Suffering is a strong word, isn’t it? Where do I get off describing the single life as “a season of suffering”? Isn’t suffering something for an underground church pastor in a foreign country who gets his arms and legs broken for preaching the gospel? Or perhaps for a woman whose husband leaves her because he can’t handle the stress of her terminal cancer?
Well, yes it is, obviously. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that there are degrees of suffering. The suffering some people have to face goes beyond what language can describe, even language at its most poetic. However, I want to broaden our understanding of what suffering is—not to water it down, but to convince you of the love of God. He has provided his Word to help you in every difficulty you may face, no matter how minor. And suffering is simply hardship that challenges our faith. In his book Desiring God, John Piper offers these words:
All experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.
Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With Him in the sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with Him by faith and in the sense that it is endured in the strength He supplies through His sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For Him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to His goodness and power and in the sense that it reveals His worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize. (p. 257)
We cannot dodge suffering forever. We can try to medicate or entertain it away, but even in the Disneyland of Western culture, it finds us. Following the above quotation, Piper adds that suffering is “intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith.” Wherever on earth we go, Satan will try to destroy us, but God will be there to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us (1 Peter 5:8–11).
Now, here’s what I find so wonderful about this understanding of suffering. God’s Word helps us here! In the Psalms, which deal extensively with suffering, we learn how to come to God with whatever pain we are experiencing, whether physical or emotional. We see in Jesus and in his followers—especially the apostle Paul—the joy that suffering can bring. We begin to realize that there is no sorrowful or melancholy thought that the Holy Spirit cannot console through the Word, and that we truly can rejoice in any circumstance.
When it comes to being single, there is suffering. There must be. A thread of suffering runs through every stage of life. If you are single, you will suffer. If you are married, you will suffer. If you are a child, you will suffer. If you are an adult, you will suffer. If you are a man, you will suffer. If you are a woman, you will suffer. In each situation, there is a different quality to the suffering. In this post, I want to focus particularly on the suffering that a single person faces, because in doing so, you and I can then turn to God’s Word and learn how to respond to this thread of suffering in our lives or in the lives of others.
Perhaps you are single, and as you consider your life, you do not sense any sort of suffering in the way that I am about to describe. Wonderful! Perhaps this is an indication that you are spiritually gifted to remain single, faithfully serving the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:7–8). However, not all people suffer to the same degree; some have a strong desire for marriage, and this desire is not wrong (at least, not unless it becomes one’s identity, a consuming need for marriage which is nothing short of idolatry). Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that there is something wrong with you if you want to be married. After all, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). Yet many with this desire only experience a “hope deferred”; they know what that sickness of heart feels like (Proverbs 13:12). It may not be a consuming pain, but the suffering is still there. I can think of at least six ways in which the single life may bring suffering, ranging from the almost absurdly minor to the more difficult and painful:
- Awkwardness. You are often questioned about your relationship status. Well-meaning people try to set you up with someone you’re not interested in. You have to take great care how friendly you are toward single people of the opposite sex so as not to arouse unwanted interest.
- Loneliness. There is no one to go home to, no one to climb into bed with, no one to hold, no one to rejoice in as you share a life as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
- Rejection. A person whom you have been dating for over a year ends the relationship. A young woman turns you down when you ask her out. You go for years without any interest from the young men you know. You really like someone and long for him or her to return your affection, but he or she shows no interest in you.
- Alienation. In many churches, you are treated as not-quite-an-adult. When your good friends marry, they withdraw from you because they’re convinced you can’t understand their new life together. The pastor’s sermons always seem to be addressed toward marriage and family life and never to your struggles. (Thankfully, none of these are the case at my church!)
- Despair. Weeks turn to months turn to years. And still, there is no one. Nor does there seem to be any chance that things will change. Once again, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
- Unfulfilled sexual desire. Martin Luther once observed, “To bear and to overcome [sexual desires] until the age of forty is truly a grievous and great burden.” For you, these words ring true—sexual temptation is absolutely relentless. Pornography is unbelievably easy to access; immodest dress is the norm among friends, classmates, and coworkers; and your mind eagerly rushes toward sexual fantasy.
Whether rejection or despair or unfulfilled sexual desire, perhaps you find yourself asking, “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13:1). What good could possibly come from suffering?
Here’s the good news: this suffering is not futile. There is a purpose to it, and this purpose—to glorify God—is found in the Word of God. The apostle Paul offers at least three ways in which you can glorify God through suffering:
- Sanctification. In Romans, Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:3–5). Suffering is a means by which God makes you more holy, conforming you to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). Paul (and James, 1:2–3) is saying to the single person, “Take joy in this hardship you face! It is refining your character and making you into the humble, persevering servant that can demonstrate the supreme character of Christ.”
- Integrity. A proper response to suffering validates our integrity as his messengers. The world offers ways to cope with or fix these sufferings. Whether it’s lowering your standards and marrying an ungodly person, turning to pornography or masturbation as a sexual release, or always needing to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, there are ways of (temporary and ultimately destructive) escape. If you persevere through suffering and seek the will of God, even if it means self-denial, your willingness to undergo pain for the sake of Christ will stand out to others (1 Corinthians 5:9). When they see your commitment to your Lord, this will draw their attention from you to him. Though you are weak and weary, they will see in you the treasure of the gospel, and they will know that the surpassing power that keeps you on your feet belongs to God and not to you (2 Corinthians 4:7), and that his power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering advances the gospel and proves the sufficiency of your Savior. So take joy in it! Don’t try to hide it but rather boast in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).”
- Consolation. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Paul and Timothy view their suffering as a means by which the Corinthians can be comforted. As God their Father has comforted them when they suffer, now they can turn and comfort the Corinthians as well. Perhaps there is a unique element to this because of Paul’s role as an apostle. However, when you go through suffering, you too are able to comfort others because your experiences give you an understanding of suffering and of the comfort available in Christ. Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering is the means by which others will be comforted when they suffer. So take joy in it, because it is a tool for loving ministry that God has placed in your hand!”
If you are single and suffering, I encourage you to consider how your suffering can be a source of joy rather than gloominess, self-pity, and depression. I know it’s hard; I’ve been on more emotional roller-coasters than I’d care to admit! For the single Christian, it may be difficult to understand why God is allowing this suffering. But it is also a great opportunity to honor, glorify, and please God. Don’t try to bury the pain or hide it from others, but be willing to share it with a small group of trustworthy believers who can support you with prayer and encouragement. (Please note that I said small and trustworthy.)
If you are married, I encourage you to carefully consider this perspective of the single life as a form of suffering. Do you envy single people for their freedom? This freedom often comes at a price! Do you view them as miserable and pitiable? They are not, because they too have “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Do you view them solely as “projects” to be fixed—either by finding them a spouse on the one hand or by berating them for their desire for marriage on the other? Please don’t do that! They will withdraw from you and hide their suffering from you, and you will lose the opportunity to minister to them. True love leads with compassion, seeking to understand and encourage before offering advice.