Living in the “Present Distress”

by Shane Scott

 

I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.  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. 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 7:25-31).

This is the first time I have ever discussed this passage about the present distress of the Corinthians while actually in the middle of a present distress. In the last six weeks, over 55,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. In the same span of time, over 22 million Americans have lost their jobs. Which means that here in 1 Corinthians 7, we have the perfect passage from which to draw applications for how we should approach our time of crisis. And yet, in verses 29-31, Paul gives five bracing instructions. Am I really supposed to:

-Neglect my spouse?

-Repress my grief?

-Stifle my joy?

-Disown my possessions?

-Renounce the world?

I want to look at what Paul did not mean by these verses, and then I want to place them in their context and grasp what he does mean.

What Paul Does Not Mean

  1. We know Paul doesn’t mean we should neglect our spouses, because in the opening verses of the chapter he says that husbands and wives should have such a deep commitment to each other that they should be willing to give of themselves to one another (7:4).
  2. Nor does he mean that we should repress our grief. In fact, as he explains in 2 Corinthians 2:4, his letter to the Corinthians was stained with his tears. And in 2 Corinthians 7:9, he commends the Corinthians for feeling a sense of godly grief.
  3. And just as Paul did not mean to convey the idea that we should not weep at all, neither did he mean that we must stifle our joy. In that same seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul says that when Titus brought news of the Corinthian’s repentance, he rejoiced (v. 7), and in v. 4 was filled with overflowing joy.
  4. Likewise, when Paul says that those who buy should be as those who have no possessions, he doesn’t mean we are to disown all that we have. To the contrary, in 1 Corinthians 16, one of the very questions Paul addresses has to do with the collection, and if Paul meant that they had to act like they didn’t own anything, they would have no resources to share with those poor Christians in need.
  5. And last, when Paul says that we should be as those who have no dealings with the world, he doesn’t mean that we are to renounce all worldly responsibilities. In chapter five he said the exact opposite when talking about disassociating from the sinful brother in the church (5:9-10).

But if Paul did not mean for us to take these statements in vv 29-31 in an absolute and unqualified way, how ARE we supposed to understand them?

What Paul Does Mean

Paul gives us the filter through which we are to qualify these statements.

Notice how they begin in v. 29 – “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short” (or “shortened” NASB). Sometimes we use the expression, “times are tight right now.” The present distress has put a squeeze on whatever time the Corinthians have. Now look at the last part of v. 31: “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

This world, including even its most intimate relationships like marriage, its greatest joys and deepest sorrows, all of its produce and all of its commerce, is temporary. Marriages last until death. Earthly joy and sorrow will end. Life is a vapor, no matter how much we own or how high we climb the ladder.

So here is how we can qualify what Paul says. Corinthians, you are living in very difficult and challenging circumstances. There is more to come than this temporary and fragile way of life. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are living in anticipation of the day (described in chapter 15) when Christ returns, and every enemy is put under his feet including death itself, and God may be all in all.

So in view of all these factors, here’s how you should approach life in the present distress. Realize that marriage is temporary, and don’t allow the crushing burden as a spouse during the present distress to distract you from your primary obligation to the Lord. And mourn, but do so knowing that the sorrows of this life are not the end of the story. And rejoice, but do so remembering there is an even greater joy awaiting us that is “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). And acquire possessions and use the things of the world, but don’t be possessed by your possessions, and don’t become so engrossed in them that you become like people who (as the old expression goes) are busy arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The form of this world is passing away. This way of life, Paul says, is a sinking ship.

Maybe some of you are like me, and you needed to be snapped back into spiritual reality. Use these daily reminders all round us about the things that won’t last to clarify for you the things that will. In the midst of our “present distress,” live with an eternal perspective.