I am grateful for the awareness campaigns that have made great strides in raising the profile of little known, or little understood diseases and conditions. The Ice-Bucket challenge raised awareness for ALS. Down Syndrome has been in the spotlight lately and awareness has been raised that people with Down Syndrome do not “suffer” with it, it just is who they are. These movements have demystified certain conditions and debunked the false conceptions surrounding them, and for that I am thankful.
But I want to tell you about another little understood condition: CIS Syndrome.
The most at risk group for this condition are people over the age of 30. It is a relatively common condition and has very few physical symptoms. Despite this, it can have profound social repercussions for suffers, including (but not limited to); ostracism, awkward silences, friend loss, and loneliness. While I have called these people “sufferers”, many people with this condition would not classify themselves in this way, however, almost without exception, everyone else does.
It is the disparity between how those with the syndrome view themselves and how others view them that causes most of the symptoms described above. No matter how many times a person with CIS Syndrome describes their life as “happy” or “full” they are never believed by those without the condition. Non-sufferers can never accept that people with this condition could ever desire to remain that way. Which is why non-sufferers will constantly be offering radical new treatments, untested solutions, and dubious remedies.
But what is it that galls CISers (as they have come to be called) the most? It’s the pity. It’s the slight tilt of the head and the “awww” when CISers tell their stories.
What is this condition, you ask? What horrible ailment am I describing? What does CIS stand for?
Culturally Inappropriate Singleness.
And if you are not someone with this condition, then you have almost certainly been a perpetrator of CIS-shaming at one point or another. It’s not ok, but we’ve all been guilty of it.
Today, I want to help us avoid CIS-shaming in the future by pointing out something that perhaps we think about too little in a society that places a premium on relationships and coupledom.
Singleness can be a gift from God.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:9-12)
Jesus has just finished teaching on marriage and divorce in such a way that would have shocked everyone. At that time the presumption was that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. But Jesus places a premium on marriage and says that someone who divorces without a legitimate reason actually commits adultery when they remarry. Even though divorce was not common at that time, Jewish men very much liked the idea that they could dispense with their wives at the literal drop of a hat. No doubt, this gave them a certain amount of power in the relationship. But Jesus says that this is a complete corruption of what God designed marriage to be. Marriage is for life.
The culture was so saturated with the idea of easy divorce, that even the disciples are aghast to discover that this is not what God wants for His people. They figure it’s better not to marry at all, rather than to be trapped in a marriage they couldn’t dissolve at any time for any reason.
And how Jesus responds is interesting. We’d almost expect Him to say, “No, marriage is important. You should get married and make them work no matter what.” But what Jesus actually says is surprising because he seems to agree with them. Not that God’s rules around marriage are too harsh, but that it is better for some people not to get married at all.
Not everyone can accept this message, Jesus says. Not everyone can live a life of singleness with integrity. Not everyone can remain single and faithful to God. But some have been given a special gift.
A gift of singleness.
Jesus illustrates His point by using eunuchs. For those who don’t know a eunuch is a man who has either been born without genitalia, or more often, has had his genitalia removed. That awkwardness you’re feeling right now doesn’t compare to the awkwardness of a first century audience hearing this. Eunuchs were not the topic of polite conversation. They were an object of pity and horror.
And yet Jesus holds them up as an illustration.
He provide three types of eunuchs for comparison. There are eunuchs who were born that way, eunuchs made that way, and eunuchs who live that way for the sake of the kingdom.
What Jesus is saying is that singleness is a gift from God. Whether that singleness was the result of birth, or whether someone was made single by a divorce or by some other outside circumstance, or even if they (heaven forbid) should choose to be single.
This is important because I should point out that there are single people that are not happy about it. There are single people who long not to be. The last thing I would want to do is to diminish the pain of that situation. The desire to have children, unfulfilled. The thirst for companionship, unquenched. The search for a suitable mate, unsuccessful. Sometimes singleness is forced on us.
But even though singleness may not have come about by choice, and God may take it away some day, that doesn’t take away from the fact that singleness is a gift from God.
This cuts against the grain of even our church culture that too often puts enormous emphasis on family, and virtually none on singleness but the truth is that singleness can make someone much more effective for the kingdom than being married would. Paul tells us that he wishes that all Christians were like him (i.e., unmarried). Singleness means that a person can focus on serving the church and expanding the kingdom, whereas a married person has their interests divided between their family and their community.
Is this to say a married person isn’t explanding the kingdom by loving their families? Not at all. But there is definitely benefits to singleness in certain areas of service to the church.
The reason we find singleness so problematic is for at least two reasons: 1. Our culture is so sexualised that we can’t imagine someone forgoing sexual pleasure to serve God. and 2. Few people are actually able to do so.
This is why Jesus says that this calling isn’t for everyone. It’s for specific people who are specially called by God to remain single, and chaste, for His glory and for the sake of His kingdom. And others are to remain single, and chaste, for a period of time until God sees fit to change that and this also for His glory and for the sake of His kingdom.
So next time you meet someone who has CIS Syndrome, perhaps reconsider your response. God may well have gifted them to be effective in kingdom work in ways we could never hope to be.
And lets include singles more in the life of the church. Think about inviting them around for dinner. Have them over to your place for lunch after church. Let’s make them feel like they’re really part of the church family, because, you know, they are.