Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:18-20
Over the past few weeks I have been reading a book called the Insanity of God by Nik Ripken and in our small group we have been studying Wurmbrand, the story of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned for many years under the Communist Party in Romania and who subsequently founded Voice of the Martyrs. Reading these books and studying what the Bible has to say about persecution and suffering has made me think much more about my purpose and about the call that Jesus gave every one of us to go into all the world and make disciples. They have helped me see that while I long to be married what I want most in life is to see people come to faith. The two are not incompatible, but I realize that marriage cannot be a destination, after which I settle into domestic bliss, attending church on the weekend and a bible study during the week for example, but it has to just be a part of the journey. Through marriage we should be doing more to reach those around us and not less.
An eternal perspective on our lives is so important because it helps us to lift our eyes from what is temporary (i.e. marriage) and focuses us on what is permanent (the family of God and eternity with Jesus). Through shifting our perspective from the earthly to the eternal it can make the things that we consider to be big problems, such as not having a spouse, as much smaller and less significant ones. An eternal perspective also challenges me about my ultimate purpose and God’s purpose for us here on earth (see this earlier post for more on this).
For some time I had thought that I really needed a husband to be fully engaged in missions and ministry. I think much of this stemmed from the fact that the majority of Protestant pastors and missionaries who I saw in church or on TV or at Christian conferences or in books, were married. Of course there were the one or two stories of women and men from long ago who went out to serve the Lord in some remote location and usually died there with success being far from visible. But even to get selected to go on the mission field is hard for singles with most agencies preferring married couples and families. Single women are more accepted nowadays but for particular places and under significant caveats, or so I have heard from missionary friends. In the church there is now much more acceptance of women as clergy, but again we do not see very many single women or men in the role of full-time senior pastor. This is the opposite of the Catholic church where being single is actually a prerequisite for the job (this definitely needs more exploration in a later post).
In the literature on missions and on church leadership there seems to be very little to encourage, inspire or motivate the single person who perceives a call or vocation to bring people to faith. The exception of course is the the hallowed age bracket that is referred to as ‘youth’. However once a person is no longer considered a youth (something that seems to be continually expanding) being single seems to be like a disease that no one wants to talk about and there is often an assumption that you must have some inherent personality flaw that just isn’t visible to the naked eye, because surely if that wasn’t the case then you would be married. For a more detailed discussion on singleness and the church I would recommend checking out 7 Myths About Singleness by Sam Alberry.
However there are a great many single Christian men and women, who desire both to get married but to also impact the world for the Lord at scale. They are wonderful people who, like myself, have just not yet met the person that God has for them and who have refused to settle for anyone preferring to wait for the right someone. However, the absence of positive single role models in leadership positions in ministry and mission, means that it can be hard for single people to see themselves as vital, integral and important members of the body of Christ. People who have so much to offer, not only to their local communities but also to the world in terms of reaching people for Christ.
I think that the lack of inspiring stories and role models for single Christians has for some time kept me from stepping out to do my part for the great commission on my own. I kept thinking that once my husband came along then we would launch this amazing ministry together and from that we would together be reaching people for the Lord (just like all those perfect Christian couples on Instagram, right..;). I thought that without that special person to be my prayer partner and fellow worker for Christ then I would really be unable to do very much. Well at least until I hit my eighties where suddenly being single is no longer denigrated by the church or the world, mostly because everyone is dying off and you are automatically regarded as having something to offer by virtue of still being alive and lucid.
However, as I read the two books I mentioned earlier I started to question my assumptions. I began reading more stories of mission, such as the heartrending The Axe and the Tree, and I listened to old sermons from Corrie Ten Boom, one of the most inspiring single Christians of all time. I started to realize that in fact I could not wait any longer for a husband in order to start my ministry (and many of you have probably had this revelation long ago, so excuse my slowness!), and no matter what the church or popular culture or anyone might think or say I was going to make a deliberate effort to reach as many people as I could for the Lord. I had already been running a small group for ladies in my home every fortnight but now I wanted us to bring more people in, to encourage fellow believers and most importantly to be boldly witnessing to those who had not yet encountered the Father’s’ love.
As I listened and read the stories of believers who lived in countries where they were routinely jailed, tortured and even killed for witnessing for Christ I saw how their lives were so different from what I had seen in the church around me. For them Jesus was above everything, even their families, who, while important, were still secondary to a life lived in service to Jesus. They would rather die, and/or see their families killed in front of them, than denounce Jesus. They offered such a profoundly different way of loving and living for Christ, one in which they were determined, above all else, to be a witness for him, no matter what the cost. More than that they were proud to go to prison for sharing Christ and despite torture, starvation, deprivation and the like, they continued to witness for him. I contemplated how different this was to the Western church or any place where Christians can meet freely. Unfortunately in the West people rarely talk about their faith and they often assume that everyone around them has already heard the good news and so there is no need to witness to them.
The main concern, it seems, of so many Western Christians is personal comfort. We care about our family’s well-being, having a good job, healthcare, vacations, mostly though we want to lead quiet lives where we cause as little offense as possible. The tragedy of our comfort however is highlighted by Nik Ripken in his book the Insanity of God. He writes that in a survey of Southern Baptists in the USA they found that close to 90% of their denomination will never share Jesus with another person. Sadly I do not think that this figure is much different across the Western Church, it seems to be the price of prosperity and comfort and of taking our religious freedoms for granted.
Most Christians will happily give money to send people to Africa or the Middle East or to some unreached people group far away from us but we don’t want to walk across the street or down the road to share the good news with our neighbors, friends or relatives. We might witness to a newly arrived immigrant but we are reluctant and unsure of how to share the good news with Bob or Jane or Tricia or David, who we share an office with.
I think that when we go to heaven we will be shocked by the fact that God is not so concerned about whether we had happy family and a comfortable, prosperous life, but rather he will ask us why we buried the talent he gave us. If we have not witnessed for Him to those around us then all He has given us is meaningless and wasted. If we have lived comfortable lives, attending our local church but never bothered to invite someone who doesn’t know Jesus into our home or to our church and then explicitly told them about Jesus and His love for them, then our lives are to be truly pitied. They are lives half lived.
In order for the church at large, the Army of the Lord, to renew its place and mission in society I believe that single believers need to reject the lie that in order to be effective and bold witnesses for the kingdom we need to be married. We need to see that we may in fact be far more effective than any married believer as we are free to make decisions and follow the Lord without having to consult someone else. We can live lives that are pressed into the Lord and then reach out and invite others to know him too without having to worry how our spouse feels about all this. I believe that if every believer who is currently single started embracing their eternal purpose of being a co-worker with the Lord then the numbers of the followers of Jesus would explode. Across the West anywhere from 15- 40% of people currently live alone and there are more single people in our societies than ever before. But guess what, they are looking for someone who is single to minister to them, to talk to them, to reach out to them.
A married person cannot easily relate to the daily struggles singles face, to the hopelessness and loneliness that sometime come their way in the night or the fears of aging alone, but a single Christian can! When we show that there is hope and joy in walking with the Lord and that He is a friend who is closer than a brother then other singles can feel hopeful too. When they see us living strong, full, ambitious, purposeful lives that have no limitations then they will want to know how and why. We need more successful single Christians to demonstrate to the world that marital status is a not defining marker of success. That singleness is not an obstacle to a life lived in pursuit of the Lord.
We need to model that being single is not about TV dinners, dressing badly or an obsession with animals, often cats, (joking, kind of). No, the single believer should be the most radiant believer in the room, we should make people desire to be single, rather than fear it, we should model the best of self-care, not the worst, we should demonstrate the most active faith and the most confident living, not the least. Imagine if you will a scenario in which married believers looked at single believers and said I want what she or he has! Not thank goodness I am not single anymore, I don’t know how you do it, (something I am so sick of hearing)! Let the devil shake at the thought of an army of single believers rising up to witness to God’s redemptive love, a love that is unshakeable, unconditional and never ending.
For too long I believe that we Christian singles have allowed ourselves to be marginalized and pitied when we needed to be standing, tall, proud and confident. We need to reject roles that cast us as supporting acts to married couples and insist that in our own right we will be reaching out to others. Single women are not only good for the children’s ministry or single men for the youth ministry, no we should be also leading women’s groups and men’s groups. Marriage and children are not the markers of spiritual maturity. This is a lie that must be rejected at all costs and in every way. But lest that we become strident and domineering and forget that Jesus came to serve, we also need to be humble, serving those around us, coming under authority and offering to help the married and unmarried. But we should always do so from a place of confidence, from a place of security, from a place of abundance and not lack. That is our challenge as single believers.
God has called us all His sons and daughters and so if today you feel inadequate as a single person or a divorced person or a widowed person reject this as a lie of the devil who seeks to kill, steal and destroy your life.
Well if you have got this far in my lengthy and somewhat idealistic post/ rant, first of all thanks and second I would challenge you, whether single or married to live a life that is filled with passion for the lost. A life that is worthy of the terrible and humbling sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross. The success of our faith and lives will not be determined on our marital status or family or job or money, it will be based on our impact for the kingdom of God. It will be based on what we did with the gifts and abilities that God gave each one of us.
God has placed you in a particular place, with a particular community, particular neighbors and particular co-workers for such a time as this. Let your singleness be your opportunity and not your obstacle and I know that you will see a harvest of 10 or 100 or a thousand times. Who knows perhaps while you work you just might meet that wonderful person God has for you ;).
May God richly bless you in every aspect of your life as you work with him and may you provoke the people around you to want what you have (Jesus)!