“What if I never get married?” my friend asked through sobs.
“What if you never get married?” I pushed a little, treading cautiously, “It’s not incompatible with God’s character and goodness that you could remain single while still desiring marriage for the rest of your life.”
“What do you think the Lord might have for you?” I continued.
Anticipating the Sunday School answer, she responded, “I don’t want to hear about our heavenly marriage.”
“I’m not talking about heaven. I’m talking about tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” She paused. “I don’t know.”
It wasn’t the time to launch into an explanation about God being our ever-present help or any of the other things I’d recently learned. And besides, I knew that some things you can’t be told, they can only be experienced. But after hanging up the phone that night, I searched for words to encourage my friend anyway.
If a step-by-step guide to flourishing single existed, my rule-loving self would gobble it up. Instead, my meandering progress came with growing pains and, truthfully, still does. I will never graduate from needing His grace. Rather than a set of rules, though, the key to a still heart when it comes to singleness for me came from an unexpected source.
I went to college to be a music teacher. Three-fourths of my classes were about music, but my favorite class was one among the remaining fourth: educational psychology. I loved studying how we learn, especially, what distinguishes strong students. Among the skills covered, transfer of knowledge—applying learning from one context to another, as appropriate—was both most fascinating and one of the most important. Teaching for transfer was a central goal of teachers, and students who knew when and how to do this were well-poised to succeed across a variety of fields.
Transfer types vary. Negative transfer occurs when you misapply previous learning to a new situation while positive transfer enhances performance in new contexts. Far transfer enables the student to use past knowledge to leap between remote contexts and high road transfer is the “deliberate and effortful abstraction and search for connections.”
The plague of poor transfer
Poor transfer plagued God’s people millenia ago and continues to today. Every time the Israelites forget who God is after he reveals the extent of his strength and dominion to them, they fail to transfer. God was good for that, they think, but maybe not for this. The knowledge of God as a gracious provider does not get applied to the new context. Days post exodus, the Israelites complain that there’s no food or water, even though they just witnessed the plagues and parting of the sea. Moses ascends the mountain to speak with God and before he returns they’ve built a golden calf. Almost like clockwork, they forget God is good and that he provides. The rhythm of their forgetfulness is best captured in Psalm 78, which alternates between accounts of God’s works on their behalf and refrains of their faithlessness, “they forgot his works, and the wonders he had shown them,” (v.11) “they did not believe in God, or trust in his saving power,” (v.22) “despite his wonder, they did not believe,” (v.32) “they did not remember his power, or the day he redeemed them from the foe,” (v. 42). With each new context—no food, no water, advancing army, proximity to gentile neighbors and the almost gravitational pull of their culture and gods—they started over from scratch with the question, “Is God enough?” The God who delivered, led, and satisfied them—who even kept their sandals from wearing out during their 40 years in the desert—was put over and over again to the test. Instead of drawing on his past goodness and what they should have known of his character, they forgot. We do too.
Primed for Flash Floods
Thirteen years ago I had to raise support for my first year in China. My faith was so unwavering throughout the process that it even inspired my mother, a woman of great faith. Before my professional life unraveled two years ago, that was the last time my faith was really stretched and I rose to the occasion. For a decade, I’d mostly been banking on it to be true that even when we are faithless God is faithful.
Three years ago, ruminating over yet another relationship I wanted but couldn’t have, I felt a call to reform. Rather than postponing “faith” until God’s provision arrived, as I daily and sometimes even hourly faced doubts, I realized I could choose faith in the moment instead. I looked back over ten years of riding out disappointment with God, acknowledging only after I got what I wanted that He was good. I said nothing if I didn’t. I regretted the lost opportunities when faith was called for but none was found. In the midst of the disappointment of those unrequited feelings, I thought, “This time, I’m going to trust God with my future, even if this guy’s not in it the way I hope.” No tantrum throwing about what’s taking God so long or tirades about how He’s forgotten me. No nail-biting, wondering if it will all work out. God poured into my heart His words about how without faith it’s impossible to please Him, that our faith is of greater worth than gold, that if we trust Him he’ll make our paths straight, and that faith builds character. I wanted to trust God in the woefully unfinished middle bits.
I put two hypotheticals before myself that morning: 10 years from now I could be satisfied by getting what I’d wanted and continue to be so only under those conditions or I could see one desired relationship after another fail to materialize but remain faithful, not questioning God or clinging to yes as sole proof of his love. Which did I want?
That morning I said I’d rather be faithful. I would rather suck the nectar of faith from loss, disappointment, and trials and find Christ sweet and sufficient than train myself by repetitious and disobedient disbelief to only be satisfied by the realization of my own will. This decision primed me for the flash flood of opportunities coming my way to put that faith in action.
A Caravan of Tears
A year and a half later, I lost my job. On the surface, unemployment and romantic rejection might seem like remote contexts, and in many ways they are. But, they also share an insecurity about not being good enough, a lack of control, and worry about the future, among other things. I thought I’d only be out of work a couple months tops but many passed—15 to be exact—and I struggled often to be able to come up with on my own what I needed to survive, be it food or money for rent or transportation. Sometimes I couldn’t. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what it meant to be content and clung to God. “I will praise him in the middle, like Joseph did,” I told myself. Never before had I drawn so close to God in the middle of messy disappointment.
Last May, the week I got three rejections in a row from jobs I really wanted and had interviewed for (and got visual proof of bed bugs), I wrote, “Does it count for anything that though sorrow nearly decimates me at times, my voice cries out from the rubble, “You are my good?”” Seven months later, still a month away from the anticlimactic ending to my search for a new permanent job last November, I wrote, “Having experienced both now I can say unequivocally that it is bitter beyond comparison to have all that you want but to grasp for the Lord and not feel his presence than to rebound from heartache to heartache experiencing him at your side.” I had reached a point where I just wanted to experience His presence. Through every good gift I wanted him. Through every trial I wanted him. Through a caravan of tears, the desire of my heart had become to find Christ ever more precious whatever life brought, to discover the fullness of his sufficiency.
Finding my Pulse
In Exodus, as the Israelites head toward Canaan, Moses and God speak, “The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”” (Exodus 33:14-16).
When Moses said not to send them without His presence, he was basically saying, ‘I see that you have promised us good over there but, is it really good if you’re not with us?’ Absolute goodness and security was determined by His presence. The Benson commentary ponders the heart behind this statement as well, “Let us rather live and die in the wilderness, with thy presence and favour, than go into Canaan without it; for even that promise of rest I regard not unless thou be with us, and accept us. Thus he shows how highly he valued the special presence of God. He dreaded the very thought of going forward without it.” He desires God’s presence above the land of milk and honey. For us, the significance and efficacy of His presence means that even without a spouse, we can still have everything because He is everything. And not only does He promise to go with us but He is our rest.
Last year, of all years, convinced me God was enough. Experiencing joy through a stomach gurgling from hunger, an arm I wasn’t sure would straighten, a best friend who wanted nothing more to do with me, sleep-depriving PTSD from bed bugs, two months of relying on others to pay my rent, and a toxic boss who belittled me every chance she got opened my eyes to a whole new way to live. I often felt like one of those inflated Bozo the clown punching bags from my childhood. As painful as it was to be knocked down over and over again, I marveled at how the Lord brought me back again and again to my feet. Faith seemed like an act of defiance, like taunting my circumstances, “you are no match for my God.”
The almost unrelenting string of disappointments created the optimal conditions to become convinced of God’s goodness because they were met with an equally unrelenting string of grace. And when it came to my singleness, the same God with the same resources and the same love for me was with me in it as he’d been in my unemployment. If He showed He was enough for me in that, how could He not also be enough for me in this? Enough had to be enough, or it wasn’t enough at all.
Singleness: The Approaching Army
I love stories of battle in the Old Testament. They testify of God’s victory over our enemies. But our enemies have never strictly been the approaching armies we can see. In fact, Ephesians 6:12 leads me to believe they’ve never been, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” There’s also the enemy within, the desires of our flesh. But somewhere between these, there’s an enemy I like to call the Imagined Future, filled with giants and monsters and goblins formed by our desires and exploited by our enemy, though it lives only in our heads. It goes by Future for short and maintains an air of plausible deniability, “You’re not anxious, you’re just trying to prepare. It’s only natural to think about these things so you can plan ahead.” Next thing you know, you’re consumed. Spinsterhood, what many see as the only option for singles past 30 and as their worst possible fate, can seem like a looming army as we look out over our future, with fears and insecurities playing the part of the giants, monsters and goblins we fear we can’t defeat.
In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat faces an approaching army,
“After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.”
From this place of fear, he sought the Lord. Three times in two verses it repeats that he and his people sought help from the Lord.
He begins his prayer, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?” The order he appeals to the Lord is telling: first, based on who he is, “Are you not…” and then based on what he’s done, “Did you not…” If you are more fluent in the second of these than the first, your fear will pummel you. He is situationally good because his character is good. Putting second things first leads to poor and irregular transfer, to isolating his goodness to specific instances. Powerful but not all powerful. Having dominion over the last thing but not everything. One of my regular practices last year was a prayer that recounted who God was and what he’d done, the deliberate application of the knowledge of his character and past works on His people’s behalf to my situation.
The Lord responds, “Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” He doesn’t immediately send the opposing troops home nor does he tell his people to retreat and avoid the menacing enemy at all costs. In fact, He provides them with their location. He says to go down and face them. And then, to watch God work on their behalf. He promises that though He sends them into battle they do not need to fear because He will go with them.
Jeremiah, in offering hope to exile survivors, prophesied that God would obligate himself to them through a new covenant. “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” (Jeremiah 32:40-41) Do these sound like the words of a stingy, inept, unreliable God? How about Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” When Paul says in 1 Corinthians that, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ,” this is one of them: to be constantly, exuberantly, full-heartedly good to us, in every context however remote from our last trial or sorrow.
From that year I came to see how easy it is to love the things God does for us and not God Himself, like the people who came to Jesus because he fed them in John 6:26. Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains,“…to follow him simply because their wants were supplied was mere selfishness of a gross kind. Yet, alas! many seek religion from no better motive than this…Religion does not forbid our regarding our own happiness, or seeking it in any proper way; but when this is the only or the prevailing motive, it is evident that we have never yet sought God aright. We are aiming at the loaves and fishes…”
Earlier this year, I was asked to explain what Jesus was to me and I answered, “I know Jesus as my burden carrier, tear wiper, head lifter, tireless pursuer and friend. My wealth, security, rest, beauty, significance, hope and only true glory come from him. He is my feast and my fruit, both my aperture and my light. He is the gracious subverter of my errant desires and loving toppler of all I foolishly build on the sand. When I’m struck, he keeps me from breaking. His word sustains. He is the interceptor of my despair-bound thoughts, the recalibrator of what I call “good.” He makes bitter sweet and sweet bitter. He is my redeemer, my justifier, my reward, and my flesh whisperer.” Most of this understanding of who he was came from my terrible, horrible, no good very bad year. The words of Psalm 21:6 became real to me, “You cheer him with joy in your presence.”
A month ago, I saw a quote that resonated with me that said, “If not, he is still good,” based on Daniel 3:17-19. In this passage, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refuse to bow to any god but their own. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”” God did not spare them from the fire, but it didn’t devour them either. He walked with them in it. ““Look!” he exclaimed. “I see four men, unbound and unharmed, walking around in the fire—and the fourth looks like a son of the gods!” We can be unbound and unharmed in our singleness too.
He’s either Emmanuel or he’s not. And that he is with us either means something or it doesn’t. When we chose fear and anxiety, we are saying one or both of those aren’t true. He’s either not there and he’s unreliable or, his presence accomplishes very little and he’s not all-powerful, making him one god among many—the favored, but failed, implicit strategy of the those who never entered the promised land. Even Moses didn’t, because he did not trust God (Numbers 20:12). But, when we choose faith, if his being with us means anything, it must mean all. Friends, His presence is everything. There can be no bet hedging here.
If you can only know one thing, let it be that He is with you. If you get but one answer to your cries for relief from the valley, let it be that He is enough.