By Tania Harris
I’ve walked down the aisle eight times. There was the lime green 50s sheath, the navy blue Jane Austen gown and the princess red number with sleeves puffy as parachutes. Each time I waved the happy couple off with confetti and cake and kisses. Each time I farewelled a best friend, having been supplanted in their heart by another.
Which is of course how it should be. Marriage was God’s design – his solution to the problem of loneliness. “It’s not good to be alone,” God declared at the beginning (Genesis 2:18). Everything else in creation was good, but even in a perfect world, aloneness was the one thing that was not. So he provided a profoundly beautiful relationship designed to meet humanity’s deepest needs. A connection bound by love and held by promise; a pairing that reflected his very essence as a relational being.
But what do we do when this profoundly beautiful solution of God’s hasn’t materialised for some of us? What do we do if we’re single and waiting or when we’re the divorcee who struggles with remarriage? What if we’re the gay person who opts for celibacy or the widower who’s been left behind? What if in an imperfect world, God’s perfect solution isn’t possible?
The Ideal and the Real
We Christians often have a hard time with this. We know the ideal, but we have trouble accommodating the real. Our sermons are focused on marriage and our goals oriented to the dream, while the single gets the charity Christmas invite and endures endless jokes about why they’re left on the shelf. More often than not, society and particularly, Christendom, caters for the married and the single is left flapping out in the breeze.
While it’s healthy to promote God’s ideal, it’s also healthy to confront the real. God’s perfect plan may be marriage for each one, but life isn’t perfect and we don’t always get what we want. Today, even with the pairing power of online dating, there are more singles than ever.1 Not everyone is of course unhappy about this, but a significant proportion of us would choose to be in a relationship if we could.2
In the face of such statistics, it’s not enough for the church to say to singles; use your time to do more for God or, be content because God is enough. God is spirit. He doesn’t suddenly manifest himself with a hug when you’ve just received news that breaks your heart. He doesn’t greet you at the door after work to ask; How was your day? We receive God’s love primarily through other people. His love has to take flesh at some point.
The good news is that God works to accommodate the imperfections of a fallen world. He is able to meet our needs in ways that extend beyond traditional structures. At least that is what I’ve discovered.
Anita and I first met at Bible College. She was the intent student in the front row and I was the lecturer teaching Old Testament theology. A word from God and some thoughtful initiative on Anita’s part meant that we soon became friends. Fast forward twelve years and three different apartments, we finish each other’s sentences and argue like married couples over how to pack the dishwasher. We go to church together, share meals together and attend Christmas together with our families. She was there when I received the phone-call about my dad’s heart attack and I was there when she lost her job. She’s taught me about humanitarianism and how to make quinoa and I’ve taught her about hearing God’s voice and how to enjoy camping. Lately when the storage costs became too much for one, we pooled all our furniture and this year we’re planning a holiday together overseas.
The truth is that while both of us have experienced a dearth of suitable male suitors, our friendship has been a God-given lifesaver. Both in our 40s, finding a great flatmate is near impossible and sharing living costs makes good economic sense. Her loyalty and encouragement mean the world to me.
It’s been difficult to find the words to define our friendship. She’s a best friend, but not like the ones at high school. She’s a flatmate, but we’d still share a place if we didn’t have to. She’s a spiritual sister, but not like others in church who’d describe themselves that way.
The best parallel we’ve come up with is the relationship between the biblical characters David and Jonathan. For David, the love of his friend was “better than a woman’s” (2 Samuel 1:26); they were “bound in spirit” and Jonathan loved David “as himself” (1 Samuel 18:1-4). The wording is so strong that plenty of questions have been raised about the exact nature of their relationship – which doesn’t surprise me since Anita and I have had our own fair share of quips. People find it hard to believe that a close friendship can be anything other than sexual.
What is telling is the word used to describe their relationship. In David and Jonathan’s world, ‘covenant’ was the terminology given to describe a strong commitment by two parties to one another. Theirs was a relationship that extended beyond the realms of friendship. It meant they protected each other, stood up for one another and celebrated the call of the other above their own. They were sworn to seeing God’s purposes fulfilled in each other’s lives. For Jonathan, that promise extended even to the point of death.
It’s clear that Jonathan was God’s provision for David and that the relationship was just as potent for him as his marriage. Jesus too recognized the power of the Spirit to seal relationships that were as valuable as traditional ones (Matthew 12:48-50). Covenant friendship can be God’s provision for singles just as much as marriage can.
Working out the Terms
But what does a covenant friendship look like in our day? For marrieds, the terms are clear. At social events, everyone knows you’re supposed to invite the husband as well as the wife and at family occasions, there’s no question as to whether the spouse is coming along too. When one is sick, the other looks after them; on holidays, it’s the spouse who minds the suitcases. Finances are split, expenses are shared and life insurance is taken out for the other. The rules of society are established and we all know what they are.
For covenant friendship, the rules are less clearcut. For Anita and I, we’re still working them out. At this point, our commitment means that we make sure the other’s birthday is celebrated properly and they have somewhere to go on Christmas Day. One of us can’t just leave the country or get married on a whim without ensuring the other isn’t left hapless without a couch or a kettle. The other is the go-to person in a crisis, the name we put on the customs card as the first port of call and the one who helps us out when we’re short of cash. They are our biggest cheerleader, our coach and our confidante; the one who knows where we are on the planet when no-one else does. They are the key to our flourishing in our God-given destiny and the reason neither of us are lonely.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The surprise has been that when we listen to those marriage sermons now, we find ourselves nodding in agreement. All the principles of healthy communication, conflict resolution and mutual submission have become just as relevant for us as any wedded couple. The investment required by covenant relationship is not only the domain of the marrieds. But so are the rewards.
A Healthy Alternative
As a church, we haven’t always known how to minister to singles. Our focus has been on the relationships in marriage and family with the result that singles often feel neglected, leaving marrieds overrepresented in the church pews.3 But there is a way of upholding the ideal while still modelling a healthy alternative. Covenant friendship may not fit society’s normal boundaries and definitions, but it has been God’s provision for Anita and I. Yes, both of us would have liked to have seen the Christian ideal in our lives, but in the face of a world that doesn’t always turn out to be perfect, covenant friendship is a pretty wonderful alternative.
(1). In Australia, the proportion of adults living with a partner has declined during the last two decades, from 65% in 1986, to 61% in 2007 according to the ABS. In addition, almost two million Australians live alone, with solo dwellers the fastest-growing housing demographic in the country. By 2026, the single-person household is predicted to eclipse the number of nuclear families in Australia. In the US, since the early 2000s, single women outnumber married women (Traister, Rebecca, 2016. All the Single Ladies, US: Simon & Schuster).
(2). Christianity Today: “The Choice for Many Christian Women; Singleness or Marry a Non-Christian”
What about you? How has God provided for you or those around you in seasons of singleness? Share your comments below.