I’ve been married for 16 years, so I can’t very well say, “I understand.” But, I’ve ministered among college/career aged men and women, I’ve taught, counseled, and supervised many singles at a seminary, and live and minister now in Singles Mecca – San Francisco. And I think I’ve heard it all. Singles – I feel for you. There are some crazy ideas out there…
…which led City Church San Francisco’s Anni Mingin, our Pastor of Spiritual Formation, to organize an event called The Gender Gap. Anni brought together a panel of pastors and therapists to facilitate separate discussions with men and women, and by all accounts the conversation was “lively.” Who woulda thunk it?
But in these discussions and others, I hear a combination of of things that worry me…and provoke me to muse on my own “Missional Position” when it comes to singles.
Myth 1. The Church is responsible for providing singles healthy venues to meet each other – I’ve heard this and (thankfully) several singles debunked this myth at our Gender Gap event. Now, if your church has a roller rink, and you can do a churchy version of “Gents Choice” (yes, we did this in the 70’s and 80’s), then go for it. Yes, the church is responsible for casting a vision of the good life, shalom, the life of flourishing, and this ought to have application to singles (PS: Most biblical application to singles is shallow behaviorism. Sad.) But, I’ve seen what happens when churches give in to this modern-day consumer demand. Most healthy singles will avoid these events like the plague. Some will go out of a curiosity – a good speaker, an attempt at a healthy vibe. But mostly, these foster a meat-market culture.
Myth 2. God’s focus is on the family – Yes, you know what I’m getting at. It is a uniquely Western and particularly American theology that focuses on the family as if the Bible advocates its primacy. Without elaborating with lots of proof texts, I’m convinced a biblical theology places community (ekklesia) first, complete with singles, married, widows, orphans, and aliens. We privilege Dick and Jane Tithingunit and their 2.3 children, but Scripture doesn’t. Thus, to say marriage is normative or being single is normative, according to the Bible, misses the point. “Life together” in community, as Bonhoeffer might say, is the point. In the end, we are the “New Israel,” not the new Jones’s.
Myth 3 – God is most concerned about our behavior – So much of the moralistic literature on single life focuses on sin-management, not on a life of flourishing. Thus, the college boys get together for behavioral accountability to confess their most recent J.O., or the single women define the characteristics of the perfect guy. To be sure, how we live out what we believe is very important. But more often than not, this leads to the production of the false self – the self we present to others which masks the darker parts of our soul. Let’s get honest, friends, and let’s begin talking about what we really think, feel, and dream about. Christian community that plays the game of sin-management may look clean on the outside, but is what Jesus calls a “white-washed tomb.”
So, let’s turn our attention to three musings – a biblical vision of flourishing for a single person.
Musing 1 – Your sexuality is very, very human –In the early years of the church, the answer to this problem was castration. Bad idea. Today, we choose behavioral castration, a kind of moralistic attempt at sin avoidance and management. Bad idea. God created you sexual. Now, the opposite of castration is sexual consumerism. Consumerism is yet another attempt to manage our desires. Now, the Missional Position says that your attempt to control sin by avoidance, on the one hand, or indulgence on the other, is ultimately self-destructive. Remember the words of C.S. Lewis: Our desires are not too strong, but far too weak! Now, living into biblical desire is not killing off you want (castration) or enjoying what you want in the moment (consumerism), but living into your design. This means that you were designed to enjoy your sexuality, even now. Of course, being a consumer of information, you’d want me to elaborate and explain…but I’m going to leave this one at the moment of tease…
Musing 2 – Your disappointment is very, very real – Because our desires are thwarted time and again, we find ourselves confused. After all, God wants us to be satisfied, right? Jesus spoke of the “abundant life.” Once again, we define abundance by what we avoid (I’m obedient!) or what we consume (I’m fulfilled!), but Jesus blows up the extremes and challenges us to live fully, in the now, despite our lack or privilege. And this living requires the brutal honesty of lament – “Why, Oh Lord?” Because you know that your singleness, more often than not, frustrates the hell out of you. You know that you’ve been made to find your deepest joy in God, but let’s face it – lots of other Christians get to experience that joy plus a great spouse, a few kids, and a pretty good life. Why are you called to suffer and not them? We were meant to desire. If you try to control desire through castration or consumerism, you’ll become angry, bitter, and possibly even manipulative. If you live into desire, you’ll have to confess deep, deep disappointment. And in this radical honesty, you may even find a kind of brutally honest relationship with God that feel as real as anything you’ve known…
Musing 3 – Your safety is more important than you know – In my work with singles, I hear a lot of constructive advice – “The church ought to provide more singles events,” or “Women ought to convey that they are available and interested by dressing in a more inviting way,” or “Guys need to pursue more,” or “Pastors need to preach more on being single.” Fine. There is probably some wisdom in there. But here’s something to chew on. In most singles environments I’ve been in, singles feel a whole lot of weirdness. Guys expose too much chest hair. Women expose too much cleavage. Game on.
Now, someone broke through this meat-market craziness in the recent singles conversation when he said, “I think this creates an environment that makes everyone’s stomach turn.” This was a private conversation, so I followed up. I asked why, and he said, “I think that it is all about creating a perception, but it misses the real fact that we just want someone to know and be known by…someone to love.”
This is honest. Listen, most singles I know would say that the exchanges they have, whether online or in person, exist somewhere above the water-line…where we pose and posture. But beneath the surface, the question is, “What do you think of me? Are you curious to know my story? Do you want to talk more?” Beneath the surface, in other words, is a person’s story. And, to tell our story, we need safety.
Forget what the Bible says for a moment. Some of you have become cynical about that. The best psychological wisdom claims that relational connection occurs when people feel safe with one another. Even married couples have no hope of communicating without safety, first. Now, what counters a real feeling of safety? That’s for you to chew on. But more often than not, we have an intuition when a person is not safe, when the persona is in full gear, and the mask is on, and the false self is shining. He’s a bit too cool. And she’s trying to be a bit too sexy. And this, on the surface, may be appealing. But in a while, it becomes an impediment to honest relationship.
So, the Missional Position advocates honesty, curiosity, and story-telling. It advocates the kind of heart-centered pursuit of another’s soul. I’ve talked to men who seem fairly mature and who lead in their churches, but who are 15 years old emotionally when it comes to relationships. Often, I tell these men that they need to relate with maturity to a woman before even beginning a pursuit. However, these emotionally stunted men often attract emotionally stunted women, who play the game. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe they’ll get married. But I can bet you this much – I’ll see them in my office for counseling soon. Posing and posturing leads to disingenuous relationship – a form of contrived intimacy that may feel like real connection, but ultimately disintegrates it. It kills any sense of safety – the safety to be you, warts and all.
I probably don’t have much credibility as a 40 year old man who has been married for 16 years. But let me tell you this: those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom. Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed. Our marriages hit a place of death. All of our former ideals around intimacy and success and sex and prosperity explode. And we hear that old Scripture ringing in our ear: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” And we know life emerges from death.
In other words, we know the pitfalls. We’ve entered the “garden”…and we’ve discovered thorns and thistles. Many of you wish you were in our shoes, and perhaps our beds. But let me tell you the truth. Loneliness and difficulty only increase. What you wish for may come back to haunt you. And so, we all must be prepared to take the missional position – the road the less traveled, the way down, the path of the suffering Servant.
Keeping our eyes on Christ, we see that pleasure does not come in and through sin- management. We can’t manipulate satisfaction and pleasure. It comes through self-abandonment, the kind of cruciform life that looks as it cannot possibly offer fulfillment. It comes not through managing and manipulating desire, but by living into it – “you only have to let the soft sound of your body love what it loves,” as the poet Mary Oliver says in the her poem “The Wild Geese.” You see, she gets it. She trusts something bigger than her own ability to control pain and pleasure, castration and consumerism.
Finally, this: I’ve often told singles that their vision is too “singular” – they focus too much on finding someone rather than focusing on how others might thrive. What would it look like for men to focus on creating a safe place for women to feel at home, and not like meat at the local market? What would it look like for women to envision the safety of men – a context where they don’t have to become hyper-masculine, posing like the secure and mature men they are not? What would it look like to focus on the community? Not the family. Not singleness. What would it look like to anticipate the “new community,” on the new heavens and new earth, where posturing and posing will be no more, and where self-sacrifice and other-centeredness will reign?
The Missional Position. It’s not just a funny word play. It’s a call to cruciformity in your singleness. Let’s talk about.