I rarely use the word claim and God’s presence together in the same sentence so my title is a bit of a stretch for me. But the title communicates an intentional direction, focus, awareness, practice.
I have one more post on single women and God’s pleasure in me. As I mentioned in my last post, my book opened up this wide door for conversations with a wide variety of single women—white women, women of color, divorced women, single moms, women in ministry, you name it.
I have listened to a lot of painful stories from single women—again using the term single to encompass all women who are unattached—and their ache and their longing to be in a marriage.
My heart is full of compassion toward them. The shattered expectations, the loss of hope, the pain of not being romantically chosen, the shame, the pain of childlessness, the pain of divorce and widowhood, the power games men compete over trophyism that happens in dating to contribute to this pain for single women. I have also listened to single women over the years entrapped in benevolent sexism in their churches or jobs.
Let there be no mistake that I have wept with single women as they have shared with me their painful stories over dating to benevolent sexism in the church or workplace. I have no doubt I will weep with single women in the future over their stories. The church’s large-scale indifference to singles accompanied with little attention toward theologies of singleness contribute to this suffering.
And so does the pervasive scarcity narrative.
I would have no business writing on God’s pleasure and single women in friendship if I also didn’t have so many rich, rich conversations with single women share their sense of peace and joy with me over these years. They have shared with me how they learned to cope with the loss.
They also have shared with me how they have learned to become aware of God’s pleasure/nearness in the midst of scarcity narrative for single women. They have shared with me that in the midst of the pain, they have seen Christ’s beauty on display in their lives.
I have learned from these conversations along with the stories of resilient hope I have read from other single women. Plus, I am also aware that just as feminism has no monolithic posture, so too, a number of single women are talking about resilient hope and empowerment in friendships as a response to the scarcity narrative.
Janice Raymond in her classic book, A Passion for Friends talks about the need for women to not get stuck in “therapism;” I have also read E. Kay Trimberger's, The New Single Woman. A great book on engaging scarcity. Also I’ve read Rebecca Traister’s bestselling new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. In the introduction she writes, “Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation.”
Single women have been incredibly valuable to me in closeness through the years. I am so much a different man than I was ten years ago because of the love and delight single women have poured into me quite intentionally.
Whether it be several years ago, or in the last couple of years, I have had single women pour themselves into me with deep affection, encouragement, and delight—especially as it has pertained to a holistic vision of single women and cross-sex friendship.
In what sense could cross-sex friendship be a strong part of liberation for single female life? I do not want to disparage the pain, despair, loss of hope among single women, but I also have heard with my own ears and seen with my own eyes how single women have borne witness to the sheer goodness and deep pleasure of God in their lives. They are witnesses to God's deep pleasure and goodness to single women in the land of the living and not in the abstract.
It is daunting for me to intentionally put together a cluster of positive emotions that include pleasure, joy, and delight and talk about single women and the pleasure of God. Pleasure is usually associated with sexual pleasure but we also need room for the many splendored pleasures of God that resists such a narrow meaning of pleasure.
I am not at all intending to disparage sexual pleasure but I don’t want to conflate ultimate pleasure (as in a vivid awareness of God’s nearness/pleasure) with sexual pleasure. I do get the challenge for a married man to reflect on the pleasure of God for single women. I hope my post reflects some of the rich, rich conversations I have had with a wide variety of single women.
If one is going to disentangle divine pleasure and from sexual pleasure, then there needs to be a healthy discernment that appreciates sexual pleasure in all of its glory while also affirming the deep pleasure of God in relationships with no eroticism attached. It’s not a stark either-or as the scarcity narrative depicts.
It seems to me after a number of years into this that exploring the connection between sexuality, pleasure, platonic friendship takes us deeper into the mystery of God’s heart. Deeper into God’s many splendored delight. My ongoing conversations with single women across a broad spectrum support this.
“Joy,” writes Mary Clark Moschella, “is an experience of deep connection to the goodness of life, the goodness of God.” Meanwhile, Sallie McFague has written, “Attraction, joy, freedom, trust: a friendship is a relationship that at one level is simply mutual delight in the presence of each to the other… Nor is it any surprise that visions of paradise often reflect the qualities of deep friendship: the dance of the saved circling God in mutual attraction and joy.”
These two quotes in a nutshell, could describe many conversations I have had with single women who no longer want to live under the heaviness of scarcity thinking that is so common in our culture. These single women are on the journey toward “the visions of paradise.” It may include cross-gender friends or it may not.They have deconstructed the scarcity narrative and they are claiming God’s nearness and pleasure in friendship.
Looking back through the years, I would say I had a “mustard seed” size of understanding and experiencing mature delight in cross-sex friendship but oh, I now know mature delight in friendship with single women feels like, smells like, looks like. And not just from my story but from the stories and conversations with single women, too.
Mature Delight in Cross-Sex Friendship is not a Silver Bullet
At least part of the deeper conversation toward mature delight in cross-sex friendship for single women is being able to distinguish what deep pleasure within friendship and what it is not. It's not a silver bullet to replace the void of deep pleasure in marital friendship.
All of us, married or single deeply share a common desire for mature delight and happiness in the midst of scarcity. Just look at all the self-books on directing married and singles to ‘the joy of….” or how to be happy, etc. Look at the proliferation of positive pop-psychologies.
Cross-sex friendship is no silver bullet for single women. It’s not a sugarcoating. Nor is there any formualic approach.
Part of the dance for single women to experience deep pleasure in cross-sex friendship is no different than working through other internalized messages of scarcity that tells single women deep pleasure is not for them, deep delight is not for available for them.
Part of the dance for single women is countering layers and layers of negativity that is internalized in the scarcity narrative that pleasure in embodied love via platonic friendship is not meaningful, deep, or empowering.
To affirm mature delight/gladness in cross-sex friendship is not however to declare it to be a silver bullet. This is not going to meet all your relational needs and you'll be happy ever after. Deep pleasure is not going to take away your desire or longing to know deep pleasure in marriage.
Mature delight rejects formulaic happiness within marriage as it does outside of marriage. Our deepest relationships as single or married are going to have this sense of incompleteness, a sense of inadequacy, a sense of not engaging our fullest and best selves. The scarcity narrative capitalizes on these issues.
But if we are going to process mature delight looks like in marriage or friendship, we have to work at discovering a holistic delight that is grounded in a deeper realism than the silver bullet fairy-tales in marriage or in friendship.
Learning to cultivate a deeper realism of what mature delight looks like in one's network of relationships (including cross-sex friendships) is a move toward healthy enjoyment of shalom. Shalom is the opposite of isolation, alienation, and scarcity.
Mature Delight in Cross-Sex Friendship is Counter-Scarcity
For both married and single people, to verbalize or picture the deep pleasure of God in cross-sex friendship, you are going to encounter other singles or married folk who have internalized the scarcity narrative. For single women seeking to mature past scarcity mind-set, your self-care and your own grounded delight in your friendship with Jesus is the way forward.
This is where the mystery of cross-sex friendship deepens.
Go back and read the Gospels. You're not going to find the scarcity narrative from Jesus' lips as something you are to embrace or passively accept. Jesus brings forth the possibility of joy to the most marginalized people. Pay attention to joy in the Gospels. Pay attention to joy, pleasure, gladness in the presence of Jesus and the kingdom. Pay attention to how joy in Jesus' presence is against the scarcity narrative.
Part of the positive and constructive movement for single women is being able to experience and verbalize one's own delight in the presence of significant others—even if others around them are internalizing scarcity. Single women are going to meet other single women and married folk who have internalized the scarcity narrative.
At least part of the reaction for those who have internalized scarcity is going to be like those in the parable of laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. "And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat'" (Matthew 20:11-12).
They're going to say things like how could you be naive to think you could experience something like this with all the scarcity (they'll use other words but behind them is scarcity) going on? Or, "I've experienced scarcity (again they are not going to use that word--but the narrative is behind it) all my marriage or all my single life. How can you experience this deep pleasure? Just wait."
Or, "I thought abundant pleasure was found in dating and sex and finding the right guy. Really, how can you find deep pleasure in cross-gender friendship? I've worked hard pressing through all the anxiety about sex and not having children and now you are saying deep pleasure in cross-sex friendship?"
There are so many variations of the scarcity narrative out there.
Claiming God's Nearness and Making Room for Joy and Deep Pleasure
Cross-sex friendship doesn't guarantee one mature in delight anymore than sex in either dating or marriage does. Proximity or nearness that includes sex doesn't guarantee mature delight or deep pleasure.
But pay attention to the holy Scriptures when it talks about God's nearness and God's pleasure/joy/delight. Pay attention to joy in the Gospels. The stories and verses are there for us. They are not there because God is playing some cruel game with us.
We can discern the joy of God's nearness in friendship (men or women) and what it means to be sharers of God's nearness and joy.
Cross-sex friends (including single women) can learn to cultivate a joyous sense of God's nearness in friendship. This doesn't drop out of the sky when the scarcity narrative abounds. It really does begin seeing the sacredness of small acts of kindness, tenderness, the smile in the eyes, the moments of sensitivity, the intentional turn toward seeing God's presence in the small things when the joy and pleasure of friendship is at a mustard seed size.
Karl Rahner wrote, “This is the life of the priest: to dwell completely in the explicit nearness of God.” This is a great description for all of us and as single women learn to identify what is the “explicit nearness of God” versus the scarcity narrative they are going to know rich opportunities to know deep pleasure of God in cross-sex friendship. The shared meaning of God's nearness in friendship can be noticed, nurtured, and cultivated. Surprised by joy.
Have you noticed in the scarcity narrative how many of these powerful Gospel stories of God's nearness and all these verses about God's nearness become meaningless or inept for single women? The scarcity dynamic tells women there is so much promise here, so much pleasure but no deep joy or deep pleasure in cross-sex friendship.
I am thrilled to know single women who want to know God's nearness, how God's joyous presence is not held captive by the scarcity narrative. We can be intentional witnesses of Christ's nearness and joy on earth in a culture trapped by scarcity.