I was a bit of late bloomer as far as social interactions with the opposite sex, not really pursuing relationships in any serious way until I had completed college and started my career. When I did begin to seek out relationships in a more intentional way, I enjoyed relationships with a number of godly women, although I never felt a real sense of God’s peace and confirmation in any of the relationships I pursued. In fact, the overwhelming sense of God’s grace, peace and positive confirmation invariably would come whenever I was not in a relationship rather than when I was in a relationship.
Over time, questions began to develop in my own thinking: had God given me the “gift” of singleness? What exactly was the “gift” of singleness? Were both singleness and marriage gifts? And was the gift of singleness for a season or would it be a lifetime calling?
Called to Singleness?
Does God sometimes call individuals to remain single even though they desire to marry? I believe God sometimes calls us to remain single for the sake of the ministry he has commissioned us to do. God specifically called the prophet Jeremiah to remain single as part of his prophetic ministry (Jeremiah 16:2). I believe God has called me to be single as a vital part of the ministry he has uniquely equipped me to fulfill for his church. But apart from a specific ministry context, I remain doubtful that God ever "calls" individuals to remain single against their will. Rather, we should view singleness as a spiritual gift.
The Spiritual Gift
When, as Christians, we talk about the biblical idea of the "gift" of singleness, we are referring to one reference by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7 where he says, "I wish that all persons were as I am, but each one has their own gift from God, one has one kind, another has another kind." The Greek word for "gift" here (charisma) is the same word used for "spiritual gift" elsewhere in Scripture (1 Corinthians 12:4-31; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:11-13).
In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says, "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." This verse offers three important characteristics of spiritual gifts. First, spiritual gifts are a "manifestation of the Spirit" in us. Second, they are given for the "common good," not for our particular gain. Third, they are distributed to each of us who belong to Christ. Peter likewise urges us to use our gifts to serve one another as faithful stewards of the grace of God (1 Peter 4:10). I like to think of a spiritual gift as a God-enabled capacity for service. Exercising our spiritual gifts normally brings joy to the one exercising the gift and blessing to those who receive benefit from the gift.
In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul’s comment suggests that he has a special endowment or manifestation of the Spirit to remain single, something not everyone else shares. The spiritual gift of singleness is not simply the state of being single, since Paul appears to encourage some singles to remain single, while others he encourages to marry.
What Paul "wishes" upon all others is a particular manifestation of God's Spirit that allows one to serve God in complete dedicated service to His kingdom without undue preoccupation with sexual relations, marriage and children. It is the body of Christ in its mission to proclaim the Gospel and build the kingdom of God that is the direct beneficiary of Paul's spiritual gift of singleness.
If the state of being single is not a spiritual gift, neither is the state of being married. Our common experience makes clear that there are many singles that do not have the spiritual gift of singleness, but are nevertheless not married. They do have some other spiritual gift described in the various lists of spiritual gifts described in the passages listed above, which is what Paul means when he says, "one has one kind, another has another kind." Now certainly when God supplies us with an excellent mate, it is a gift more precious that jewels (Proverbs 31:10). It is a "gift" in the common sense of something for our benefit, but being blessed with a good spouse is not in the same way a special capacity for service to the body of Christ.
Do You Have the Gift?
So, how do we know if we have the spiritual gift of singleness? This is a bit tricky because, while Scripture affirms that all believers are given one or more spiritual gifts, few of us have ever received a divine bulletin informing us what our particular gifts are. Rather, we most often find out by trying different modes of service in the context of ministry.
Normally, exercising our spiritual gift brings us great joy and satisfaction as the Spirit confirms our gift in us while we serve. The best way to know if you have the gift of singleness is simply to begin directing your attention to service within the body of Christ. Take a season off from dating and pursuing the opposite sex, and devote that energy toward a renewed capacity for serving in ministry. If you are energized with joy in that service, keep going and see where God takes you with it.
The gift of singleness is not a repression or denial of your sexuality. God will give you many ways to express your manhood or womanhood in the context of serving Him. But His grace will be sufficient for you to be able to serve Him in a way that honors Him with sexual purity.
In Matthew 19:12 Jesus describes three types of eunuchs (individuals who cannot produce children). The first category is those who are born such that they are not well-suited physically or developmentally for marriage. The second category is those who are made to be eunuchs by "men." I don't think Jesus is simply referring to those who were physically mutilated as in the times of the Persians. Rather I think this category also embodies those who are single not by choice, but remain single because of other people or life circumstances. In other words, sometimes we are single because a suitable spouse has not become available. This may be because we have poor criteria in the kind of spouse we consider to be suitable for us. But I have also known godly men and women who did have appropriate criteria and nevertheless were still not able to find a suitable spouse for reasons outside their control.
The third category Jesus mentions are those who choose to remain single by making themselves eunuchs. This is the category of those who are single voluntarily—it is closest to the "gift" of singleness that Paul describes. At the end of Matthew 19:12, Jesus says, "the one who is able to receive this teaching should receive it." Jesus is challenging us to grasp a very big idea— to choose voluntarily to remain single for the sake of serving the kingdom of God. Those with the gift of singleness will be on special assignment from God to remain single for the sake of serving His kingdom.
Temporary or Lifelong?
Is the gift of singleness temporary or lifelong? It can be for life, but I don't think it must be. The point of spiritual gifts is to serve the Lord with joy for as long as He gives you that particular capacity for serving Him. In singleness, choose to focus on serving God for the indefinite future, and let the question of marriage take care of itself. If, after a few years, it becomes evident that the desire for marriage is too much of a distraction or if God brings what appears to be an especially good marriage candidate across your path, it is not wrong to prayerfully consider marriage for the next season of your life. Paul himself makes clear that, even though he encourages the Corinthians to remain as they are in their present circumstances, it is not wrong for a believer to get married (1 Corinthians 7:27-28).
The Bible’s teaching on the gift of singleness reminds us that each of us is a valuable member of the family of God whether we are single or married. Most Christians will marry and have children. But God also has gifted some individuals with the special capacity to remain single for the sake of serving his kingdom with joy and satisfaction in an assortment of different ways. All singles whether they are single for a season or for a lifetime can know that they are complete persons in Christ just as they are, and that being single provides a special time of opportunity for building up the Body of Christ as God leads in their lives. Praise be to our great God!