Undivided Attention

We continue in our study of I Corinthians and, this morning, we’re going to finish out chapter 7.  Last week, we saw that Paul had something to say to those who are single, those who are married to Christians and those who are married to non-Christians, which I think pretty much covers all of us.  In verse 25, Paul is going to go back to the singles and say something further to them.

            Now, just in case there may be some of you who are married who are thinking, “Why do I need to listen to a sermon that’s focused on those who are single?”, I would ask you two questions:  First of all, over the course of your lifetime, how many sermons have you ever heard that were directed toward Christians who are single?  And then, secondly, over the course of your lifetime, how many sermons have you ever heard that were directed toward Christians who are married?

            And, my guess is, you’ve all heard a lot more sermons about marriage than you have about singleness, despite the fact that 50% of adult Americans are single.  In fact, the exact percentage of singles in this country is 50.2%, which means there are more single adults in this country than there are married people.

            So, if half of all Americans are single, then why is it that we spend so much time preaching to people who are married, and so little time preaching to those who are single?  And I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that the apostle Paul spends a good bit of his time in this chapter addressing those who are unmarried, and so we’re going to do the same thing this morning.

            As we’ve already seen in this chapter, Paul says that being single is a good thing and there’s nothing wrong with staying single, but being single is not for everyone.  And so, Paul says it’s all right if you’re searching for a godly person you can take as your husband or your wife.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

            If you’re here this morning and you’re single and you’re searching, then I’ve got something that might help you.  I went hunting on the Internet to find the best pick-up lines for Christian singles and I thought I would share with you some of my favorites.

  • So last night I was reading in the book of Numbers, and then I realized, I don’t have yours. 
  • Is your name Faith?  Because you’re the substance of things I’ve hoped for.
  • You may not think I’m perfect but Jesus thinks I’m to die for.
  • You’re like Jericho.  How many times do I have to walk around you to make you fall for me?
  • Are you related to Abraham’s nephew? Because I like you a LOT.
  • And my personal favorite – Hey, my name is Will.  Maybe I’m God’s ‘will’ for you (feel free to use that one)

            All right, back to I Corinthians chapter 7.  We need to do just a little bit of review.  A large part of what Paul is dealing with in this chapter is a problem that was caused by some people in the Corinthians church who were ascetics, which simply means that they defined spirituality on the basis of what you’re willing to do without.  

            Some ascetics believe you are more spiritual if you give up food and so, they fast a lot.  Some ascetics believe you need to give away all of your possessions and do without.  The ascetics here in Corinth believed that the way to be more spiritual was give up sex, to be celibate.  And they said this was true for everybody, both those who were single and those who were married, and, as we’ve already seen, this was causing all sorts of confusion in the Corinthian church.   

            So, as we pick it up in verse 25, it’s important for us to keep in mind that we’re still dealing with that same issue. “Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.  I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” (I Corinthians 7:25-26)

            Paul is talking here to those singles who were thinking about getting married, but they’re hesitant to do so because there are people in the church telling them that it’s wrong to get married and have sex.  They should stay single and stay celibate.

            And, once again, Paul tells us that Jesus did not address this topic while he was here on this earth. That’s what he means when he says, “I have no command from the Lord…”  But he follows this by giving his advice.  Now, this is not the typical way that Paul deals with issues.  Usually Paul is very emphatic; he says, “This is what you must do.”

            But Paul is dealing here with a very difficult situation and he’s trying to help these Christians work through it.  But here’s the problem.  On the one hand, Paul does think that, given the present circumstances, it might be better for those who are not married to remain single.  But he doesn’t want to appear to be affirming the legalism of the ascetics.  So, he’s trying to say, “There may be some wisdom in remaining single, but it’s not for the reason that those ascetics have said.”  

            Paul says, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.”  There was something going on in Corinth that would cause Paul to say, “If you’re single, it’s probably best right now to remain single.”  But it’s not clear what this “present distress” was.  People have made a lot of guesses.

            There are some, like N.T. Wright, who think that there was a great famine that was coming over the land and it would be hard enough to take care of yourself, much less take care of a wife or a husband and children.  Maybe that was the issue.  Or maybe it was a political uprising in the city. 

            Or maybe Paul was talking about the beginning of the persecution of Christians.  We know that a terrible persecution was coming.  And I think persecution would be a lot tougher to deal with for those who are married.  Because, if I’m married, if I die for my faith, I’ve got to worry about who’s going to take care of my family.  And so that puts a lot of added pressure on me.  And if you threaten to kill my wife or my children if I don’t give up my faith, I think that’s a lot harder to deal with than giving up my own life.  So, I can see that being single would make things a bit easier in that situation.

            But whatever this “present distress” was, there was something that was going on or was just about to happen that was of such a nature that it led Paul to say, “It might be better for you singles to just remain as you are for right now.” But, of course, if you’re married, then you need to stay married.

            Verse 27, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free.  Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.  But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned.  Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.” (I Corinthians 7:27-28)

            Paul says, “If you’re already married, don’t get a divorce just because I said it was better to be single right now.  But if you’re not married, then it might be better for you to stay single.”  But Paul wants to make it very clear that this is his advice, not a command.  If you do get married, there’s nothing wrong with that, even though the ascetics will try to tell you that it’s wrong.

            You see, the problem with ascetism is that it’s a form of legalism.  And legalism causes us to be enslaved to the rules and regulations that somebody has decided we have to follow.  And that’s Paul’s great concern.  If Christ has set us free, then why would we allow ourselves to become slaves of men (as he says back in verse 23)?  

            So, when someone says, “You can’t get married and have sex.  That’s wrong.”  They’re making a rule that God didn’t make.  Marriage is something that God regards as holy.  It’s something that is part of God’s design.  It’s something that God values highly. But the ascetic legalists have twisted things so much that they’ve come to believe that it was sinful to marry.  So, Paul has to say, “Marriage is a good thing; it’s okay to pursue that. It’s not a sinful thing. It’s not a less spiritual thing to do.”

            Now, this passage is dealing with one particular situation in this one particular city, but there’s a message here that relates to Christians of all ages, in all locations, in all circumstances.  Those of us who are Christians need to realize that turbulent and troubled times may mean that we have to put on hold for a while the kind of life that we might otherwise have expected to enjoy.  

            And, in fact, we’ve all experienced this over the past couple of years.  There have been things that we have had to do differently because of the present distress of the pandemic.  And while that distress has been more severe than anything else we’ve ever experienced, the truth is, we all have distresses in our lives from time to time that cause us to temporarily alter our normal habits.

            And when we get disturbed by the thought that we can’t do things the way we used to do them or the way we want to do them, we need to follow Paul’s advice and rethink our view of this world.  This present world will one day give way to a world in which Jesus will reign over all his people forever and ever.  And when that moment comes, it won’t matter whether you followed — or didn’t follow — some social order or pattern in the way that your family and friends all assumed that you would. 

            What will matter is that you were faithful to the Lord in whatever difficult circumstances you found yourself in.  And that’s the point that Paul is going to make beginning in verse 29.

            “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.” (I Corinthians 7:29-31)

            Paul wants us to know that there should be a sense of urgency about our mission as Christians.  Time is growing shorter.  The return of Jesus is closer today than it was yesterday. The New Testament writers were all anxious for the return of Jesus, and they believed that event could come at any moment.  But the problem is that there are still people in this world who don’t know Jesus. And if there are people out there that don’t know Jesus, that should matter to us!  There needs to be a sense of urgency.  I’ve got work to do!

            Then Paul goes through an interesting list starting with “let those who have wives live as though they had none.”  What does that mean?  Let me read this to you from the New Living Translation and I think it will make more sense:

            “The time that remains is very short.  So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage.  Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions.  Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them.  For this world as we know it will soon pass away.” (I Corinthians 7:29-31, NLT)

            What Paul is saying is that whether you’re single or married, you cannot allow the things of this world to distract you from your mission.  “Those with wives should not focus only on their marriage.”  Even though I’m married, I still need to be fully devoted to the mission I’ve been given as a Christian.  Even though I may have children, I have to be fully devoted to the mission I’ve been given.  It doesn’t mean that I neglect them, but it does mean that my responsibility as a disciple of Jesus Christ must come first.

            There is always a danger of allowing our families to become a distraction. And what I mean by that is, we tend to view our families as an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. We think: As long as my family is happy and healthy and everything’s okay, that’s really what matters to God, because it’s family.  And we can excuse a tremendous amount of selfishness under the umbrella of family.

            But family is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end.  The purpose of family is to perpetuate the kingdom of God from generation to generation – to multiply myself into my children, and them to others, and others to others, and so on and so forth.  It’s a means to an end.  Sometimes I’ll hear people say, “Well, right now my family is my ministry.”  But that can easily become an excuse to be selfish — to pour all of my time, my energy, my resources completely into myself and my family. And somehow, we excuse it by saying, “This is family.”

            But what Paul is saying here is that those of us who are Christians have a higher calling. Our calling is to take the message of Jesus Christ to the people of this world and that needs to be done “in” my family.  And that needs to be done “through” my family.  

            The best thing I can do for my children is to model for them what it means to be a kingdom builder. My job as a parent is to train my children to be kingdom builders and my number one assignment is to be an example of that for them.  So, let me ask those of you who are parents: When was the last time one of your children actually saw you share the gospel with somebody else?  When was the last time one of your children saw you lead somebody else to Christ?

            And if you were to ask your children, “What do you think is the number one passion in my life?  What is it that’s most important to me?” what would they say?  Because I would suggest to you that what comes out of the mouth of that child is probably accurate.  They know what’s truly most important to you because they see how you spend your time and what you talk about and what you spend your money on.  Those of us who are parents need to model for our children what it means to be a kingdom builder and that’s what Paul is talking about.  

            Then Paul says, “Those who weep or who rejoice …should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy.”   Sometimes this life is really hard and sometimes life is really great.  Either way, we cannot allow that to be a distraction.  Sometimes life stinks and there are hard times and we go through the valleys, but we cannot check out during our times of struggle and difficulty and pain. We still have a mission that our Lord has given us, regardless of the circumstances of life.

            Paul goes on to say, “[Those] who buy things should not be absorbed by…their possessions.  Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them.”  Some of you have figured out that God has given you the ability to make money. Maybe, earlier in your life, your heart and your passion was for building God’s kingdom, but you’ve gotten really good at making money. And you found that money buys you stuff, and money tends to buy security, and all of a sudden that tends to be what you’re living for; that’s what you’re focused on. That’s what you’re doing with your time and your energy.

            But we need to understand that we need to take what God has given us and put it into building his kingdom. The danger when we become good at making money is that can become our focus.  Suddenly we discover all the things we can buy and purchase and that’s what we’re doing with our lives.  That’s what we’re consumed with, getting newer and better stuff.  Paul says, at the end of the day, that’s not what matters.  We need to have a sense of urgency about our responsibility as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Because this world as we know it will soon pass away.

            Then in verse 32, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.  But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.  And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.  But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.  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.” (I Corinthians 7:32-35).

            Paul says that all of us need to be diligent about the mission that God has given us. But the fact of the matter is if I am married, that takes up some of my time and energy. If I’ve six kids, that takes up some of my time and energy.  And Paul’s not saying that’s a bad thing.  It’s just the reality of the situation. 

            And Paul is careful to say that one marital status is not better than the other. If you get married, that’s fine; if you’re single, that’s fine. But Paul says, “Those of you who are single, you have an opportunity that is special and unique because you don’t have to pour your time and your energy into a spouse. You don’t have to pour your time and your energy into your children. You have the ability to be totally and fully focused on the things of God – focused on knowing him and building up his kingdom in a unique and special way.”

            We need to understand for those who are single, there is tremendous potential for what God can do with you if you understand the uniqueness of your situation.  Because you don’t have the same responsibilities that we have as married people. You have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference for the kingdom of God.

            I heard someone put it this way – those of us who are married need to recognize that the singles among us are actually the special forces of the Christian army. They’re unique and special people who have significant potential to have undivided attention, to be undistracted in their focus on the mission of God, to make an enormous difference for God’s kingdom.

            So rather than looking at them as if there is something wrong with them – as if they have some sort of a social disease – we need to value them. We need to encourage them; we need to challenge them. We need to be excited with them about the potential of what God can do because they are single.

            And those of you who are single need to understand that, whether you marry someday or not, right now you’re single. And because of that, you have a tremendous opportunity. You have an opportunity to be devoted to the building up of God’s kingdom in a way that I can’t be; nor can the rest of us who have responsibilities with spouses and children.

            You have the opportunity to devote yourself fully and completely in an undistracted way to the building up of God’s kingdom. You are the special forces of God’s Christian army and you can make a difference beyond what you can even imagine if you will just understand the uniqueness of your singleness and what God wants to do with that.  God wants to use you in a significant way to change the world.

            Verse 36, “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.  But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well.  So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.” (I Corinthians 7:36-38).

            You’ve got to think that Paul wants to make absolutely sure that he is not misunderstood on this point because he keeps saying the same thing over and over.  Being single is a good thing, especially in view of the “present distress”, but if you feel like you need to get married, then get married.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And that’s true for young people who have never been married, and it’s also true for Christians who used to be married, but now find themselves single.

            “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.  Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (I Corinthians 7:39-40)

            So, Paul has spent a whole chapter talking about singleness, marriage, divorce, remarriage.  But, in the end, the most important thing he says in this chapter is this – it doesn’t matter so much what your marital status is, what matters most is whether or not you’re putting God first in your life, whether you’re giving him your “undivided devotion”.

            We’ve all need to admit that there are a lot of things in our lives that distract us, that keep us from giving God the focus he requires.  It’s up to us to make the commitment that absolutely nothing – not good times, not troubled times, not our possessions, and not even our family will distract us from putting God first in our lives.

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