By Pastor Glenn Pease
Few groups of people in history have fought a more bitter battle than the Pilgrims who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower. So many of them died from sickness, that at one point only four of the original couples still had each other. Edward Winslow and Susanna White had each lost their mates. They were both convinced that God did not intend for them to remain single. So, in spite of the short time their mates had been dead, they asked Governor Bradford to unite them in marriage. It was the first wedding of the Pilgrims in their new land. The feasting, gaiety, and laughter, of the wedding was a healing gift from God to these people oppressed by so much sadness. It boasted their spirits and gave them a renewed sense of hope.
These godly people were thankful for marriage, as godly people have been ever since Adam saw Eve, and said, now this is more like it. Marriage is God's idea, and He proclaimed it good. It is honorable in all says the book of Hebrews. We do not have to labor the point, for it is universally accepted that marriage is both beautiful and essential. Yet, in this 7th chapter of I Cor., the Apostle Paul seems to have it in for marriage. The nicest thing he can say for it seems to be that it is not a sin, which is hardly an exalting compliment. The one thing we can say for Paul is that he is consistent. He tells the never married to stay single, and he tells the divorced to stay single, and he tells the widow to stay single. As far as Paul is concerned, the number one choice is to stay single.
Paul is saying it is not wrong for any Christian to get married, but there are circumstances that make it better if they are not married. Paul said he did not baptize many people, but you get the distinct impression that he married even fewer people. He sounds a great deal like the man who defined a bachelor as one who never made the same mistake once. Maybe Paul, in his travels, stayed with some families that left him with a very negative impression, and he went away thanking God for the blessing of escaping all that hassle. We don't know all of the reasons for Paul's negative attitude, but when it comes to marriage, he seems to be a confirmed believer in Murphy's Law, which says,if anything can go wrong, invariably it will. He assumes that marriage and trouble are synonymous. In verse 28 he does not say troubles are possible, or even likely, he says they are a certainty. "Those who marry will have worldly troubles and I would spare you that." Paul knew that marital bliss can turn to marital blisters. I read of one bitter wife who said she would gladly get a divorce if she could figure out how to do it without making him so happy.
The value of this passage for us is that it counteracts the dreamy idealism of the romantic. People who think holding hands, and gazing into each others eyes, solves all of life's problems are not ready for the realities of marriage. Paul's purpose is not to spread pessimism, for he is a positive thinker. He knows the Christian can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. He knows that God will work in all things for good with those who love Him. He just wants Christians to be realistic about the obligations that go along with marriage. We do not live under the same circumstances as the Corinthians, but Paul's point it still valid for all generations. Marriage is not the promised land, but is still part of the wilderness journey. Life in general is full of problems, and getting married does not shelter you from them, but often compounds them.
One of the reasons divorce is so high is because of unrealistic expectations. They jump into marriage thinking it will be the solution to all of their troubles, and when they discover it isn't, they figure they must have married the wrong person, and so they divorce and try again. They are always looking for that marriage that will bring utopia. The whole process is a subtle form of idolatry, where people expect to find in marriage what only God can supply. Gordon and Dorthea Joeck in I Take Thee write, "Marriage, as life itself, is made up of many and varied ingredients: Struggle and achievement, success and failure, joy and pain. Marriage does not remove us from vulnerability to life's difficulties and bring us only its joys. To expect this is unrealistic preparation for married life." This is what Paul is conveying to the Corinthians.
Paul's attitude gives a needed realistic perspective to counteract the myths of marriage. It is a myth that happy married people do not have problems and stress. This myth does a great deal of harm, for people who marry soon discover they do have problems, so they assume something went wrong, and maybe they were not meant for each other. Nobody in the Corinthian church could ever get married, and be so deceived, for Paul makes it clear,even if two Christians, who are madly in love, get married, they will have troubles and conflicts of interest that demand painful adjustments.
This sounds very negative, but the fact is this attitude can save people from the worst problem of marriage, which is to enter it with the illusion that all their problems are over.The best marriages of the most godly and loving people have problems, and Paul refuses to white wash it, and pretend that Christian people escape what is inevitable in a fallen world. Kenneth Chafin, dean of Billy Graham's school of evangelism, and pastor of a seven thousand member Baptist church of Houston, tells of his experience as a newlywed. On their first morning in their new apartment, his wife Barbara made her father's favorite breakfast. It was a biscuit split open and toasted with a slice of cheese on each half. It wasn't bad he thought, but neither was it the thrill of his life. The second morning she made the same thing. When the biscuit came out the third morning, he exploded, and wanted to know if that was the only thing she knew how to make. She was hurt, of course,but fortunately they talked about what was happening. As far as she could remember, her father never varied his breakfast menu. She thought she had found the perfect breakfast, and was planning to make this for the rest of their lives. He made it clear that he loved variety, and was not like her father at all.
One of the hardest areas of adjustment in marriage is you suddenly start living 24 hours a day with someone who is different than the people you have been living with all of your life. That is one of the reasons troubles are inevitable. Maybe the family you lived with enjoyed being messy, and it didn't bother them at all. Now you suddenly realize the person you married is someone who is picky neat. Maybe your family always squeezed the toothpaste, but now you discover there are people who roll it up, and you don't understand why anyone would do it that way. You might be a night owl, and suddenly discover you are united to an early bird. There are endless trivialities that mean trouble in adjusting to your mate.
Life is never static so that you can finally adjust to each other, and be done with the struggle. Each age of marriage brings new problems. The child bearing period is not easy.Children are such a blessing, and bring so many pleasures to life, yet there is an enormous price to pay. Many marriages are destroyed by all of the hassle of raising children, keeping them well, and getting them educated.
Then comes the empty nest period. The children are gone and the hassle is over, but still there is no utopia. If the children are all a couple has lived for, their marriage is now empty without the kids. The mother has loving labored for 20 some years, and now what she has learned to do best does not even need doing at all. This can be a time of great depression and loneliness. Her husband may not even understand, for he is at the peak of his career, and is happy and fulfilled. He is a success, and she feels like a failure, and it is a prime time for both to be tempted to some sort of an affair. Then comes retirement and all is reversed. The wife has adjusted, and has found ways to make her life meaningful, but now he is lost. What he has done well still needs doing, but not by him, and he now feels useless.
The whole point of this overview of marriage is to show us that Paul was not just being a killjoy. He was looking at life as it really is, and trying to get Christians to see that marriage calls for deep commitment, for better, or for worse, for both will be inevitable. What I hear Paul saying is, if you are willing to pay the price don't take the merchandise. If you are not willing to struggle and adjust, and sacrifice, so your marriage can be a channel of God's love in the world, then don't do it. Stay single, and be more effective for God's kingdom. Paul does not buy the philosophy that says, troubles will always make you a better Christian. We know that they can, but anybody who goes looking for them is stretching the truth. In verse 32 Paul says I want you to be free of anxieties. There is no virtue in suffering what can be avoided and prevented. Paul is a strong believer in an ounce of prevention being worth more than a pound of cure.
Paul is actually trying to prevent marriages that will lead to all of the troubles he warns of, and end in divorce. I have to confess that I have never tried to prevent a marriage. I am a product of our culture where romantic love is an idol. Anyone who is in love, I have felt, are legitimate candidates for marriage. I still feel that way, but I realize that Paul's attitude must modify my own. He writes in a different context, and times do differ, but the fact remains, it is too easy in any age to treat marriage lightly, and not examine the seriousness of what it means to get married.
Someone said, the proof that Paul was never married is that he writes as if all mates do, is try to please each other. This whole passage can be very superficial if you take it out of context, and try to impose it on all of history. We know history is filled with married people who have been devoted servants of God, and who have changed the course of history for His glory. Married people are not just worldly minded and spending their whole life devoted to earthly things. Most of the churches of the world are founded on the family.
On the other hand, the singles whom Paul so exalts, who give themselves to Christian service, have also been great servants all through history. Singles have been dominate in the thrust of world wide missions. But the fact remains, there are many singles who do not devote themselves to Christian service, any more than uncommitted married people. We dare not take this passage out of the context of Corinth, and make it a reflection on all of history. Paul is telling us what he has observed in the life of the Corinthians, and what he saw was that the married people tended to devote their lives to one another, and the singles tended to devote their lives to Christian service. This is often true in our culture as well, but in no way can it be seen as a rule of life, it is only a tendency that is common in all ages.
When you are married you can't be home pleasing your wife, and out somewhere else in Christian service at the same time. You can't be home cooking your husbands favorite meal, and still be engaged in Christian service all afternoon. Marriage brings limitations, and if Christians are going to be fighting over these limitations, and feeling guilty, and making others feel guilty, they are going to make a mess of their marriage. Paul says if this be the case, you are better off to stay single. One lodge member asked another why the lodge meeting was canceled. He responded, "The Grand-All-Powerful-Invincible-Supreme-Potentate's wife wouldn't let him come." Such are the limitations of marriage.
Christian history is full of examples of Christian leaders who had very unhappy marriages. John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism changed the course of history, and influenced millions of people for Christ, but they had unhappy marriages. William Carey, the father of modern missions, had a miserable marriage. It would be easy to say, they would have been better off single. Possibly it is so, but Paul who recommends it highly also recognizes the dangers. If these men, by not being married, could not control their passions, they may have become immoral, and ruined their chances of doing great things for God. Many have also traveled this path. So Paul could say to them, it is no sin that you are married, even though you are not the most qualified people to make a marriage happy. It is good that you married, but would have been better had you not needed to be married.
There can be no question about it, Paul preferred the single life for himself, and considered it the best choice for just about everybody else. What is important for us to see is, Paul is sharing his perspective and not laying down a law. He is not anti-marriage as many Christians have been in their legalistic fight to exalt celibacy. Many groups have prohibited marriage as a unworthy state, but Paul would have no part of such nonsense.He is simply saying, just as a soldier does not take his wife onto a battlefield, so the Christian in time of great conflict ought not to marry, unless compelled by the strongest passions. Devote yourself to the battle, and do not get sidetracked with lesser battles, which are inevitable part of marriage.
The key verse that helps us apply all this is verse 35. Paul tells us clearly, his motive for being so negative. "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." Paul's motive is very positive, but he uses negatives to get there, for married people need to see the dangers in order to avoid them. Paul is not against marriage after all, but just opposed to the blind entering into it, unaware of the problems inherent in it. The immaturity of Corinthians, and the instability of the times, made marriage a high risk, and that is why Paul was so negative, and promoted singleness.
What all this means for us today is, we must see marriage as for adults only, and not just in years, but in maturity. Christians must be mature enough to recognize the reality of negatives in marriage, and be willing to commit themselves to work through the adjustments needed to make it work. They need to be people who recognize the danger of idolatry. They need to be willing to encourage each other in Christian service, so that their marriage does not make them less devoted to God, but more so. Mature love can lift people out of the realm where the Corinthians are struggling. There will still be problems,but there can also be a life dominated by joy and Christian service.
Paul becomes an optimist when he gets to chapter 13, and writes about the power of love. He says in verse 7 that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. If they have a mature love, they are ready for marriage. F. Alexander Magoun points out in his definition of love, the other side of marriage: "Love is a passionate and abiding desire on the part of two people to produce together an emotional climate in which each can flourish, far superior to what either could achieve alone." Paul would agree that this optimism is legitimate if love is mature, and ready to make sacrifices.
The complex issues of marriage, divorce, remarriage, and singleness, are not matters of cut and dried rules. You are dealing with people and their relationships to other people.The complexity can be enormous, and so there is no single rule to fit all. The one question for the Christian in all his relationships needs to be, what will contribute to my being a better Christian? Because Christians have different personalities and circumstances, there answers will vary, but their goal can be the same whether they chose to marry or stay single. That goal is, as Paul says, devotion to the Lord. If any choice you make in life hinders that, you are making a mistake. If any discussion or relationship you chose is an aid to this goal, you are on the right track. The measuring rod is not marriage or singleness, but your devotion to the Lord.