In the past few years, multiple people expressed surprise when they discovered that I didn’t actually want to be single. They assumed I was focused on other things in life—investing in various relationships, growing in my career, writing a Bible study on the side. To them, it looked like my singleness was an asset. And until a guy I was interested in came along, that’s where my focus would remain.
And they’re not completely wrong.
There are many realities in my life that are only possible (or, at least, more easily possible) because of my singleness. Most days, I am genuinely grateful. I spend every holiday with my family. I am loving the process of writing a Bible study on Nehemiah—it was my middle school dream to be an author and I’m literally doing it.
But it would be wrong to assume that I’m focused on these other (good and worthwhile) things without thinking about where on earth I’m going to meet somebody I actually want to marry. It feels like a nagging thought, always at the back of my head, because I really do want to get married and have kids and raise them to love Jesus and create a family culture of hospitality, kindness, and warmth.
But right now, I’m single. Marriage and motherhood are not my reality. Singleness is.
To be honest, I want to be uninterested in dating. I want to be like those people who I simply do not understand—the ones who apparently enjoy their singleness so much that they’d like to keep it for the time being. I’d like to be content. But what does that even mean? Is contentment even possible while my longing for marriage and motherhood only seems to grow over time?
For years, I agonized over these unanswered questions. It’s as though I forgot that the God of the universe longs to speak into my life if only I’ll listen. Finally, I turned to Scripture for answers. This post is my chance to share what I found.
Can longing and contentment coexist?
My growing desire for marriage and motherhood often feels problematic alongside my simultaneous desire to be content. Because of this apparent contradiction, I needed to know: Can longing and contentment coexist?
Paul writes to the church of Philippi:
“…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11b-13)
He mentions a few circumstances in which he practiced contentment: when “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12b).
When facing…hunger. Did you catch that?
Hunger is a very specific and natural and physical longing. Notice what follows in the next phrase: God did not remove his hunger. Rather, in the midst of experiencing hunger—the longing for food and sustenance—God gave him strength to be content.
Was it wrong for Paul to want food? Not at all. Did his longing inhibit his ability to experience contentment? Somehow, no. (More on that soon.)
This tiny detail gave me hope. For years, I’ve wanted to be married, to be a mom. As much as I would like to lessen the longing, I can’t seem to do so with much success. Yet after reading Philippians 4, it seems that that’s okay. Paul was simultaneously hungry and content. Maybe I, too, can learn to live in this tension: to long for marriage and motherhood and, somehow, be content.
Of course, that begs an obvious question: If longing and contentment can coexist, then how?
What does it mean to be content?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines content (the adjective) as follows: “pleased with your situation and not hoping for change or improvement.” Yet, I also know that sometimes the biblical definition of a word (the meaning intended by a biblical author) is different from the common definition of a word. As I read this passage, it seemed possible that Paul had something deeper in mind when he spoke of contentment.
Sure enough, the Greek word that Paul uses for “content” in verse 11 is “autarkēs,” meaning “sufficient in oneself” or “self-sufficient, adequate, needing no assistance.” At face value, then, we might understand Philippians 4:11 as Paul saying that he has learned how to be “self-sufficient” in whatever situation.
However, Paul takes this common use of the term and gives it a twist. Remember verse 13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (emphasis added). Paul needs nothing from those around him because he has been equipped with the strength of Christ.
According to Paul, that strength is the secret to contentment. No matter your external circumstances—whether you have more than you need or you are abundantly aware of all that you lack—Christ can give you the strength to say and believe the words of Paul that we find earlier in the book of Philippians: “…it is my eager expectation and hope that…Christ will be honored with my body, whether by life or by death. To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21).
In this passage, Paul casts the vision for a life of obedience and joyful surrender. Whatever his life looks like here on earth, he is determined to live for the glory of God—not because it is comfortable or easy and certainly not because he is strong enough to do it on his own. This kind of life is only possible because Paul truly believes that “[he] can do all things through Christ who strengthens [him]” (Philippians 4:13).
I understand that a life of surrender may not sound the most appealing. You don’t want a change in perspective; you want a husband.
Honestly, same. 😉
But here’s what I know: While it’s easy to turn inward and ruminate on all that I lack, I have found that doing so only results in feelings of sadness, bitterness, and self-pity. I can’t help but think that there is a better way.
If (and since) I can’t have everything that I want exactly when I want it, it feels necessary that I learn to live well in the midst of unfulfilled longings. If my options are bitterness on one side and joyful surrender (as challenging as that can be) on the other, I think I’ll choose the latter.
The question is, how? How can joyful surrender become my reality? When I feel burdened by discontentment—whatever the situation—joyful surrender sounds FAR from possible, or even appealing. And thinking about my situation only seems to deepen the roots of bitterness in my heart as my mind wanders to all that I lack.
The Key to Joyful Surrender
Throughout the book of Psalms, we see a particular pattern of worship: Followers of the Lord cry out to Him for answers or deliverance or relief. Yet even before they receive whatever it is that they asked for, they set their gaze on the Lord—finding a deeper sense of joy and satisfaction in Him.
That is the key: Joyful surrender requires an intentional change in focus.
Read Psalm 13 below:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Notice the shift between verses 1-4 and 5-6. The psalmist feels forgotten by the Lord, full of sorrow, weighed down by the reality of his enemies exalting over him. This feeling doesn’t go away by the third stanza, yet the author chooses to shift his gaze away from his immediate situation—the loneliness and sorrow and fear—and toward God.
While the psalmist’s feelings are valid and real, his current situation does not negate the fact that God “has dealt bountifully with [him]” (Psalm 13:6b). So he proclaims what he knows to be true even while his feelings don’t quite line up.
In my years of singleness and dating, I have turned to God with my fair share of questions: Why does this part of my life never seem to work out? Is there something wrong with me? Couldn’t I serve You just as well in marriage as I can in singleness?
I remember one of my more honest conversations with the Lord on my drive to work one morning in which I approached Him with these questions and others like them (tears were definitely involved). Yet as I exited the highway, I remember saying, “God, I know that you are good—that you love me more than I will ever comprehend. I will honor you with every day that I’m given, married or not.”
The pain didn’t leave at that moment, yet I felt a sense of peace threatening to seep into the pit of loneliness in my stomach. And I am convinced that this peace was far from coincidence.
I had followed the pattern of the psalmists.
My situation was not “resolved”: I was still single. If there were any dating prospects at the time, they didn’t seem promising. It was in that moment—before feeling any sense of assurance that God might give me the gift that I longed for—that I turned to Him.
When I shifted my gaze, I was able to see past my current situation—even if only for a moment. Yes, it still hurt. But I could not look at who God actually is and what He has actually done without coming to a clear conclusion: Honoring Him today with my joyful surrender is by far more important and even more beautiful than any alternative.
It may sound over-simplified, but where we set our minds matters.
I think this is why Paul writes the following exhortation just a few verses before revealing the secret to contentment, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9, emphasis added). Only once we intentionally change our focus can we begin to understand true contentment.
Shifting our gaze away from our current situation and toward the Lord will not instantly remove our longing. But that’s okay—remember? Like Paul, it is possible to feel simultaneously hungry and content. We can long for marriage and motherhood even while we set our minds on the Lord, finding true joy and satisfaction in Him.
I will leave you with a verse that has become a strong source of comfort during my attempts at navigating this life of joyful surrender. Some days, when I don’t feel particularly inclined toward obedience (and self-pity seems entirely more desirable), I repeat this verse again and again until I start to believe the truth of its words:
“[Lord,] You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”
~ Isaiah 26:3