It was almost Christmas, I was five years old, and my class at school was preparing for the Nativity play. Our teacher, Mrs. Davies, allocated the parts while we waited with anticipation, all the girls hoping to be chosen to play Mary, or at least one of the angels.
When my name was called, it was to play the part of the donkey. While Katie Hill would get to wear the lovely long, blue dress and put Baby Jesus in the manger, and the other girls would get to wear pretty white dresses with wings and tinsel halos, I would be wearing brown corduroy pants and a brown ribbed turtleneck, with long donkey ears attached to my head. The disappointment and humiliation were overwhelming, and I hid my face in my arms, put my head on my desk and sobbed.
Mrs. Davies did her best to console me, explaining that the donkey was a very important part of the Christmas story. Without the donkey, how would Mary have made it all the way to Bethlehem? But that was no comfort: being the donkey was not the role I’d been hoping for.
I feel very much the same about being single. Yes, an unmarried woman can play an important role in other people’s families. She can be a practical support to her married friends, giving couples much valued time alone together as she gives up her own time to care for their children. Even if she’s not called to a specific ministry or mission, she is a valuable member of the Body of Christ, the Church.
It’s not that I can’t see any purpose in the life of a single woman, but it’s not the role I’d been hoping for and very often the disappointment can be overwhelming.
It can feel humiliating to be passed over for the roles of wife and mother and instead be given the less glamorous, but painfully visible, role of spinster aunt (biological or otherwise). It’s a role I would never have chosen for myself and that very few, if any, other women would choose. A role that’s often the butt of jokes, caricatures and unflattering stereotypes and that comes with challenges that are frequently misunderstood or unacknowledged. Hope disappointed truly does make the heart sick and it can be painful to watch or support from the sidelines as others flourish under the “tree of life” of desires fulfilled (Proverbs 13:12).
Mrs. Davies didn’t know how strongly I would feel about being given the role of the donkey when I longed to be an angel, but God knows exactly how I feel about being single.
This is the role He has given me and I am called to be faithful in it.
In her book, Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye: Trusting God with A Hope Deferred, Carolyn McCulley wrote that we can tend to despise the “one talent” of singleness. As she has said elsewhere, we can be tempted to say, “I’m just going to put it in the ground over here because I never wanted it anyway.” But ultimately I want to hear those words from my Savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:14-30).
The challenge I face as a single woman is this: Despite my disappointment, will I put aside my preferences and my feelings about the role and be faithful in it? Will I sink under the weight of crushed hopes and the frustration of not being able to be the godly wife and mother I longed to be for God’s glory? Or will I remember that this is not my home, but I am a stranger and pilgrim here?
Will I follow the world’s pattern and make self-fulfillment my goal and my god, or will I follow the example of Jesus, who “emptied Himself, taking the form of abond-servant,andbeing made in the likeness of men . . . He humbled Himself by becomingobedient to the point of death, evendeathon a cross”? (Philippians 2:6-8) Whatever I endure is nothing compared to the suffering of my Savior. While I’m unlikely to be called to obey to the point of death, in this unwanted role in life I am called to humble myself, to empty myself, to remember that I am God’s bondservant, and to obey. This is an opportunity to say, even when it hurts, “Not my will but Thine be done” (Matthew 26:39).
There may be no one who really understands the depth of disappointment I feel, but Jesus knows.
He sees what it costs me to watch others receive the roles I’ve longed for and to choose to rejoice with those who rejoice. He sees as I pour my energy into another’s family, when my own life remains empty. It does not escape His notice when I join others in giving thanks for answers to prayer and blessings they have received, while my own prayers remain unanswered and I grieve over blessings denied. And He sees when I do these things out of love for Him and for His glory. Jesus knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, despised and rejected. He knows how it feels to be faced with a task that feels unbearable.
Unlike the disappointment of a five-year-old missing out on a role in the Nativity play, the disappointment of prolonged and, now in my forties, possibly permanent, singleness is not over within a couple of weeks.
The choice to be faithful and to keep my eyes on things above is a daily battle, and it’s wearying. It requires endurance.
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). I may not like the particular race that’s been set before me, but this is the race I’ve been called to run. So will I be faithful, will I endure, and will I run to win?
This unwanted role is certainly not what I was hoping for, and in many ways it’s harder than I feared it might be, but it pushes me to trust when I cannot see, to remember that I’m not home yet and to keep an eternal perspective on life. It causes me to let go of earthly hopes and to store up treasure in heaven “where no thief comes near nor moth destroys” (Matthew 6:19-21). It’s an opportunity to become more like Jesus, to follow His example, and to know, in a very small way, the fellowship of His sufferings.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography