A friend of mine did me a giant favor recently. She talked someone out of giving me the gift of an eHarmony membership. The gifter in question is one of those people who think the state of matrimony is the ultimate ideal. Occasionally, I am privy to comments such as, “You’ll make someone a good wife someday because you can cook well,” or “I believe you’ll get married someday. You have too much love to give not to find someone.” These comments come from well-meaning people who love me. And please don’t misunderstand, I am not against marriage. But I am also not convinced that marriage is the only way to be happy, or to serve the church. But the church, in particular, seems to place heavy emphasis on marriage and family, sometimes forgetting (or ignoring) those who aren’t married. It’s called “marriage happiness,” according to Claire and Eli, the pseudonymous authors of "Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up About a We."
Marriage happiness is defined as, “having an inordinate preoccupation with marital pursuits, sometimes at the cost of other Christian priorities…” Have you ever heard a sermon series on marriage in which singleness is really treated as an afterthought, if it is mentioned at all? Better yet, the pastor may say something like, “You single people, pay attention. You will need this advice someday.” Some view singleness as the purgatory before the bliss of marriage. Of course, the church is not the only institution guilty of marriage happiness. Turn on the Hallmark Channel, or watch nearly any romantic comedy and you’ll see countless examples of a culture in love with love — and often in love with marriage.
In "Altared," Claire and Eli tell the story of their relationship, alternating between the Claire’s perspective and Eli’s. And I’ll admit I was happy to read about their love story, expecting it to end in wedded bliss. At some level, I probably have a little bit of marriage happiness in me, too, though certainly tempered by what I believe are some great benefits of being single. Claire and Eli alternate the story of their relationship with sections that build a case for reevaluating how we view marriage and singleness, focusing on scripture that many tend to ignore. Perhaps the Bible is not as marriage happy as we may have been led to believe.
Take, for example, Jesus and Paul. Both have traditionally believed to have been single (Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code aside). Paul, especially, seemed to believe that it is actually singleness — not marriage — that is the ideal state, and in fact one could construe that Paul considered marriage to be something of a last resort (1 Corinthians 7:25-40). The chapter often used in marriage ceremonies, 1 Corinthians 13, is indeed about love, but it is not exclusive to married love.
In fact, Claire and Eli argue, Jesus calls us to a sacrificial love that far transcends love between couples. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors, not merely our friends and family. It is the kind of love that compels us to give up our personal claims to being right or getting what we deserve, and doesn’t allow us to pick and choose the recipients of our love: “Choosiness is not an option. In fact, if our love is growing in Christlikeness, we should find our eyes increasingly turned toward those on the margins.”
No discussion of marriage and singleness would be complete without a mention of one of the biggest advantages to singleness, something Paul spends some time talking about. In a marriage relationship, both parties are responsible to each other, and when children are added to the family, parents must tend to the needs of their children. This is not a bad thing at all, but it does complicate matters, and certainly cuts into an individual’s free time. A single person, on the other hand, is freer with his or her time, and has less need to “check in” with a spouse before committing to doing an activity — a spontaneous dinner, for example. And single people can more easily commit time to service. An acquaintance of mine recently began a long-term (more than a year) mission trip. Another friend of mine is in the process of applying for the Peace Corps. Both are single, and are therefore not as “tied down” as married people would be.
This is an excellent read for both single and married people alike, and something clergy and church staff members should definitely peruse. Singleness is not always a temporary state, and neither is it something for which a person should be “cured.” A single person has potential to spend his or her time serving and practicing the radical love that Jesus calls us to. This does not mean that every person is working tirelessly for Jesus. In fact, there is also potential for a single person to spend his or her time in selfish pursuits. I, for one, have been inspired to use some of my single time (whether that be a few months, or a lifetime) to serve Christ and his kingdom. And for the time being, I think I will forgo the eHarmony membership. My marriage happiness does not extend quite that far!