The Market Value of Clay
Dr. Jim Denison
There are more than 75 million single adults in our country this weekend. Half of the adults in America are single. In our community, 19% is widowed or divorced, and 32% has never married. In other words, 51% of our total population is composed of single adults.
Yet, despite their overwhelming importance to us, the church typically does not address single adults adequately. We have always struggled to know how best to serve singles through our ministries. I think the root of the problem is simply that the church today doesn’t view single adults properly.
To be completely honest, the common view of relationships within the church is that marriage is best. It’s the highest form of relationship. To be married is to be complete. The counter side is that to be single is to be incomplete, unfinished, less than whole. We may not have said that, but we have certainly implied it.
When we meet an adult we want to know, “Are you married?” If you’re not, we married adults all too easily assume there’s some reason.
Family members can be tough on single adults. Parents want to know when you’re going to get married. Siblings pressure subtly. And your church family can pressure you as well. Books and sermons are written from the perspective which says, “If you will commit your life to Christ, God will give you a marriage partner.” But Jesus never said that. He said, If you will commit your life to me I will fill it with meaning and purpose. He never promised marriage, or required it, or experienced it himself.
Today I want us to learn to see singles the way God does. The results will have tremendous relevance for every one of us.
Can a single adult save the world?
God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). If we had been writing the script for Joseph, molding the clay of his life, we would never have included thirteen years of slavery and prison. But God did.
Remember briefly the story of this single adult’s life.
Joseph is put in the prison where the “king’s prisoners” are held (Genesis 39:20). Soon he meets one of them.
The “cupbearer” was one of the most important people in an ancient kingdom. He would taste everything put before Pharoah to eat, to ensure that it had not been poisoned. We don’t know what he did to be in jail, but here he is.
The “chief baker” was likewise a man of great importance in the ancient world. His job was to oversee all the baking which took place for Pharoah. Ancient documents list 38 varieties of cake and 57 of bread used by the Egyptians. Again, we don’t know why he’s in jail, but he is.
Note that the “captain of the guard” assigns each of them to Joseph (v. 4). This captain is none other than Potiphar, further evidence of the trust Joseph earned in his eyes by his years of moral character and integrity.
Each of them has a dream, but neither can decipher its meaning. Joseph can, however, with the help of God. Here is a clear indication of the superiority of his God over the Egyptians deities: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams” (Genesis 40:8).
The cupbearer tells his dream; Joseph tells him it means that he will be restored to his position. The baker tells him his dream; Joseph is honest enough to tell him it means that he will be executed. In both cases, Joseph is right.
Now, finally, Joseph will be recognized for the divine call God has on his life, we think. But no. Two more years pass.
Then Pharoah has a dream of his own—seven fat cows, eaten by seven starving cows; seven healthy heads of grain, swallowed by seven thin heads of grain. No one, not the wisest men or the greatest magicians of the land, can tell Pharoah what this means.
Only then does the cupbearer remember Joseph. Pharoah summons him from the prison, and asks his help. Hear Joseph’s humble and honest reply: “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharoah the answer he desires” (Genesis 41:16). Pharoah tells Joseph his dreams, and Joseph gives him the word of God: there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.
Next Joseph tells Pharoah what he should do about these events: “And now let Pharoah look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:33). Under his leadership commissioners would take a fifth of the harvest during the seven years of plenty, and use it to feed the people during the seven years of famine.
Here’s the result: “The plan seemed good to Pharoah and to all his officials. So Pharoah asked them, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?'” (Genesis 41:37).
And so Pharoah elevates Joseph to the two highest offices of state: director of the palace (and thus charge of Pharoah’s finances) and grand vizier (the authorized representative of the Pharoah himself). If the president were to elevate an imprisoned felon to the status of Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State combined, we would not be more astonished.
Joseph wears Pharoah’s own ring of authority, and the great chain of state. He is preceded in Pharoah’s chariot by a guard who calls everyone to “make way” or “bow the knee.” This was something like being given the presidential motorcade and Air Force One.
And he is given “robes of fine linen” to replace the “coat of many colors stolen thirteen years earlier. Thus Pharoah “put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:43). From this position he will act to save Egypt from starvation, and his own Hebrew people as well.
And this elevation and transformation all started while Joseph was a single adult, 30 years of age. What does his story say to our church, our culture, about the way God sees single adults, and the rest of us as well?
Can God use more Josephs?
Can God still use men and women like Joseph, adults who have not been married?
Corrie ten Boom’s family harbored Jews in Amsterdam. For this her family was killed in concentration camps, and she was subjected to unspeakable horrors. Her book about her experience and faith, The Hiding Place, sold over two million copies; fifteen million saw the movie. She changed her world. And she never married.
Can unmarried adults serve God? I think of Luther Rice, missionary to India; Mother Teresa, in India and the world; Bishop Asbury, father of American Methodism.
I remind you of James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, presidents of the United States; of George Frederick Handel and Isaac Watts; of Horatio Alger, Lewis Carroll, Steven F. Austin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Think of Judge Baylor, the founder of Baylor University; of Wilbur and Orville Wright; of Florence Nightingale. Martin Luther was single when he began the Protestant Reformation; John Calvin, its greatest scholar, never married. John R. W. Stott may be the world’s greatest living evangelical preacher. Can God still use single adults? You decide.
Can God use divorced adults? In most churches divorce is the unpardonable sin, it seems. Someone said that the church is the only army which buries its wounded, and it feels that way to some of you. Can God use those who have experienced the tragic pain of divorce?
I agree with the many scholars who believe Paul was divorced—that when he came to faith in Christ, his wife considered him dead to her and left the marriage.
What of Keith Miller, whose books have touched millions? Harold Ivan Smith, whose books and conferences have liberated thousands of divorcees? Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois and twice candidate for President? Ronald Reagan?
Some of my most outstanding professors in college and seminary had known the pain of divorce in their lives. Some of the ministry staff and deacons in our congregation have been divorced. And God is still using them in our lives, and in mine.
I’m grateful that in our church no door is shut to those who have known the heartache of a divorce. God loves; God heals; God restores. If God could use Paul, can’t he use you?
Can God use the bereaved, those who have lost their husband or wife to death? So often you feel outside of life. Your friends go on with their marriages and families, while you’re different now. And the loneliness of this pain is very hard. Can God still use you?
What of Abraham and Jacob in the Bible? Didn’t they serve the Lord years after their wives died?
What of Sarah Hale, the young widow with five children who founded Thanksgiving Day? Corazon Aquino in the Philippines and Golda Meir in Israel, widows who forever shaped their world? C. S. Lewis, the widower whose Christian books shaped my life and millions of others?
What is necessary for you to be used as Joseph was used by God?
First, find your strength and identity in God, not your culture or circumstances.
Joseph said to the cupbearer and baker, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Genesis 40:8). Later he said to Pharoah, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharoah the answer he desires” (Genesis 41:16). Still later he told his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharoah, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:8). Find the power and purpose for your life in God, and no one else.
Our identity is not found in our marital status, in our appearance or income, or in any other circumstance. Our identity is found in the fact that we are the children of God. Joseph knew this. Do you?
Second, trust God to redeem every circumstance for his glory.
Some of you have experienced significant family trauma. So did Joseph. Unless your siblings have tried to kill you and then sold you into slavery, and unless you have spent thirteen years in slavery and prison, you’ve not seen harder times than Joseph did.
And yet, listen to his words at the end of Genesis: “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:19-20).
Trust God to redeem your life and circumstances, whatever they might be.
In short, believe in the God who believes in you. Accept no limits placed on you by your culture, or by your church. Wherever you are, know that God will use you there, if you will let him. What he did with Joseph, he wants to do with you. And with the rest of us as well.
So, be sure that you have made Jesus Christ the Lord of your life. Jesus the single adult, the Son of God, stands ready to give you new life and purpose. Settle your eternal soul’s relationship with him, today.
Then ask God today to use you as he used Joseph. Our community and nation need more Josephs, and so does our church. Ask him to mold the clay of your life and heart for his glory and your good.
Emily Dickinson, America’s greatest female poet and a single adult, once wrote these lines:
If I can stop one heart from breakingI shall not live in vainIf I can ease one life the achingor cool one painOr help one fainting robinUnto his nest againI shall not live in vain.We never know how high we areTill we are called to riseAnd then if we are true to planOur statures touch the skies.
My friend, whatever your circumstances in life today, you are “called to rise.” Say “yes” as Jesus calls you to serve him, and your stature will indeed “touch the skies.” This is the promise of God.