To Have and Have Not

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

In the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses the ethics of marriage and singleness. His remarks in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 are small part of that discussion.

Generally speaking, Paul’s opponents in Corinth had a less favorable view of the earthly institution of marriage than did Paul. Perhaps their view of the goodness of the created material world was deficient. Perhaps they believed that Jesus’ resurrection had already overthrown every human institution. Whatever the case, the words of 1 Corinthians 7:1 certainly reflect the opponents’ point of view: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” They opposed marriage and sex.

Paul’s response begins with a basic affirmation of marriage and marital sexual relations (1 Corinthians 7:2-5). There is a place for singleness in the work of God, but it has nothing to do with marital sex being bad. Paul is single because 1) the single life facilitates his mission work, 2) because God has given him an internal constitution consistent with the moral demands of singleness, and 3) because he was single when God called him. These reasons do not imply that our created sexual nature is evil or irrelevant, or that God has already raised believers to such an exalted state that they’ve transcended their basic human nature.

Paul suggests that the circumstances of one’s life provide the context in which one lives as a Christian. In the words of a cliché, “Bloom where you are planted.” He doesn’t always see “where you are planted” as good in itself; in an aside, he recommends that slaves obtain their freedom if given the opportunity. In general, however, and “in view of the present distress,” Paul advises Christians to remain as they are (7:26). In an interesting contrast to the Gospel for today (Mark 1:14-20 ), Paul says that discipleship sometimes requires staying, not leaving.

Paul’s major argument in favor of singleness (for those so gifted) is the benefit such an estate offers to God’s work. The single person can focus solely on the work of God, while the married have legitimate needs to support and sustain their families. Paul recognizes that only a fraction of the Christian community, however, has the God-given temperament for the single life.

Even the married, however, require a degree of detachment so that they can respond to the call of God. God’s vision for Christian families does not have them living in insular cocoons. Members of Christians families are expected to answer God’s call and respond to the world around them in Christian love. On occasions, this will mean “family second” instead of “family first.” This is where the argument of 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 comes into play. The married should have the same attitude of detachment that characterizes all Chrisitans.

Christians have a different understanding of detachment than do the adherents of some religions. For some, spiritual detachment an important spiritual discipline in itself, freeing one from the illusions of this world and their attendant suffering. Paul’s version of detachment very different. His version of detachment is practical, not essential. Christians are to live with a spirit of detachment so that they can respond to the call of God and the needs of the moment, not because there is anything wrong with the God-ordained things or relationships of this world.

This version of detachment is apparent throughout the Bible and is a component of the Biblical concept of faith. God began our journey of faith by calling Abraham to leave his father’s house (Genesis 12:1). God gave Abraham and Sarah a miracle son of promise and then asked Abraham to lay that son on the altar (Genesis 22:2). (see Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling). Jeremiah told exiles to build houses and settle down in Babylon, but he also told them that a time would come when they would return to Judah (Jeremiah 29:5-10) and leave those houses behind. Jesus called fishermen to leave their nets and follow him. To the crowds, he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 ESV). The book of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:13) commends those who “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth).” The Bible concludes with the seer of Revelation quoting the voice of heaven to those living in Babylon: “Come out of her my people” (Revelation 18:4).

God created this world good, but it is now characterized by sin and death. Christians receive God’s good gifts with gladness, but hold on to them loosely. God’s restorative work sometimes requires Christians to let go of the things of this dying, fallen world so that they can take hold of the world to come. In this world, we have – and have not.