“Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?” — Chris Rock
“So Luke,” the question always starts, “are you dating anyone?” My eyes get wide. “Oh, umm, yeah. Sorry, I’m, ahh, not,” I manage to fumble out. No matter how many times I get this question, it always catches me off guard. Not because it’s rude, it just jolts me to their underlying expectation: shouldn’t you be married by now?
Growing up, I assumed I’d get married in my early twenties, since that’s what successful people did. But as I went through college, while my friends all met and started dating their future wives, that wasn’t my story. And so, after I’d graduated and started attending wedding after wedding, I couldn’t help but wonder:
Is it okay that I’m not married yet? And if it is, then why do I feel like such a failure?
two conflicting views on marriage
Unbeknownst to me, I was caught in between traditional and progressive cultures’ struggle to use marriage to define what a successful life is. The traditional culture that I grew up in told me marriage should happen in my early twenties, in order to create mature adults and stable families. But I also felt the pull of progressive culture, which told me marriage should be delayed in order to cultivate your gifts and maximize your potential.
Each side fights for young people’s loyalty, using praise and critique to convince college students to follow their preferred narrative. Traditional culture praises those who get married young, bestowing celebrations, gifts, and “adulthood” onto young people when they marry and have kids. This culture sees singleness as a “problem” to be gotten rid of, and looks at unmarried people with suspicion:
Why won’t you grow up and get married? You’re just being selfish and immature. Or maybe something’s wrong with you?
Progressive culture does the opposite, incentivizing young people to delay marriage by heaping money, status, and success onto those who stay single and spend their twenties building their careers and lifestyles. This culture sees getting married young as a terrible decision that stunts personal growth and freedom, and looks at married people with suspicion:
Why are you throwing your life away at such a young age? You don’t even know who you are yet; you’ll both change and then be stuck in a miserable marriage.
just trying to fit in
Having grown up in the traditional midwest, I spent my early twenties trying to get married. I wanted to join the adult world of successful people that my friends had been welcomed into, and marriage was my ticket. I was afraid if I didn’t get married soon I’d fall behind, and get stuck with the unwanted stigma attached to single people.
So I tried to make a relationship happen, dating several girls over the next few years. As each relationship imploded, I was left frustrated and hurt, angry at both my former girlfriends and God for not cooperating with my plan to be successful. I was single in a culture that said I should be married, which made me feel like a failure.
working to be worthy
At that point, I moved to New York City, leaving the traditional culture of my youth for the capital of progressive culture. I was now surrounded by single people my age and older everywhere, and nobody looked down on you if you were still single. What a refreshing change. New York’s progressive culture told me not to focus on getting married, since your twenties were a time to build your career. Then, after you had achieved enough, you could get married in your thirties.
And so I stopped worrying about getting married and dove into my career, starting a cleaning business before getting a job at a church I’d always wanted to work at. Soon, I’d developed a subconscious checklist of what I needed in order to be successful enough to be married: a desirable job, expendable income, cool apartment, and a curated collection of hobbies and interests. If I could prove myself successful in all of these areas, then I’d be ready for marriage.
After a few years of this, I was exhausted, disappointed, and still single. Progressive culture had promised that if I worked hard and got my life together I’d be successful enough to get married, but I still felt five years away from any of those goals. I felt like a failure, but in a different way, since I hadn’t done enough to make someone want to marry me.
the problem with both views
By now I’d been influenced by both cultures, caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle between the progressive and traditional narratives. I felt like I couldn’t get married because I wasn’t successful (progressive view), yet I couldn’t be successful unless I was married (traditional view). I felt stuck in this never-ending loop of failure.
So many single young people feel like a failure because both cultures, while appearing different, share the same underlying belief: marriage is ultimately how you prove you’re successful. Traditional young people panic when they’re single at 22, and progressive young people panic when they’re single at 32, but eventually every single person struggles with this thought: If I don’t get married soon, it will prove that I really am a failure.
life through God’s love
Christianity, though, rejects our culture’s fixation on marriage, teaching that the successful life is not about getting married, but rather getting God. The Bible tells us that our primary calling as Christians is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to get married and have kids. Marriage is a good thing, for sure, but it’s a secondary calling, behind our relationship with God.
When you view life through this lens, you see that God created marriage and singleness to complement, not compete, with each other. He views them as two different, but equal, callings for humans to glorify Him. God does this by calling married people to demonstrate the depth of His love, while calling single people to demonstrate the breadth of His love. Getting this distinction right is so crucial to seeing how God uses marriage and singleness together.
God’s love through marriage
The Bible never elevates marriage above singleness, instead using it to point to the depth of love that Christ has for His Church. God calls married people to this deep love, where they focus on loving one person for the rest of their lives, to the exclusion of all others. This deep love found in marriage requires them to die to their own desires, as they serve and sacrifice each other in order to come together as one.
But this deep marital love creates limitations, since it takes so much time and energy to maintain. Married people, by God’s design, cannot love as broadly as single people, and if they try, their marriages will suffer. While married people are still called to love their neighbor, their primary neighbor becomes the person waking up next to them every morning.
God’s love through singleness
In our marriage-centric culture, many people assume God prefers marriage and its depth of love, stigmatizing singleness as a lesser state. Our cultural fixation with marriage causes each segment of society to see singleness in a negative light:
Progressives: as a time for self-centeredness: Young people are encouraged to spend their twenties focused only on themselves, spending their time and money to build a fulfilling career and social life. Marriage, though, is still the ultimate goal, and it serves as a capstone to validate the successes of your twenties.
Traditional: as a social defect: Single people are seen as defective, and as a threat to the long-term health of the community. They often feel excluded and left out, since they can’t engage in the main storyline of any traditional culture: having and raising children.
Christians: as a temporary “trial” on the way to marriage: Many Christians see singleness as a time of hardship to be gotten through on their way to marriage. Single people are encouraged to patiently wait around for their person to come into their life, so they can start life “for real.”
Caught up in one or more of these views, single people often grow frustrated with God, thinking He must’ve forgotten about them.
a different view on being single
But God sees singleness differently, not as a curse, but as an opportunity to show the breadth of His love to the world. Set free from needing to invest in a marriage, single people have the time, energy, and flexibility to love a much wider range of people. By not getting married, God has allowed me to invest in so many people that I never would have had time for otherwise. I’ve been able to learn from older adults, mentor younger friends, serve people in other countries, and spend time with outsiders.
This call to show the breadth of God’s love has made my life so rich. God’s used this flexibility to introduce me to some incredible people and give me amazing experiences. I never planned to still be single, but I see God’s wisdom is using my life this way to do things my married friends can’t. Because God uses single and married people to show His love in different ways, we have to stop viewing each path as better or worse than the other, and see them instead as different callings with unique opportunities, struggles, and tradeoffs.
then why’s it so hard?
But knowing that God’s called you to love broadly doesn’t magically solve the difficulties of being single. It’s easy to grow impatient with God, frustrated that He hasn’t given you the deep love of marriage. While my calling as a single person can be exhilarating, I still struggle at times with feeling empty and like a failure. After all, both progressive and traditional culture tell me if I were successful I’d be married by now.
The answer to this feeling is found through another single person who never lived up to his family’s, friends’, or hometown’s expectations. Jesus disappointed a lot of people throughout His life, never fulfilling their cultural narratives, i.e. idols. Because of that, His whole society thought He was a failure, especially after He died alone, abandoned, and in disgrace.
But yet Jesus lived the most successful life ever. How? Because Jesus showed the successful life isn’t fulfilling some cultural narrative, but pursuing and obeying God’s call on your life. Jesus followed God’s path for His life, even when it took Him to the most difficult, uncomfortable, and lonely place in the world, the cross.
But because Jesus obeyed God’s call perfectly, every human being, single or married, can now find the true intimacy we’re all looking for with God. While every culture tries to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with another person, Jesus says lasting fulfillment is only found in Him.
the key question
As you wrestle with being single, it all comes down to one question: is Jesus enough? Is Jesus where you find love and intimacy, or do you need another person to give you those things? When you find worth, identity, and fulfillment in Jesus, you’ll slowly be set free from trying to validate your life by marriage, and can instead rest in God’s plan for your life. Your singleness, whether it’s for a few more years or the rest of your life, isn’t a sign of failure, but a witness to how our deepest longings are only truly fulfilled through Jesus.