Reflecting a great deal lately on human design, I find myself thinking about the nature of marriage, the single life and friendship. That has me thinking a lot about Paul, a single man whose words have probably done more than anyone else’s to shape our thoughts on gender and how we relate to each other. Because I’m a fan of his, I wrote him a letter …
I have always wondered if you had any idea when you were living out your first-century faith in Christ that you’d have such a profound influence on the world. Did you have a clue when you were sitting in prison dictating letters that your words would become our theology? Could you have known as a single man just what kind of influence you’d have over all our relationships, not to mention our understanding of gender (and yes, I wonder — if you’d known the ripple effect — if you would ever have penned those lines about women)?
Did you choose the single life, or did it choose you? Was it part of the small-print of first-century Christian life? Or did it just seem to happen as an effect of your driven personality? Either way, thank you for living that life out loud so we could soak in what you learned. I’m struck by your yearning to “get back to the Garden” and by your passion for the coming Kingdom. I love that you had such a drive to push through your own needs for the sake of a bigger vision.
By your letters, it seems you genuinely believed the Messiah would be back in your lifetime. You lived as if that were so; even your romancing was shaped by how convinced you were of this. I completely agree with your comments to the Corinthians, that until we fully appreciate our completeness in God and have a solid foundation “in Christ,” romance can be a distraction and even a detriment to our relationship with Christ. You were wise to counsel new believers to stay married, even if faith was a sticking point in their relationships. That counsel still works today. I’ve known too many folks who have made their biggest mistakes by trying to get others to change, or worse yet to “complete” them.
Your decision to remain single for the cause of Christ was bold. I appreciate your giving the world permission to explore what we’re really cut out for. While loneliness, the desire for intimacy and family life will prevent most of us from taking the path of the single life, your example is honorable. You’ve added something important to the community of Christ.
Thanks for providing the example for those who are called to vocations and Kingdom work that require a single-minded focus. Thanks for showing us what a call to and not just a call from might look like. I’m thinking about how a person in our day and time might follow the narrow path you chose. If I listen to your life, some clarifying questions begin to bubble up.
If I were considering the single life, what litmus test would help me discern God’s best?
1. Am I called to express Christ’s love for the Church not through marriage but through a singular focus on God?
2. Am I called to a Kingdom work that requires my single-minded focus? In other words, for some positive Kingdom-building reason has God called me to the single life?
3. Do I have not just strength but a holy resolve to resist the pull toward my natural design and drive?
4. Am I willing to embrace loneliness as part of this vocation?
5. Have I sufficiently grieved the loss of parenthood, children, family, physical intimacy with someone else so that I enter the single-focused life from a place of strength and not victimhood?
6. And maybe the most important and first question to ask is this one: Have I sufficiently dealt with things that might distort my sense of call, like self-hatred, shame, fear, issues of control, a desire for independence (or what Tim Tennent calls autonomous solitude), feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism …. ? Because until a person has explored how all those things enter into or impede an ability to be “naked and unashamed” I am not sure a person can honestly answer the question of whether or not they are called to a life of singleness or marriage.
Paul, thank you for living your life so honestly and openly. Thank you for teaching transparently about marriage, singleness, divorce, gender, and vocation. Thank you for showing us how to live in community and for acknowledging so graciously that community is messy. But worth it.
I love your courage. I love your boldness. I love that you didn’t put up with any foolishness, but challenged generations of Christ-followers to grow up. I’d like to think that if I lived in your day or you lived in mine, we’d be genuinely good and faithful friends.