1 Corinthians 7:17-24
Today’s passage is long so we will divide the reading into 3 parts. Chapter 7 of 1st Corinthians deals with the manifold issues of marriage. Paul covered the issues of sex and spirituality, divorce, non-believing partners, single people, widows and widowers, engaged couples and many others. Paul provides many of his recommendations, and we must applaud his bravery to deal with these sticky issues with clear advice. But I also agree with Pastor YookCing that it is the principles that are ultimately decisive and not the superficial change of behavior that we want to learn today. Paul uses the illustrations of circumcision and slavery to share about some principles that he used for his decision-making process regarding issues of marriage. I too will follow his example by using a story to demonstrate my point.
THE MILLER, HIS SON, AND THEIR DONKEY
"I shall have to sell that old donkey of ours," said a miller to his son. "I can not afford to keep him through the winter. I will take him to town this very morning to see if I can find a buyer. You may go with me." In a little while the miller, his son, and the donkey were on their way to town.
They had not gone far when they met some girls going to a party. They were talking and laughing as they went along. One of them said, "Look at that man and boy driving a donkey. One of them surely might ride."
The miller heard what they said, and quickly made his son mount the donkey, while he walked along at its side.
After a while they came to a group of old men who were talking very earnestly. "There," said one, "I was just saying that boys and girls have no respect for the aged. You see it is true in this case. See that boy riding while his old father has to walk."
"Get down, my son," said his father, "and I will ride." So they went on.
They next met some women coming from town. "Why!" they cried, "your poor little boy is nearly tired out. How can you ride and make him walk?" So the miller made his son ride on the donkey behind him.
They were now in town. A man coming down the street called to the miller, "Why do you make your old donkey carry such a load? It has barely any strength left. I will bet you that both of you are even stronger than it now. You can even carry him better than he can carry you."
At this the miller and his son got off the donkey. They broke a long branch from a nearby tree. Then, they tied the donkey's legs together, turned him over on his back; and began to carry him.
A crowd soon gathered to see the strange sight. As they were crossing a bridge the donkey became frightened at the hooting of the crowd. It broke loose, fell into the river, and was drowned.
We see therefore that if you do not have your own guiding principles, you will be easily swayed by the comments of others regarding your actions. The moral is that if you wish to please everybody, you will please no one. So, we will study the recommendations of Paul regarding marriage. But more importantly, we understand the principles in which he derives his recommendations so that we do not apply his advice blindly, but rather use his principles to derive our own decisions for each and every peculiar situation in our lives. The problem with the Corinthians is that they are swayed by each and every false teaching they come across, and fail to examine them against the principles of truth. “Spiritual is good, body is bad”, and they all become ascetics and despise marriage and bodily intimacy.
Point 1: Sense of Calling
In order to be able to avoid the same trap that ensnared the Corinthians, we need to equip ourselves with solid principles of truth that will guide us into good decision-making. Thankfully, Paul did show us the principles that he uses to arrive at his recommendations. I name them the three senses of Christian decision-making. You can have many factors that weigh in when you make your decisions in life. But as a Christian, you must always do it with these three senses in mind. The first, I call it, the sense of calling.
This is the overriding rule: everyone should conduct their lives as the Lord appointed, as God has called them. The call of God is the primary foundation of our identity as a Christian. We can come into a relationship with God and we can belong to him because he has first called us. And this calling has a tremendous implication: we are no longer the same person. We now possess an identity of a Christian, we are hence inseparable from Christ. We are set apart from the others for God's holy use. From now on, our lives are for the purpose of fulfilling the will of God. We now hold God’s standard as the measurement of what is desirable. Because we have been called, God’s priorities now come first, and everything now must be placed in God’s perspective. So, in making our decisions in life, we have to have this sense of calling. As stated earlier, Paul has used the examples of circumcision and slavery as illustrations of this point.
For the Jews, circumcision is a physical mark to indicate that you are God’s people. Many Jewish men in Paul’s day were under pressure to pretend they were non-Jews, and some even tried surgery to make it look as though they were uncircumcised after all. (Romans went naked when they go to the gym, or used public baths, so Jewish identity is difficult to hide.) Paul states that when called by God, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters at all, since what matters is keeping God’s commandments. Why is this so? This is because identity is now not defined by a physical mark, but by what is accomplished by the work of the messiah. In the Messiah, we already have the full identity before God.
Naturally, the more shocking example is that of slavery. Paul tells the Corinthians who are slaves that they do not have to worry about their status. Does Paul really think that slaves and freedmen are the same before God? In a way, yes. It is true that many slaves at that time were treated kindly, and slaves in managerial positions were better off than freedmen in poverty conditions. However, the main reason for Paul’s reasoning is that “the one who is called as a slave is the Lord’s freedman, just as the one who is called as a free person is the Messiah’s slave.” Our sense of identity rests on who are we before God, not our social, financial conditions.
Many of our major decisions involve a desire to improve our status in life. Therefore, it is important that we have a sense of calling when we make these decisions. When God calls us, we now derive our identity from God. Improving our status in life is important, and we all aim to upgrade our standard of living. But we must understand that it is ultimately how God sees us, how God defines who we are that matters.1 Corinthians 7:25-31
Point 2: Sense of Eternity
Two weeks ago, Rev Tan shared from Ecclesiastes that uncertainty in life is also a gospel from God. We must all face up to the reality that life at times is uncertain. The only true certainty is the eternity promised by God that will come when our life ends. And this is the second sense needed in decision making: the sense of eternity.
We may yearn for certain results from the decisions we make in life, but we must accept that all things on earth are eventually transient. Our sense of eternity will tell us not to be so absorbed in things of this world. Paul now refocus his discussion back on the issue of marriage after his illustrations of circumcision and slavery. He now addresses those who are engaged and he notes that it is a difficult time for marriage now. Why? It is because there is a famine going on. So it will be hard to start a young family amidst the hardships of survival and environmental turmoil. You don't have to break your engagements yet, and if your engagement is broken, naturally now is not a good time to start one. But note that Paul is not against marriage, whether you get married or don't, it is not sinning.
However, many people do treat marriage as an important status symbol. It is a big deal because they depend their security in life on marriage. Paul gives these people a sense of eternity. The pattern of the world is passing away. Sure you can celebrate and weep and use the world and live life to the fullest. But it is a totally different matter to rest your full security in these things. We may think that a married status and a single status are worlds apart, and in a way they are polar opposites. But no situations last forever. That is a perspective that we must never lose. If the current situation is tough for marriage, maybe we should not be overly hasty to rush into it. But if the situation is critical, like the age of the woman or other considerations like aging parents, to be married is fine as well. Whichever road we take, we keep in mind that they are only transient and our eternity rests in God's hands.1 Corinthians 7:32-40
Point 3: Sense of Conviction
We can be fully certain that Paul himself totally approves of marriage. In his other letters, he speaks about their importance and how to best preserve them. However, it is also true that marriage takes up a lot of time and energy and Paul is just offering sound and realistic advice to the Corinthians here. Those who are unmarried have the advantage of undivided attention to do the work of God, while those who are married has to be concerned about pleasing their spouses. There is nothing wrong with either choice, in fact, it would be very irresponsible to be married and yet neglect about your spouse's well-being as stated earlier in the chapter. Paul's aim is that we are to be free from worries. And that is the third point: a sense of conviction.
Both the married and unmarried will worry, either about pleasing God or pleasing your spouse. The key to be freed of worries is to be fully convicted about what you are doing and avoid divided loyalties. If you are in one situation or the other but you are always thinking about the benefits of the other choice, the worries will never end. If you choose to be single or to delay our marriage because of some circumstances, then be fully devoted to your choice and devote yourself fully to God. If you need to be married, then do as you wish and be a devoted husband or wife. This is the same for widows who are thinking about remarriage. Paul's timely reminder against divided loyalties is for our own benefit. Be convicted about your choice as long as the choice is done in the Lord.
I would like to conclude with a personal reflection on my own experience with Christian decision making. I entered into theological studies immediately after my tertiary education, and during my first year of full-time ministry in Jubilee, I was married. Two points of consideration were firstly, should I gain some years of experience working in the secular world and achieve some financial stability before studying theology; and secondly, whether marriage is a good thing for my ministry. My sense of calling informs me that my life is to be fully devoted to God. What this means is that whether it is full-time ministry or working outside church, my focus remains the same, building the kingdom of God and not my own wealth. This perspective is critical because I shouldn't think that working for the outside world is my own business while only church work is God's work. Even more dangerous is the mindset that I will treat my ministry as my personal project for self-satisfaction. My sense of eternity informs me that ultimately all things on earth, be it ministry accomplishments or success in the workplace or family relationships will pass away. They all pale in comparison to the everlasting security that is reserved for me with God. Hence I could feel free to enjoy a family life or the pains and spoils of my labor without being overly concern if they will eventually avail me anything permanent. Lastly, my sense of conviction challenges me to be steadfast in my choices. Sure I could fantasize about a life without the burden of pastoral concerns or the freedom of singleness, but it would only bring about unnecessary frustration and distract me from my pursuit of contentment in what I am doing now. With these three senses of decision-making in mind, I believe I have approached my considerations with a proper mindset that is honorable to God. My choice of ministry after university and marriage is not tainted with personal ambition, compulsion from the environment or impulsiveness. Looking back, my decisions were probably for the best. I am an easily contented person and if I am well settled in the outside world, I might be too lazy now to uproot myself to devote myself into full-time ministry. I am also a dull-witted person and prior to dating and marriage, I am totally oblivious to the world of “womendom”. My pathetic dealings with the opposite gender is too embarrassing and numerous to recount. I cannot claim that I know women better now, but I think it is reasonable to say that I am better acquainted with the feminine side of myself. I have become more sensitive, gentle and compassionate as a pastor. But ultimately, if you have understood my sermon thus far, a good decision is not based on the pros and cons of the eventual result. No matter what is the final decision, it is only considered wise when it is done with God in mind. He has called us such that whichever path we take, we do it for him. He has given us an assurance in eternity so that we may enjoy our present life for what it is, and not put all our security in it. And lastly, he has given us faith. We know that nothing will get in our way if we are fully convicted in devoting ourselves fully to God.