By Pastor Glenn Pease
Hubert Humphry's father was a druggist in a small town in South Dakota. He had to come up with a way to increase profits at his soda fountain. He began to push the idea of putting an egg in his malts to enrich them. Nobody was ordering the new malt, so told his clerks to ask people if they wanted an egg in their malt, but nothing happened. Then he got the idea to have the clerk face the customer with an egg in each hand, and they would ask, "Would you like one or two eggs in your malt?" Profits began to rise at last, for this clever approach caused people to forget they had a third choice, which was, no egg at all.
Life is constantly playing this trick on all of us. We are always being forced into either-or choices, when in fact, the best may be neither-nor, but a third choice. Edward Whymper was the first man to conquer the Matterhorn in 1865. Every climber before him tried the two approaches on the Southwest side. He tried those two approaches 7 times himself, because all the experts said these were the only two ways to make it. He decided to defy the wisdom of all the guides, and make a third choice. He went up the Eastern side, and he made it to the top. Everyone thought there were only two choices, but Whymper showed them there was a third and better choice.
The Pharisees were forever trying to get Jesus trapped by their either-or questions. They asked, "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?" They were saying, take your stand Jesus, either you stand with those who give their loyalty to the state, or you stand with those who give their loyalty to God. Which of the two is your choice? Jesus is too clever for their trap, and He says, you are forgetting the third choice, where you can be loyal to Caesar with what is his, and loyal to God with what is His. It is not a matter of either-or at all. It is a matter of both-and. May God spare us from the folly of thinking life is always a matter of either-or, and that there are only two choices.
Of course, this is often true, and it is definitely true in life's most crucial choices. Either you receive Christ as your Savior, or you reject Him. Either you are saved, or lost. There is not third choice here. But this is not the issue that is confusing the Corinthians, and has confused Christians through the centuries. The Corinthians had made the right choice for Christ, but now as Christians they thought there were only two choices open to them. Either remain just as they were and change nothing, or reject all of their past and change everything. The first would indicate nothing had happened, and would make conversion meaningless, so they decided choice two was their only alternative, and so everything must change and be different.
This radical commitment sounds very noble and highly spiritual, but in real life it proves, all to often, to be unwise, for it produces enormous instability and insecurity. Paul sees this in the Corinthians, and he is concerned about them. Therefore, he writes this paragraph to somewhat dampen their spirits, by showing them there is a third choice. If you have ever cooked on a grill, you have had the experience where the fat drippings begin to burn out of control, and you have to sprinkle water over the coals to bring the flames under control. It is not Holy Spirit fire that is burning when people are getting hurt and becoming unstable by their enthusiasm. Not everything Christians do is wise, just because it is done with such burning enthusiasm.
The Corinthians were caught up in the-change is everything syndrome. If its new its better, and so change to what is new. Gentiles who became Christians heard of the Jewish covenant in circumcision, and they were enthused about that, and wanted to be circumcised. Jewish Christians were enthused about the freedom of the Gentiles to be God's children without circumcision, and they sought, by means of surgery, to remove the effects of circumcision, in order to be like the Gentiles. Of course, this was a ridiculous idolizing of change for change sake, and not only added nothing to the church, but detracted from it by implying that Christianity promoted the uprooting of everyone's heritage. Christians were changing all kinds of things that did not need changing, but needed preserving. They got carried away with change to the point that they became unstable. When Christians become unstable, they do not appeal to the world, and they stir up division among themselves.
Paul, therefore, was writing to these Corinthians Christians, and making stability one of his main themes. It is the motive behind all that he says in this chapter. He is telling these fanatics for change that change is not necessary in everything. If your marital status is that you are single, and can handle it, you don't have to marry. If you are married and become widowed or divorced, you don't have to remarry. If you are married to a non-Christian, you don't have to get a divorce and marry a Christian. There are all kinds of things you don't have to change. There are exceptions that Paul recognizes, but his main point is that you can remain just as you are in so many ways, and be a healthy and stable Christian. Even the slave who accepts Christ can learn to be a happy stable Christian as a slave. Paul has learned to be content in any state, and he is convinced this is a key to Christian stability, and that is why he urges this on the Corinthians.
The choice is not, either is nothing is changed, or everything is changed. There is a third choice he spells out, and it is the choice of balance, where you change some things and leave others unchanged for the sake of stability. Between nothing and everything is something, and this third choice is the best. A lot has changed since Paul's day, but the amazing thing is, that with all of the changes, everything is still so much the same. It's like this letter and response: "Dear Abby, Six years ago, when I first married, every evening our dog would bark at me, and my wife would bring me my slippers. Now my wife barks at me and the dog brings me my slippers. What shall I do? Troubled. Dear Troubled, What's your problem? You're still getting the same service."
Radical changes can leave everything pretty much the same. The centuries since Paul wrote have brought many changes, and the issues of circumcision and slavery are not relevant to us today. But there are new issues that put people into the same conflict the Corinthians had. Today there are many who are becoming Christians who are in prisons. They are very much in the same boat as the slaves Paul wrote to. There are many who become Christians who belong to liberal churches, and who go through the same battle the Corinthians had. To what degree do I change my external affiliations? What rituals should I change, or what should I cling to? Christians in every age have to wrestle with the issue of change.
The principle we need to see is that change must begin as internal, rather than external. The external is the most conspicuous choice, however, and so people tend to put it first. The Corinthians were caught up in a fervor for external change. Change your external relationships; change your external environment; change your physical appearance, and status. Paul throws a wet blanket on this fire, and says, this is zeal without knowledge. It is much ado about nothing, for external change, in itself, may be completely worthless and without meaning. The Gentile who gets circumcised has chosen a change that equals nothing, and the Jew who gets surgery to eliminate the marks of circumcision, has gone to a lot of bother, equally for nothing. Paul rejects the idea that change is good in itself. Paul is saying, don't waste your energy on changing the external, it is the internal change that is most needed.
Paul says his rule in all the churches is the same-stay where you start. The Christians first responsibility is to be a Christian where they are. That is why Jesus told the Gaderene demoniac he could not follow him, but was to go home to his own people. They were the people who would be the most impressed by his radical healing, and his new found faith. His greatest impact would be on those who could see the change. So brighten the corner where you are was the message of Jesus. Paul is saying the same thing to the slaves who have come to Christ. You have got to learn to be a Christian where you are, and show that it makes a difference to be a Christian in any situation. If you can't be a Christian where you are, how do you expect to be a Christian where you have never been? Now, let's be aware, Paul was a ware of exceptions. He would not say to a converted prostitute, just stay where you are and be a good Christian prostitute. Some externals demand immediate change.
Paul recognized that enthusiasm for external change can be a form of escapism. The Christian wife who is married to a non-Christian is saying, if only I could get out of this relationship, I could be a good Christian. The fact is, only when she learns to be the wife God meant her to be to this non-Christian, will she be a good Christian. The strong desire for external change is often a desire to escape obligations and responsibilities. Paul's point is, do not try to become a better Christian by external change. Instead, take your state,
whatever it is, and, however short of the ideal, and learn to grow where you are planted. Do not hold up escape as your only hope. Look at change in your attitudes, and internal life, as the way to deal with dissatisfaction. This holds good for singles who long to be married; for marrieds who long for divorce; for the divorced and widowed who long for remarriage; for Jews who long to be like Gentiles, and for Gentiles who long to be like Jews, and for slaves who long to be free, and for the many dozens of other states of life people find themselves in, which they long to change.
The only way you can be adequately ready for external change is to come to the point where you no longer need it to be a good Christian. In other words, when you learn to be content in whatever state you are, and can find meaning in that state, you are ready to be a mature Christian in other states. The first goal of the Christian than, is not to change, but to find meaning in your present status, whatever that might be.
A doctor came to the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankel, and told him he just could not be reconciled to the death of his wife. He was full of stress and grief. Dr. Frankel asked him how his wife would have taken it had he died first. "Oh," he said, "It would have been terrible for her." And he described how intolerable the situation would have been. Dr. Frankel pointed out to him, that by his surviving, he spared her all of that suffering. The mans attitude changed immediately, and he was able to come out of his pit of depression,
for his present awful state now took on meaning. He thought the only hope for meaning was in an external change of circumstances. He was trying to escape, but it wouldn't work. The key he found was not in external change, but in internal change, and by that means he was able to find meaning in his present state.
This is Paul's message to all who are in states they do not care for. Your priority should not be escapism, but stability, which begins with the inner man, and its adjustment to the present state. Reject this approach to life, and go the way of escapism, and you end with nightmares more often then a dream come true.
I can never forget the wife who felt she could never be happy until she was divorced. Her husband wanted her to stay with him, and I joined him in pleading with her to remain, but it was all in vain. Her mind was filled with the fantasy that she would be gloriously free, and could really enjoy life as never before. She got her divorce. A few months later she called me aside in the hospital where she was a nurse. She said, if only I had listened to you. She had tried to find happiness in a couple of affairs, and soon learned that such freedom was not the gold she thought it would be. She did not feel enriched at all, but poorer than ever. She said she was lonely, and longed for the security of her home and husband. Now it was to late. She had been duped and deceived by seeing what seemed to be the glory of change, and when she got it, she had to live with the curse of change.
It is not an absolute law, but it is a basic principle of life: Change the inner man and you can be content in any state. The Jew does not need to be a Gentile to be a happy Christian. The Gentile does not have to conform to Judaism to be a happy Christian. The single does not have to be married to be a happy Christian. A married person does not need a Christian mate to be a happy Christian. The slave does not need to be free to be a happy Christian. You can be a happy Christian right where you are in almost any state, so stay where you are, and develop stability, is the message of Paul. Don't worry about changing where you are, until you change who you are.
In a world where change is worshiped, Paul's message is simply, beware, change can be dangerous. We live in a culture where progress, advancement, and speed, are key ingredients. All of these mean change is a basic part of life. The idea of staying put anywhere rubs against the grain of our culture. We thrive on the very thing that Paul warns us about. We encourage change as rapidly as possible. It a new convert can be sharing his testimony to the nation a week after he becomes a Christian, we are thrilled.
The faster people can be propelled to the top, in any area of life, the better we like it. Paul knew the dangers of emphasizing change over stability. He wrote to Timothy about selecting leadership in the church, and wrote in I Tim. 3:6-7, "He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."
Paul was a realist. He knew that good Christian people pushed into too much change to rapidly could become better servants of the devil than servants of Christ. They are not allowed to stay put and develop stability where they are, but are thrust into places and positions where they are not able to cope with the temptation to abuse their power. History is filled with the collapsed lives due to man's compulsion to change everything on the outside, regardless of inner changes. Paul says, don't go the route that leads to disaster. Instead, let internal change take precedence over external change. The Christian faith is both firm and elastic. It can change everything, but it can also establish everything, and, thus, preserve and conserve. Christianity is meant to be both conservative and liberal. Conservative in that it does not change anything just for the sake of change. It holds fast to what is good, and strives to sanctify all that it touches. It is liberal in that by sanctifying all that it touches, it changes it, and changes it for the better. It is not either conservative, or liberal, for there is a third choice, and that is a balance combination of the other two that preserves the old, as it creates the new.
Francis Bacon was one of the most brilliant minds England ever produced. His essays are still classics in the literature of ethics. His wisdom has no doubt helped many to stay on the right track. He would have died with the highest respect had it not been for an external change he was not prepared to handle. He was made Lord Chancellor of England, which made him, not only the most learned man in the empire, but one of the most powerful. He was an authority on ethics, but he became unethical, and was convicted of bribery and financial corruption. He lived the last five years of his life a disgraced man. His inner man was not prepared to handle the pressure of the external change. It happens everyday, and it happens to Christians. That is why Paul says, stay where you are, until who you are, can handle a change in where you are.
Stability comes before change, for the stable person can make change beneficial. The unstable tend to make change a curse. Jesus said the wise life is the life built on the rock. Those who build on unstable sand will fall, and there building is all in vain. Paul says the same thing to the Corinthians. Stay put and lay the foundation for stability, before you get caught up in the spirit of change. Everyone needs change, but everyone also needs the lack of change. The choice is never, either change, or don't change, but rather, regulate change based on what your inner stability can handle well. For the good life, and the life that will honor Christ, we must all make this third choice.