“If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency” is the beautiful line from Sam Allberry’s book tackling the misconceptions, assumptions, painful and glorious truths about singleness as the Bible describes and as experienced by single Christians. In this book, he takes seven “myths” about what living as a single Christian is like and gently explains the falsehood in each, instead presenting the truth in a way that challenges and encourages. Allberry tackles the myths that: Singleness is too hard, Singleness requires a special calling, Singleness means no intimacy, Singleness means no family, Singleness hinders ministry, Singleness wastes your sexuality and Singleness is easy. Each of these is something that a single Christian somewhere at some point has thought or been told, and are myths that are often unintentionally fostered in churches.
Undervaluing singleness as Christians within a church family is something that is easily done but that can be so damaging, and so this book is important not just for single Christians but for all of us who are parts of church communities anywhere! Allberry paints beautiful, helpful and biblical images of marriage alongside those of singleness, and so this is certainly not just a book for single people. Importantly, he doesn’t devalue marriage in order to show the beauty of singleness, he carefully contrasts them to demonstrate that we need both marriage and singleness within the church, and that each reflects Christ in different ways.
Allberry is concerned with correcting the dangerous viewpoint held completely unintentionally by many Christians that singleness is secondary to marriage, that it’s not as good as marriage, that it’s not as fulfilling as marriage, that it’s not as important as marriage and that a single person is incomplete without a spouse. Allberry demonstrates in this book that those things are fundamentally untrue and unbiblical.
This book is a refreshing read, because it is not being written by someone telling you to enjoy your singleness while it lasts, marriage is much harder. Allberry is, in his own words, a long term single, meaning that he’s writing from the perspective of someone for whom “single” is their lifelong status. He is writing knowing that he will never have a spouse, but can instead glory in the biblical truths of singleness. And glory in them he does.
Throughout the book, Allberry points the reader not to human experiences of why singleness can be good, but to what the Bible says, and how we can see that lived out in our lives. For example, when explaining that singleness is not, in fact, too hard, regardless of how it may feel sometimes, Allberry directs us to 1 Corinthians, and to Paul declaring the goodness of singleness and the hardship that marriage can bring. When explaining how singleness does not mean “no intimacy”, he points us to David and Jonathan and the intimacy that they enjoyed in their God-honouring friendship. In this way, Allberry is not writing about singleness in an attempt to make himself feel better about his own future or to speak flippantly about how it’s not all that bad, but instead with the weight and authority of scripture behind him. It is not his opinion that singleness is a good and necessary thing to exist in the Church, it is what Scripture says.
He does helpfully use many of his own experiences to illustrate these biblical examples. He describes how he has been deeply involved in the lives of many families and so felt like he has his own family, with one child of a family enquiring as to why Uncle Sam wasn’t coming to his school open day because surely he had as much right to be there as the child’s parent? He expresses his gratefulness at being able to travel without worrying about leaving a family behind and the convenience of being able to visit his friends whenever he wants.
It is this freedom that many single people find easy to see the benefits of when reflecting on the single life, and that those who are married can be envious of, but Allberry challenges that view. If we find singleness easy because it makes us free, we are missing the point. We shouldn’t be convincing ourselves that our singleness is good because of all the personal benefits to our lives that we see. If we are single, it is not so that we can become entirely self centred.
“We need to remind ourselves daily that our singleness is not for us but for the Lord. It is not for our concerns, but for his.” (p 33.)
In the same way that marriage is not simply to provide the comfort of a companion, being single is not simply to make us free to do what we like. No. It is for the Lord to use us in whatever way he chooses, and that is important to remember.
Allberry also combats an issue that can be so challenging for so many single people. Marriage is a beautiful and God given, God reflecting gift that is appreciated and honoured in churches. Weddings are huge and joyful celebrations, and rightly so because a wedding is a picture of Christ being united with his bride, the Church. Allberry points out that marriage is beautiful because it points to what is to come. It is a picture to remind us of the physical reality of eternity with Christ. Single people can find it hard that marriage is such a clear picture of the reunion of Christ and his church, because we can feel that this is something that we are missing out on.
Allberry vehemently disagrees. He tells us that marriage is just that, a picture of what is to come. An image of the spiritual union that we are eagerly anticipating. He does not say that this makes marriage less important, or that singleness is better, because marriage is a precious and holy gift from God, not to be belittled by human beings. Instead, he points out that we need to be careful not to idolize marriage, not to worship the thing itself, but instead to celebrate what it points to.
“Life [in the resurrection] is the fulfilment of all that marriage now is meant to point to… Marriage is not ultimate. It will be absent in the age to come and is not vital now.” (p119 & 120.)
Allberry calls on single people to appreciate the fact that even if we may not currently be experiencing the picture of what is to come, we can still be looking forward to the spiritual reality, the perfect marriage of Christ and the Church that we will be a part of, and are already a part of in the here and now!
“Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now. It is a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate, and that in Christ we possess what is… If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.” (p 120.)
This is important for all of us. For married people, it is a reminder that there can be no surprise when marriage is hard and doesn’t fulfil our deepest desires, because it is not meant to. That role is reserved for Christ. And for single people, it is an encouragement that while sometimes we can feel that we are missing out now, our singleness is a testament to the fact that we are able to enjoy the reality of union with Christ right now! We do not need to be married to understand the depth and width and sufficiency of God’s love, we can experience it right now!
Despite this beautiful reality that we do not need to be married to experience spiritual fulfilment and that single people are not in a worse position than married people, Allberry does not pretend that the single life is always easy. He explains the hurt that he has felt when his friends get married and have to prioritise their spouse above him, the loneliness that can seem overwhelming when friends live far away, the difficulty when friends are so busy with their own lives that they cannot make time for him. All of these are painful realities. But he does not end with a pity party. Instead, he reminds us of the liberation that we can feel when we remember that these things are not what satisfy.
“The key to contentment as a single person is not trying to make singleness into something that will satisfy us; it is to find contentment in Christ as a single person. The key to contentment as a married person is not trying to build a marriage that can make us content; it is to find contentment in Christ as a married person.” (p 142.)
Allberry acknowledges, has experienced and empathises with the pain that singleness can bring, and also recognises the trials of marriage, but reminds us that Christ is enough for all of it. He ends the book with this verse from Psalm 23, ultimately pointing to the love of God that we can never escape, and that the more we understand it, the more our relationship status does not matter to us.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life.” Psalm 23:6