gift of singleness

Sharing shortcuts:
(Reading Time: 5 minutes)

Here’s a gift most people don’t want to find under their Christmas tree or next to their birthday cake. Yep, it’s the “gift of singleness.”

definition of gift of singlenessI can’t find any use of the term gift of singleness before 1977, which is interesting to say the least because the reference to singleness as being a “gift” comes from the very earliest English translations of the Bible. For example, in the King James Version of the Bible that was published in 1611 we see the DNA of this Christianese phrase in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9. I’ve bolded the relevant words:

For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift [in Greek, literally charisma] of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (King James Version)

Paul is saying that for people to be able to stay single throughout life, they pretty much have to rely on the power of God to help them do it. He says that if someone feels like they lack that God-given power to stay single, then they should just go ahead and get married instead of stressing out about it. For anyone who is single or has been single and has yearned to be married, I think we can agree that it would take the power of God to remain in that solitary state against our will!

The word “gift” that Paul uses in this verse is the Greek word charisma, and it doesn’t refer to presents or gifts as we think of them on Christmases and birthdays. We think of a “gift” in that sense as something you look forward to and that is a pleasure to give and receive. But the word “gift” being used in 1 Corinthians 7:7 is the same word that is used in the New Testament to talk about such things as the “gift of tongues” and the “gift of prophecy” and “spiritual gifts” and the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” This kind of “gift” might be better described as a “power” or a “responsibility” or maybe even an “obligation” that God gives to Christians.

These gifts (again, charismata) are special abilities that God distributes to Christians so that they can do different things. Some of those powers are well known: the power to speak in tongues or the power to prophecy or the power to be a preacher or a teacher or an evangelist. You might already have picked up on the connection between the word charismata and the name “charismatics,” which is a widespread movement of Christians who were interested in emphasizing the use of the “gifts” (the charismata) of the Holy Spirit. This movement began in the 20th century and is still around. These charismatics are found in all kinds of Christian denominations, and they do interesting things like speak in tongues and give and interpret prophecies. Maybe you even know some!

Well, now Christians have another “gift” to include with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit: “the gift (i.e., ‘power or ability’) to remain single.” The gift of singleness!

Despite the close proximity of the word “gift” and words like “unmarried” and “widows” in all the early English translations of 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, nobody apparently thought to connect them in the phrase “gift of singleness” until a few decades ago in the 1970s. To be honest, “singleness” as a concept or social identity really does sound like it comes out of the psychology and therapy revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. Didn’t they call that time frame the “me generation” after all? So perhaps the term “gift of singleness” was a term that had to wait until Christians were more deeply interested in talking about themselves and their inner struggles.

No matter how the term came about in the 1970s, it’s most likely here to stay. And one of people’s favorite ways to use the term is to comment ironically about whether singleness is really such a “gift” after all. People who joke about the so-called “gift” of singleness are making an interesting play on words on the Christian meaning of the term “gift” as a charisma (power, ability, responsibility) and the popular meaning of “gift” as “a present, or something you hope someone will give you for free.” Hey, Christians are cracking jokes!

All kidding aside, have you struggled with whether or not you had the gift of singleness? Have you ever felt that you had the gift of singleness but wished you could take it back to the store and exchange it for something else?

If you’re interested in other Christianese terms that have to do with singleness, check out unclaimed blessing.


gift of singleness n. An assurance that one is called by God to lead a celibate life.
Sometimes the word gift in this phrase is remarked on or expressed ironically or humorously (see citations for 1999, 2005, 2011).
1977 Stafford A Love Story: Questions and Answers on Sex 92 : Some people, of course, try to peer into the future and find out whether God has given them the gift of singleness. They want to know, I guess, whether someday God is going to award them a spouse, or whether they should forget about relating to the opposite sex. 1983 Christie Dating and Waiting: A Christian View of Love, Sex, and Dating 75 : That depends on whether you have the gift of singleness. You cannot peer into the future to know whether God has given you that gift of singleness; so you must live just one day at a time. 1984 Briscoe Wings 25 : Some of us have tended to be rudely resentful, or even have been known to refuse God’s gift of singleness, pouting and complaining petulantly that we would much rather have been graced with the gift of marriage. 1999 Anders, Conti, Clement Single and Content: Experiencing Singleness in a Paired-Off World 207 : The gift of singleness seems like another oxymoron. It’s like someone saying they have the gift of poverty. 2002 Hardaway I Kissed a Lot of Frogs, but the Prince Hasn’t Come 100 : The Bible does not contain a formal definition of a “gift of singleness.” Nowhere does any biblical writer clearly say anything like “The gift of singleness means that God makes you happy without marriage.” 2005 Hoffeditz They Were Single Too: 8 Biblical Role Models 7 : When people refer to a man or woman who has “the gift of singleness” … the “gift” is portrayed as a curse rather than a blessing. 2011 Keller The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God 199 : Paul calls singleness a gift in 1 Corinthians 7:7. Many have thought that Paul is talking about a complete lack of interest in or desire for marriage…. No wonder so many joke and say, “I don’t think I have that gift!”
Sharing shortcuts: