Stay On Your Own Grass (1 Corinthians 7)
Have you ever listened to someone’s entire phone conversation, but never heard a word the person on the other line was saying? We’ve all been in that situation. Many times we don’t really care to hear what is being said, but sometimes, we really wish we could hear the words of the person on the other line. In fact, some of us may have been known to sneak to another phone and gently pick it up to eavesdrop on the conversation. (I have never done this, of course.) Yes, it can certainly be very frustrating to listen to only one side of a phone conversation.
Reading many of the books of the Bible is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. We only hear one person talking—addressing questions, concerns, and issues that were brought up by another person or group, but we hardly ever get to read those actual questions and issues. Most of the time, they are not recorded or are recorded so obscurely, we are not really sure what was said. This is certainly the case for 1 Corinthians. In fact, 1 Corinthians is notorious for being like a one-sided phone conversation, and thus, a challenge to understand.
What we do know is that the Corinthian church is a new church, with new believers, trying to figure out a new faith. And, unlike us, they don’t have a complete Bible to go to in order to figure out how to do this. But they do have Paul. And so, in their attempts to understand how to live the Christian life, they ask Paul many questions. Paul’s letters to them are an attempt to answer these questions. For us, however, we only get to hear one end of the conversation. What is going on in the church at Corinth? What are the questions the Corinthians are asking? What issues are they seeking Paul’s advice on? What are they trying to understand?
1 Corinthians 7 launches the part of the book where Paul focuses on addressing some of their questions and issues. He begins, “Now for the matters you wrote about.” This should be our first clue that we need to tread carefully and work extra hard to understand what Paul is trying to say. While a couple other issues are mentioned, this passage deals predominantly with marriage relationships. Many issues of male-female relationships are covered: marriage, divorce, remarriage, sex, death of a spouse, engagement, and singleness. These are certainly difficult subjects, but without getting involved in the right and wrong of each specific issue (which could fill a book), I want to encourage you not to miss the forest for the trees. Paul has a main message in this chapter which is powerful…a message that is important and practical in the life of every believer. But what is this main point?
One of the methods used in Bible interpretation to determine the main idea of a passage is to look for repetition. When something is repeated several times, you know it must be an important point. In this chapter, three times Paul repeats the very same idea, using similar wording: “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.” (v. 17)…“Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” (v. 20)… “Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.” (v. 24)
Get the point? In shorter terms, Paul is saying, “Stay put!” What seems to be happening is that the Corinthians, trying to figure out their brand new faith are thinking that they need to make certain changes in their lives in order to be able to please God. In some ways, they did need to make major changes. The Bible makes it clear that as a new believer, we are new creations who are supposed to turn from sin and obey God. Yes, there is a call for major changes. But the Corinthians were getting confused. They were thinking that they needed to make changes that they really did not need to make. In fact, to make those changes would have been poor choices.
For example, they were wondering whether it was okay to experience pleasure, including romance and sexual pleasure. Some were thinking they all needed to be living an ascetic lifestyle. “Ascetic” just means living in extreme self-denial, denying yourself many of the normal pleasures of life. This would be like living like a monk. They were even questioning whether they should even be having sex within the context of marriage. To this issue, Paul gives a resounding “Go for it!” To marrying, Paul also waves the green flag. His point? Pleasure is allowed in the Christian life and we should feel the freedom to enjoy it. Yes, it needs to be in the right contexts and situations, as he made clear in chapter six. But in fact, to be so focused on an extreme denial of pleasure as the center of our faith not only distorts the gospel but also takes our focus off of what is truly important: obedience to God.
So Paul tells them they don’t need to change everything in their lives upon becoming a believer. Many of their relational situations should remain the same. Although they can change some of these things, if they desire. Along as that does not go against God’s desires. But, by staying right where they are, they actually may be living in greater obedience to God and able to make a greater eternal impact.
To the married, Paul says “Stay married!” In fact, this is an area Paul speaks very strongly about, saying the one giving the command is “not I, but the Lord” (v.10). Throughout Scripture, the message is very strong and clear concerning marriage: God does not like divorce. In this chapter, this message again resounds. Even if one is married to an unbeliever, Paul still encourages them to stay married. In fact, he tells them that this has the potential for significant eternal impact: the believing spouse may actually be the means God uses to bring the unbelieving spouse and the entire family to God.
To the single and widowed, he says: “Stay single!” But unlike the last admonition, he shares this as his own advice, not a direct command from God. In fact, he tells them it is okay to marry if you are single, but it is easier if you don’t get married: you have less troubles and an easier time doing ministry. Hey, those of us who are married could have told them that, right? This doesn’t mean that Paul thinks singleness is more spiritual than marriage, it is just that marriage (which back then almost always meant children as well) brought more challenges.
He says other things to other groups of people: divorced, engaged, slaves, Jews, etc. with some challenging issues that I will not even attempt to address in a simple blog. But, once again, the main point is that becoming a Christian does not require one to make major social changes in their life, especially in regard to marriage relationships. To the contrary, they should feel free to remain as they are, in the place where they were in life when God called them into a relationship with him.
The lessons for us today are rich. Each of us can live out a dynamic, deep, and transforming relationship with God regardless of where we are in life. We don’t need a husband or a wife, nor do we need a new husband or wife. We don’t need to be single. We don’t even need to be free. We can live out the Christian life no matter where we are or what we are doing. For the Christian life does not consist of denying ourselves pleasure nor does it consist of making ourselves happy. It doesn’t require having a godly husband or wife. It doesn’t even require having a great marriage. It doesn’t matter if we are in a jail cell or a hospital bed. It doesn’t matter if we have ten kids or none, nor does it matter if they are little angels or little devils. It doesn’t matter if we have a great job or a bad one. It doesn’t matter whether we work with nice people or mean people. It doesn’t matter if we are wealthy or on welfare. The list could go on and on. We each have been called to different settings, different relationships, and different challenges. And our relationship with God does not consist of our situation in life. Nor should we let our situation in life be an excuse for not having a deep spiritual life. The grass is certainly green enough for spiritual growing right where you are at today, in this very moment, at the very place God has set you. The grass may look greener on the other side, but most of the time, you are better off staying on your own grass.
Just as it is hard to be on one side of a phone conversation, it is also sometimes hard to be on one side of a fence. But when you find yourself thinking about heading to the other side, don’t forget what is important. Don’t forget Paul’s profound words in verse 19, at the very center of this book: “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”