Sure, there have always been unmarried people longing for marriage, but the statistics suggest that this group is growing at an unprecedented rate in American history. In 1956, according to the United States Census Bureau, the average age at which a man was married for the first time was 22.5. For women, it was 20.1. Those numbers climbed steadily for years, then more dramatically beginning in the 1970s. Recently, they reached the ages of 29.0 for men and 26.6 for women.
Now, singleness itself, for the Christian, is not necessarily something to be lamented. After all, Paul sings the praise of singleness when he lists the spiritual benefits of being spouse-free in 1 Corinthians 7. The single life can be (relatively) free from relational anxieties (1 Corinthians 7:32), worldly distractions (7:33), and wide open for worship, devotion, and ministry (7:35). If we have the gift, Paul says to skip the ceremony, literally, and enjoy “your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
So this relatively new demographic of not-yet-married men and women in their mid-to-late twenties has the real potential to be a potent vehicle for the worship of God and the spread of his gospel. This potential means we don’t necessarily need to sound an alarm as our young people get married later and later. Without a doubt, within this trend there will be complacencies to confront and immaturities to manage and even evils to fight. But ultimately it might merely be God’s means of freeing up a generation to take their devotion to Christ deeper and further into the broken world in which we live.
The hope for a freshly mobilized unmarried demographic is real, and singleness really can and should be celebrated when God uses it to win worship and joy and life in himself. But one of the implications of these recent statistics is that a growing number of people in the church desire marriage — even feel called to marriage — and yet they have to wait longer to experience it. As Christians, we believe the vast majority of people are wired by God to receive and express love in the context of a covenant, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this growing phenomena is hard on lots of our young men and women.
Maybe it is an increasing consumerism in dating and marriage, where people are pickier because there are more choices (especially through new media, like online dating). Maybe it is the lengthening of adolescence, in which twenty-somethings less and less feel the need to grow up and take on responsibilities of starting a family, owning a home, and more. Maybe it’s the success of women in the workplace, creating more vocational opportunities for females that could delay the pursuit of a partner and family. Whatever the roots, it’s a reality. If you have single people in your church, you very likely have unhappily single people in your church — and that crowd is not getting any smaller.
The scary question for some in the waiting is, “Will I be single forever?” Would God really withhold the good gifts of love and marriage and intimacy, and children, from me?
The good news for the not-yet-married is that no one in Christ is single, and no one is married in heaven. We need to anchor our feelings of loneliness and longing in the gospel. If we are in Christ, there’s really nothing single about us. We all know there are intimacies that are — and should be — unique to marriage, but those that matter most really can be experienced in the bride of Christ, his church. A husband or wife may help and provide for you in ways others can’t, but a true, Spirit-filled, persistent, and present brother or sister in faith can care for you in remarkable ways. In Jesus, none are single, no not one.
Jesus also makes it abundantly clear that no one stays married or gets married in the age to come (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34–36). The marriages we know in this life have no purpose in the coming paradise. In the happiest place in history, there will be no weddings, no matrimony, no sex. That’s a wild way for God to design this all to work out.
If marriage between a man and a woman is such a beautiful, pivotal, necessary relationship and picture for so many in this life, why would it be left out of eternity? It’s because it’s purpose and meaning are only needed here and now. When the new creation is consummated, the picture to which marriage pointed will be realized. In light of this destination, marriage now is a temporary experience meant to envision a far greater relationship and reality to come, when we are with Christ in his presence.
If we are married in this life, it will be for a brief moment, and we won’t regret that brevity ten thousand years from now. We really won’t. No one will say, “I really wish I had been married” — much less, “I really wish I had been married for five or ten more years on earth.” That would be absurd when those years seem like seconds compared with all the gloriously, thoroughly happy time we have when our marriages end at death.
We need to think about that as we weigh the intensity of our desperation to have it now. We need to ask whether we have made marriage a qualification for a happy and meaningful life. Am I undone and miserable by the prospect of never being married? Do I think of myself as incomplete or insignificant as an unmarried believer? These questions might reveal red flags that warn us marriage has become an idol.
Ultimately, we will all be single forever, and it will be gloriously good. We will all be finally married forever, joined together with our Savior and First Love. We’ll know well then that the marriages here on earth truly were small and short compared with all we have in Christ.