Today my pastor preached from a section of scripture that stirs up all kinds of conversations and historical prudish or bizarre teachings about sex, marriage and singleness. Despite the potential for dangerous interpretation, he did a great job of bringing the truth to light. I was keenly interested in this message because the section of scripture is a section I have gone to many times for wisdom and help in my own difficult marriage.
‘This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. 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. For the present form of this world is passing away. ‘
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I’ve thought a lot on these verses because at a glance they can be misconstrued and when you’re in a hard marriage the Tempter can spin them like an escape clause. But the truth, as my pastor spoke today, is that marriage is a shadow of Christ and the church. Jesus is the substance!
I jotted down several quotes from today’s sermon, one that struck me and got me thinking even more about the temporariness of marriage and singleness and how we should be holding these gifts with an open hand is this:
“Not everyone is meant to be married. But no one is destined for loneliness. We are all made for gospel community.”
There is something beautiful and metaphorical about marriage that cannot be grasped and idolized or idealized without it slipping through your fingers. There’s also a deep beauty in singleness that almost speaks more about the age to come in God’s kingdom than marriage does. I want to think this through more and write about it more, but for now, I’ll focus on the marriage part.
A week ago in my community group we all told our marriage stories. Of course when the group started and I realized they were going to go around the circle and I would be last, I thought seriously about excusing myself and leaving. I didn’t want to tell my marriage story and I certainly didn’t want to do it last. And as I listened the anxiety about sharing the story that has been the furnace that has purified my faith just got worse. Everyone had a nice story. They met at a party. They had a few rough patches but they were each other’s best friend… ugh. Not me. That’s not my marriage story.
Culturally I have a marriage story that most people would say I should give up on. The culture scratches their head at my story or accuses me of being co-dependent (which I have been and that would be a fair accusation for most of my marriage). The church has waivered between encouraging me into deep toxic co-dependency under the guise of biblical womanhood or submission and Christlikeness, or joining the culture in finding a loophole for me to get out of my less than lovely marriage. But when I look at Jesus and the church- the historical church and geographically scattered church- I hear a whole different message.
“You’re marriage is just a shadow Sheila, hold it with an open hand. Stay married like you’re free. Like you aren’t bound to this man by law but by love. Love him like you have nothing to loose.” Easily misconstrued I know. But try to listen for the nuance here. Try to hear what the Spirit would say to us through Paul’s controversial words. He’s saying we should stay married like Paul stayed a prisoner after his chains were loosed in Phillipi.
Remember that story from Acts where Paul and his traveling companion Silas were thrown into a prison (think dungeon, not modern max security facility) for delivering a girl enslaved and possessed by demons (because she was annoying… that’s what it says!). That ruined the business plan of these human trafficking people enslaving and using her tormented soul to make money, so they attacked Paul and Silas and threw them in a Roman dungeon, set gaurds to watch them and shackled their feet to the filthy ground.
At midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing. Yeah, that’s a whole other meditation. But when they were seeking God and praising him with their blugeoned bodies, the passage says their fellow prisoners were listening. I just imagine, the sounds that must have normally come from such a dark, tortuous place. Singing and prayers must have caught everyone’s ear. And it caught God’s too, cause an earthquake happened just then and Paul and Silas’ (as well as the other prisoners) shackles were broken and all the prison doors were opened.
And Paul and Silas took their freedom and ran!
No they did not. In fact, they stopped the guard from committing suicide and showed him that they weren’t going anywhere. They were free, but they chose to stay for the sake of the guard’s salvation. (Acts 16:25-40)
Jesus taught this. When Peter pressed Jesus for money to pay taxes, Jesus asked, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:24-27)
Jesus was teaching a truth for those who have been born again by the Spirit of God: we are free! But like Paul wrote to the Galatians, we don’t use our freedom as an excuse to sin, we use it to serve and love one another.
This is true in marriage too. Paul isn’t suggesting that we should have open marriages or that we should abandon our spouses when he says, “…from now on let those who have wives live as though they have none.” He’s saying stay married and don’t cling to your marriage for life. You’re not bound, like Paul and Silas weren’t bound, by law so much as you are bound by love. Let the love of Christ compel you to stay in your marriage as a child of God free from the culture’s bonds. Use your marriage, like you use any of the “dealings” of in the world. Not for your own vices, but for building up your spouse, being a light and a voice in their life that draws them to Jesus.
One day all our marriages won’t exist anymore. We’ll stand before the one who betrothed himself to those he called to be his own from before the world began. And there the thing we’re trying to cling to in our marriages here will be in our grasp, fullfilling our desire for consumation of love and friendship.
Stay married like you’re not married Christian. Stay single like you’re not single Christian. Because soon you are going to meet your Bridegroom. And until then, he is drawing your spouse, your neighbors, your friends at church and work to himself through you.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13