It’s not very often that I hear a sermon and mentally scream, “IS THIS REAL LIFE?” but my good friend Mike Stroh preached on singleness at my Dallas church, and it IS real life. I remember very specifically one Father’s Day sermon years ago that exalted marriage and parenthood, and I sat there biting back tears thinking, “this is not for me, this is not for me, this is not for me.” I felt so incredibly alone in my church pew. THIS SERMON, however, made me want to dance around screaming, “this is for me! this is for me!”
Mike opens the sermon assuring listeners that this is not a token sermon to make singles feel better, it is instead a theology of singleness for everyone, from which everyone should learn. Thus begins Mike’s habit of using incredibly specific terms that my single friends and I have complained about the church not using. I’ve had many lunches where my single friends lamented the lack of a theology of singleness – we talk about the biblical basis of marriage ALL THE TIME and so it is valued. Why don’t we talk about the biblical basis for singleness? (For the record, Mike is married to the amazing Libby Stroh, which makes me love his sermon even more. Being married is, in our Christian culture, the privileged position, and it is mostly from the mouths of the privileged that change can occur.)
And then Mike sneaks in this great line:
“We’re going to learn from two fairly influential singles: Jesus and Paul.”
The main premise of the sermon is that we (as a culture and as a church) have viewed celibacy and singleness as a negative, as shutting off our sexuality. But no, Mike assures the congregation that we don’t actually become men and women when we get married – we’re born as sexual beings, and that doesn’t change. Instead, chastity is a virtue that says no to lust and a massive YES to true love. Both Jesus (in Matthew 19) and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 7) have high views of celibacy while also teaching a high view of marriage. How can we do both?
Marriage, Mike says, is a sign that points to our ultimate union with God. It’s like seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and packing up the car to go there and see it in person. You take the picture with you, looking at it to remind yourself where you’re going. The celibate person, on the other hand, says, “I’m going to jump over the sign and get the real thing!” They set up camp on the edge of the Grand Canyon, basking in its beauty. The single person pursues an undivided intimate relationship with God.
In fact, the celibate person’s life is a statement of faith. Being single is a way of stepping outside of history and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here!
About this time in the sermon, my excitement was devolving into a complaint. This was all very love-positive, and hypothetically, it SOUNDS good. But what about sex? What about lifelong companionship? Single people want those things, and how are we supposed to live without them!? Almost immediately after my mental complaint, Mike said:
Embracing singleness DOES involve real sacrifice: companionship, sexual union, parenting children. It means living in the ache all the time.
THANK YOU. It felt so good to have my pain and frustration acknowledged without condescension or a false hope that marriage would solve my problem. With that pain at the forefront, Mike repeated himself. Being celibate means letting your life be a statement that heaven is real – and it is worth sacrificing everything to experience. A relationship with God is greater than anything we could experience here and now, and rejoicing in singleness is an act of faith.
Then Mike got practical. “Let me pick on the married people,” he said, and I fist pumped the air (I was listening to the podcast in an empty room, so it was not weird). I mean, SO OFTEN I feel like being in a church involves being picked on as a single person, although no one actually calls it that. Still, I was delighted to see married people in the hot spot.
Mike urged married couples to have regular fellowship with singles, to consider the little things of life that you take for granted because you have a life partner. When a single person gets sick, he suggested, make them a meal or offer to pick up their medication. Most poignantly, he mentioned that while married people might get tired of the daily mundanity of asking your spouse, “How was your day?” a single person might never hear that thoughtful question, so ask them. In fact, he said, “even worship services can be very lonely for singles, so be mindful of that.” And further, stop thinking that marriage is a higher calling! Don’t encourage singles with the statement that they will be married someday, as though God is holding out on blessing them. While you’re at it, don’t lead conversations with “Are you married?” or “How many children do you have?”
At this point my hands were clutched under my chin, eyes filling with tears at the UNDERSTANDING, empathy, and thoughtfulness.
Then Mike made it even better. He spoke to singles, reminding us that married couples and parents need us! No matter what kind of single you are (young, desiring marriage, not desiring marriage, divorced, widowed, voluntarily celibate because of same-sex attraction), you can dive into undivided devotion to God, showing marrieds what a life fully oriented around God looks like.
This section was all the more poignant to me because I feel like I got to live out this mutual edification with Mike and LIbby. They always let me stay at their house, eat homecooked meals, and play with their kids. We talked explicitly about how I often crave the solidity and comfort of a family atmosphere, so they gave that to me. And on the flip side, I used my freedom as a single person to babysit and to help them move. I decided to move to Greece, and Mike and Libby were two of my greatest champions, talking and praying me toward that decision. They gave me their marriage experiences, and I gave them my single experiences. It was really beautiful, and I never once felt like either of us felt “better” or “superior” than the other for our different life stages.
He ended the sermon by once more acknowledging that the ache of solitude and loneliness might be a constant reality for single people. The ache is a daily surrender, and an opportunity to orient ourselves to God. And remember, he said, being married will not complete you. You are already complete in Christ, right now. God has to be enough, and if He’s not, then dive into prayer, into Scripture, into ministry and into community. Then you can celebrate the season of singleness, for however long it lasts.
After all, Jesus – the perfect human being – was single. He lived in joy and anticipation of the promise of the wedding supper that was to come when he would be fully united to the church for eternity. As single women and men, we have the best example of how to live.
I summarized a lot of Mike’s sermon, but I urge you to listen to it for yourself!