We're Not on Hold: Biblical Femininity for Single Women

Desiring God 2004 National Conference

Sex and the Supremacy of Christ

This message appears as a chapter in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

I received a rude awakening recently at a spinning class. (Yes, I’m a single woman, but don’t panic — this isn’t a class for practicing spinsters! It’s a sweaty, unglamorous, long ride on a stationary bicycle.) It was 7 A.M., and after riding for an hour, everyone was wide-awake and engaging in small talk.

“I’m scared to death of the teenage girls these days,” the instructor announced as she wiped down her bike.

“I know exactly what you mean!” chimed in another forty-something woman. “They’re completely predatory these days. It’s incredible!” “My son is being stalked — there’s really no other word for it — by this fifteen-year-old girl,” the instructor continued. “Fifteen! She calls him night and day, sends him the most suggestive instant messages, and then — get this! — she stood at her back door completely naked, waving to him across the yard. I was so angry! And she’s not the only one. Other girls chase my son just as strongly, though maybe not so crassly.”

Most of the class participants were women in their late thirties to early fifties — outspoken, athletic women whose conversations had never indicated that any of them shared my Christian faith. The occasional serious male cyclist joined us when the weather was bad, but on this morning it was all women, with an unexpected kind of girl talk. I listened with serious concern — troubled at the reports I was hearing of life in twenty-first-century high school.

Normally I’m not shy about joining such conversations, but this time I was actually shocked into silence by their tales. I left that class burdened to pray for my instructor, her son, and his female “stalker.” For days I kept thinking about what I’d heard — especially the reactions of these parents, women who were probably proponents of and participants in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. Now, only one generation later, they are dismayed by the effects of that “revolution.”

The Tipping Point

Pollster and analyst Daniel Yankelovich has been studying American values for more than 50 years. In a recent interview with the Washington Post Magazine, he said that during the 1960s and 70s, Americans underwent the kind of dramatic transformation of social values that usually occurs over generations (April Witt, “Blog Interrupted,” The Washington Post Magazine, August 15, 2004, 17). But for their children, technology introduced a darker, uglier dimension as first the home VCR and then the Internet made pornography easily accessible and even acceptable to some. This has had a profound, and perhaps unexpected, effect on young women that has not been ignored by feminists themselves.

“I think the tipping point came three or four years ago with the first generation to grow up with the Internet,” says feminist author Naomi Wolf. “They were daughters of feminists. The feminist message of autonomy got filtered through a pornographized culture. The message they heard was just go for it sexually. . . . The downside is we’ve raised a generation of young women — and men — who don’t understand sexual ethics like: Don’t sleep with a married man; don’t sleep with a married woman; don’t embarrass people with whom you had a consensual sexual relationship. They don’t see sex as sacred or even very important anymore. That’s been lost. Sex has been commodified and drained of its deeper meaning” (Ibid., 16).

This disturbing trend now has the attention of mainstream media. I’ve noted a number of articles in recent months about the “hook-up” culture even among middle schoolers. It’s as though parents who work as journalists are just now discovering what their children are actually doing in our sex-saturated culture.

We really shouldn’t be surprised when we consider sex and the single woman in twenty-first-century American culture. There are only two portraits of the single woman in popular media. One is the current pop icon, surgically augmented with a low fabric-to-flesh wardrobe ratio, usually sporting a vulgar phrase on her bust or bum, and unabashed in her sexual aggressiveness. The other is the forlorn result of the pursuit of sexual freedom — the confused waif whose self-centered ruminations are the fodder for the fictional characters on television (Ally McBeal) or in movies and literature (Bridget Jones).

I don’t make these comments as though I’m standing outside of our culture, lobbing in the critiques. I grew up a feminist. I even have a women’s studies certificate to accessorize my journalism degree from the University of Maryland. As I didn’t become a Christian until I was thirty, I assumed nothing much could shock me about mainstream culture. But now — when I read articles about the spreadsheets college women keep about their sexual activities, or when I watch how the Christian men I know struggle to avoid the parade of barely dressed women before them at a mall or restaurant, or when I have to turn over all ten women’s magazines at the grocery checkout because my nieces can now read their soft-porn headlines — I find I am more than shocked; I am deeply grieved. This is what feminism has done to improve the standing of women? It’s a very poor trade-off, indeed.

As conservative commentator Danielle Crittenden writes in What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman:

Indeed, in all the promises made to us about our ability to achieve freedom and independence as women, the promise of sexual emancipation may have been the most illusory. These days, certainly, it is the one most brutally learned. All the sexual bravado a girl may possess evaporates the first time a boy she truly cares for makes it clear that he has no further use for her after his own body has been satisfied. No amount of feminist posturing, no amount of reassurances that she doesn’t need a guy like that anyway, can protect her from the pain and humiliation of those awful moments after he’s gone, when she’s alone and feeling not sexually empowered but discarded. It doesn’t take most women long to figure out that sexual liberty is not the same thing as sexual equality. (Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us [Touchstone, 1999], 31)

“You’re Not Normal”

Crittenden is right, but I don’t see where that revelation is inspiring any counterrevolution in our culture. It’s not even possible. The only key to true change is found in the power of the gospel. Christ’s redemptive power to break the bondage of sin and restore what sin has consumed is the only good news for women. As sex is both God’s idea and his good gift to us, Christians should be uninhibited in addressing this topic.

But let me ask a hard question right here. Do we, as committed Christian single women who are by God’s grace avoiding sexual immorality, truly believe we can address our culture on this topic? I mean, we’re the “just say no” camp, right? Wouldn’t it be easier to address the sexually broken women around us if we could talk firsthand about the joys of marital intimacy and God’s plan for sex within the covenant of marriage?

I’ve thought this way, to be honest. As a volunteer for a local crisis pregnancy center, I was asked on several occasions how I could handle living without sex. These clients didn’t ask me flippantly. They were really concerned they couldn’t do the same, as if maybe they would explode from all the built-up pressure. I would assure them God’s grace was sufficient, but they remained doubtful.

It’s the same with a number of my friends who knew me as an unbeliever. The seriousness of my conversion was quickly established when they discovered now I actually was going to wait until marriage. That commitment then became the litmus test — more so than other aspects of my faith. When an unbelieving client asked me out shortly after my conversion, my colleagues insisted I declare myself and my standards to him. “You have to tell him you’re not normal,” they said.

“You’re not normal.” You’re a Christian single woman called by Scripture to sexual purity and abstinence until marriage, living and working in a sex-saturated society during the week. On the weekends, you fellowship with families in your church, where marriage and family are generally held in high regard. But you don’t feel that you fit in either place. After awhile you may start to think it’s true; maybe you’re really not normal.

It’s true. You’re not normal. But this is good news. If you’ve repented of your sins and put your trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death on the cross for the punishment of your sins, then you’re definitely not “normal.” Your identity has been reclaimed and reordered by the Lord. You are a Christian, a woman, and a currently single adult. And that’s the order of information that’s most important about you. Your most important identity is as a Christian, ransomed by God himself. Second to that is your identity as a woman, made feminine and made in God’s image. Those two identities will never change. But your status as a single adult could change several times within your lifetime, so that is the least important aspect of your identity.

Unfortunately, we are often parked on the “single” label — and not really trusting God with it. That makes it hard to share the gospel at times, doesn’t it? It’s hard to be an authentic witness to the lost when bitterness about unanswered prayers for a husband threatens to overwhelm the joy of our salvation.

To be fruitful in our outreach and impact, we need to clearly see our singleness through the lens of Scripture and not our desires. (That doesn’t mean they are mutually exclusive, however.) And we need to find a biblical guide for this season. Let’s start with what the Bible says about being single.

The Gift of Singleness

Did you ever notice that it was a single man who wrote the longest passage in Scripture about singleness? It’s also the only place in the Bible where singleness is called a gift — and a good gift — which may be surprising to some.

Look at 1 Corinthians 7:6-9. As you read this excerpt, please keep in mind that Paul was addressing some specific questions or views that the Corinthian church had previously sent to him — questions that we don’t have access to today. Paul begins in verses 1-5 by addressing married people. In fact, he quotes a statement from the Corinthians that he’s going to correct (“it’s good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”) and then he turns to singleness in verse 6:

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 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. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Here we have Paul calling singleness both good and a gift. But it’s not a gift in the way we might think about it on our birthdays or at Christmas: “Do I like it? Do I want to keep it? Can I exchange it for what I really want?” There are several Greek words that could be translated as gift in English. One word denotes a gift presented as an expression of honor. A second euphemistically infers that a gift is more a matter of debt or obligation. A third denotes a free gift of grace, used in the New Testament to refer to a spiritual or supernatural gift (W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, [Bethany, 1984], 476-477). This is the word Paul uses in this passage — charisma.

Despite all the modern connotations associated with the word charisma, it means much more than the nuances found in either the Pentecostal/charismatic theology of spiritual gifts or the functional “identifying your spiritual gifts” lists common in evangelical circles. As a gift of grace, it stresses the fact that it is a gift of God the Creator freely bestowed upon sinners — his endowment upon believers by the operation of the Holy Spirit in the churches (Ibid., 477). New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says that Paul’s use of charisma throughout this letter to the Corinthians stresses the root word of grace, not the gifting itself. Fee writes:

Thus, even though Paul has concrete expressions of “grace” in view . . . and even though in ch. 12 these concrete expressions are understood as the direct result of Spirit activity, there seems to be no real justification for the translation “spiritual gift” for this word. Rather, they are “gracious endowments” (where the emphasis lies on the grace involved in their being so gifted), which at times, as in this letter, is seen also as the gracious activity of the Spirit in their midst. (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul [Hendrickson, 1994], 86)

But for what purpose would God give us this “gracious endowment” of being single? Paul gives us a glimpse a few chapters later, in chapter 12, verses 4-11:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Here we see two important points: 1) God is the one who apportions to each of us the gifts that he wills us to have; and 2) each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. This means we can rule out worldly ways of evaluating why we’re not married — too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too loud, too tall, too short, and so on. You can look around any of our churches and see plenty of married women who fall into these categories. Ultimately we are single because that’s God’s will for us right now.

Let’s think about that for a moment. We’re single because that’s God’s will for us right now. Is that discouraging to hear? It shouldn’t be. That’s when we need to remember that our most important identity is not being single; it’s being saved. God has done for us something far more important than getting us to the wedding altar. The gentle words of my pastor, C.J. Mahaney, are a good reminder: “Your greatest need is not a spouse. Your greatest need is to be delivered from the wrath of God — and that has already been accomplished for you through the death and resurrection of Christ. So why doubt that God will provide a much, much lesser need? Trust His sovereignty, trust His wisdom, trust His love” (Mahaney, cited in Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl [Multnomah, 2000], 213).

“Our most important identity is not being single; but being saved.”

One more thought: I’ve often heard married people say to singles that we won’t get married until we’re content in our singleness, but I humbly submit that this is not true. I’m sure that it is offered by well-meaning couples who want to see their single friends happy and content in God’s provision, but it creates a works-based mentality to receiving gifts, which can lead to feelings of condemnation. The Lord doesn’t require that we attain a particular state before he grants a gift. We can’t earn any particular spiritual gift any more than we can earn our own salvation. It’s all of grace. However, we should humbly listen to our friends and receive their input about cultivating contentment — after all, the apostle Paul says that “there is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6); we just shouldn’t attach it to the expectation of a blessing.

If you are single again due to divorce or death, I realize it can be challenging to reconcile your current experience with the concept of a gift that God has allowed or even willed, but this is the testimony of Scripture. I trust the expanded definition of “gift” has helped you to understand better your current situation.

Gifted for the Common Good

So, great! We have this gracious endowment and it’s God’s will for us. But . . . for what purpose? Paul says that the purpose is for the common good, which by implication means the local church. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s for the good of all the rest of the men in our churches that we didn’t marry them! We can get a better idea of what Paul is talking about by looking at 1 Peter 4:10. It says, “As each has received a gift [charisma], use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” The NIV translates this passage as “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”

Ladies, we have to stop here and ask ourselves if being gifted for the benefit of the church is something that’s important to us. This passage from 1 Corinthians 12 shows us that singleness gives us a context for the other spiritual gifts we may have and is a resource to be faithfully administered. But this biblical passage also goes on to give us a place to invest our gifts. Verses 14-26 go on to present the analogy of the church as members of a body and emphasize the interdependency of the members. Verse 15 says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” Do we ever act like that foot? Are we saying (in thoughts, words, or actions), “Because I am not part of a couple, I do not belong to the body”? We are part of the body, and we have a vital function within our churches. Those other members need us, and we need them.

As I’ve become older, I’ve grown in my gratitude for my church. Many times I’ve looked around the Sunday worship service or at my friends in a small-group meeting, and silently thanked God for the fellowship I have there. Not only am I grateful for the wealth of relationships, I am grateful for the grand vision before me. When I think of how much Christ loves his bride, the church, and how in his merciful kindness he has rescued me and made me a part of this body, I am even more grateful for the purpose I find in the church.

Without the context and eternal purpose of the church, singleness can seem like the waiting room of adulthood. With the context and eternal purpose of the church, singleness truly is a gift for the common good of others. We can love the bride of Christ by joyfully investing the “firstfruits” of our resources, affections, and time in our churches.

Proverbs 31 and the Single Woman

So these 1 Corinthians passages help us to have a biblical view of singleness, but there’s another place in Scripture where we can find practical application and a role model. Oddly enough, it’s in the Proverbs 31 woman — the portrait of the excellent wife! Because of her role, it’s easy for single women to glaze over these verses — but they are important to us. This epilogue (verses 10-31) is a twenty-two-verse acrostic; each line starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is attributed to the mother of King Lemuel, who instructed her young son through this memory game in both the alphabet and the qualities of a virtuous wife. In other words, she wanted this future ruler to know by heart what to look for in a single woman to ensure that he had found someone who would make an excellent wife.

When I considered this for the first time, I laughed out loud. The very passage I often skipped because it was about an excellent wife was the key to understanding my singleness! Here was the guide I needed to understanding my femininity as a single woman and for showing me how to invest this season, this gift, in the church. As I studied the Proverbs 31 woman, the priorities for my life came into focus. The role that’s described in this passage is that of a wife, but her godly, noble character is what all women should desire.

While many translations call her a wife, the original Hebrew word is ishshah, or woman. The King James Version refers to her as “a virtuous woman.” The New International Version calls her a “wife of noble character.” The English Standard Version calls her “an excellent wife.” No matter her role, this woman is virtuous, noble, and excellent. She is commended as “a woman [ishshah] who fears the LORD” in verse 30. These are virtues for all Christian women, whatever our marital status.

The Proverbs 31 woman is a savvy businesswoman with financial assets. She is an encouraging and enterprising wife. She is an affectionate mother. She is a gourmet cook. She is an artful homemaker. She speaks with wisdom. And she cheerfully trusts the Lord for her future. Her example can be applied to all seasons of a woman’s life, including singleness. I can’t go into detail here (a more detailed treatment can be found in my book, Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred [Crossway, 2004], chapters 4-13 and the epilogue), but here is a quick overview of some of those verses and how single women can apply them:

  • From verses 14 and 15 we see that we are to cultivate a love for the home even when we’re not there very often. These verses say: “She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” Food from afar isn’t a pizza delivery! Because Scripture emphasizes the priority of hospitality, we should see our homes as a place for evangelism to the lost and service to the saints. We don’t have to be married to own a home, china, or furniture. We don’t have to be married to practice cooking. We don’t have to be married to have (most) houseguests. But we do have to be intentional about being home and cultivating domestic skills! Our model is Lydia, who was a successful, single businesswoman in Philippi, and yet who was ready to extend hospitality to Paul upon her conversion (Acts 16:14-15).

  • From verses 16-19 we have an example of how to wisely steward finances, professional skills, time, and training. These verses say: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.

She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” If the Lord brings a husband to us, these skills and savings would be a blessing. If not, they will support us and give us resources to further the gospel and support the local church. Our challenge is to evaluate all the opportunities before us through the grid of biblical femininity, and the Proverbs 31 woman keeps us from following the worldly model of a career being the ultimate priority.

  • From verse 28, we see that we are to be intentional about investing in the next generation. That verse says: “Her children rise up and call her blessed.” While we may not have children of our own, the Lord has placed children in our lives. Psalm 145:4 says that “one generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” This raises some important questions. Are we participating in the work of evangelizing and discipling the next generation? Are we being faithful to love the children who are already in our lives while we trust the Lord with our desire to be mothers? We don’t have to bear children of our own to have the next generation bless us for investing in them.

This is God’s portrait of femininity. The Proverbs 31 woman’s generous orientation to blessing others stands in stark contrast to what our culture has created and deemed important for modern women. We neither have to emulate the aggressive female sexuality of our culture nor feel excluded from the model of biblical femininity in the church just because we’re unmarried.

Sexual Snares at Work

Speaking of standing in stark contrast to our culture, I think a discussion of sex and the single woman would be incomplete without addressing sexual snares at work. So if you’ll allow me, let’s take a sidetrack into the pitfalls of our workday worlds.

First, let’s be candid. Our office settings or the functions of our jobs can also present specific temptations to sin — snares that we must identify and work hard to avoid — but I think the most common is the temptation of sexual sin. Whether it’s pornography in our hotel rooms while we travel on business or the allure of a married colleague’s attentions, our jobs can be minefields for sexual sin.

Before I became a Christian, the majority of my dating relationships were connected to my job. When I became a Christian, I had to quickly establish boundaries with a married colleague who had often engaged me in banter ranging from flirtatious to vulgar. A few weeks after my conversion, I invited him to my office and explained my new beliefs. I then informed him that I would no longer entertain his attentions because I had been sinfully and selfishly drawing his affections away from his wife. But I wanted him to understand my new convictions and why I saw this as stealing from his wife, and I asked his forgiveness. He was stunned — but unfortunately he never seemed to entirely understand the boundaries I had redrawn that day. Over the years (even after I left this job), he would periodically ask me to lunch and I would always decline, citing that as his wife wouldn’t be present I didn’t think our lunch would honor her. Maybe he was testing my convictions, but I’m glad to say by God’s grace I didn’t waver.

As single women, we must be savvy about the emotional connections that can be made on the job. We women were designed by God to be helpers and to make men successful. We can’t be oblivious to the fact that our encouragement, support, and promotion of our male colleagues can sometimes misfire in our own hearts — not to mention theirs. I’ve known many Christian single women who have wrestled with their attraction to unbelieving single coworkers or even married colleagues. We can help each other here by listening carefully as our friends talk about their colleagues. Do our friends light up when talking about one particular person at work? If so, ask questions. It’s better to be labeled a little nosy now than later to walk with your friend through the fallout of an immoral relationship or adulterous affair.

It’s not easy to do this, I know. I remember one friend who seemed a little too delighted when her married male boss called her at home or asked her to work late. She talked about him a lot, so I finally asked her if she was sliding down that slippery slope of adultery. She was shocked when I asked, but I told her that the top of the slope is innocent attraction — and that’s where she seemed to be. I wanted her to be aware of gravity’s pull. She dismissed my concern then, but a few months later did come back to confess it was more serious. Though she did not overtly sin, she was poised for a spectacular crash-and-burn, and she was glad I asked her about it in time.

Sexual sin isn’t always a subtle, slippery slope. Sometimes it’s just blatantly there. Another friend of mine recently confessed her temptation in a situation she never thought would appeal to her. While attending a political hearing in another town, she ended up talking to the immensely attractive man next to her. Their discussion made it clear he wasn’t a Christian (strike one), but she wasn’t sure about his marital status. He had no ring. During the lunch break, he invited her to join him in the building’s cafeteria. She accepted, and found herself enjoying his attentions. She knew this wasn’t a good idea, but she dismissed her conscience by telling herself it’s just lunch.

After the hearing concluded, he asked her to return to his hotel with him. By then, the warning bells were going off, but she was still slow to flee sin — tempted by the idea that “no one would know.” Except God, of course, who mercifully sent a coworker from this man’s office at that very moment. In the course of that conversation with his coworker, this man revealed that he had invited my friend to his hotel room. His coworker asked how this man’s wife might react, and the man said his wife wouldn’t care because they had an “open marriage.” Upon those words, the fear of God entered my friend’s heart and she immediately declined any further contact and left. Later, she said she was appalled by how tempted she was to respond to this man’s blatant sexual overtures, and she asked for ongoing accountability in this area.

“Singleness is a gift for the common good of others.”

None of us is immune to sexual temptation at work. Just read the newspaper. How many of the accounts of adulterous affairs noted there began on the job? It’s a classic story, and we must be mindful that we are not above the same temptations. The Enemy of our souls studies us and knows our weaknesses, and the hunger for a relationship leaves us vulnerable unless we guard against sin and ask God for his grace to overcome. There are some practical steps we can take, however, to avoid sin. Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves in order to evaluate temptation:

  • Am I avoiding the appearance of evil on the job? Is it necessary for me to have exclusive lunch meetings alone with a married colleague? Or am I conducting business alone in a hotel room with him, instead of in a public area?

  • Am I looking forward to Monday morning because of the attention I might receive from an “off-limits man” — a married man or a single but unbelieving coworker? Or do I “swing by” his office with a question, instead of using the telephone or email, just so I can engage his attention?

  • Am I offering my male boss or colleagues the kind of sympathy or emotional support that is more appropriate from a wife?

  • Have I allowed myself to become an outlet for the personal troubles of my married boss or colleague? (Warning! Do not discuss his marital woes!)

  • Do I crave attention and encouragement from an “off-limits” coworker?

  • Am I fantasizing about these “off-limits” men? If so, have I confessed this to the appropriate person and asked for accountability?

  • Am I taking steps to avoid other sexual temptation, such as canceling the pornography channels in hotel rooms or refusing to buy trashy women’s magazines when traveling?

You may be reading these questions thinking that I’m being overly dramatic. Unfortunately, I’ve learned these warning signs from my own life and the lives of my friends. Our little fantasies and mild crushes are sowing seeds to a craving that demands to be satisfied, and that satisfaction is not honorable before the Lord. But don’t forget it’s not our sexuality that is dishonorable — it is our lust that is. As Joshua Harris writes:

Keep this radical but liberating idea in mind: God wants you to embrace your sexuality. And battling lust is part of how to do that. Does the idea of embracing sexuality and fighting lust sound contradictory? That’s probably because today’s culture offers a very narrow definition of what it means to embrace your sexuality. It equates embracing your sexuality with doing whatever feels good. So according to our culture, to deny a sexual impulse at any point is to be untrue to yourself. . . . As Christians, embracing our sexuality looks radically different. We don’t obey every sexual impulse — nor do we deny that we have sexual desires. Instead, we choose both restraint and gratefulness. For us, sexual desire joins every other part of our lives — our appetite for food, our use of money, our friendship, our dreams, our careers, our possessions, our abilities, our families — in bowing before the one true God. (Harris, Not Even a Hint: Guarding Your Heart Against Lust [Multnomah, 2003], 42)

Trusting God with a Hope Deferred

Are you discouraged or overwhelmed by this point? I know it can be a temptation for us all to peer into our futures and wonder if any good will come our way. So let’s explore what it means to trust God with a hope deferred.

As I stated earlier, our primary identity is in being Christian. Second, it is in being a woman, for that is how God created us. And we see in the creation account in Genesis that God created Eve fully feminine before Adam ever laid eyes on her. So our femininity is not determined by a man’s response — nor a lack of response! Our Creator is the one who determined what it means to be a woman, and he has given us plenty of instruction in the Bible as to how this is fleshed out — instructions that transcend marital status. Being single is last of those three identities.

But if we desire to be married, is it wrong to “ask, seek, and knock” for a husband and children? Absolutely not! The Bible tells us these are good gifts from the Lord. The question is, what kind of effort should we invest in those hopes? Should we feel compelled to make this desire our chief focus and priority — possibly to the detriment of serving others? Lots of well-meaning people may advise us to do so, but let’s consider the stewardship concept that we are exhorted to remember from 1 Peter 4:10. If we’re always out and about trying to meet men, we come across like a truck with its deer-hunting headlights on high beam — our desperation is nearly blinding!

More importantly, there can be bad fruit from living with our “hunting lights” up. We could be called home to heaven tomorrow and all we could say for our time is that we’ve attended lots and lots of singles meetings looking for a husband. (Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying attending a singles ministry meeting is bad. Nor am I saying that any appropriate initiative to meet godly men is wrong. I’m addressing the kind of driven, restless activity that becomes distracting and undermines our service in our churches and to those around us.)

We don’t have many accounts in Scripture of how various couples met and married, but we do have the stories of Rebekah and Ruth to consider. These were women of godly initiative in the fact that they noticed the needs of others around them and they worked hard to meet them. When the Lord decided to introduce them to their future husbands, these two women were serving, not hunting. We can trust God with our desires, even when we don’t see any activity and we’re not receiving any answers to our prayers. For this reason, I find great comfort in two intimate, poignant accounts of how the Lord blessed single women in the Bible.

The first is from the book of Ruth. Most single women are quite familiar with this narrative and can identify with Ruth. But how often are we more like Naomi? Here she was, a widow with a dependent, widowed daughter-in-law, returning to her hometown of Bethlehem after ten years in Moab — and she was facing real poverty and uncertainty about the future. When these women arrived in Bethlehem, they were greeted by the women of that town, who marveled that Naomi had returned to them. But to Naomi, overcome with self-pity, their greetings were hollow. “Do not call me pleasant [Naomi],” she said. “Call me bitter [Mara], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).

Naomi had surveyed her circumstances and concluded that the Lord had no further blessings for her. But God was not finished. For standing next to Naomi was the Lord’s provision for material and relational blessing — Ruth. And just beyond Ruth, the barley harvest was ripening in the fields of her kinsman-redeemer, Boaz. God’s quiet providence was already peeking forth, but Naomi couldn’t perceive it. Naomi assumed her future was as barren as she was, but that wasn’t true. Even as she uttered her complaint, God was quietly orchestrating the circumstances that would lead not only to the redemption of Naomi’s family line and property but also to the ancestry of Jesus Christ.

We must never forget that what we can see of our circumstances is not all that is there.

The second narrative features Martha and Mary, two single women from Bethany. You might think I’m going to refer to Martha’s infamous kitchen outburst of, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” (Luke 10:40). But there’s a more poignant New Testament scene recorded for us in the Gospel of John. Henry Blackaby painted it in Experiencing God:

One morning I was reading the story of the death of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). Let me go through the sequence of what happened as I read. John reported that Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Having received word that Lazarus was sick unto death, Jesus delayed going until Lazarus died. In other words, Mary and Martha asked Jesus to come help their brother, and there was silence. All the way through the final sickness and death of Lazarus, Jesus did not respond. They received no response from the One who said He loved Lazarus. Jesus even said He loved Mary and Martha. Yet, there was still no response. Lazarus died. They went through the entire funeral process. They fixed his body, put him in the grave, and covered it with a stone. Still they experienced silence from God. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Let’s go.”

When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 32).

Then the Spirit of God began to help me understand something. It seemed to me as if Jesus had said to Mary and Martha: “You are exactly right. If I had come, your brother would not have died. You know that I could have healed him, because you have seen me heal many, many times. If I had come when you asked me to, I would have healed him. But, you would have never known any more about Me than you already know. I knew that you were ready for a greater revelation of Me than you have ever known in your life. I wanted you to come to know that I am the resurrection and the life. My refusal and My silence were not rejection. It was an opportunity for Me to disclose to you more of Me than you have ever known.” (Blackaby and Claude King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God [Lifeway, 1990], 94)

We must never forget that God’s silences are not his rejections. They are preparation for a greater revelation of him.

What a tender, compassionate, and personal God we serve! We have to keep that truth about his character foremost in our minds as we wait on him. It’s never easy to do. We will be tested and tempted in that wait. We will also grow in trusting God with this hope deferred if we do not succumb to bitterness and unbelief. As we wait, let’s take sweet comfort from two precious insights from God’s servants in centuries past:

God has not promised to rescue us according to our time schedule. If it appears that your prayers are unanswered, do not dishonor the Lord with unbelief. Waiting in faith is a high form of worship. In some respects, it excels the adoration of the shining ones above. God delivers His servants in ways that exercise their faith. He would not have them lacking in faith, for faith is the wealth of the heavenly life. He desires that the trial of faith continues until faith grows strong and comes to full assurance. The sycamore fig never ripens into sweetness unless it is bruised; the same is true of faith. Tested believer, God will bring you through, but do not expect Him to bring you through in the way that human reason suggests, for that would not develop your faith. (Charles H. Spurgeon, Beside Still Waters [Thomas Nelson, 1999], 148)

Christian, believe this, and think on it: thou shalt be externally embraced in the arms of that love which was from everlasting, and will extend to everlasting — of that love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to glory — that love which was weary, hungry, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced — which did fast, pray, teach, heal, weep, sweat, bleed, die; that love will eternally embrace thee. (Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest [Evangelical Press, 1978], 35)

We’re not on hold. Waiting in faith is our high form of worship. And though we may not be married, we are eternally embraced in the arms of everlasting love.


More Messages from Desiring God 2004 National Conference

Carolyn McCulley is the founder of Citygate Films and the director/producer of the Desiring God short film, The Story of Ian and Larissa. She is also author, with Nora Shank, of the new book The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.

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