Mike Sense glanced around the room at his Covenant Seminary classmates. Most had gold rings gracing their left hands. He thought bitterly, “Everyone in this room is getting what they want and I’m not.”
At 32 and one of the few single men in his St. Louis seminary, Sense honestly voices his frustration: “Wait, God, I’ve moved to the other side of the world for you, I’ve served you and forgone money and fortune—and this one thing I ask for, I don’t get?”
While Sense has been in relationships, none of them have worked out. As he watches friend after friend get married and have kids, he knows theologically that God is not unjust, and he understands that singleness has upsides: more time to care for his friends and help them through their problems. But there’s always the lonely drive home to an empty house.
Despite the rise of cohabitation and changing attitudes about marriage, many Christians continue to hold a high view of the institution and yet find themselves single. As Valentine’s Day approached, I spoke with a dozen of them to uncover the struggles they face and the consolation they find as they brave an uncertain future not of their own choosing.
SOME CHRISTIAN young women complain about their male counterparts’ unwillingness to commit, but Sense has never struggled that way. He views marriage as a “beautiful thing the Lord has graciously given so that man and woman can flourish and have places of safety and trust.” Lately he’s been feeling a deep desire for children, which coming from a man seems to surprise his friends: “When women share that … people receive it in stride.”
In Los Angeles, Gina Fenwick, 42, approaches the end of her childbearing years and still has not found a husband: “The biological clock is ticking. At 30 I didn’t focus so much on marriage, I just assumed it would happen. … I still believe that I will get married, but maybe years down the line. I kind of realize I need to give up my dream of having children.”
Fenwick, who has been celibate since professing Christ 12 years ago, admits that she has days when it’s a fight to stay pure in a city that bombards her with erotic messages. Sometimes she’s tempted to take things into her own hands and find someone–anyone–to fill that void. But as her relationship with God grows, she’s been seeing what’s really at stake. “If I entertain these thoughts, I’m going to lose so much more than giving my body away: It’s going to impact my relationship with God, the church, and my community.”
As a single woman, she has had the time to serve in her church’s prayer ministry, lead a post-abortion group at a local pregnancy center, and help others in her community group. Most of her friends in L.A. are single, so she spends time meeting up with them for dinner, going to concerts, and hosting game nights.
FABS HARFORD, a 31-year-old serving in the women’s ministry at Austin Stone Community Church in Texas, describes her feelings about singleness as a pendulum that swings between a pity party and being OK with where she is.
Harford has felt pressured to get married ever since professing Christ a decade ago. But as she’s grown in her faith, her reasons for wanting to tie the knot have also matured: Now she desires marriage as a covenant binding together husband and wife and requiring grace and forgiveness. Even as she hears from her married friends about difficulties, she wants to experience the sanctifying benefits of marriage and have the opportunity to act out the gospel in someone else’s life.
When she joined the church staff seven years ago, she didn’t mind being single—most of the other women on staff were single as well. But over the years, as she’s attended weddings and baby showers, her thoughts began to change: “The harder struggle with singleness is not even wanting someone, but being confused as to why someone doesn’t want me. … Why did no one pick me? Am I too fat? Too annoying? Is my personality bad?”
Harford turned to blogging to work through these issues. In 2010, she started a series that looks at how many of the struggles of singleness—loneliness, rejection, lost dreams—are actually blessings pointing her toward Christ. Her most popular post was “Blessings of Singleness #5: Lack of Physical Intimacy.” Who determines what she needs most? she asked: Her body? Or God? Her conclusion: God “doesn’t promise to give me everything I need to never be hungry. He promises to give me everything I need to not starve to death on the road home to Him.”
More than 50 women and men commented on the post, many saying that her writing touched on thoughts and feelings that they’d never been able to express. “For a lot of people it helped them feel heard to have someone say, ‘Hey, it’s hard that you’re alone, that no one picked you, but someone understands you,’” Harford said.
JENILYN SWETT, 32, works in the women’s ministry at Crossroads Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. She talks about the benefits of mixed-aged activities at church: “Getting to see married folks actively work through some of the struggles of marriage has just kind of kept reality in view.” She adds, “Being single is hard, so is being married. … In no way has that deterred me or discouraged me [from getting married], but it’s helped me to remember to keep marriage in its appropriate place and to not elevate it too much.”
By watching so many of her friends get married, Swett realizes there’s no formula to finding a husband, and the fact that her past relationships haven’t worked out and she’s currently single is only because this is where God wants her right now. “I think a lot of trusting Him in this is learning to lament … and being able to honestly say to Him, ‘This is hard’ or ‘This is really lonely’ or ‘This really sucks’ or ‘Really? Another friend is getting engaged?’” Swett said. “Just being able to talk to Him as a Father, that He cares, that He sees me, and everything He promises is true even if it doesn’t always feel that way.”
Even though Swett would like to get married, she doesn’t always appreciate it when married women offer to set her up with the one other single person they know, but she’s willing to be set up by someone who knows her well and knows a man who would complement her.
AT 63, Linda Kennedy of Atlanta is still looking for her man. After she professed Christ in 1973, she’s found that only non-Christian men pursued her. She found singleness most difficult while she was raising her son, and then raising a niece and nephew. But despite lonely holidays, Kennedy says she’s learned to be content. She doesn’t want to compromise, and is currently seeing a “gentleman” she hopes to marry. But if it doesn’t work out, she’s still willing to submit to God’s will.
She tells younger singles that “God is faithful and able to keep you living single and not fornicate. It doesn’t mean you stop having feelings, but that you are God’s property and He will help you through the Holy Spirit.”
On Fabs Harford’s hard days, she holds on to the promise that marriage is temporal, while the fruit of her ministry is eternal. She said her greatest comfort is knowing that Jesus lived His life single, yet still lived the perfect life.
The best advice Mike Sense ever heard came from the Bible and not from well-meaning church people assuring him that he’ll find “the one” someday. He points to Isaiah 54 and 56, where the Lord promised “the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting place that shall never be cut off.”
Despite hard days, unmet desires, and feeling misunderstood, Sense finds encouragement in the unchanging Word: “It makes me feel important to know that singles have a place in the Bible.”
At Gina Fenwick’s church, Reality LA, singles make up about 70 percent of the congregants. Meeting blocks from the Hollywood sign, Reality LA reaches out to the people in the entertainment industry, where married couples are rare.
Reality LA’s Pastor, Tim Chaddick, said he has parishioners coming up to him weekly with their struggles with singleness. In one sense it’s difficult to fix the “singleness” problem they believe they have, he said, because relationships can’t just be manufactured. “It takes a lot of work, you have to discover … people you connect with, discover people you have an interest in,” Chaddick said. “I think when I talk about the theological side of it, most people receive that—that’s what Scripture says—but I think a lot of people want a very detailed how-to manual.”
He encourages singles to meet in local community groups where they can interact with other singles in a group setting while also learning from the wisdom of married people. And while he sympathizes with his single congregants and their struggles, he encourages them to focus less on their marital status and more on pursuing holiness in their current stage of life.
Especially in a sex-crazed city like L.A., singles can make an impact on culture by caring about and striving for purity. “When our city sees men and women who are abstaining from sexual activity and yet who are single, that is mind-blowing,” Chaddick said. “Why would you ever not be going out and getting laid and hooking up? Why would you ever not do that? That’s absurd. So it becomes this amazing opportunity to say, ‘Because there is something greater.’ … I think there’s an incredible potential for Christian witness.”
For instance, one congregant wrote an opinion column in L.A. Magazine explaining why she was saving herself for marriage in their annual sex issue. Between articles about hot spots to pick up romantic flings and a roundup on condoms, Marielle Wakim writes that at 26, she’s a virgin by choice, and that God does affirm sex–as long as it’s in marriage.
In the hipster enclave of Silver Lake where 34-year-old Chaddick lives with his wife and three daughters, he is an anomaly. People are shocked and confused at why a young man like Chaddick would throw his life away to be “tied down” to family. So at the pulpit he preaches the countercultural messages of both the theology of marriage as well as the important role of singles in the kingdom of heaven. —A.L.