The Theology of the Third Wheel

“The third wheel is what makes it a tricycle.” – Michael Scott (“The Office”)

In his first epistle in Scripture, Peter writes a lot about suffering. In his context, he’s referencing the persecution of the church, exhorting his brothers and sisters to hold fast to the truth and to press on in faith. One verse especially stood out to me this morning. Peter writes,

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
1 Peter 4:19

This encouragement to stand firm in the faith amidst suffering and persecution, with its call to keep doing what is right while trusting our faithful Creator, is a beautiful picture of how to apply James 1:2-4, where James calls Christians to count their trials as joy because of the work God is doing through them. I don’t ever want to prooftext a passage of Scripture. I don’t think that Peter was writing this with singles in mind. But I do believe that the truth Peter is pointing to is something that singles would do well to remember.

Singleness can feel like suffering to some. When everyone you know is happily married or newly engaged or just beginning to walk in love with another and yet you yourself still seem to be “stuck” in the same place as before, your emotional mind and heart can play devastating games. Suddenly your self-worth and self-image are called into question. Suddenly your good Father doesn’t seem so good. Suddenly your passion for His kingdom wanes before a passion for your own. Idolatry and jealousy can quickly creep into your life by this avenue. And your dating/engaged/married friends don’t always help.

These friends mean well. They invite you to hang out with them like old times, and they truly try to include you in their lives. But you may suddenly find yourself uncomfortable around them, unsure of how you should act when they show affection to each other or get into a disagreement. When once you were just part of the crew, now you feel like the odd man out. In other cases, couples may get together and invite you and other singles to hang out with them, which you’d think would help the weirdness. But then you show up and find that there are only two singles among the couples, one guy and one girl, and things jump to a new level of awkwardness as you wonder whether or not you’re being set up.

Don’t misunderstand my heart here. I love my dating/engaged/married friends, and, more often than not, I really enjoy spending time with them, even as a third wheel. But I also have to admit that they can make things really awkward for me. And if I’m already wrestling with my emotions, they may only add to the trial I’m working through.

So what is there to do? How do you successfully navigate as a single in a group of friends who have left that category? I think we need to go back to Scripture for the answer, drawing out right theology for proper practice.

First, a word to singles. Remember that marriage is not the end goal. I love how Paul talks about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. He writes,

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Paul’s purpose in writing this chapter was not primarily to dissuade people from marriage, but to “secure [their] undivided devotion to the Lord.” He wants people to recognize that their first priority is to Christ. Your purpose is found in relationship to the Lord, not necessarily in relationship to a husband or wife. Many of us worry about relationships, but such worry is foolish. In talking about worry, Jesus says,

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Matthew 6:33

We can trust our Father to provide what we need when we need it. If he hasn’t brought us to relationship with another at this time, we can trust that this is best. Rather than worrying about the future, trust God and devote yourself to the work he has called you to do. And, if most of your friends are dating/engaged/married, watch and learn from them. Lord willing, you’ll be better prepared if God leads you to marry because you’ve learned from the examples around you.

Now, a quick word to couples. We love you. Really, we do. And we want to learn from you. But don’t you assume that life is about marriage either. You’re still called to serve the Lord first (see 1 Corinthians 7). Don’t feel like you can’t invite us to hang out, or that we hate spending time as the third wheel, but please don’t try to set us up with another single friend of yours. Also, know that we don’t necessarily love watching you guys flirt. Rather, serve the Lord, honoring God in how you love your spouse. Let us see you seeking “the kingdom of God and his righteousness” first and foremost in your life and relationship. And don’t worry about our relationship status. God is big enough to handle that.

Ultimately, set God first, follow him, and trust him with the rest. If he isn’t leading you to marry, then rejoice in the freedom you have as a single to serve him with more time and focus than you would have in a relationship. If he leads you to marry, then marry. As Paul points out, “It is no sin” (1 Corinthians 7:36). But let him be first in your life, and let all worries fade in light of his glory and love.

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