I’ve jokingly referred to 2015 as “The Year of Weddings.” We’ve just recently hit the eight month marker, and, thus far, the vast majority of my friends from college are now newly married, engaged, or are in relationships that are heading toward marriage. As the year goes on, more join that group. Relationships are forming and solidifying on a near epidemic scale. The single boat is apparently sinking, and most people I know are partnering up and jumping ship.
I thought about this trend this morning as I read 1 Corinthians 7. Here, Paul is instructing the Corinthians concerning marriage. This is the famous (or infamous) chapter where Paul seems to encourage singleness rather than marriage, the same chapter from which the idea of “The Gift of Singleness” (the gift many people wish to return) likely stems. Some, upon reading this text, have concluded that Paul was anti-marriage, arguing that he was either pushing his own way of life upon others or was, at the very least, mistaken in asserting that such a life was better.
To some extent, I can relate to those concerns. In college, a few of us took an online spiritual gifts assessment, and, to our surprise, the results claimed that one of the prominent gifts in our circle of friends was the “Gift of Celibacy.” Those who learned that they had this gift were a bit shocked and outraged. Those who learned that they did not have this gift laughed at those who did. Everyone ended up shrugging off that blessing, and the whole thing became an inside joke. Yet the reaction, though comical, was rooted in reality. I don’t know many people who enjoy being told that they have the “Gift of Singleness”; I do know many who desire marriage. This makes Paul’s words in this text a bit confusing at first glance.
Yet there is something more going on here, something deeper and more profound. Verse 35 is, I think, one of the key verses in this chapter.
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.
1 Corinthians 7:35
What we see here should affect how we read Paul’s argument. This shows us that the real concern wasn’t marriage itself. Paul wasn’t against marriage; he was for devotion to the Lord. His entire outlook centers around a life that is centered around Jesus. When he writes that, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8), he is not attempting to keep people from love and companionship, nor is he seeking to make clones of himself. Rather, he recognizes that marriage carries a tremendous responsibility, one demanding time and energy and focus. The unmarried man is free from such responsibility, allowing more time and energy and focus for “the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32). In Paul’s mind, one ought to remain single if he is able in order to devote more of himself to the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). However, we must remember that Paul was not opposed to marriage. Paul, though promoting the benefits of single life in 1 Corinthians 7, also writes of the beauty of the Gospel message displayed uniquely through marriage in Ephesians 5. The heart of his instruction is the advancement of the kingdom of God in the lives of the saints in every nation.
I think this is what we should be striving for as well. Ultimately, marriage is not an end in itself, nor is singleness. Rather, knowing God and making him known is the ultimate goal, and that can be advanced while single or married. If we are devoted to the Lord, pursuing him above all else, that is enough. Let him lead us to marriage if marriage be his will for us. Let us be content in singleness if he isn’t leading elsewhere. In all things, let him get the glory.
Though I joke with my friends a lot, I have truly been impressed with their stories of obedience to God through their relationships. I have seen men and women seek the Lord prior to forming relationships, faithfully examining their hearts to discern whether God is calling them to marry or to remain single. I have seen relationships endure difficulty and pain because of the call of God, the man and the woman faithfully displaying the work of the Gospel as they, though broken people, are enabled to selflessly love each other in the Lord. I have seen engaged couples fight the temptations of the flesh to present themselves to God and to each other as pure, sacrificial servants, trusting in and rejoicing in the faithfulness and goodness of God over the fleeting pleasures of sin. I have seen weddings become places of worship as Jesus is exalted as the ultimate source and object of love, the couple standing back as mere reflections of the great love story. Though I know we still struggle and fall, I see God at work. Though I know there are no perfect relationships, I see sanctification and grace and mercy in these earthly endeavors. And though idolatry and infatuation are ever present vices, I see hearts seeking to love the Lord more than their earthly companions. I see in all things a desire “to promote good order and secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). In that, I rejoice. And I believe Paul would rejoice as well.