By Valerie Long
Today barely half of the young adults in America are married. And this trend is not limited to America alone; statistics reveal an increase in singles all over the world. While many are delaying marriage (the average age of first marriage for women is now 27 and men 29) citing desires to first pursue education, economic stability, or career opportunities, others are settling into cohabitation or abandoning the concept of marriage altogether.
This has led the church to revisit some age-old questions: What is God’s purpose for men and women? What is the biblical view of marriage and singleness? Why should a Christian “choose” one over the other?
Within the history of the church and among today’s varying denominations, it is possible to find many positions on the subject. Perhaps this is because both marriage and singleness are encouraged within the pages of Scripture.
The monastic movement of the Middle Ages and the teachings of Catholicism have historically valued Paul’s acclamation of the single life (1 Corinthians 7) and the ability of the celibate believer to serve the Lord in a whole-hearted manner. Protestants and many other evangelical church bodies, however, often emphasize the ancient Judeo-Christian value of family, God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” and warnings that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 1:28; 2:18).
In light of the varying positions on the topic, perhaps it would be helpful to zoom in on the role that singleness and marriage played in a single biblical narrative, the story of Ruth.
A Tale of Two Women
Set in the turbulent period of the judges, this well-known story centers upon two women. One (Naomi) enters the story as a married woman who becomes single after the death of her husband. The other (Ruth) enters the story as a married woman, becomes single after the death of her husband, and is later remarried.
During a famine in Israel, Naomi and her husband, Elimelek, moved their family across the Jordan to the land of Moab. Here Elimelek died. For 10 years she lived as an unmarried woman under the provision and protection of her sons’ households. Naomi’s sons had taken Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah. No children are mentioned in the account. Without the help of children, the few family members would have had to work together efficiently to procure their own survival.
After a decade had passed, tragedy again struck this small household when Naomi’s two sons died. In such a situation, when a woman was bereaved of her husband and there was no remaining brother to marry her (Ruth 1:11), she was expected to return to the protection of her father’s house. If she were young, she might wait or hope for another chance at marriage. What is shocking about the story is that although one daughter-in-law adhered to this custom, the other did not.
A Shocking Request
When Naomi urged Ruth to return to her father’s house, Ruth responded, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried” (1:16, 17).
Placed against the backdrop of her cultural context, Ruth’s reaction is surprising. Naomi was bewildered by Ruth’s response, for it must have been apparent even to her that something other than common sense, personal gain, or the cultural norm was guiding her decision. Perhaps Ruth’s comment, “Your God shall be my God” (1:16) and Boaz’s later remark that she had taken refuge underneath the wings of Yahweh (2:12) provide a clue to her motivation. Ruth had seen and experienced something of the God of Israel that caused her to believe doing a kind act for his sake was a worthy course of action.
It is clear that kindness, love, and faithfulness to her destitute mother-in-law (traits described in Galatians 5:22, 23 as the fruit of the Spirit) guided Ruth’s steps. As the Spirit of God led her to follow Naomi, both knew this course of action could leave Ruth a widow for life.
Upon their return to Judah, Ruth’s pledge of love and care for Naomi was put into action. Ruth unashamedly and diligently gleaned in the fields of the reapers in order to help provide for her mother-in-law. Ruth providentially found herself working in the field of Boaz, Naomi’s relative. The same love and respect Ruth demonstrated for Naomi in choosing to leave her country and marriage prospects behind (Ruth 2:11; 3:10) now led her to heed Naomi’s counsel and make herself available to Boaz in marriage.
Faithfulness in Singleness and Marriage
In her singleness, Ruth chose unselfishly to spend herself for the sake of another’s needs and therefore fulfill what Jesus called the greatest commandments: to love God and love her neighbor (see Matthew 22:37-39). Through her marriage she continued to provide for her mother-in-law by extending her legacy through childbirth and godly parenting.
Note that Ruth never made a vow to live in celibacy or to become a “superstar” mother of outstanding children (even though her lineage would eventually lead to the line of David). She didn’t cling to her former life in Moab, nor did she shy away from marriage to Boaz. She simply chose to walk carefully through each unique set of circumstances and honored God by doing good to the ones in her path as she had opportunity (see Galatians 6:10) both in her single and married status.
The true star behind the story isn’t Naomi, Ruth, or Boaz. The spotlight should be placed upon the God of Israel, the creator of mankind and director of all life’s events. He is the one who compels us to follow his glorious example and to live our lives
consumed not with our own future or profit, but rather with the opportunities to serve others. He is the one who can be trusted to provide for all our needs as we follow him and make every detail of our lives into beautiful stories, unique from any other.
The Author of Our Unique Stories
As my 20s are nearing a close, I am sometimes asked, “Why aren’t you married? Have you chosen singleness?” My answer is not that I have chosen singleness but rather that I have chosen Christ and for now, his guidance has led me in the path of singleness. Like Ruth, it has allowed me to serve in other nations and in ministries abroad for long periods during which dating and marriage were practically not options. In my singleness, I have had the freedom to serve others in ways a married woman could not.
Our Christian faith calls us to rejoice in a loving God whose plans for each person’s life are in no way boring or the same. The situations of believers in the Bible thousands of years ago are much like those of believers today; some will serve him in singleness (like Paul and Ezekiel) and some will serve him in marriage. As people who walk with him, we’re in a unique position that frees us from focusing on marriage, singleness, or current social trends, allowing us to rejoice in a God who is able to be served in any season or circumstance leading to the abundant life (see John 10:10).
Valerie Long is a freelance writer studying in Jerusalem, Israel.
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My Single Mom Life: Stories & Practical Lessons for Your Journey
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When Happily Ever After Shatters: Seeing God in the Midst of Divorce & Single Parenting
by Susan Birdseye
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My Journey Home: There Is Hope for Single Parent Families and Hurting Women
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The Single Dad’s Survival Guide
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