Single and Still Sanctified
A missionary reflects on the burdens and blessings of singleness
“Oh Lord,” I whispered under my breath, “I’ll go to the farthest reaches of the Earth; I’ll go out among the nations; there’s no limits to places and peoples and tasks I’d do for Your kingdom. But please, I beg of you, don’t make me be like Amy Carmichael. That’s my only request. A life alone, that is too much to bear.”
1 Corinthians 7 says that the single woman has an advantage, for she is able to devote her mind and time to the things of the Lord. I am a single woman, and not a particularly young one at that, living abroad and serving in overseas missions for ReachGlobal.
My ministry role requires that I travel throughout Latin America and a few other places, gathering stories. I film, photograph, write. Each month finds me somewhere else, whether it be on the back of a donkey or the back of a pickup truck, hours outside of civilization. I love what I do. I feel a great sense of satisfaction in it; I trust that this is something for which God has made me. I thrive in it. And I think of this time as being to my advantage, as being redeemed. If I were married and had children, I couldn’t do this particular job of mine. I also couldn’t linger in my Bible study and prayer as much or drop everything to talk to a hurting friend. Time is my advantage right now; time is the gift to the single person on the mission field and anywhere, really. But how I spend it—well, that’s something for which I have to answer to the Almighty.
Singleness is a path to transformation
“Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:25-35).
It might be surprising to know that I spent more than a decade of my life resenting the Apostle Paul and his words in 1 Corinthians 7. I would physically cringe when someone would share it with me, and I would beg the Lord to just let any other passage be the one that applied to my life. If the speaker of these words was a married person, I immediately discredited them, and often became angry at the injustice of it all.
However, in recent years, there has been a massive shift within me. It was so gradual, and it came about in such a culmination of little moments that I hardly even noticed it happening. One day, I happened to come upon the dreaded passage, and as I read, found that I could suddenly say “yes and amen!” to what had previously caused me grief and sorrow.
Paul implies that to have freedom of time and mental and emotional space is to be in a good state. Instead of devoting this freedom to a spouse, the single person can be given to the Lord as an offering. It’s not a lesser state; he calls it good! Having the ability and time to be concerned about the Lord’s affairs is a blessing, a gift. Once I saw it this way, I stopped resenting the apostle’s words.
I wanted to be married early. I remember being in high school, telling my mother about my dream to be married the day after I graduated. Her anxiety eventually became nonexistent over this expressed wish, as I never even dated anyone in high school. Immediately after my senior year, I took off on my first of several six-month mission trips, and my entire worldview shifted. The first trip I went on took me to Thailand, where I happened to be during the tsunami of 2004. The American dream was ruined forever for me, and forever after I was searching out a way to participate in God’s kingdom among the nations.
Now, 15 years after that first trip, after many ups and downs, the dream and desire for the nations remains. So does the desire for marriage. And yet, I don’t resent Paul anymore. So, what changed?
Singleness is just as sanctifying as marriage
I have watched nearly all of my close friends get married and start families in the past decade.
I have seen them walk down the aisle, glow through the honeymoon phase, have a serious reality check a few months down the road, and then be sleep deprived for months (or years) as they have babies. I have listened as they share with me about marriage and parenthood being the most sanctifying thing they have ever experienced. As I dreamed about the mission field and a husband, I walked through some lonely places as my hope and life direction departed from that of many of my friends. I have also watched as my friends have experienced loneliness. My married friends! The friends who are living my dream still experience loneliness! What is this? Their lives and hopes ebb and flow just as mine do.
I used to buy into the condescending lie of “oh, you’ll understand sanctification once you’re married.” This was told to me over and over—by well-meaning friends and even by pastors. It led me to believe for a while that true life experience would come once marriage did, so I really ought to wait to make any big decisions until that happened.
One day, however, it dawned on me: Singleness is just as sanctifying as marriage.
My married friends have to learn to trust in Christ to fulfill their needs, desires and loneliness, and I do too! I just do it and also sleep alone at night. My married friends have to seek out God to learn their identity and purpose, and so do I! Loneliness is a human condition, a part of the fall. At its root, it’s really grief at our separation from God. So, while I experience times of loneliness in singleness, my married friends experience it too. My friends who are young mothers stuck in the house experience it. My friends whose children have left home and left them with a sense of purposelessness, they experience it too.
Singleness is not a liability
ReachGlobal really takes care of single women, I have to say. From my first day, I have been made to feel that I am an asset, not a liability.
During our pre-field training, everyone had to fill out a worksheet—both married couples and singles—describing some of their advantages and disadvantages they brought to the field in their current marital status. Another missionary recently told me that when she did that, a married person in her group said that “single people are available 24/7 to serve”! We had a good laugh over that. That is extreme, and not true, but I definitely am more available to serve than, say, women with small children at home.
I can bring the assets of more time and flexibility, more emotional availability, fewer people to care for, and a valuable perspective on dependence on God. The liabilities that I bring are not all that different than the married couples—I have to be careful in relationships, careful of my safety. I have to be dependent on people to help me sometimes, especially when I am in places where it is unsafe or culturally inappropriate for a woman to travel alone.
I love that in ReachGlobal, I am not treated like a problem to be solved but as a valuable contributor in this ministry. Too often in the church, I am made to feel like a threat, like I must be doing something wrong for me to still be single (which implies that my married friends did something for them to merit the gift of marriage!). Singleness is as much of a gift in God’s eyes as marriage is. I greatly appreciate the perspective our mission has in this area.
Singleness is rich and fulfilling
When I went to pre-field training a few years ago, I met a woman who served as a single woman in Hong Kong for 38 years. She probably has no idea what a spiritual giant she has been in my life. Her influence on me has been hugely encouraging.
She told me that even now, as she is in her 60s, people will come up to her at church and tell her that they are praying for her husband. She has asked them to stop and to pray instead for her character to be more like Christ’s. She told me, much in the spirit of Isaiah 54, that even though I was an unmarried woman, I was not off the hook in God’s eyes for having spiritual children. In fact, if the words of the prophet are true, “more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman” (Isaiah 54:1). She rather cornered me and spoke firmly to me, saying that I had better be discipling people. Just because I had not ever given birth to a child didn’t mean that I was not to be mothering. Every woman on earth is called to mother, whether they are an actual biological mother or not: God made us nurturers and life-givers all the way down to our bones.
Later, I found myself reading the biographies of some of the “power women” in missions: Amy Carmichael, Lilias Trotter, Corrie Ten Boom. Although I prayed that the Lord wouldn’t make me like Amy Carmichael, as I read about her life, I thought about my conversation with the missionary to Hong Kong. How many children in India called Amy Carmichael amma (“mother”)? She was not a desolate woman: Carmichael had a vast family, a full nest!
It seems true what is written in many books and articles, that there are about 10 single women for each single man on the mission field. If there is indeed a single guy on the mission field, he will not likely even make it through language school before he gets married. I have now seen this with my own eyes and can attest to its truth! People say that the mission field is not a place to meet a mate.
Here’s my two cents on the matter: God can bring anyone He wants, at any time He wants, to any person He chooses. I’d rather be in obedience and serving and have no hope of finding a mate than sitting at home in disobedience and marry someone whose heart is not headed in the same direction.
Dare I confess it: I’d rather be like Amy Carmichael and live a life of singleness that is rich and fulfilled than be married and living in a way that is less than what God called me to.
Singleness is a way to redeem time
My longing for marriage and my longing to serve abroad grew side by side for years. In my late 20s, a profound conviction struck me: I didn’t want to stand before the Almighty at the end of my life and say that I never went and served in missions because I was waiting for Him to send me a husband.
I don’t want to have to tell Him that I spent years in disobedience, years that I could have been useful, just sitting around waiting for some guy to come rescue me! God had work for me to do, and I kept putting off my commitment to really enter into it because I didn’t want to “miss the opportunity.”
Ephesians 5:15-16 tells us to “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Redeem the time. That could mean many things in many seasons, but for me, at the moment those words enlightened me, they meant that I was called into service, into usefulness, and out among the nations. Now. Not “someday when my prince comes” but now.
I was hoping to give some brilliant insight into the unique challenges of single women on the mission field. Honestly, the challenges I face are almost exactly the same ones that I faced in the States, especially in the church. I receive the same insensitive comments both here and at home, the same wondering comments of “Why on earth are you not married yet? Do you feel called to singleness? Don’t you want a husband?” The answer, after years of arguing the subject with God, is: “I want what He wants for me. No more and no less.”
Depending on where I visit, I am often considered strange, unconventional or just a sad spectacle because I don’t have a husband or children with me, which give women value, identity and security in much of the world. I get the privilege, instead, of demonstrating that God gives each human value and dignity simply because we are made in His image. There are times when I have to depend on my teammates and other missionaries for safety, for help and for community. But what has surprised me is that this goes both ways. Families with children on the field need “aunties” and fellowship with others just as much as I need the dynamic of a family dinner. God makes us all part of His family, and we all fill a role in our various seasons of life.
I still feel lonely from time to time. It comes and goes in waves. The comfort now is the knowledge that we all experience this, that the ebb and flow of loneliness is not just for the single people of the world. This need we feel can be redeemed; it can be channeled; it can be used to declare among the nations that we all need God, that our hearts cry out because of our separation from Him.