize, the treasure hidden in the field, my heart’s alpha and omega.
And, as C.S. Lewis warned, marital love became a demon because I made her into a god. And because God denied me Eve, I, unlike Adam, declared things to be not good. For years I sat in my pious purgatory, feeling confused, alone, and guilty. Why wasn’t I more content in Christ alone?
But then one night God gently confronted me.
He taught me something so simple, yet so revolutionary: marriage was not my mission. She, in all her glory, was not why I breathed. My life was to be lived for Him, not her. I was commissioned with a higher mission than matrimony.
1. To win souls.
The death of a dating relationship should never devastate us more than the death of the lost. The Great Commission does not deal with lonely souls but lost souls:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
We have a glorious commission — one from which an “unmarried” status does not disqualify us. Bachelor Baggins, you have a part to play. Darkness surrounds, enemies of the truth amass, and souls slip quietly into hell every day. God’s mission is that the nations share our name of “blood-bought child,” and this trumps our mission to secure one person sharing our last name.
And ironically, when we labor on his mission, Jesus promises to deal with our lonely souls: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
2. To serve Christ’s bride.
Jesus died to make his bride resplendent (Ephesians 5:25–27).
We strive to beautify the church because Christ secured her holiness by his blood. Pressing towards this maturity is a group project (Ephesians 4:11–16). We speak the truth in love to build her up, use our gifts to strengthen her, and show otherworldly love towards one another.
3. To worship God and enjoy him.
We can never truthfully tell another sinner, “You complete me.” They don’t. They can’t. They won’t.
The elusive he or she is not our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not our Oz at the end of the yellow brick road. God has made us for greater love and joy than can orbit around the planet of a finite human being. He has made us for himself. Humanity was not ultimately made to be married to itself but to its God. In his presence is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
All that is lovely in a spouse is but an echo of his loveliness: the beauty of a wife, a faint scent of his beauty; the love and provision of a husband; only a blur of coming realities.
He completes us.
When Marriage Is Not the Mission
And I found that life works better when marriage was not my mission. I discovered the following benefits.
1. More Contentment in Singleness
Contentment didn’t come by merely clenching my fists, closing my eyes, and whispering, Jesus is enough, Jesus is enough.
Instead of sitting around trying to talk myself out of loneliness, I got up and went on mission. I grabbed lunch with non-believers, pursued time with Christian brothers, grew in knowledge of his word, and discipled men on campus.
Purposelessness feeds loneliness and makes singleness torture. So, I filled more of my time with what God called me to. Much of what we singles mistake for groanings for marriage is, in my estimation, none other than the soul indigestion of a wasted life. Jesus has bread for your hungry soul that you may not be currently tasting: doing your Father’s will by laboring in his harvest (John 4:31–38).
2. More Discernment in Dating
When you are on mission, a partner who is also on mission becomes more attractive. Beauty and charm, finances and athletic prowess all become more and more irrelevant as you embark on mission. Whether your wife was prom queen will not matter when you’re heartbroken over one of your brothers walking away from the Lord. Whether your husband can throw a football sixty yards will be inconsequential when you need him to sit down and graciously discipline your children.
Dating becomes a feeder for mission, an enlisting of another for cavalry to charge the gates of hell beside you. Look for someone ferocious for the things of the Lord.
3. More Joy in Living
Paul reminds us that to live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). To live is not to marry. To live is not to raise children. To live is not to find “the one.” To live is Jesus Christ. In Philippians 1:23, Paul was hard pressed between the thought of continuing to live on mission (to live) and being with Christ (to die).
Mission was not a purgatory to escape from, but an epic adventure to be a part of. Departure from this journey was only gain because it leads to seeing Jesus face to face.
Rise Up, O Singles of Our God!
Singles, God sees your pain, he knows your loneliness (Hebrews 4:15). He has felt a loneliness that you cannot imagine (Matthew 27:46; cf. Psalm 22:1). He knows your needs before you can even ask him (Matthew 6:8). He knows the current number of hairs on your head and tenderly bids you draw near and cast all your burdens upon his fatherly shoulders (Matthew 10:30; 1 Peter 5:6–7). God cares about your lonely soul.
But there are dragons to slay, souls to win, and darkness to fight (in ourselves and in the world). Although God cares about our lonely soul, we strive towards a larger goal. Rediscover the beauty and urgency of the Christian mission over and above marriage.
The time for fairy tale endings and Prince Charmings is not yet. Don’t forsake that childlike anticipation for matrimony because, married or unmarried, none of us has yet experienced the wedding to which all matrimony points. May we sing with William Merrill:
Rise up, O [singles] of God,
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart, and soul, and mind, and strength
To serve the King of kings!