Singleness & Spirituality

Singleness & Spirituality

In the 2018 blog posts, I intend to focus on family and relationship matters as they relate to the spiritual life. I plan to share insights by way of both book reviews and devotional thoughts from God’s word. As you seek God in this new year, I hope that you’ll follow along, that you’ll be blessed by the content, and that you’ll receive some direction about where to look further for spiritual wisdom in relational and family matters. Our vision here at West is for Jesus to fill every heart, head, and hand. I pray that these articles may be one way of leaning into that vision.

With Saint Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, love is in the air! I’ve been taking the same beautiful gal out on dates at this time for nearly 13 years now, so for me, the decision of “Who?” has been settled. Now, the decisions are narrowed to “Where?” “When?” and “How do we secure a babysitter before everyone else does?!” However, many of my friends are still asking that first “Who?” question, and they’re not just asking it for February 14th, but they’re asking it about their lifelong partner. “Who?”

Unique Challenges to the Single Life

I want to acknowledge the unique challenges of the single life today, at least the ones I am aware of. I add that disclaimer, because honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to be single today. I was single over fourteen years ago. Things have changed. Yet, some things are timeless for any single person of any era. Single people today wrestle with God about their marital status; some single people may be disappointed. You may feel like you missed your only chance to be happy, and you are still blaming yourself. Others wonder if they’ve waited too long. Impatience short-circuits the spiritual development needed to prepare you for what is next. The single person may find it difficult to find his or her place and voice in the church’s vision, mission, and goals. You may be dating someone right now, and you are looking for guidance. Finally, some of you are boiling angry that the thing that people notice most about you is your singleness, instead of the gazillion other wonderful things about you (Cue: SCREAM!!! Go ahead; let it out.).

In 2011, I performed a cultural assessment on the layers of the world’s voice and message to people, particularly in the areas of romance and singleness. The world has something to say to you, but it is the way of folly. The way of folly always leads to a grave of many kinds of spiritual death. The single, faithful Christian set on purity and pursuing God will receive ridicule from the world. Virginity today is mocked instead of treasured and protected. Unfortunately, single people who seek refuge in the church often encounter an even more perplexing, profound, and painful mockery. I have talked to single adults throughout my years and places of ministry who have experienced blindspots in the church when it comes to singles. For example, the church hurts singles when it carries the unspoken “rule” that marriage is the rite of passage into true adulthood.

Unique Joys in the Single Life

I also want to encourage the unique joys of the single life. It can be a season of unique friendship. The single life may provide a unique opportunity for adventure, education, career advancement, and spiritual maturity. It is a time for your skill in living to develop in areas such as finance, responsibilities, exercise, and trades and crafts that will benefit you and others. It most definitely presents a time of unique Christian ministry—particularly in connecting with and edifying children, tweens, and teens. Don’t worry; I’m going to catch myself here: Single adults also have a unique ministry to the church and its adult ministries. A faithful, single Christian adult is able to write, teach, and minister with a clarity, conviction, and boldness that sometimes escapes married people because the affections of our hearts are divided. Paul—a faithful, single Christian—called married people out on this, remember?

He wrote,

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another . . . I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:6–7, 26–35).

I have had the privilege to serve with an array of solid, single people throughout my pastoral ministry. They don’t simply acquire joy, but they spread their joy to those around them. They are often very self-less with their time, resources, and giftedness. The church is the body of Christ, and single people are significant members of the body—both historically and today.

Harmonizing with God’s Voice

Single friends, keep seeking God. Harmony is a wonderful sound to experience. God’s voice is clear, constant, reliable, and trustworthy. We must find his voice on the matters of the spiritual life. I’d like to share a number of harmonic voices that have helped me explore God’s wisdom on the single life. This list is by no means conclusive; in fact, I would love to hear from single people about what they’re reading these days on Christian spirituality and the single life. I hope that in the end you are able to find your voice and add it to the harmony. Here are a few resources that impacted my life in a way that matured my spirituality as a single person and a couple of newer ones that I recently encountered:

Oldies But Goodies

  1. The Bible — Well, duh Captain Obvious. I know, but seriously; consider all of the single writers and characters of the Bible (e.g., Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah). Still further, consider the characters whom we observe both as single and married (e.g., Joseph, David, Ruth, Naomi, etc.). Clearly, God employs people who are single to advance his purposes on the world stage. God made us, understands us, and cares for us. What kind of theology of the single life might you gain from studying God’s word from this perspective?
  2. He That Is Spiritual — I’ve read this book several times. I’ve gone back to it again and again when teaching on the spiritual life. It was written by Lewis Sperry Chafer in 1918. The book is an exposition on the (1) Natural Person, (2) Spiritual Person, (3) Carnal Person (the Christian who should be mature, but isn’t), and (4) Spiritual Infant (a new Christian). For Chafer, the key to the spiritual life is understanding the ministries of the Holy Spirit available to you in Christ alone. As a single person, this book helped establish me on a path of seeking the filling of the Spirit and of trusting in his works of grace in my life. It helped me put away some childish things and embrace the responsibility for my spiritual life.
  3. Basic Theology — It doesn’t have to be this particular theology for you, but every single person should work though a volume on basic Christian theology. What do you believe? It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for you to be able to share. I went through Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology numerous times. I used it for teaching early on in my ministry.
  4. Wild at Heart — Aimee, my wife, reminded me the other day how important this book was to me when we first met. She’s right. Wild at Heart was written by John Eldridge. This book is for men, but ladies, I hope you can find something that is equivalent. There comes a point in every adult’s life where they have to face their past—things that were in our control and things that were not but affected us nonetheless. This book helped me confess, heal, and advance as a man who wanted to experience God.
  5. I Kissed Dating GoodbyeThere are actually some interesting, current developments going on with this 90s–2000s classic. For me in my own experience, it exposed the sexual and emotional sewage in which I had been swimming. It showed me the lies that I’d believed about love, trust, dating, happiness, purity, and more. It helped me discern what matters at 50. It caused me to be honest about the sickness in my heart. It challenged me in the area of genuine friendship. Joshua Harris had some wise things to say back in 1997 that are still relevant today; however, he may be presently fine-tuning his thoughts on IKDG. As a new Christian in 2001 wondering what on earth Christian spirituality in dating was supposed to look like, this book helped me.
  6. The Book of Romance — Harris’ book deconstructed my non-biblical worldview for dating, but Tommy Nelson’s book helped build something new in its place. Nelson looks at the biblical book of the Song of Songs, and paints a beautiful picture of what romance can be like for the person who loves God.
  7. Passion and Purity — Elisabeth Elliot’s book interwove the spiritual life and the romantic life by means of her own story. As a man, the book gave me insight into a woman’s perspective. A new edition was released in 2002. She’s real about our passions; she’s tenacious about purity. She understands that whatever estate we may find ourselves in, our lives must be brought under Christ’s control and lordship.

Newbies

  1. Just Do Something — Every Christian at some point has to have a frank conversation about “God’s will” for their lives. If you’re like me, you needed more than one conversation to clear the fog. John MacArthur has a sermon that I have listened to again and again for years. More recently, Kevin DeYoung authored this book. I love the subtitle: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will OR How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.
  2. Gospel Fluency — In the Christian’s spiritual life either at the beginning or at a point of revival or re-commitment, he or she must encounter the reality that the gospel of Jesus Christ is EVERYTHING. When it is replaced by some counterfeit, the whole of Christianity crumbles. Jeff Vanderstelt places the gospel on the throne of the spiritual life.
  3. Exploring Christian Theology — If Ryrie is a little too old school for you, then try this three-volume set. Don’t worry; each volume isn’t too terribly long. The authors are professors whom I spent time with in seminary, and they have really put together a great beginner’s theology that also connects with the devotional life.
  4. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — And may I add, single guy. Bonhoeffer was engaged, and he has some other books on that particular topic. However, his engagement was cut short. Eric Metaxas’ biography shows how God was at work in Bonhoeffer’s life and how he redeemed the time during evil days.
  5. Your Money Map — This book by Howard Dayton is one in a long line of succession from Larry Burkett’s influence. As a single Christian, one of the most beneficial things I did was to complete a financial workbook that gave me a sense of what God has to say about money. Single or married, a person needs to know how to handle money, or it will handle you!
  6. Living Together — In a world where cohabitation is on the rise and viewed as a smart thing to do, this book offers biblical insight and wisdom on the matter, particularly for those who find themselves in a situation to give advice. It’s written by my former pastor, Jeff VanGoethem. All the research says the same thing—cohabitation lays a poor foundation for marriage as a sacred covenant and as a life-long commitment. Single adults need to wake up about this, and the church needs to know how to approach the trend with grace and truth.

There are many more books that could or should be included. but these are some with which I have become familiar. I hope that you’ll let me know what book or stories God has used in your life as a single person. Face the challenges with courage. Embrace the joys with great delight. Remember that Jesus loves you; he has not lost track of you in the crowd. May the church be blessed by your presence.

From Lament to Life: Remembering Jesus As a Fellow-Sufferer

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:16–18)

While perusing the Facebook newsfeed one day this December, I noticed a link that a friend had posted from Crossway Publishers that described a dramatic poetry reading from Pastor John Piper called The Innkeeper. As I listened, I began to realize where the story was headed, and I discovered two reactions in my soul—first, I was surprised that I had never considered the powerful implications behind the text of Matthew 2:16–18, which is quoted for you above; and second, I was determined to take a deeper look at this text.

[Watch The Innkeeper by John Piper.]

Matthew 2:18 is the fourth Old Testament (OT) passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, which indicates that the writer establishes early on that he intends to interact heavily with the OT as he writes about the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. I tend to agree with Blomberg and Hagner on the reason for Matthew’s oft quoting of the Old Testament,

Again, in Matthew’s perspective Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.

For example, the previous paragraph quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is referring to Israel’s experience of the exodus out of Egypt. Like Israel, Jesus too would be called out of Egypt.

Moving to the primary text of this article, Matthew 2:16–18 paints a grim scene. As we recite Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story this year, we should not skip over this part. The passage can be divided into two parts: (1) The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem and (2) The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah.

The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem

Remember, Herod was not the the first to order the slaying of young Hebrews. Do you recall what happened in the days of Moses? Remember how Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to execute the male Hebrew children? The Hebrew midwives feared God (Ex. 1:17) and refused to obey the command of the king of Egypt. Although I am not certain, I wonder if the Hebrews in their oppression began to remember the promises of God to their fathers, believed that God may send a deliverer to them, and therefore, the midwives feared and obeyed God rather than Pharaoh because they were waiting for a deliverer? We do know that the people of Israel began crying out to God for help (Ex. 2:23–25). In the face of tragedy, God sovereignly raised up Moses in the midst of Egypt to deliver his people from bondage.

The wrath of Herod fueled by his wounded pride brought great tragedy upon the town of Bethlehem. Apparently, it took place nearly two years after Jesus was born. As indicated in 2:16, Herod had calculated the number of years based upon the previous information he had received from the magi, and in calculating the number, he determined to execute a raw expression of his rage. Every male child two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region was mowed down to the grave by Herod’s soldiers. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem at that time? No warning. No refuge. The life of your child taken away—and perhaps your own—because you were the town that made room for the Deliverer. A tender population of your town wiped out because you sovereignly became associated with the Son of God. Bethlehem was not a booming metropolis. Estimates during the reign of Herod suggest that approximately one thousand people populated the town, from which we may gather that possibly “twenty boys would be born in two years, and several of those would have died in infancy” (from R. T. France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem”). However, even though we are only talking about the slaying of a dozen or so young boys, the tremors of tragedy reach deep into the context of a small town. The whole town feels it, and whether directly or indirectly affected, such a thing became part of everyone’s story. The history books have no record of Herod’s attack upon the children of Bethlehem, but God did not forget and chose Matthew to remind us of the price Bethlehem paid for its association with the new born King.

The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah

While the life and experience of Jesus in Matthew seems to have some parallels with Moses’ day, Matthew 2:17 reveals to us that Matthew primarily has in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are then quoted in 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15 is the exact reference here. Remember, Jeremiah lived during the tragic days of the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem. Besides a brief period of revival and reform under king Josiah, Jeremiah faithfully and painfully proclaimed the word of God to idolatrous Israel. However, Jeremiah 31 is a rare chapter filled primarily with hope of restoration following the captivity. In verse 15, the message of hope digresses for just a moment because the Lord hears the lament of Ramah, the weeping of Rachel as her children are led through the town into captivity. Ramah was a town located approximately 8km north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Bethlehem was located about 7–8km south of Jerusalem and was located along the same road. Even so, Matthew’s parallel between Ramah and Bethlehem is more than geographical—it is social, emotional, and theological. Blomberg further highlights the appropriateness of Matthew’s connection between Ramah and Bethlehem—they were both towns familiar with sadness and suffering. There is also one more thing that draws these two towns together—Rachel. Rachel was thought to have died and been buried near Ramah (1 Samuel 10:2) while Jacob and his family were on their way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16–21). Therefore, these two towns have a connection in biblical history, both being marked by the weeping Rachel, the mother of all Israel. Returning to Jeremiah 31, Rachel was heard weeping over her children as they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. She struggles to be comforted even by God’s promise to restore her children. Thus, Matthew once again sees Rachel weeping for her children in 2:16–18 when he compares the pain of the Babylonian captivity to the ruthless slaughter at Bethlehem. This is a fitting comparison, for where else could he have gone but to the darkest period in Israel’s history to describe the pain and mourning of the families of Bethlehem?

From Lament to Life

Just as there was suffering in the midst of the grand promise given by God and proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah, there was suffering in the midst of the fulfillment of that promise when the Son of God became incarnate. Consider the words of comfort given by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah to the weeping Rachel:

The LORD says to her,
“Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears!
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded.
Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
I have indeed heard the people of Israel say mournfully,
‘We were like a calf untrained to the yoke.
You disciplined us and we learned from it.
Let us come back to you and we will do so,
for you are the LORD our God.
For after we turned away from you we repented.
After we came to our senses we beat our breasts in sorrow.
We are ashamed and humiliated
because of the disgraceful things we did previously.’
Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it!

(Jeremiah 31:16–20)

The proclamation of hope and restoration is accompanied by the future repentance and turning of Rachel’s children back to the Lord. God sent them into exile due to their idolatry and rebellion against him. But what are we to make of Bethlehem? Why the slaughter? We know why Judah was taken away into Babylon. But why this tragedy upon Bethlehem? Ultimately, I don’t know. Evil happenings in our world escape the reaches of human reason much of the time. Yet, I do know that they do not escape the reach of my all-knowing God, and I do take comfort in him because of this.

I feel that there is also one other possible explanation (perhaps among many) that may speak to us about this tragedy in Bethlehem that accompanied the glory of the Lord’s birth. Bethlehem sovereignly became associated with the Messiah. Which causes us to ask, what does it mean to be sovereignly associated with the Messiah? What a wonderful thought for meditation this Christmas season. Listen to what Dale Allison writes,

Jesus is literally sympathetic; that is, he suffers along with others. His identity as God’s beloved Son (3:17; 11:25–30; 17:5) does not render him immune from agony or despair. He is, on the contrary, especially subject to misfortune and pain: in Matthew’s story, Jesus suffers far more than anyone else. The savior is the innocent victim writ large. Now for those who believe in him, there is surely something reassuring in this. One recalls Heb. 4:14–15 and 5:8, where Jesus learns through suffering and so can sympathize with human weakness. Suffering shared is more easily endured. And as in Hebrews, so in Matthew: the principle has become christological. It is not just that one does not suffer alone, but precisely that one suffers in the company of Jesus, God’s Son. This must mean that the divinity does not remain aloof from suffering, for God knows the Son (11:27) and the Son knows suffering. If the Son is a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief, his Father must likewise be beset by grief and sorrow. This does not, to be sure, do anything to unravel the mystery of iniquity. It does, however, put God on the side of the hapless Rachel weeping for her children, and on the side of the disciples tossed grievously to and fro by persecution. And perhaps that thought matters far more than any rational apologetic.

Matthew knew very well what it meant to be sovereignly associated with Messiah—it meant he would take a journey from lament into life. You see when Jesus called Matthew to follow him (see Matthew 9), he would have been best described as a publican thug, barred from the temple and the synagogue because of his sins and treason against his own people. However, there is good reason to think that at some point, Matthew developed a heart for God (how else did he know so much of the Old Testament?!). Yet, the religious scene of his day did not allow him to seek God. Then, Jesus comes along and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew perhaps did not know what was in store for him at that point, but as he followed Jesus, he surely came to realize that to be associated with Jesus meant a life associated with Jesus’ suffering but also with his glory.

I suppose now that Rachel may still be weeping for her children to return to the Messiah. However, perhaps there is also hope stirring in her soul because from afar she saw the birth of a new covenant, she saw Messiah conquer the enemies of her soul, and now she awaits repentance and revival as God promised to her.

What is it to be associated with the Messiah this Christmas? Is it not to believe in him and be saved—the glory of salvation? And is it not to willingly suffer with him and for him in a dark and unbelieving world? Is it not as Paul said, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29)? At the close of The Innkeeper poem referred to above, the Lord Jesus responds to Jacob’s tears of sorrow and faithfulness with the following,

I am the boy

That Herod wanted to destroy.

You gave my parents room to give

Me life, and then God let me live,

And took your wife. Ask me not why

The one should live, another die.

God’s ways are high, and you will know

In time. But I have come to show

You what the Lord prepared the night

You made a place for heaven’s light.

In two weeks they will crucify

My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I

Will rise in three days from the dead,

And place my foot upon the head

Of him who has the power of death,

And I will raise with life and breath

Your wife and Ben and Joseph too

And give them, Jacob, back to you

With everything the world can store,

And you will reign for evermore.”

This is the gift of candle three:
A Christ with tears in tragedy

And life for all eternity.

May the love of Christ cause you to rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, and persist in prayer this Christmas and beyond as you follow Jesus to the cross and into glory.