Every single day, my Facebook page shows wonderful pictures of couples celebrating their anniversaries together. I love it. Marriage is to be celebrated and enjoyed.
The writer of Hebrews tells us in no uncertain terms: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4).
As the old Book of Common Prayer puts it, matrimony is an “excellent mystery.” Sometimes, I find it more excellent and sometimes I find it more mysterious.
But I feel for my single friends in our culture that is so infatuated with romantic relationships. There is a sense that in order to be truly human, one has to be in a romantic relationship of some sort.
From the days of early childhood, Disney movies (among many other voices) have been romanticizing our view of what it means to be human. And then we hit tween and teen books and movies where we’re told that we ought to throw off parental advice and pursue forbidden romantic relationships. And then we hit the romantic comedies where the whole goal is for two people to discover that they’re each other’s soul mates, despite all of the obstacles they have to overcome to realize it.
The scripts are not all that creative. But we fall for them over and over again and the triumph of the romantic defeats us again and again.
But these overly romanticized stories ask far to much of marriage. No matter how romantic and sexy those photos look on Facebook, they simply don’t reflect the day-to-day realities of living with someone who sees you at your worst and not just at your best. In other words, we lie in order to project the image that we’ve been told is what romantic relationships ought to look like.
And because no marriage can live up to the promise of being full-on soul mates, couples begin to uncouple. Those who had become one begin to fracture into fractions, dividing.
Singles who don’t buy into the romantic definition of what it means to be human offer something deeply counter-cultural and much needed. Their lives are a resounding NO! to the reduction of love to romance.
But singles only do this well when they are immersed in community. What was true in Genesis 3 is still true today: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” It’s not good for the woman either. Community is essential.
It was Jesus who said these words: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).
Jesus was talking about a lot of exchanges taking place, but one of those was the exchange of marriage for community. The “many times as much at this time” means that giving up one person (spouse) for the sake of the kingdom of God leads to receiving many people (the community of the church) now and not just later on in the age to come.
This exchange of romance for a broader experience of community isn’t easy. This is why I call those who make this exchange the brave ones of us. For daily they are assaulted by stories and images which tell them that they are incomplete without a romantic relationship.
When I first became a pastor of a small Presbyterian church, I put a notice in our monthly newsletter from a local marriage ministry. They were giving free horseback rides for couples to enjoy together and I had taken my wife on one.
But one of the women in the congregation who was about 60 wrote me a short and polite email, pointing out that the majority of the congregation was single and wouldn’t it be great if I gave them suggestions on how to be faithful in their singleness.
That opened up my eyes to the reality that was around me. All of the kids in the church were single. And beyond the singles in their 20s and a woman in her 70s who had never been married, there were people who had been married before but were single again, either by divorce or death. She was right. Most of the people were single. Somehow, I had bought into a view of the world which made me blind to that reality and for their need to be nurtured and supported in that reality.
Paul tells us that singleness is actually a gift from the Spirit of God to be desires and writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Again, setting aside romantic relationships enables those who remain single to give themselves to community and service in ways those who are married (and especially those who have children) are unable to do.
This is not only true of nuns and priests and others in the world of faith. The atheist inventor and philanthropist Dean Kamen has rejected romance in favor of devoting his life to his philanthropic inventions, including the SlingShot, which is an amazing water purifying system targeted at reducing disease and death in the many parts of the world where clean water is unavailable. He has chosen his mission over romance — a choice that defies our culture’s script.
While I myself am married and the father of four, I tell my kids that I will love it if they get married and I will love it if they remain single. Each has its hardships. Each has its blessing to offer to the world. Each is a gift from God.
We were created for more than our human romances. In fact, Jesus said that we were created for a divine romance, a divine soul mate. I love how The Message translates Luke 20:34-26 — “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”
Singles, please keep pointing us to this great reality.