A lady wanted to marry four different men in her lifetime. She said each one would help her with the four things she needed most. First, she wanted to marry a banker. Second, a movie star. Next, a clergyman. And finally, a funeral director. When asked why, she answered, “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!” (Chuck Swindoll, Growing Deep in the Christian Life).
Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it! Last Sunday at West Lisbon, we began the last of four sermon series that have highlighted our core Biblical and Historical Principles: (1) The Worship of God, (2) The Gospel Mission, (3) The Spiritual Life, and (4) The Family. Last week, we sought to recover God’s vision for the family, which starts with recognizing God’s original intent and purpose in creating humanity. He created us to be his image-bearers, singing us into being (Gen.1:27), and he blessed humanity, giving them special power and privilege to fill the earth with the image of God and to carry our his purposes in history. This Sunday, May 15th, we’ll look at how strong singles strengthen the mission of the gospel (1 Cor. 7:25–35).
In light of the series and our current sermon topics, I decided to write to you about navigating relationships in the Christian life. It is my hope to employ my experience and the Bible to give direction to those who are single with no intention to marry right now, others who are single and actively seeking a potential spouse, and even those who are presently engaged to be married to another. At the end, I’ll also reference some further reading on the topic.
At the beginning of 2002, I was a new Christian, in the middle of college and undecided about my degree and career path, and engaged to be married. By the end of 2002, I was still growing in my Christian faith with a new burden to learn from the Bible what it meant to be a Christian man and servant-leader. I also switched colleges in order to study Bible and Theology. I was no longer engaged to be married. I wondered if I ever would get married, if God had called me to a life of singleness, and if I was capable of being a godly husband. In hindsight, I see so many things that I did wrong, but I did one thing that was very helpful to my spiritual growth—I took two years to read, study, pray, and develop relationships with other godly men with the aim of becoming one myself by God’s grace. There was nothing magical about two years, it just happened to be the period of time that God gave to me to figure some things out. There are six principles that I learned to navigate during that time that I want to share with you and which I hope are helpful to your walk with Christ: Mission, Love, Purity, Trust, Loyalty, and Community.
Did you know that you were created for a mission? Not just any mission, but God’s mission. Genesis 1:26–28 explains that God made humanity for the purposes of bearing his image and ruling as his representatives on the earth. Image-bearing refers primarily to the spiritual side of our identity. Remember, God is spirit (John 4:24), so the way in which we bear his image is spiritual. In Genesis 1:26 and 28, God also blessed humanity with dominion over the earth. Tony Evans describes this dominion as
ruling on God’s behalf in history so that history comes under God’s authority.
God sang you into existence (Gen. 1:27), and he created you for the ultimate mission. Life is all about this mission. It also implies that there is opposition. Why else would God’s rule and dominion need to be established so that the earth is filled with his image-bearers? Satan opposes God and his rule, and therefore, he opposes humans and their God-given mission. We are God’s representatives sent into enemy territory.
Reading in Genesis 3, we discover that Satan gained what appeared to be a key victory over our first parents. In the temptation, Adam and Eve failed to bear God’s image, and they failed to exercise their dominion over the creatures of the sea, air, and land by submitting themselves to the snake. Sin shattered the image-bearers; humans surrendered their dominion to the enemy. However, God resolved to continue his plan to fill the earth with his glory and dominion. Now, the mission is not so much about procreation as it is spiritual rebirth. Jesus said,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3; cf. Titus 3:3–7).
Notice how the rule of God is now tied together with the new birth by the Spirit. How do we participate in this mission of new birth leading to a recovery of God’s rule? We must proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. His faithful death and resurrection regenerates the soul, restores the image-bearing mission of humanity, and makes way for the kingdom of God on the earth.
If you are single, have you methodically and intentionally thought through the implications of the gospel mission on your life? Is God finished utilizing your single years for his “gospel-schooling”? Remember,
For we are his poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
If you are considering marriage or are already married, how is God calling you as a couple to give your lives for the gospel mission? Humans were created for image-bearing and for God’s dominion. Jesus saves us to restore this mission. This is bedrock. This is why you exist. It’s why you’re here, and his grace has everything you need to live a life of significance—single or married.
I once bought—hook, line, and sinker—into our culture’s description of love. Even Merriam-Webster is too simplistic when it comes to defining love,
a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person; attraction that includes sexual desire; the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship; a person you love in a romantic way.
Notice the words . . . feeling . . . attraction . . . romantic. For sure, this is one side of love—companionship, affection, feeling, and romance—but our American concept of love ignores the key element of love—choice that leads to selfless action. Biblical love is the love that denies oneself for the benefit and interest of others. The love of God for us through the work of Christ is described in this way.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3–5).
Later, the apostle John writes,
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16).
This kind of sacrificial love is demanded of husbands in Ephesians 5:25.
When we are born again, believing in Jesus Christ, God begins again to shape us into his image-bearers. The Holy Spirit indwells us, and his presence is accompanied by a fruitfulness, part of which is this kind of love. I learned years ago that the single life is a training ground for this kind of sacrificial love. There are tons of opportunities to learn and yield to the Holy Spirit, so that he may shape you into a person who chooses to love. There are parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces, co-workers, friends, fellow Christians, and others with whom you can share life together and develop this Christ-like love. If you’re single, has God finished using your single years to school you in sacrificial love? If you are engaged, are you ready to love in this way? Do you feel that your fiancé is also prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to thrive in your marriage and mission? If you’ve been married awhile, where are you struggling to choose to love? What is preventing you from laying down your life for your spouse?
When I was born again in 2001, God opened my eyes to the sexual sewage that I had been swimming in for years. I needed to change my mind about sexuality. Instead of assuming that I knew what was proper, I needed to humbly receive God’s clear teaching on the theme of purity in the spiritual life of one who has been born again and who was being restored in Christ to bear God’s image again. Psalm 119:9 has always stuck with me from those days, “How shall a young man keep his way pure?” asks the Psalmist. He answers, “By keeping it according to your word.” Therefore, God has something to say about purity, and since he is the designer of our sexuality, then it seems best to let him speak into this area of our lives.
As the sexual sewage of the world continues to accumulate more and more, God’s truth about purity continues to set us free. The real question is, do you want purity? Do you really want to be pure? Do you really want what the Holy Spirit wants for your life? Stop treating purity like it’s some line, as if you’re still pure so long as you don’t break some rule you’ve set up for yourself. Purity is a direction of the heart. You either want it, or you don’t. You either love what God loves, or you don’t. If you don’t, find in God the grace you need to repent, and allow the word of God to renew your mind. If you do, then you can trust that he will continue to direct the desires of your heart into paths of purity.
Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday (Psalms 37:3–6).
Don’t make purity a cloudy mystery. God has not left us to walk around aimlessly in some sexual fog. Be authentic and honest; let’s be real, and stop justifying immorality. God’s will on sexual purity is not confusing; it’s very clear. From the beginning, he designed sexuality to be experienced within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. He has sanctified the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4; cf. 1 Cor. 7:3–5). He hasn’t changed his view. His design still works best for his glory and our enjoyment. Remember, the works of the sinful nature are obvious—they’re not mysterious—and they are trying to deceive, destroy, and to rob you of genuine sexuality, worship, relationships, and order (Gal. 5:19–21; cf. 1 Thess. 4:3–8).
Do you have a heading? Is the compass of your spiritual life pointed in the direction of purity? It is best to find this heading while you’re single. Establish a direction and a delight in purity before you enter into a relationship. Don’t enter a relationship unprepared. Be ready to lead toward purity. If you are already in a relationship in which you’ve lost purity, take the necessary steps to regain purity. If you’re dating or engaged and purity has been lost, get out of the relationship, or in the very least postpone any big plans. Sexual immorality clouds discernment and vision. Saying the “I-dos” won’t all of a sudden create a culture of purity in your relationship. Remember how urgent Jesus was about handling the temptations of the world, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:7–9). If you are married and immorality has crept into your marriage, get help quick. Don’t try to bear the burden alone; let spiritually mature brothers and sisters walk alongside you so that you may begin to imagine a pathway into healing and perhaps even restoration.
There’s more to say, but for now, let’s conclude part one of Navigating Singleness and Marriage in the Christian Life. In the June Messenger, we’ll pick up part two and learn to navigate trust, loyalty, and community. Here are a number of books to pick up for further reading and help in navigating the waters of singleness and marriage:
This Momentary Marriage by John Piper (http://www.desiringgod.org/books/this-momentary-marriage)
The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller (http://www.timothykeller.com/books/the-meaning-of-marriage)
Our Story . . . His Story by Rick Rood
I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris (btw, some Christians hate this book; but it helped me tremendously)
Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris
Not Even a Hint by Joshua Harris
Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn (http://www.everymanministries.com)
Every Woman’s Battle by Shannon Etheridge (http://familylifetoday.com/series/every-woman-s-battle/)
Passion and Purity by Elisabeth Elliot
I hope that part one has been encouraging to you and that these resources equip you for godliness and for experiencing God personally and in your relationships.