A Quiet Suffering and a Gift: Reflections on Singleness

Michael Gehrling

“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.

Rethinking healing

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.

17 comments

I admire your courage. I can't help wondering though, has Jesus actually healed people who still struggle with being single? Or has he just helped us to "learn to live with it" enough to carry on? I am struggling with this a lot right now. I believe God is good and that he does really care about my desires. There must be a good reason for him not to meet them right now. But I don't feel healed. I feel like someone who is still bleeding. Must we call that a gift? Isn't there some difference between gifts and trials? The only real comfort seems to be that in heaven the loneliness will be wiped away.

Sep 28, 2016 8:05PM by James

Thank you for sharing, Michael.

This has been a real struggle of mine for many many years now.
I love your illustration of the young girl on her deathbed and of the woman who touched the hem of his garment.
After many years of trying to make sense of this 'gift' and where my purpose lies if not in joining a husband and raising up a family of my own, I am actually beginning to see that it can be a gift. I have eyes that see others' needs that those more preoccupied do not. I am kept humble in ways that those who have a supportive significant other often do not. And in living on a single salary budget, I am kept dependent on the One who truly provides.

Still learning,
Jessica

Nov 8, 2015 3:48PM by Jessica

You are so right! It IS a quiet suffering and nobody knows.

Sep 19, 2015 10:37AM by Anonymous

Wow. Thank you. You took the thoughts that I was unable to articulate right out of my head. All of a sudden I don't feel so alone. I am surely sharing this because many others need to read your words.

Jul 16, 2015 9:30AM by Camille McCall

it's like prophet was speaking..............very true...i never heard anything about the gift of singleness while growing up in a christian home...thank you pastor

Mar 2, 2015 9:36AM by Rehema kemmy

Thank you.

Jan 26, 2015 10:03AM by Anonymous

Yes a quiet suffering and a gift ... My experience too ... But sometimes my reaching for the hem of His garment is not so quiet

Nov 22, 2014 7:38PM by Christine

Thank you for ministering and caring for others with what you already have! That's what the Lord asks of us. He desires us to bring our strengths, our challenges, and our hidden thoughts/feelings to Him and let Him make something magnificent out of it. I'm confident that what you are doing can testify to that and encourage fellow singles and a broader audience.
One thing I wanted most in my single journey was to see singles a few steps ahead of me who lived fully, authentically, and with joy. To know singles with an appealing life! That comes mingled with grief and disappointment, but it's rooted in faith that God is with you even when you don't understand, He seems silent, etc. May God continue to guide and grow you and give you deep fellowship along the way.

Nov 21, 2014 2:52PM by Rebekah

A really nice reflection. I got married at 34, and I remember, at 32, what a blessing it was to learn that the pastor at my church hadn't gotten married till 35. Seeing him with his wife and kids, I wouldn't have guessed he had done a lot of ministry as a single person first. There *is* a real need for ministry to single people, and single people can often do that ministry best. Thanks for what you do, and God's blessings to you.

Nov 14, 2014 3:05AM by Anonymous

Thank you for sharing this honest perspective. This really takes courage. What you write about is something I've really struggled with. It's so refreshing to hear this from the perspective of a man. I have no doubt, that if it is God's will, you will be the most amazing husband and father one day. The Lord is clearly using this time to produce fruits you will use for the rest of your life. I know God hears the desires of your heart! Thank you again for sharing. Your writing is a blessing to many!

Nov 13, 2014 12:43PM by Anonymous

Thank you for the encouragement!

Nov 13, 2014 8:12PM by Michael_Gehrling

You put words to so many of the feelings I have had while living this life of "alone-ness". It is a beautiful gift, but I must admit, sometimes, it does feel like suffering although I have never used that term to describe the emotions. As my next birthday quickly approaches and I embrace the fact that the years behind me are greater that those in front of me, I want to live and love in the moment, enjoying what I have and not longing for what has not materialized. Life if too precious and fleeting and I have some quality years ahead I plan on enjoying to the fullest...with or without a spouse.

Nov 13, 2014 12:06PM by Diane Anderson

Thanks, Diane, for sharing. You are a great example of someone who lives life to the fullest by loving your neighbors deeply. I continue to admire your faithfulness.

Nov 13, 2014 8:17PM by Michael_Gehrling

Mike, what a thoughtful revelation - as always. One of the gifts you possess is that whenever you open up and speak up is that you share deeply and thoughtfully. This is evidence.

Nov 13, 2014 10:37AM by Craig Williams

Thanks, Craig!

Nov 13, 2014 8:17PM by Michael_Gehrling

This is beautifully written, Michael. Thank you for being so vulnerable and honest. As a single woman firmly entrenched in her 30s, I hear you, brother. Lately, I've been learning what it means to be content in Jesus. The desires for a mate are still very much there and are at times, overwhelming. But I am reminded that where I am in this story that God has written for me is not plan B. THIS is plan A and it is beautiful because he's written the story line. Therefore, I need to not just exist but to live and thrive in it. Thank you for the reminder to continue to live authentically, even in the midst of the hard and strange and beautiful life we're in.

Nov 13, 2014 8:53AM by Lola A.

AMEN, Lola! Beautifully said.

Nov 13, 2014 8:19PM by Michael_Gehrling

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