By Pastor Glenn Pease
Bruce Larson in Dare To Live Now, tells of his experience as a new recruit during World War II. He sat down to his first breakfast in the mess hall, at Fort Benning, Georgia. He saw something in a large bowl that looked like cream of wheat. He scooped out a lot of it into his bowl, and poured milk and sugar on it. A tall mountain boy sitting across the table from him was bug-eyed, and he asked, "Is that the way you eat grits?" Larson says, as a Chicago boy he heard of grits, but never had seen any. He did not want to admit his ignorance, so he said, "Yes, this is how we eat them in Chicago." It was awful tasteing, but he manage to down the whole bowl. He learned that they were meant to be eaten with butter, salt, and pepper. Some days later the same soldier sat at his table, and he ate another bowl of grits with milk and sugar, rather than admit he had made a mistake.
Had he admitted his mistake, he would not have needed to sin, by telling a lie. Human nature hates to admit to mistakes. We all freely admit that nobody is perfect, but we hesitate to exhibit ourselves as proof of the rule. But the fact is, mistakes are distinct from sin. This means, not everything that we do that may be unwise, is a sin. It is not necessarily a violation of God's commands or will. Paul makes it clear in verse 28 that if the Corinthians do not give heed to his advice, they do not sin. If you don't sin by ignoring Paul, what is it? It all depends on how it turns out. If you find you are in all the trouble he tried to spare you, then you have made a mistake. He warned you, but you did not listen. Now you must suffer the consequences, but the fact remains, you have not sinned. If you find you overcome all of the problems, and are very happy, and your marriage does not hinder, but even helps, your service to God, then you have not sinned, nor even made a mistake, but have, as we say today, lucked out. You took a risk, and you won.
We are in a very unique portion of Scripture in this seventh chapter of I Cor. We are not dealing here with absolute issues of right and wrong. We are dealing with issues that are very complex, and where the question is not, what is right or wrong, but what is the best under the circumstances. The result is, the choice will not be for sin or righteousness, but for what is wise, or for what is a potential mistake. Let's not minimize mistakes, for though they are less than sins, they do violate wisdom. They are not necessarily less costly than sins, however. If I steal a thirty cent candy bar, I have sinned, and I need to confess it and be forgiven, and make restitution by repaying the thirty cents. This is not a costly sin, even though Christ had to die for that one too. But if I make a mistake, and get married to the wrong person at the wrong time, I have not sinned at all, but that mistake may be extremely costly.
It was no sin that someone left off a mere hyphen in the instructions fed into the guidance system of Mariner I, but that mistake caused it to go off course into oblivion, and cost the nation two millions dollars. Mistakes can be costly, but they can also be trivial. Like the pastor who preached on gossip, and then closed the service with the hymn, I Love To Tell The Story. Many mistakes are harmless, and even humorous, but they can also be horrendous. Paul takes mistakes seriously, and that is why he offers his opinion on the matters the Corinthians struggle with. Paul is not laying down a set of laws to guide the church for all time. He is not even telling the Corinthians they are laws for their time. He is simply giving them his advice as to how they should conduct themselves in the circumstances they find themselves in.
One of the biggest mistakes Christians make is that of ignoring Paul's attitude, as he gives this advice. Most are not as wise and humble as Paul. Most tend to become legalistic, and they demand that their advice is absolute. Paul refuses to take this attitude. He says if you ignore my advice, which I feel is the best Spirit led decision I can come to, you do not sin. Ignoring even the best advice is not a sin, even though it may be a great mistake. How many counselors can openly admit that their advice is not equivalent to the Word of God? It is Paul's honesty and humility that keeps this passage from being meaningless. If it was given as a command for all Christians, for all time, it would be disastrous advice, preventing 2000 years of the history of Christian marriage and families, which have been for the glory of God.
The value of this passage is in its emphasis on circumstances. Paul is saying, circumstances do make a difference. What is wise for a Christian to do will vary with the circumstances. Changing times demand changing approaches to life. If the times are calm and peaceful, Paul is all for marriage and families, and living peaceably with all men. But if the times are full of danger and tribulation, he is for detachment from the things of this life. Paul is saying, when the things of earth are insecure, and all in a flux, and radical change rob you of all the values of this life, this is no time to try and sink roots into the earthly. It is time to be radically non-involved with earthly values, and totally devoted to those values which last forever.
Circumstances make a difference in the advice you give. If a young girl comes to you saying she just met a young man two months ago, and he asked her to marry him, and she comes asking if she should say yes, and you inquire, and learn that he is returning to Iraq to fight as a mercenary soldier to make a quick buck, what would your answer be? I hope you would consider the circumstances, and not treat that couple just the same as two from the same community who are going to settle down there, where they have roots. Circumstances make a world of difference in what is wise. But if that girl goes ahead and marries the vagabond adventurer, who goes off to make his fortune, she does not sin, if he is a Christian. If he leaves her and gets killed, and she goes through great grief, she will have made a painful mistake, but she will not have sinned.
Her pastor may have warned her of her risk, and the sorrow she would face, but her rejection of that advice is not the same as rebelling against God. It may be, but it is not necessarily so, and Paul recognizes that. Paul makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no human advice is on the same level as God's commands. The pope, councils, church leaders, professors, and pastors, make many pronouncements, and give much advice on how we ought to live. Most of it is good and wise advice, just like Paul's advice to the Corinthians, and it is aimed at preventing problems. However, the Christian has a right to evaluate this advice; look at the risk of ignoring it, and then choose to take that risk. If it turns out bad, and he suffers, he is not a sinner to be condemned, but a saint who has made a costly mistake.
The point is not that it is okay to make mistakes, in contrast to sin. We have already shown that mistakes may be worse than a sin in terms of consequences and cost. The point is, in the realm of Christian advice, and the risk of mistakes, the Christian has to give careful consideration to the circumstances. Is it best to be married or single? Paul does not give an absolute answer, for this would be absurd. The answer is, it all depends on the circumstances. Is it best to remain a slave, or gain ones freedom? It all depends on the circumstances. Later, in chapter 8, Paul deals with eating meat offered to idols. Should a Christian do it or not? It is not an absolute matter of right or wrong. It all depends on the circumstances.
We do not necessarily like this approach. We like things wrapped up with no loose ends. We want all the rules of life, like the Ten Commandments, clear and absolute. But when you try and apply all of man's wisdom and experience, like you do the Word of God, you end up with the spirit of the Pharisees, rather than the spirit of Christ. Edna was a Christian writer who prayed for two weeks before she sent her first manuscript to a publisher. She got her book published, and she was convinced she had the formula for success. She began to tell other Christian writers why they failed. Her pride was a pain to endure, but she soon got her chance to be humble. Her next book, in spite of her formula, was rejected by six publishers, and it took two years to get it published. She was so depressed, she almost gave up writing. She had to learn the hard way that her convictions, and even her experiences, were not the guide for all writers. She was saying by her pride,follow my advice, or you sin.
This is what the Pharisees were saying to Jesus. You follow our authority, and conform to our image of the Messiah, or you sin, and are worthy of death. Paul was a Pharisee, and he put many Christians to death, because they did not obey the laws of the Pharisees. Paul knew what it was to put human opinion on the same level with the commands of God. But here, we see the redeemed Paul with a totally different attitude. Only God's commands are absolute. Man's wisdom and advice is to be evaluated relative to the circumstances of life. Disobeying God is always sin, but disobeying man may be only a mistake. You never have a right to sin, but you do have the right to risk a mistake. Paul says do not seek marriage in the circumstances you face, but if you do marry, you do not sin. I want to spare you the troubles you will endure, but if you chose to suffer, you are not out of the will of God.
Paul recognizes that some Christians will prefer to take their chances, and risk the sorrows of marriage in tough times. But he goes on to warn them not to put all of their eggs in one basket. Don't devote your life to the good, and miss the best. Romeo and Juliet so gave themselves to romantic love, that it became a form of idolatry. When one died, all meaning to life was gone for the other. Paul says, the wise Christian will not put anyone on that level. In verse 29 he says something that is easily abused and misunderstood. He says, let those who have wives live as though they had none. There are many wives who can testify that this is one part of the Bible their husbands obey.
Paul did not mean what some practice in ignoring their wives. He is simply saying to the married Christian, you cannot devote your life to the values of marriage and family, for all of these will soon pass away. In the urgency of the times, you must give yourself to the values that will not pass away. The emergency of circumstances demand that all secondary priorities be kept secondary, and the focus of life be on the first priority, the kingdom of God. To the best of our knowledge we do not live in the same circumstances as the Corinthians did. Nevertheless, our focus too must be on the things of God, and not on the things of earth, even when they are precious values that we want to preserve.
If we are so devoted to life's values and joys that their loss robs us of meaning, we are not prepared for the end of history, and the coming of Christ. We are building on an inadequate foundation. Only the cross and Christ crucified give us values that nothing in history can take from us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So much is relative, but here is your absolute, and loyalty to Him is to be your primary concern as you struggle with many issues of life. You come to Christ to receive forgiveness, and to get your priorities straight. The ideal is to avoid both sins and mistakes, but they are not the same, and we ought not to accuse ourselves or others for sin when mistakes are made by making wrong choices that are unwise in the circumstances.