Have you always wanted to be married? As a child, did you dream about what your spouse would be like and how many kids you would have? Or maybe you’re more like me. Your desire for these things came later. Maybe you wanted to be on your own for a while, enjoying the freedom and benefits of adulthood. But now you would prefer a little less freedom and a lot more companionship. You would like to share your life with someone and long to settle down and have a family.
You’ve expressed your desire for marriage to family and friends, and they have reassured you with a common refrain: “If you want to be married, it’s obvious you don’t have the gift of singleness. You’re meant to be married. The right guy just hasn’t come along yet. But hang in there—he will.” They are confirming what you have suspected: since you want to be married, God hasn’t given you the gift of singleness. If you had the gift, you would not be struggling this way.
That sounds logical, but is it true?
One way to find out is to use the same line of reasoning with different circumstances. Let’s say you are married and you’re struggling with it. It’s hard to be joined to another person. You don’t really like making decisions about time and money with someone else. Even though you’ve been married for years, it hasn’t gotten any easier. You long for the freedom you enjoyed as a single person. Would anyone agree with you if you said, “I’m obviously not suited for marriage. I must not have the gift of marriage. I need to get a divorce”? Probably not.
Or let’s say someone tells you that he isn’t attracted to his wife, and doesn’t have much of a sex drive. Would you tell him, “Wow, if that’s true, then it’s clear you were never meant to be married. You should get an annulment”? I doubt it. In neither situation would you want to draw conclusions, take action, or make recommendations based on someone’s desires or struggles instead of the Word of God. That’s true when you’re struggling with marriage, and it’s just as true when you’re struggling with singleness.
It is a mistake to think that if God has given you the gift of singleness, he would either make sure you never desired a spouse or children or sex, or he would suddenly remove those desires from you. If you apply this reasoning to marriage—that God automatically brings people’s desires in line with their marital status—then married couples would never struggle with being faithful. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a fallen world where we do struggle to bring our desires under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
So what does the Bible have to say about the “gift” of singleness? Albert Hsu points out in his book Singles at the Crossroads that the phrase gift of singleness or gift of celibacy never appears in the Bible. The closest it comes is 1 Corinthians 7:7, where Paul says, “But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind, one of another.” In context, the term gift does refer to being married or unmarried, but Hsu explains that confusion arises when 1 Corinthians 7 is combined with 1 Corinthians 12 and misinterpreted, leading to the mistaken idea that there is a spiritual gift of singleness. In the context of chapter 7, the word gift refers to an objective gift, such as the gift of eternal life (Rom. 6:34). Just as God gives eternal life so, too, he gives you your marital status.
This stands in contrast to the way the term is used in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks about spiritual gifts. These gifts are Spirit-empowered for a particular function. One person is given “through the Spirit” the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge “by means of the same Spirit,” to another faith “by the same Spirit,” and so on (1 Cor. 12:8–9).
So the Spirit empowers all these spiritual gifts. If you have them, he’s expecting you to do something with them. If you have the gift of prophecy, you prophesy. If you have the gift of apostleship, you exercise authority. If you have the gift of administration, you administrate. Do you see how a “spiritual gift” of singleness doesn’t fit? How do you “single”? As Hsu notes, there is no such thing as “singling” (except in baseball, of course). Singleness is not a Spirit-empowered functional gift like those described in 1 Corinthians 12.
Spiritual gifts are meant to build up the body of Christ. Obviously, singles are to strengthen the church too—but not by virtue of being single. Rather, singles do it by exercising their spiritual gifts, just like everyone else. Your singleness isn’t a spiritual gift then, but it is a gift from God, one he wants you to receive and enjoy with thanksgiving. If you’re single, your singleness is a gift; if you’re married, your marriage is a gift. If your marital status changes, God has given you a different situation within which to follow him. Whether you are single or married, God promises to be with you and give you everything you need for life and godliness through knowledge of him (2 Peter 1:3). ¹
With this understanding I’ve come to realize that the question isn’t whether or not I have the gift of singleness. The question is: What would the Lord have me do with my singleness?
This blog is excerpted from “Struggling through Singleness,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:1 (2015) 7-18.
¹ Albert Y. Hsu, Singles at the Crossroad: A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997). For a more complete discussion of this topic see chapter 3, “The Myth of the Gift.”