by Marjory Foyle
Today, to be “single” means “being alone.”
The term "single" has changed remarkably over the past 20 years. It once meant an unmarried person, and it implied virginity. Today, to be "single" means "being alone." It not only describes people who have never been married, but also the divorced and bereaved. No longer does it imply virginity, merely the absence of a current sexual partner.
For the purpose of this article, "single" means those who have never married and who for God’s sake live celibate lives. Virginity may have been lost, but for religious reasons further sexual activity outside legal marriage is denied.
In the passage on eunuchs in Matthew 19, it would seem clear that the Lord is speaking of people who live celibate lives for a variety of reasons:
1. Those who are eunuchs from birth. These are people who cannot marry due to some physical, mental, or social defect that has been present from birth. We recognize these as people who are seriously handicapped, physically or mentally, and certain cases of sexual or personality deviation.
2. Those who have been made eunuchs. There are people born normally who became eunuchs through some accident or illness. Historically, such individuals would include boys castrated to preserve their singing voices, while today, radiation victims may fit this category.
3. Those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. Included here are men and women who have taken a vow of celibacy, such as religious monks, clergy, and nuns. Many Protestant missionaries whose response to the call of God includes an involuntary celibacy also fall into this category. Often no vow is involved, but to go overseas as a missionary is to markedly reduce one’s marriage opportunities.
The full implications of singleness are often difficult to understand in a missionary’s home country. Too often, a future missionary pays little or no attention to the potential of a single life overseas. Only after arrival does singleness become a practical reality-and an issue to be faced.
I recently asked a new group of single missionaries what had been the hardest part of their experience so far. They responded with one voice: "Being single." Not only had they no husband and so no children, they also felt deprived of normal male companionship in their social circle, and isolated in their struggles with singleness.
Is it any surprise, then, that the Lord ended this passage with the words, "Let anyone who can, accept my statement"?
STAGES IN THE ACCEPTANCE OF SINGLENESS
Single adults do not always accept their situation immediately. Many progress by stages. These stages have been effectively discussed in a booklet by Fowke and Long, who have permitted me to use their material and translate it into missionary terms.
Hope. Many single missionaries hope to marry when they go overseas. Language schools, in fact, have the reputation of being matchmaking institutions. It is at language school, however, that the truth often sinks in. The fact is that there are very few single men missionaries-and large numbers of single women. Logically, not all can hope to marry.
Doubt. Single male missionaries usually marry. When they do, many other women are left out. One who has been passed over may entertain real personal doubts about her own attractiveness and value. It is not always easy to resolve these doubts, and personal stock taking may prove painful.
But doubts of this kind can be helpful. A missionary who pays inadequate attention to herself often remains a dreary person, while a somewhat dull individual can become the kind of person others like to be with through attention to dress (even within a limited budget), cultivation of graciousness and concern for others, and a widening of interests. Negative misery can be useful when it becomes an active force in personal growth.
Acceptance of reality. Too often people fail to understand what God is asking them to accept. What they need to perceive is that now-at this moment-they are i single in God’s best will. Accepting that reality does not involve an unknown future other than in general terms of commitment to the will of God.
I know two women who for many years made regular acts of acceptance of singleness. To their great surprise, both were married soon after retirement from active missionary service. Few single missionaries should make acts of acceptance of their singleness for the whole of their lives; rarely is the will of God revealed so far into the future.
An added difficulty arises when the hope of children begins to fade at the time of menopause. I have had several single missionaries tell me they wept quietly when they reached forty. Often, at this time, a new act of acceptance is required.
Maturity. Maturity involves accepting singleness in the present as God’s first-best will-not a form of punishment handed out by an inscrutable heavenly Father. It means accepting the truth that God has no favorites. It also means understanding that marriage per se is not a bed of roses, and that married missionaries have multiple problems. While they have the companionship of a spouse, and the joy of children, they face many problems that never touch the single missionary.
There are some single missionaries who may never go through these stages, or pass over them quickly. But there are others who experience the agonies of each stage to the full. I personally believe this difference in individual responses is because God has different things for each individual to learn. He alone understands what we need to know to reach maturity so that we may be of maximum service.
Social invitations. Generally speaking, the mission | groups in which most missionaries live are couple oriented. Single people, especially women, often have special problems where this is the case. When social invitations are based on professional roles, the difficulties can become formidable.
For example, as a physician in India I am often asked to attend medical dinners. The other doctors are usually all men, and in typical Indian style they gather in one corner, and their wives in another. It is not appropriate for me to join the men-in whose group I belong professionally-so I gravitate toward the women. But then another problem emerges, for the women speak little English. They are offended if I speak in the vernacular, for that implies that I must think they are not educated. Their English is soon exhausted, and my presence puts a damper on their own conversations.
One solution is to take a female hospital staff member to the party, who acts as a bridge between the other women and myself. They are usually quite happy to talk to her in the vernacular, for they think she does not speak English. So we end up all chatting together happily.
Difficulty in obtaining housing. Some missions have a long tradition of subordinating the needs of single people to those of married couples. This only encourages a feeling of second-class citizenship on the part of the single people.
Recently I visited a very remote mission work where there was one single woman and several married couples. The single woman had to wait nine months for housing, while the single men and married couples who came after her were accommodated immediately. Housing was provided only after the mission pastoral staff intervened. The missionary’s health and work efficiency improved immediately.
Permanent accommodation with a married couple. Only a few missions still permit this arrangement. In my experience, it is a potential disaster course. The privacy that both married and single people need is nonexistent, and there are obvious dangers in such a situation. Close relationships have been known to develop between the husband and a single girl, or between the wife and a single man. Missionary marriages have enough strains upon them without the introduction of another potential stress area. When such an arrangement is unavoidable, it should only rarely become permanent.
Living with strangers. Married people have at least said "yes," but single missionaries cannot always choose their living companions and often have to move into any place there is a vacancy. Constant readjustments often must be made because companions are always changing due to leave or transfers. One person recently told me she had had 16 living companions in 18 years. She could not even learn their names-let alone their family backgrounds.
Furlough accommodation. Some missions do not understand that single people on leave need their own place to stay as much as do married couples. Single missionaries used to return automatically to the family home, but in our modern society this practice may raise many problems and create unhelpful tensions.
Single missionaries often have held positions of great responsibility at a comparatively young age. They have become mature adults, while the family has adjusted to the loss of their missionary child and developed new patterns. Despite all the good will in the world, role problems may develop as the adult missionary strives to behave suitably as an ex-child. Trying to live at two levels of maturity and in two roles can be devastating. At the same time, the family has a new life pattern and does not know how to cope with the returned child.
Many mission boards understand this problem and offer the single missionary a choice of furlough accommodation. The operative word is choice: it should always be offered, and nothing should be taken for granted.
Single people living with an uncongenial companion should not feel compelled to continue for too long. Paul could not get on with John Mark, and they finally split up. There is no sin in this, and it may be sound common sense. Give the situation a good try, but if it is really not working out, ask for a change. Paul and John Mark got on very well together after a break from each other.
While trying to make a relationship work, allow plenty of talking time. One missionary told me she and her companion talked for 18 hours (not all at once) before they came to understand each other.
Some time each week should be set aside for prayer, even if it may not be possible daily.
Remember that all reasonably mature people have their own habits of life. Take preparation of the humble boiled egg, for example. Punjabis eat them hard-boiled, Chinese drop them raw into hot soup, and the British eat them soft-boiled (exactly 31/2 minutes). Americans never use egg cups, the British always do. Some people bang the top of the egg and take the shell off with a spoon; others cut the shell neatly at the top. It sometimes seems there are more critical comments over a boiled egg than anything else-which only illustrates the importance of remembering that we humans are all different. Rather than get annoyed about differences, we can learn to enjoy them.
Those whose personality it suits should try living alone. It is important, however, not to become a recluse: entertaining keeps a person sane. It is also important to determine whether living alone is understood by the local culture, and if it is reasonably safe.
There are some single missionaries who believe that all sexual feelings will magically vanish if they obey God’s call to serve him overseas as a missionary. When this does not happen, they worry that something is wrong with their commitment. But the only persons with no sexual feelings are the very old, the very ill-or the very dead! Problems arise when we confuse "biological" sexuality with "creative" sexuality and try to handle both aspects in the same way.
Biological sexuality. This is the urge, the instinct, the innate drive to mate and to reproduce. Many Christians believe the sex drive has a deeper significance than other drives-such as hunger-and this may be true. Nevertheless, it is a basic bodily drive that we can never expect to lose.
Here single missionaries make a mistake. Because they remain sexual beings they think their dedication is inadequate. Some ask God to remove sexual feelings if they are not going to marry. This, of course, God will not do, for it would make them less than human.
It is also futile to attempt to feel totally fulfilled. Single people can never be fulfilled biologically. They have usually not mated or had children, to use my original definition of singleness. In dealing with biological urges, it is important simply to accept them as indications of normality. Continued trust in God’s overall plan for the life, together with a wise life pattern, helps the single missionary maintain celibacy for as long as God wishes. But it is important to use common sense. Single missionaries need to be wise in avoiding situations that may make chastity difficult to maintain.
Creative sexuality. This aspect of the sex drive is utilized in many different ways: care of children, service, maintenance of good personal relationships, work, and many other things; all are powered by creative sexuality.
Creative energy is reduced when single persons use a lot of energy in resenting their singleness. In reality, this energy holds abundant possibilities for personal fulfillment. A profitable habit single persons might adopt is to thank God at the end of each day for the volume of creative sexuality expended during the day’s ministry.
Handling domestic matters. Single people must learn to cope, and they should not depend on others for help. Skills needed for their location should be learned-from opening a complex fuse box to repairing the oil lamp or even trimming the candle wick.
Discussing personal matters. Single missionaries who have no permanent confidant need to learn how to be a unit of one instead of a family group. Lacking someone with whom one can share regularly can lead to over-compensation. Some want to share everything with their living companion, using that relationship as an equivalent of marital companionship. But that kind of sharing may develop an unhealthy compulsive quality: one or the other may feel guilt if not everything is shared. We must always remember that people have an inner core of privacy. Few husbands and wives, if they are wise, share everything. They understand that being "of one flesh" does not mean one person, but two persons in harmonious unity.
Belonging to someone. It is rare for the relationships between single persons to carry the same sense of belonging to one another that happily married people experience. But we can remember that the pain of this experience was fully shared by our Lord, who also was single. Though he had many good friends, he lacked the close tie of marriage.
There is also a danger of functioning on the principle of "If only." "If only I had married I would have a companion." "If only I had children, then such and such would not have happened." When we say, "If only," we indicate that we believe God has favorites, and some of them have an easier time than others.
Never sink back resentfully into the classical spinster or bachelor image. Take singleness from God’s hand alone, and use it to the full. Make a personal decision about how to handle both the biological urges and the need to belong to someone. The most important decisions concern homosexual and extramarital relationships-neither pathway, in my opinion, is suitable for Christian single people.
There is great danger in the area of stress-related homosexuality. People who have never before engaged in homosexual relationships may do so if they come under an unusual amount of stress (such as the early days of missionary adjustment). I have found that an initial decision made about homosexuality acts as an anchor in times of pressure. Missionary candidates should study possible adult sexual patterns both academically and biblically, and should give these patterns the most careful consideration. A well-informed deliberate decision to abstain from homosexuality, or heterosexual relations apart from marriage, can be the greatest help later on. Missionaries often think, "It can’t happen to me." It can! Language teachers are attractive; single girls are lonely; temptations are great. Single men often have to handle an upsurge of sexual feeling resulting from the move to another country and culture. While prior acts of decision and dedication will not always prevent problems, they are a great help.
Masturbation, another problem area, is in my view often no more than a pressure cooker blowing off steam. Usually some life adjustment resolves the problem. Missionary life should be as balanced as possible, but some missionaries are so spiritually intense that they never read a book or newspaper, or enter the daily lives of the people they serve. Such an imbalance can produce tension, and then the pressure cooker blows: in anger, in masturbation, or in other ways. We should not forget that our Lord often went out to dinner, and he appeared to enjoy himself at a wedding.
There are some, however, who develop a compulsive habit of masturbation. This may indicate an underlying illness, and if a sensible rebalancing of the life does not help, professional advice should be sought.
Remember that God uses different channels through which single people can experience love. A marital relationship with its love is not the only one. Love between nationals and missionaries, between missionaries, among friends from many countries, and the love of our families all stem from the love of God. Our Lord, who was single, had wonderful, loving relationships with both men and women. He both gave and received love. When we accept our singleness from the hand of God alone, we single missionaries can have a rich experience of the love that Jesus knew and gave to others during his own ministry.
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