A Skewed Caricature
"Move out of your parents' house, get a job, stop playing video games all day, stop sleeping with your girlfriend – grow up and get married!"
I confess that I have never met the man or woman described in most sermons or blogs on singleness and the accompanying rants against the cultural phenomenon known as "extended adolescence." Apparently there exists a large group of 20 and 30-somethings living at home, intentionally unemployed and spending multiple hours a day absorbed in video games. I believe such a description accurately depicts the condition of some, but is it truly reflective of most singles in our churches today?
This caricature of singleness is not helpful or relevant to the single community that I know. We have our problems. We need pastoral advice. We need to grow up in some areas. And we need to be challenged. But misrepresenting singleness is probably not the most effective means of ministering to us. The purpose of an analogy or picture is to create a connection with the audience, but when your portrait is skewed, it actually detracts from communication and becomes irrelevant.
When you start talking about the guy without a job, living at home, playing video games all day, you create a straw man who is easy to knock over – a portrait most singles simply cannot identify with. How much more impactful and convicting would it be to portray a man or woman with a steady job who no longer lives at home yet uses his or her singleness only for selfish pursuits? Paint that picture, and we'll be pierced and prompted. Draw the caricature, and we'll most likely be amused, oblivious to our own blind spots.
When talking about problems in marriage, we don't typically speak about the unemployed alcoholic who beats his wife and kids, frequents prostitutes, gambles away his welfare check and otherwise sits around at home watching sports and dabbling in illegal drugs. This guy probably exists in our churches, but we don't describe him because he is not the norm, and thus no connection is made with the congregation.
So why do we default to a distorted picture of singleness?
No Excuse for Singles
Now to be fair, we singles need to recognize that our inability to connect with this extreme picture does not excuse our inattentiveness or disregard of the theological principle expounded. The fact that we don't play video games 40 hours a week does not justify our playing 20 (just to give you some arbitrary numbers – I could have said 10 and 5 or 5 and 2). The fact that we aren't sleeping around does not excuse the casualness and unintentionally of our dating relationships. We need to pay attention to the underlying call for maturity, even if we can't identify with a distorted portrait of immaturity.
Extended adolescence carries the potential for very real problems. Men and women in their 20s and 30s living at home and leeching off their parents to finance their laziness is a problem. Men and women wasting their lives on video games and other forms of media is a problem. Men and women mired in indecision and thus paralyzed from doing something with their lives is a problem. Immaturity is a problem.
But singleness is not synonymous with immaturity, and singleness is not inherently problematic. While many singles are immature, the correlation is not direct. Many married men and women are just as immature. By and large I agree with the pastors attempting to engage the culture of "extended adolescence." I simply disagree with their choice of language. "Grow up and get married" is too simplistic and dangerous.
First off, it sounds too easy. Anyone who wants to be married can simply do so at will?
Isn't a spouse a gift from the Lord?
Isn't God sovereign in the distribution of His gifts?
As a 32-year-old single male shepherding in the midst of a large church filled with singles, I know firsthand the sting of such half-truths. Some people are single because they are lazy, fearful, lustful or proud. But some singles are simply single because God, in His infinite wisdom, sovereignty and grace has not granted them a spouse. Singleness is not a curse. If singleness were the universal consequence for our sins, marriage rates would plummet to zero. Marriage is a gift, and all of God's gifts are graciously undeserved. There are many married men and women mired in sin, and there are many singles pursuing deep holiness.
There is no direct correlation between sin and singleness.
God's Sovereignty and Gifts
While God's sovereignty does not negate man's responsibility to pray and pursue His gifts, neither does man's responsibility diminish God's sovereignty. Telling someone to "grow up and get married" is similar to telling someone "speak in tongues." It's acceptable advice if the Lord wills you to have that gift, but what if He does not? Rather than commending contentment and faithfulness, you simply create room for discontentment, despair and doubt.
Beyond being insufficient, "grow up and get married" creates the unintentional illusion that marriage is our hope, our need, our savior. Marriage then becomes an idol. But marriage is not the goal of Scripture and thus should not be the goal of our advice. Faithful, gospel-centered, passionate and intentional living to the glory of the Triune God is the goal, whether that be as a single or in the context of marriage.
Marriage is not the solution to my innate selfishness. Christ is. Marriage may be a means that He uses to accomplish sanctification, but so might singleness. His ways are diverse. If our eyes are constantly fixed on how to get married, when we will get married, who we will marry, etc., they will be less fixed on Christ. We need to be careful lest we inadvertently counsel in a way that makes an idol out of marriage.
As past generations may have exalted singleness above marriage, modern evangelicalism tends to exalt marriage above singleness. I realize that most will marry, that "it is not good for man to be alone," that marriage is a helpful means of communicating God's attributes and that marriage is sanctifying and good, but I also realize that Scripture nowhere universally commands marriage and that singleness, too, is called good. If the Bible does not universally suggest marriage, I think we need to be careful before we do. Both marriage and singleness are gifts, and both are to be stewarded well.
The problem with extended adolescence is not that people are marrying later, but that the vast majority of singles in the church are not using their singleness for the King and His Kingdom.
Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when discussing singleness and the phenomenon of "extended adolescence":
- Some singles are mature and use their singleness fairly well, but all (married or single) can use correction in some areas.
- Some singles are immature but don't recognize their immaturity because pastors default to the jobless, homeless, media-addicted boy as the picture of irresponsibility.
- Some singles are called to a life of singleness.
- God is sovereign over the provision of a spouse, and though this does not negate man's responsibility to pursue, neither does man's responsibility diminish God's sovereignty.