A Quiet Suffering and a Gift: Reflections on Singleness
“Stay single for a while,” a church leader once told me as she learned about my ministry with younger adults. She explained that singleness is a struggle for many young people, and single people need spiritual leaders who are also single. I’ve taken her point seriously, though perhaps unwillingly. I’ve preached about singleness, spoken to groups about it, and have had countless conversations with single people in the Church, all the while remaining single myself.
I’ve learned a lot about singleness. I’ve even come to appreciate it, and can agree with the Apostle Paul that singleness is a gift as valuable as marriage. I can see that the gift of singleness is more than having extra time to devote to "ministry." Singleness is the gift of flexibility, mobility, and availability to others. Singleness is the gift of giving anyone undivided attention. It’s the gift of being a good friend and being able to love all equally.
Yet, even in coming to appreciate my singleness as a gift, it’s still a struggle. I still wrestle with loneliness, and sometimes depression. I still find it easy to convince myself that I’m the only single person in my community; that everyone else is married or in a relationship, and that I’m not loved as deeply as I desire to be, nor free to love another as deeply as I’d like.
Singleness as quiet suffering
The sadness that we singles experience is difficult because we often feel alone in it. The source of our sadness is rarely something public and noticeable. It’s more like a nagging pain that we grow used to and learn to live with. Eventually, though, we notice the pain, and its effects become real. But even then, it seems real only to us, while the rest of the world seems to carry on without noticing.
I’ve started thinking about this pain through the lens of the story of Jesus healing two women in Mark 5:21-43. These two women are suffering in very different ways. The first is a young girl who lies on her deathbed. The suffering she and her father Jairus share is very public and noticeable. A child’s death is always tragic. A parent losing a child invokes everyone’s sympathy. It’s no surprise that Jesus enters into a “commotion” when he arrives at their house. We can imagine the scenario. Everyone is weeping and wailing. The family is planning visitation hours and a funeral. Neighbors are bringing casseroles. The suffering of the young girl and her father is awful, but they have the community’s support.
The story of this young girl on her deathbed is interrupted by a woman with a flow of blood — a condition she had lived with for 12 years. Her suffering is also real, but it’s unacknowledged by her community. As the crowd of people follow Jesus and usher him to Jairus’s house, no one notices this woman. Her suffering is quiet and unnoticed, if not completely anonymous.
The loneliness that we singles experience is much like the suffering of the woman with the flow of blood. At times, the emotional effects overwhelm us. At other times we learn to live with it. Our sadness is rarely noticed by others. The world sees and reacts appropriately when a married person loses a spouse. A single person’s loneliness from not having a partner in the first place, or the fear of never finding one, usually goes unnoticed by the rest of the world.
The situation of the woman with the flow of blood was lonely and unnoticed, but it wasn’t hopeless. There was hope for her because of Jesus. In spite of the crowd’s lack of attention, Jesus still healed her.
It’s tempting at this point to write that we’ll be led to a spouse if we just reach out and touch Jesus’ garment. But that would be contrary to Scripture’s teaching that singleness and marriage are equal gifts. And it would be insulting to single people who desire marriage but never find a spouse, despite their prayers, and to the many single people who find great satisfaction in choosing not to marry. Jesus is able to heal the hurt, loneliness, and sense of isolation that single people face, but healing does not equal marriage.
When we think about stories of Jesus healing people, we tend to look at them through the lens of the person who gets healed. We think about a person whose petitions to Jesus get answered. If our prayer and desire is for marriage, then it’s hard to imagine any alternative. Either Jesus is faithful and leads us to a spouse, or he’s not faithful and doesn’t.
What if we looked at healing less from the perspective of the healed and more from the perspective of the Healer? When we do this, we’ll see that healing is as much, if not more, about Jesus displaying his power as it is about a person receiving the restoration that they seek.
For Jesus to heal the quiet suffering that many of us experience as single people, it will mean the power of God being displayed in us, and his power to heal our loneliness, our fears, and anything else that holds us back from being the flourishing human beings God created us to be. God may do that by leading us to a spouse, or he may not.
The church leader who encouraged me to “stay single for a while” gave me that advice more than five years ago. There’s still no end to my singleness in sight. The quiet sufferings of loneliness and depression remain — at times more noticeable than at others, but the gifts of loving others remain, too. I’ve come to learn that it’s my decision to choose whether I focus on the suffering or the gift. I’ve also come to learn that to receive the gift is to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. After all, can a gift come from anywhere else?
Michael Gehrling is InterVarsity's Director of International Graduate & Faculty Ministry, and also serves as co-pastor of the Upper Room, a Presbyterian (USA) church plant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his BA from Grove City College, and his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Michael is single, and is a proud son, brother, uncle, godfather, and friend.
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