The way it was supposed to work was I go abroad, discover this exotic legume, and, like any good expat, rave about it to friends and family back home. When it came to red bean, though, I just couldn’t.
When I lived in China, I would often buy sweets I believed to be chocolate flavored. Endorphins readied for playtime and saliva pooled at the bottom of my mouth as the deep brown color of these popsicles, cakes, and other desserts signaled to my brain, “Prepare for chocolate!” It rarely was.
Being that far from home, chocolate was, even more so than usual, a comfort food. On hard days, it was to transport me back to loved ones, ease of communication, and pollution-free air. Instead, one unsatisfying bite in, I remained thousands of miles from home, freshly victimized by miscommunication, and inhaling a dirty mix of chemicals that might abscond with years of my life.
Red bean always let me down. But, to be fair, I never gave it a chance.
I did not seek red bean out. It was done to me. I did not approach it with an unbiased palate. I was barely willing to entertain the possibility that someone somewhere might have considered it delicious; I just knew it as the ever-disappointing un-chocolate imposter substance. I tossed it in the trash every time I realized my mistake. Give me chocolate or give me death. I was not here for red bean.
It wasn’t that I disliked the bean either. I didn’t actually know one way or the other. The impossible chocolate standard I constantly judged it by made it hard to enjoy. The comparison stole that from me. I neither knew, nor could know, its merits. Chocolate was what I craved.
Many of us view singleness the way I did red beans: the un-chocolate surprise you didn’t sign up for that’s not worth eating if it can’t be chocolate. And yet, to millions of people across Asia, chocolate would be the un-red bean of the dessert family. Maybe singleness too could be a matter of perspective.
Marriage as chocolate
Marriage is often seen as God’s default best. In the church, it often assumes an elevated status. It is seen as the only path to multiplication, fulfillment, and purpose, not as one among many goods God gives us in his wisdom for our flourishing and for building his kingdom. Maybe we think of God as scrambling to put together a sympathy package for us as we wait for husbands but that’s not at all what’s going on.
Singleness is more than the unmarried prologue to your real life. Often we treat it like a second-class alternative or a necessary evil, though, never able to see its merit. I don’t blame anyone for having to squint to see what’s good about being single (or on especially hard days maybe even needing to pull out a microscope). The world, the church, and even our own hearts do a fine job magnifying marriage at singleness’ expense. Someone recently told me of an experience at their church where the minister prayed for women and covered every category of women except single ones.
Both marriage and singleness can be glorious and both require prayer. I wonder how we might view our lives differently if we stopped pitting red bean against chocolate and looked at each as God’s best. God can give us better vision.
Putting chocolate into perspective
Marriage is not a panacea. As I’ve spoken with married people, they’ve shared as struggles the same issues single people look to marriage to solve. Married people may share freely about the lovey dovey stuff, but not divulge much about the therapy, their shrinking communities, the smaller margin they have for ministry and other commitments outside the home, and the sense of self sometimes subsumed by a spouse or kids. I wish more single people talked to married folks about what’s hard about being married and what they miss from their single days.
Rise, red bean, rise!
I rarely meet a single person whose only good in life is the Lord. I mean, technically speaking, I believe that’s true for all Christians, but I’m referring now to the non-spiritual goods in our lives: our friendships, our jobs, our finances, our health, the beauty of nature and candy, food, our five senses, able-bodies and minds, our homes, our transportation, the memories of places we’ve traveled and trips we’ve yet to take, rest, time, freedom, our capacity for civic engagement, our imaginations, art, the ability to learn, infrastructure, certain protections under the law, regular access to water, electricity, the internet, representation in the government, time-saving gadgets, social capital, education, leisure, and so on. And that’s nothing to say of the spiritual benefits of singleness Paul raises in 1 Corinthians “ An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world–how she can please her husband.” Not all of these things help mitigate some of the disappointment that accompanies our experience of singleness and we each have them in varying measure, but nevertheless they and so much more are ingredients in the red bean treats we’ve come to hate.
I hear travel cited often as a complaint about singleness. People don’t want to travel alone and they plan to put off exploring the world until they’re married or at least coupled. First, do it anyway! Second, there is no HD version of the beauty of the world that married people have secret access to. Yet somehow we believe the view will seem a little less breathtaking standing looking out over it alone. I can’t tell you what to value about your experience as a single person but I suspect there’s more to be grateful for than you go through each day—and it’s provision of bread—believing.
Marriage as a lateral move
It’s no accident that the most developmentally significant years of our lives are spent single. And that the most developmentally significant years of our lives are spent married. Neither single nor married years are more significant than the other. It is an illusion that either of them contains more of what’s needed for a full life. That is a sleight of hand the world has perfected. Drop a pin at any moment in your life since you began following the Lord on into the future and it will be true that you had everything you needed for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), had been given everything for your enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17), and had been granted access to life to the full (John 10:10).
The ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, speaking on the brevity of life says, “So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” I think the same can be said of our singleness. It is not that it is less, but we make it so. We waste it. We do not inquire of the Lord how it is optimized for our growth and joy. One of the ways we do this is by not being thankful.
In her article, Singled Out for Good, Paige Benton Brown writes, “Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.”
Do you have to love everything about singleness to be grateful for it? Hardly. Does it have to feel good for you to be thankful for it? No, it will at times be unpleasant. There are real, hard things about going through life without a partner. We may go to the mat often and exhausted, contending with feelings of isolation, insufficiency, or impatience. But this fight is ours to lose. I am not suggesting you should never feel pangs of longing for something else. But notice I didn’t say something more.
Thankfulness as an act of faith and obedience
Thankfulness is often an act of faith. The command to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18) assumes it may be easy to fall into situationally-dependent gratitude.
The Hiding Place tells of two Dutch sisters, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, imprisoned after being caught hiding Jews from Nazis in their home. After being imprisoned and spending time in a concentration camp in the Netherlands, they were transferred to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in Germany. Corrie ten Boom survived to write The Hiding Place, but it was Betsie’s faith that left the deepest impression on me.
Once, after they’d transferred to Ravensbrück, they prayed together thanking God for whatever they could find to be thankful for in a concentration camp. Betsie thanked God that she and her sister were together. On this point Corrie agreed. She met no pushback suggesting they ought to be thankful that they had access to a Bible. But when Betsie thanked God for the fleas infesting their living quarters Corrie was done. The fleas couldn’t possibly be good.
In God’s plan, though, those fleas ultimately protected the women and gave them greater freedom of activity in their barracks. Corrie and Betsie had been holding secret Bible studies there and would find out later that the guards avoided theirs precisely because of the fleas. Because of the nuisance they met undisturbed.
We don’t always eventually get to see the purposes for God’s nos and waits—sometimes we just experience the fleas as fleas and keep it moving—but when we can thank Him in spite or even because of them, we affirm that He is good and knows what He is doing. That He is God, and we are not.
Good gifts of the Father
Every time I think about being grateful even when it feels like God has denied me something, I remember a scene from a Chinese historical fantasy television show I saw years ago. In it, a fairy falls in love with a mortal and she seeks an exception to her world’s rules about intermarriage with humans. Her father, the monarch of their world, agrees and the fairy and her lover wed in a fanciful and foggy ceremony.
The festivities close with the elder council of the fairy world presenting a series of envelopes to the newlyweds that would determine the length of time they’d get to spend together. They would allow the marriage, but it could not be permanent. Her father tries to silently signal to them which envelope to pick and they make their selection. Returning home, they open it together only to discover they get to enjoy mere weeks of marital bliss. The fairy, distraught and doubting her father’s intentions, storms into his throne room and asks how he could be so cruel. How could they only get two weeks?
He retrieved the other envelopes from a box and opened them for her to see. One day.Twelve hours. Five days. A week.
What she had perceived as a snub was really his best.
It’s hard to see singleness as the uppermost limit of God’s kindness while we’re in it. We struggle to trust that God is not being more kind to us to give us husbands. But while we are single, this is the belief we must order our lives around. That this is the best. That each day we get to experience this flavor of God’s deliberate kindness to us has its own merit (whether it’s what we’re craving at the moment or not).
I wish I could update that I currently love red bean, but I don’t. I never did give it a chance. To the end, I continued to bad-mouth it while millions around me, not carrying the weight of chocolate expectations, sang its praise. I don’t want to do that with my singleness as well.