Around 2600 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah wrote:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24 ESV)
This is surely one of the most counter-cultural messages ever recorded! It’s hard to resist our culture’s creed that says we should be doing something bigger, better, somewhere else. Or the self help ideologies that reveal the secret to unleash our inner greatness. The promise is that if we change our mindset, we will change our circumstances. And if we change our circumstances, all our problems will dissolve. After all, what can stand against the power of wealth, intelligence and physical strength?
Cultural gurus continue to feed the pride, discontent and restlessness that has marked humanity since the Fall. An Amazon bestseller has the sub-title, How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. The implication is clearly that your current life isn’t too great! Another by a self-made musical superstar is titled, It’s all in your own head— “a reminder that it starts with YOU, to believe in yourself, and to get out of your own way”. Eckart Tolle’s latest book promises Awakening to our Life’s Purpose and Anthony Ferris gives us the secrets to working a 4-hour workweek in Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Even in the so-called ‘Christian’ category, we are faced with Soar (TD Jakes); The Power of Favour; I declare and Ten Powerful thoughts for a successful, abundant life”(Joel Osteen).
As a Christian, it can be hard to remain rooted in God’s priorities for our lives, to be content wherever He has placed us and to serve Christ faithfully in the small, mundane things which make up our current circumstances. That’s why Paul’s words to the first century Christians in Corinth are so apt and freeing for believers today. Today’s text hushes the restless sirens and reminds us that our calling in Christ matters infinitely more than our external status:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God…
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, 30 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, 31 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 Cor 7:17-24; 29-31 ESV).
Outward circumstances versus inner calling
Like us, the Corinthian Christians needed to grasp that their identity and significance was securely anchored in their Christian calling— not in cultural and religious symbols or social status. “Don’t be fooled by your rank!” says Paul, “You are free to serve Christ as Lord in and through every season and station of life—even if you are a slave, the least esteemed of all.” (1 Cor 7:19; 21; 22).
This is a truly liberating message for Christians in a FOMO culture that assumes we are always stuck in the wrong place, with the wrong people, on the wrong side of the track! Christ’s calling re-sets our priorities and revolutionises our lives from the inside out. When the purpose of our lives is to honour, serve and speak for Christ, every job, no matter how menial, is significant Christian work. If God has placed you where you are, there will be opportunities to serve him there.
Paul applies this general principle to the two extreme social and religious distinctions of his time: Circumcision and Slavery. His answer to these two cultural boulders was radical in first century Corinth: Paul dismisses them as irrelevant! (1 Cor 7:19; 21) All that matters is serving Christ and being obedient to Him wherever God has placed them. They are first and foremost Christians.
What a shock to the Jewish believer’s mindset, which regarded circumcision as everything! It was the difference between being an insider and an outsider. The other half of the congregants were Gentile Greeks, who looked down on the circumcised. Similarly, a slave had the lowliest status of all. Slaves were the epitome of insignificance, yet Paul says their work and identity are also shaped by their calling in Christ, not by their status or job.
To change or not to change
Paul’s general rule to remain in the condition in which we are called does not mean that change is always wrong (1 Cor 7:17; 20; 24). In fact, in verse 21b, Paul expressly tells slaves to use whatever opportunities they have to buy their freedom and improve their lot in life.
Paul himself encourages us to change our style and methods of ministry to reach diverse people for the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-24).
Good stewardship of our gifts and opportunities leaves no space for an attitude of complacency or fatalism as Christians. We are always called to make choices with wisdom and prayer. But Paul’s message is clear: When Christ calls us, He is our new Master and we belong to Him wherever we find ourselves. We are freed from sin’s bondage and from cultural practices that have been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 15; Rom 4:9-11; Gal 5:2-4; Col 2:11). The only obstacle to serving and obeying Christ is sin—Not our external circumstances.
Swimming against the tide
I consider this passage as one of my favourites because it has often reminded me that the Christian life is simple and liberating. We are bondservants of Christ, not of men! Bought at a price and responsible to Him alone! (1 Cor 7:22; 23-24 NIV) When we serve Christ, God leads us with cords of kindness and ties of love, like a loving parent leads his child (Hos 11:4). His fetters always lead to true freedom and flourishing.
I turned 50 this year and have spent most of my married life as a stay-at-home mom. I’m now in my twentieth year of school lifts, lunch boxes, homework and exams! It’s impossible to quantify the tears I’ve dried, conversations, trips made to the ER and desperate prayers I’ve prayed for our kids. Yet sometimes in my insecure moments, I’ve felt that I don’t measure up to our culture’s yardstick of success and have wished for a career, title and income to prove my significance. Our third child is now in matric and in her last week before finals, the entire grade dressed up for their future vocation. Many doctors, lawyers and accountants arrived at school, but my daughter and her friends were dressed in an array of outfits, from ultra casual, to baggy tracksuits and slinky gym pants! They didn’t represent any recognisable career category, so I asked them who they were: “Oh, can’t you see that we’re the ‘coffee shop moms’!? You know, the ones who don’t go to work and spend their day at pilates, drinking skinny lattes and things like that!” They thought they were hilarious, but I sincerely hoped they didn’t tar all stay-at-home moms with the same brush!
The truth is that whatever our occupation or status, most of us feel restless from time to time, wondering if we’re in the right place and doing the right thing. We sometimes confuse our occupation with our calling as Christ’s bondservant. At 18 we worry that we are choosing the wrong career path, and from midlife onwards we wake up in a cold sweat worrying that the grains of sand have finally slipped through the hourglass! Like our culture, Christians also long for significance and fear not being useful or wasting our lives.
Christians are also tempted to blame our circumstances for not living for Christ in the here and now: My family, my employer, my unemployment, my financial situation, my depression, my sickness, my spouse, my education, my career choice, my singleness, my failure, my local church, my emotional baggage…
All of these and many others are possible excuses for not serving Christ and being discontent with our lot in life.
But if Jesus is our master, His yoke is easy. All He asks is that we remain faithful in the small things he has entrusted to us, wherever we are. He calls us to know and love Him, to exercise kindness and justice, and to walk obediently in whatever life He has assigned to us. We are free to ‘use’ the things of this world, but not to become ‘engrossed’ in them, “for this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31 NIV). Perhaps that’s why Paul reminded Timothy:
“Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6).
Listen to one of my favourite songs by Casting Crowns, The Very Next Thing.
Lord, help me to trust your rule in the life you have assigned to me, and to live for you wherever I am and whatever I do. Forgive me for my grumbling and restlessness, and fill me instead with your Spirit, so that I am content and joyful in any and every circumstance. Fix my eyes on Jesus so that I will seize every opportunity to show others who He is. In Jesus’ name.