Answering Shame and Longing in Singleness

Shobana Vetrivel   |   December 18, 2020 

Didn’t you want to get married? Why are you waiting so long?  Have you prayed to God for a husband? How are you still unmarried?

If you’re single like me (at an age when everyone expects you to be married) you’ve probably heard all of these questions or versions of them many times. I’ve had various answers to these questions over the years and answering them in your 20s and 30s is very different to answering them in your 40s. The answers were more light-hearted and hopeful earlier but still guarded, because to be honest even I don’t know the answers to all these questions.

Yes of course, I wanted to be married. I wouldn’t be waiting so long if something had worked out. Yes, I’ve prayed all sorts of prayers, including a long list of qualities that I wanted in a husband and to not be blessed with the “gift” of singleness.  The last question is a bit tricky because it’s almost a compliment . . . but also somehow insulting. How is it possible that you (this clearly amazing person) have not managed to find someone who will want to be with you till death do you part?

While I can rattle off a couple of sentences to answer these questions and laugh it off, there is a very real sense in which I have had to live with the answers. Answers which bring up a sense of shame - a feeling of not being good enough, painful experiences of being passed over and wondering if I needed to radically change my personality (not be too intimidating) or looks (were my acne issues to blame?) and ultimately wondering if God is withholding good from me.

Singleness is shameful, abnormal and undesirable in our Indian culture and even in our Christian church culture. As a Christian, I was never prepared to face singleness much less the prospect of lifelong singleness. The adult single years were meant to be years of preparing for a future which would surely involve marriage and children. While there was a lot of material and teaching around dating and relationships and marriage, I can’t remember hearing anything on singleness. This is unusual because we live for so many years as single people and will live again as single people even if we get married because divorce, separation and death are unfortunate realities.

Another reason this is unusual is that the storyline of the Bible has high view of singleness, and it’s even considered preferable to marriage. It affirms singleness as a viable option, not as a shameful, abnormal or inferior way of life but a life that is complete because marriage does not complete us, as opposed to many wedding sermons where the preacher tells the bride and groom that they are now finally complete. The single life is also not a life that is lived alone because as believers our primary identity is in Christ and our primary community is the church, the family of God. (I’ve written about this before extensively here.)

What I want to talk about is the longing that so many of us who are single (and maybe some of my married friends) live with - the longing to belong to someone, the longing to love and be loved, the longing for deep intimacy, the longing for physical intimacy, the longing for a perfect family. It’s been prayed for, begged for, strived for but to no avail. And it looks like what seems to be a normal lived experience and a vital part of the human experience may not be true for us.

My usual response to this longing is to suppress it or pretend it doesn’t exist. I am quick to tell myself to be content in Christ, but true contentment doesn’t ignore the lack. I am now learning to grieve and to mourn the loss of these good things which may not be experienced within a marriage relationship. Instead of turning away from the longing I find myself turning to it and seeing where it leads me.

Is it leading me to be angry, bitter and resentful towards God (who could so easily grant this if He wanted to)? Is it leading me to be envious of others who seem to have these things so easily or frustrated with those around me who want it for me and have advice and suggestions on how to make it happen? Is it leading me to find ways to make it happen that are contrary to God’s commands? Is it leading me to embrace and fester an illusion that if I am married all these longings will finally go away? I’ve been led down all these paths and none have been good for my soul or my relationship with God or with others around me.

So, I asked myself again where do I want this longing to lead me? In my treading down the path of exploring this longing deeper, I took some time to write down the heart of it and this is what I came up with – to be loved with a love that is true, gentle, fierce, steadfast, transforming, that is freely and generously given, where I would never have to fear its loss or fear being alone.

The truth that hits me is that the only person who can love me like this and who has loved me like this is God. I am usually quite uncomfortable when people use emotional and intimate language to describe God’s love. Worship songs that say “I want to feel You, I want to touch You, I want to feel Your embrace” make me cringe. If anyone said “God is my husband” I would just roll my eyes.

But God Himself uses this intimate language to express His love for His people -

“For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.” Isaiah 54:5

 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband’ . . . And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.” Hosea 2:16a, 19-20

In Ephesians 5, Paul can’t talk about marriage without slipping into what marriage symbolises, the relationship between Christ and the church. Christ is the bridegroom and the church is His bride, the bride He loves, nourishes, cherishes, sanctifies and transforms. God is not uncomfortable expressing His love for us in intimate terms. Through Christ and His work on our behalf on the cross, we are adopted into God’s family as sons and daughters, the ones in whom He delights and is well pleased with. God is impressing this intimate expression of His love into my heart and I am revelling in it.

While I grieve the losses I face now, the truth is that I can grieve with hope. That’s the great promise for us whether single or married. All our deepest longings are ultimately fulfilled completely in the One who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

For those of us for whom marriage has been absent or found lacking, we have an ‘out of this world’ marriage celebration that awaits us in the new creation. That is when we, the bride (I love that a feminine term describes the whole church), will be united with our true Bridegroom.

"Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready" Revelation 19:7

There will be no marriage in the new creation, because we will no longer need the symbol earthly marriage points to, as we will be living in the complete reality of our union with Christ. For those of us who are single for a season or for a lifetime, by choice or circumstance, we live out the truth of this future reality now.

This also helps me appreciate the goodness of love, intimacy, belonging and family that I enjoy in the present through the body of Christ and to intentionally invest in these relationships where I can be real about the shame and longing.

I pray that our churches will be places where we build and grow these eternal relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ. That we will affirm both marriage and singleness, and the unique struggles present in both will point us to find our fulfilment and sufficiency in our true Bridegroom.

 

Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

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Shobana Vetrivel

Shobana Vetrivel enjoys the hustle and bustle of city life and the adventure of living in New Delhi. She has an educational background in social development and theology and has worked in both development and ministry settings. She currently works with Delhi School of Theology and is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology. Books, travelling, theology, coffee and deep conversations are a few of her favourite things.  

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