Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio transcript

Podcast listener Sarah writes in to ask, “Pastor John, I just got married to a wonderful guy and we just celebrated our first six months of marriage! That being said, I’m confused by 1 Corinthians 7:32–34. I understand Paul is making the point that you can live a more free life for the Lord if you’re single. But he says this: ‘But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.’ That language makes it seem as though pleasing your husband or wife (serving them, loving them, laying down your life for them) is pointless, or a lower calling than being a missionary like Paul. Can you help me understand this better?”

Well, I don’t know if I can. I will try my hardest and I totally resonate with how difficult that sounds. Let me read a few verses to just make sure everybody is seeing what Sarah saw and what I see. Paul sees in 1 Corinthians 7 a fragile world liable to come to an end soon. And he says in verse 31, “The present form of this world is passing away.” That influences significantly how he thinks and talks here.

So verses 29–31 go like this: “From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none. Let those who mourn as though they weren’t mourning, those who rejoice as though they weren’t rejoicing, those who buy as though they had no goods, those who deal with the world as though they were not dealing with the world. For the present form of this world is passing away.” So be married, mourn, rejoice, buy, and deal with the world with a certain detachment, because this is a fragile, short-lived world.

Those are very striking, strange descriptions of how to live. Live in the world as though you are not in the world. Be married as though you are not married. Cry as though you are not crying. Be happy as though you are not being happy. That is really strange. And it is just telling us: Don’t sink your roots too deep here in this world whether it is happy or whether it is sad. That is the backdrop for the verses that Sarah is drawing our attention to.

So here come some instructions about marriage in this context. And Paul commends his singleness. He loves being single for ministry. And he talks about its distinct advantages. And they are, of course, not all advantages. Every single person knows that. So here is where the difficulties come and what Sarah is asking about. I will read the verses. Verses 26–28 say, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is, married or single. Are you bound to a wife? Don’t seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Don’t seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned.”

Now pause. Exclamation point three times! That is an amazing statement. He is going to commend singleness as what he prefers and what he wishes more people would do and then he says, “But marrying is not a sin” (verse 28). Now that is a big thing to say because, if you are not sinning, you are pleasing God. And if you are pleasing God, that is glorious, because sin is to displease the Lord. There is no neutral place here like halfway between pleasing the Lord and marriage or something like that. There is no neutral place. If you are not sinning, you are pleasing God.

So he is saying: To marry is not sin. Then he adds: Yet, those who marry will have worldly troubles [literally, tribulation in the flesh], and I would spare you that” (v. 28). So it is strange for Paul to say this as a single man because his life was so full of tribulation. He is saying that, if you get married, you are going to have trouble. But that is all he knew: trouble. So he has some special ideas in mind here. We need to try to get to the bottom of it. He is clear he does not mean singleness is free from tribulation. He was in prison every other week. And he was shipwrecked and in danger here and there. His life was just tremendously burdened. And he knew what it was to burn in the flesh.

So he is talking about something peculiar in marriage here, which has got Sarah worked up and me too. He says, “I want you to be free from anxieties” (v. 32). And clearly he means a certain kind of anxiety, because the very next thing he says in that verse is, “The unmarried man is anxious for the things of the Lord.” Well, you just said you want us to be free from anxiety and now you say — and it is the very same word in Greek — “I want you to be anxious for the things of the Lord.” So he means a particular kind of anxiety he is trying to spare us.

Now here are the key phrases or the key words that Sarah brought up. “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about the things of the world, how to please his wife. And he is divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord and how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about the things of the world, how to please her husband” (vv. 32–34). And so Sarah said this made her efforts to please her husband sound pointless or lower in a calling than a missionary like Paul. And I admit, it does sound like that. But I would say it sounds so bad that we know it can’t be what Paul means in the way she is taking it.

Let me try to illustrate. Two times Paul contrasts “the things of the Lord” with “the things of the world.” If you are not married, you focus on the things of the Lord. If you are married, you have to think about the things of the world. And so he says for the married person, verse 34, that here she is divided. Now that is a really puzzling contrast. “Things of the Lord” in the single life, “things of the world” in the married life. That is the first one. I am going to come back and try to show that those are so bizarre that they can’t mean what on the face of them they seem to mean. Here is a second one: “The unmarried man aims to please the Lord. The married man aims to please his wife” (vv. 32–33). And here is a third strange thing, even more puzzling. I mean, this is really jarring. “The unmarried woman aims to be holy in body and spirit, but the married woman aims to please her husband” (v. 34). You say: What? You know, just what? How can you contrast those two?

Now I would say that those three contrasts on the face of it are so contrary to what Paul teaches elsewhere, even in this letter, that we know they don’t mean what they seem to mean at first. For example, I am thinking of 1 Corinthians 10:31 where he says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” So you are married. You are having sex. Or changing the oil or fixing the faucet or whatever you are doing, do it to the glory of God and you will be holy.

So we know he can’t mean that marriage is all this worldly, second-class stuff and real holiness and real pleasing the Lord is found outside marriage. Does he really mean in a marriage that we only deal with the things of the world and the things of the Lord are for single people? And, of course, the answer is no way does Paul think that. His teachings are full of implications about how the way children and husbands and wives treat each other are concerns of the Lord.

Does he really want us to think that the effort to please the Lord is only possible in singleness and that in marriage all the dynamics are different? We don’t please the Lord there, we please each other there. He can’t mean that because he said it is not a sin to marry and it would be a sin to marry if we didn’t try to please the Lord while we were married. That is what sin means is not pleasing the Lord.

So I am leaving behind the sphere where I please the Lord when I get married and now I am just going to please my wife. He cannot mean that. And when he says a woman tries to be holy in body and spirit as a single woman, but please her husband, as opposed to be holy, he can’t mean that either, that she stops being holy when she gets married. So what does he mean? Here we are now. Okay, Sarah, you are asking the right question. I am with you. What does he mean?

Here is my effort: By “things of the Lord,” he means the ministry outside of the family of spreading the gospel in risky evangelism, caring for the destitute, comforting the hurting saints, exhorting the wayward, and many other ministry oriented things. He has in mind a focused, more formal, official ministry effort of evangelism and nurture. He does not mean when he says “things of the Lord” fixing the leaky faucet at home to the glory of God. He is not including that. Or mending the dresser where the dog chewed off the edge of it. Or getting home for dinner when you promised. These are all things that he knows can be done to the glory of God, but he is not including them in “the things of the Lord.” Those are “the things of the world” in his vocabulary, not evil, just not what he means by “things of the Lord.”

When he contrasts pleasing the spouse with pleasing the Lord, I think he means there is a life of simpler pursuit of how to minister to the lost and the hurting that does not have to be complicated with the demands of family. Of course, you can please the Lord by playing with your children or fixing that faucet or mending that dresser. But Paul is saying, simply, the unmarried can be more focused on all the demands of ministry without the complicating demands of family. And that is true. I felt it so much during my pastoral days.

What if I am in a heavy counseling session and I promised to be home for supper at 5:30? This happened regularly. Then what? I want to please my wife and I am in the midst of this thing of the Lord. What do I do? What if I am playing with my kids at night and an emergency phone call comes and somebody is terribly, desperately suicidal or somebody has been rushed to the hospital? I have got conflict there that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have to be concerned with my kids that night. What if a late night crisis has made me so exhausted I don’t have any energy for the job I promised to do the next morning?

Paul would like us to be spared the complexity, the dividedness, if we are single and to flat out serve all those ministerial things. He is contrasting things of the Lord in a ministry life with what happens if it is complicated by the demands of the family. And when he says that a woman aims at holiness in body and mind when single, but tries to please the husband when married, I think he means she loses the simplicity of devoting more time to the Word and prayer and must fit those things into a much more demanding life. In other words, there can be a more focused sense of pursuing the strategies, the disciplines of holiness. And I have talked with many married women. How do you find time with all these kids to read the Word and to pray? And she just aches for more spiritual time alone with God.

But here is where we end up. Paul is recruiting radical devotion to the Lord that is uncomplicated by the practical demands of marriage. There is no getting around it. Paul wants a lot of people to be single because of the nature of the demands of ministry and the press of time. And when he steps back and hears a question like Sarah’s, “Hey, what about those of us who believe God is calling us to marriage and in marriage?” Paul has a glorious answer. There are glorious truths to tell about the meaning and the ministry of marriage. But that answer is not here in 1 Corinthians 7 except, “You don’t sin.” You have got to go to Ephesians 5 for that. And when you go there, it is glorious.