We were talking about singleness but we could have been talking about anything. “Finding someone” was the way into the conversation but the way out requires us to set aside “finding someone”. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that in this post, even though we’ll begin with that issue.
Really I want to talk about “satisfaction in Christ” and “finding your identity in Jesus” and all that stuff that trips off good Christians’ lips. What on earth does it mean? How does it really make a difference? But to get there, let’s follow a conversation which I had recently. I’ll ‘tidy it up’ a little bit and expand on a couple of points, but this is roughly how it went…
“Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7: If we burn we should marry, and I burn so…”
“Well that’s not exactly how Paul says it and that’s assuming a lot about what “burn” means, but let’s put that to one side. Do you think because you “burn” you’re destined to get married?”
“Well, I don’t think I have the gift of singleness, so…”
“Why don’t you think you have the gift?”
“Because I find it really hard!”
“I get that. It is. But… let me put it this way: Do you think that God has given you this stage of life?”
“So your singleness has been given to you?”
“Well for now you have the gift of singleness. I know others put a different spin on 1 Corinthians 7 but I’m suspicious of readings that sound like way too modern — as though Paul is interested in “soul mates” and “finding the one”. If you read the whole chapter you’ll see Paul addressing the subject of discontentment — marrieds want to be single, singles want to marry, the uncircumcised want to be circumcised, the circumcised want to be uncircumcised, slaves want to be free. And what does Paul say? “If you can switch circumstances, fine, but serve where you are. The time is short. Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s 40-odd verses telling people to stay put and see your circumstances as a gift through which you can serve others. And what’s the gift Paul really recommends?”
“Singleness. But… doesn’t it say “It’s not good to be alone?”
“Where does it say that? And to whom?”
“Adam in the garden.”
“Right. And there are a lot of differences between Adam, the world’s only human, and us! Certainly we need companionship — and I wonder whether that’s what you’re really craving, maybe we’ll return to that — but the Bible’s not really into “soul mates”. After all Paul, in Ephesians 5, reads this passage as a proclamation of the gospel! Christ is the one we’re made for, right?”
“Right… And I’ve been trying to find my identity in Christ, but I’m still really… lonely.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that… But think about it: Adam was in paradise, walking with God in a pre-fallen state and still he was “alone”. How much more will loneliness be a problem since the fall! And how much more are we feeling it in the West, today!?”
“Yeah sure… I’m doing my devotions, though. I’m trying to put Christ first…”
“Adam was literally walking with Christ — literally walking with literally Christ! — and it wasn’t good. Christ gave him other gifts too: people and animals and food and intellectual challenges (naming the animals!) and meaningful, physical labour. He had to use his body and engage with nature and work and build and play and rest and eat and befriend and relate. “Finding your identity in Christ” is not about sitting on the end of your bed with your Bible open, waiting to get such a dose of spiritual novocaine that you’ll never require work or relationships again!”
“…I definitely feel better for going to the gym and starting on some new work projects.”
“Yes! And those are gifts from Jesus too!”
“But it’s not enough. Can I say that? It’s not enough. I have Jesus. I’m trying to serve and follow him but I still feel… I don’t know. Unfulfilled… I know Christ is meant to be enough so… what am I doing wrong?”
“What if I told you, There is something you’re doing wrong. You’re lacking this one spiritual secret which, if I told it to you, would deliver perfect peace and contentment forever? You don’t have it now, but I can reveal the mystery, just join my new community.”
“I’d say you were a cult leader!”
“Exactly! That’s the Galatian heresy. This sect—who appeared very biblical and very holy—came to a bunch of Christians and they said: “I know you guys love Jesus, but I’m sure you also feel like something’s missing, amiright?? There’s this other thing you need if you’re going to be truly spiritual.” Paul says “That kind of teaching is hellish. Don’t listen.” And in the same letter he tells us that, while we await Jesus’ return, we’ll always feel out of sorts, like we’re not home, like something’s up. We’ll always have a battle with the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26). Always.”
At this point our conversation moved on, but let me dwell on the Galatians point for a second. Paul’s writings are full of this idea. We have a selfish, unspiritual nature—the flesh—that sticks to us like skin to our bones. It makes us cry out for resurrection, when we’ll have both Christ’s Spirit and his kind of resurrection flesh. But for now we’re still, in one sense, ‘in the flesh’. In one of my favourite verses of all time Paul says:
I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20
Am I in the flesh or not? In one sense, I’m dead to the old. In another sense, the old is my whole environment — I live my life in the flesh. It’s my inescapable context. But… The Spirit is constantly training my eyes to look beyond it to the Son of God, to his love, to his cross. I am like the heir of a great fortune who has everything in trust until I come of age. Right now I may be scrounging for pennies. Right now I may feel all kinds of poverty, need and affliction. But my sense of lack is undergirded by a conviction that in Christ I have an all-sufficiency that will satisfy every need… in time!
So then… should I find my identity in Jesus? Yes, 1000% Will this spiritual confidence flush out all worldly grasping or fleshly disappointment? No. It won’t and it can’t. And we should face that without embarrassment or pretence. Here are two affirmations the Christian can make: “I have everything in Christ” AND “I am profoundly disappointed with my life.” It’s both. And it’s ok—in fact it’s psychologically healthy—to grieve the losses you feel while living life in the flesh.
Some people never make the second affirmation and that smacks of repression and fakery (or of a charmed life that’s on a collision course with reality!). Some people are always making the second affirmation and they forget the first. To them, Paul says “Never forget: the Son of God loves you and has saved you” (Galatians) and then he says: “Remember: the time is short, get on and serve where you are” (1 Corinathians 7).
Healthy spirituality makes both affirmations: recognising life in the Spirit and life in the flesh. It points to the wisdom of exercise, food, work, rest, friendships — all that great life-in-the-flesh wisdom which the Bible affirms from page 1. But, ultimately, it will give us an eternal perspective on fulfilment: I am stinking rich in Christ but the inheritance is held in trust. On my way to the solicitor’s, to pick up the cheque, my car has broken down. Dang! I’ll have to walk. Pah! It’s raining! What the what?! I get mugged. Unbelievable! All of this sucks. None of this doesn’t hurt. But, let’s get some perspective, I’m on my way to fullness and unending plenty.
Augustine once prayed to God “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” There’s deep truth here. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves: there’s still a restlessness, even for Christians. Don’t freak out if you’re restless. It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place. It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong circumstances. There’s a profound frustration with life which circumstances can never solve. The key is to put it in perspective. So we pray:
O God, you’ve made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find the right kind of restlessness in Thee.