Thriving (and Single) Part 3: Participating
I remember sitting around a table at a coffee shop with several other single women when I was in college. The conversation turned to marriage and one woman said, “You know, I think I’ve gone as far as I can go with God before I get married. The Lord is going to have to give me a husband before I can do anything else or grow any more.” And several women around the table nodded their heads in agreement.
I can’t remember if my jaw actually hit the floor or if I managed to merely look surprised, but the commonality of these feelings among my friends surprised me. Whether we say it out loud or not, many of us function as though what these women believed is true. We think and behave as if God is limited in what he can do with us as single people. We don’t expect to contribute very much to God’s family until or unless we get married.
This perspective reminds me of what many barren women experienced in the Old Testament. These women were living under the Old Covenant at a time when God's family grew mostly through people having lots and lots of babies. Ever since the first family on earth received the creation mandate in Genesis 1 to be fruitful and multiply, women and men had been doing just that. Sometimes people who weren’t born into the family joined it, but for the most part, God’s people increased as they bore children and trained them to know and worship the Lord.
Women who could not bear children didn’t get to participate in this growth, and as a result, experienced tremendous grief and shame. Some were mocked or criticized by family members. Others saw their barrenness as a sign of God's disfavor. They were compared to other women who seemed to have no trouble conceiving.
Some of the struggles of barren women in the Old Testament sound familiar to single people today. It can feel like you don’t really get to participate in the growth of God’s kingdom unless you have a spouse and a family. The temptation to compare ourselves to others who seemed to find marriage partners easily is strong. You may have even wondered whether being unmarried was some sign of God’s disfavor or felt ashamed to show up to yet another event without a date.
The Barren Woman
As I looked into the topic of barrenness in Scripture, I came across a startling prophecy in Isaiah 54.
“‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,’ says the LORD.
‘Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.’”
This prophecy is about a new era, one in which the concepts of family, birth, and growth have to be redefined and reconsidered. Barrenness will no longer be a barrier to fruitfulness. People who don’t have children will rejoice like they’re pregnant, and people who’ve never given birth will cry out like they’re in labor. The pains and joys of childbearing will be part of their lives, even though their wombs are empty.
In this era, Isaiah says, people who cannot produce children will need to add extra rooms to their houses. He tells them not to hold back in their preparations for the future. This family is going to outgrow its existing structures. They’ll move into ghost towns and re-populate them, and their offspring will overtake entire nations.
In this passage’s original context, the barren woman represents Israel. Isaiah’s prophecy came as God’s people were headed into exile, but it has more than one meaning. While God did care for and multiply his people during that period, the hope and promise of this passage extends even further into Israel’s future than their time in Babylon.
The New Birth
In John’s gospel, we read about a conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to talk with Jesus one night, and he begins by affirming that Jesus came from God and that his ministry demonstrates divine power. But Jesus answers him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And then he doubles down and says again, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3,5)
Like most of his contemporaries, Nicodemus probably thought being a law-abiding descendant of Abraham (not to mention a Pharisee) was enough to secure his place in God’s family. He would not have seen himself as an outsider looking for a way to get in. So when Jesus starts talking about entering the kingdom through a second birth, Nicodemus doesn’t get it. What was wrong with his first birth? And what’s he supposed to do anyway, crawl back into his mother’s womb?
Jesus says this new birth isn’t like that. He’s talking about something spiritual, not something physical. This new birth is less like a bloodline you can trace from one generation to the next and more like a breeze that appears suddenly and blows wherever it pleases.
There were hints in the Old Testament that something like this was coming. The descendants of Abraham were the original family God promised to bless, but through the prophets, God announced his intention to build a family that would include children who were not born to Israelite parents.
In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals the mechanism. God’s plan to have a worldwide family would come to pass not through the multiplication of any physical family on earth, but through spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus could probably trace his genealogy back to Abraham, but unless he could trace it back to heaven, he wouldn’t see or enter the kingdom. He had to be born again.
In the verses that follow, Jesus tells Nicodemus that He will be like the snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He will become both the symbol of humanity’s sickness and the means of our healing. Jesus was referencing his death on a cross, which might seem like a swift change of subject. However, Colossians 1:18 says that when Jesus died and rose from the grave, he became “the firstborn from among the dead.” His tomb became a womb, and his resurrection was the re-birth that made it possible for the rest of us to be born again.
Jesus ushered in the era that Isaiah foresaw, and the new birth proves it. We have been added to God’s family by spiritual rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ. And if none of us could join this family through biological birth, then none of us can add to it through biological birth, either. That means, those of us who don’t have the ability to produce children (whether because of singleness or infertility or some other factor) don’t have to wonder if we can make significant contributions to the growth of God’s family.
A Growing Family
In the next chapter of John’s gospel, we read about another conversation Jesus had, this time with a woman at a well in Samaria. When she met Jesus, she’d been married five times and was living with a man who was not her husband. This is just speculation, but I’ve wondered if she was also barren. Rabbis in Jesus’ day permitted men to divorce their wives for infertility, and a similar practice might have been common in Samaria. It’s one possible explanation for why she had been married so many times, and why she was dependant on whichever man would let her live with him, rather than living with her grown children.
Whether or not the woman at the well was barren, we know that she got to participate in the growth of God’s family. Once she understood who Jesus was, she ran into town, telling everyone to come and see this man “who told me everything I ever did.” The townspeople sought Jesus out because of her testimony and urged him to stay for a few days. “Because of his words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:41-42).
Her testimony about Jesus “enlarged the tent” and “strengthened the stakes” to make room for a village in Samaria that day. This woman who could not keep a husband found a permanent place in God’s family, and she held the door open for all her neighbors, too.
Like the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the barren woman in Isaiah 54, we are living in an era when all God’s children get to participate in the growth of his family. Because of the nature of this family and the way it reproduces, no one’s marital status is a hindrance to their participation. We have as our leader and older brother, Jesus Christ. Although he never married or had children, he started a family that has never stopped growing, and “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).