In pursuit of happiness
Adopting society's insistence that a partner and children are essential for a happy life is both a disservice to single people and at cross purposes with Jesus' teaching about family. By Lina Toth
Tamar, Judah, and today’s single women - A story about a single woman in Genesis is a reminder of the pressing need to keep addressing issues of meaning, purpose, and fulfilment in our lives
Single women in the church - some portraits
Have you noticed how easily we Christians talk about God being the source of our happiness? And yet our reaction to single people in our midst suggests something different.
Single believers often encounter an assumption that being single is by default less happy than being in a relationship.
I suspect this will not be a surprise to many readers, but if it is, just sit with one single person and ask them to recount at least some of the instances where they felt excluded in church life, or were told “awww, your time will come, don’t worry”, or heard a prayer “for the sick, the shut-in, the single”.
Photo: Vincius Sgarbe - freeimages.com
We have adopted a powerful myth floating around in our society. The myth is mutating and is currently contested in a variety of ways, but it is still very pervasive in its insistence that, for most people, a partner and children are essential ingredients for happiness.
We seem to have “baptised” this myth and adapted it to describe a Christian “happiness package”. In fact, we Christians seem to embrace it stronger than society does; for us, 'church' and 'family' are inseparable.
So much for “being happy in Jesus”. Which, of course, is a problem, because it is so far from the way Jesus – himself a single person – thought about such things. Jesus was clear: his family first and foremost were those who did the will of the heavenly Father.
Why do we not take this seriously? The witness of the New Testament is clear: the primary community for Jesus’ disciples was their fellow disciples, not the nuclear family.
It’s why they called each other brothers and sisters; and why the first Christians were accused of destroying the Roman society by being 'anti-family'! (The families of those times, by the way, were very different from what we think of as families today – they were the whole household, including extended relations as well as servants and slaves. We would do well to remember this when we quote the Bible on the subject of family, because the chances are we do not mean the same thing.)
As Christians, we need to really reflect on our attitudes towards those in our midst who are single. The way we tend to react to being single is unjust and unhelpful.
But more than that, it is an indication of a much larger problem: a church which does not welcome single people is a church which has not really grasped the radical nature of the Kingdom of God, the beginning of which Jesus announced. Such a church has not really understood that in the light of what God is already doing, everything needs to be reordered, including our priorities, our wallets, and our family relationships.
If we want to follow Jesus for real, we must be serious about considering our gathering of believers as our primary community; only then will our talk of 'brothers and sisters' be meaningful. What can such community look like?
We would do well to look at the practices that sustain our life as a church, and ask, repeatedly: is this really a welcoming place for all, in the manner in which Jesus intends? What about the way our worship services are shaped, our Bible study groups structured, the themes we focus on, or the examples we use? How about the absence of rites of passage for single people when compared to stepping stones such as marriage, blessing of the children or wedding anniversaries?
If we want to follow Jesus for real, we must be serious about considering our gathering of believers as our primary community
However, only so much can be done during the few hours a week when we gather for worship. How much are we really a community – that is, how much are we ready to share our lives beyond the church walls on Sunday? Are we really ready to relate to each other not on a basis of coupledom, keeping single women at bay because they are somehow a threat, and a reminder that singleness might strike us too one day? Can we turn our homes into places of hospitality where we live honestly, and are not afraid of the vulnerability that such honesty entails? Are we prepared to open up and provide a safe place where people can share their fears, their pain, and their worries, as well as their joys, and hopes, and dreams?
We need each other, single and married people alike. There are things to learn from one another, and burdens to carry. You see, both singleness and marriage present unique opportunities; but both carry specific limitations. There are things a person is saying ‘no’ to as soon as she or he gets married, just as there are things a single person foregoes in their singleness.
Our call is to draw to each other, celebrate each other’s giftedness, and help each other ask, “What is God doing in and through my life, and in and through our lives together?”
Then we can become a living demonstration that deep happiness is equally possible in different personal circumstances, and resist the cultural pressure to conform to the ways of this age. For that, we need each other, because re-learning true happiness is a long, communal and counter-cultural business.
Lina Toth (Andronoviene) is Assistant Principal and Lecturer in Practical Theology at the Scottish Baptist College, and author of Transforming the Struggles of Tamars: Single Women and Baptistic Communities (Oregon: Wipf and Stock 2014).
This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of Baptists Together Magazine