I recently had a pretty powerful revelation while reading 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter, Paul discusses marriage, and in the broader context of that topic, he says this:
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. 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. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)
I have spent a lot of my life trying to understand “God’s call”. When I was younger, I thought I would become a missionary. Inspired by missionary biographies and family friends who went to China, I felt that giving up one’s comfortable Western life and travelling to a far-off land to preach the gospel was the pinnacle of what it meant to be a Christian.
I thought that “God’s call” was out there somewhere, that I had to figure it out, and that it had to be different from what I was already doing. Ideally, it should be in a poor and dangerous location.
However, every time I attempted to radically change my life in this direction, it failed. I eventually had to face the fact that in my case, the desire to do missionary work wasn’t motivated by a real sense of God’s calling, so much as misguided perfectionism and guilt.
Don’t get me wrong. God absolutely can and does call people to give up their lives to preach the gospel in other countries. Serving the poor is a wonderful way to live. But for me, the desire was motivated mostly by an attempt to feel better about myself.
That’s why this passage has been marvellously freeing: the life situation you’re in is what God has called you to. God has assigned you this position in life. There’s no need to feel guilty or unspiritual about it. There’s no need to throw it all over and do something radically different (unless, of course, God actually is calling you). Rather, God wants you to be faithful where he has placed you, knowing, loving, worshipping, and obeying him, in your circumstances.
This principle is so important that Paul actually made it a rule in his churches. Why? Possibly many people felt that this radical new life implied that they needed to make radical life changes. Maybe quit their jobs and travel around the world preaching the gospel, like Paul. But in another letter Paul counsels believers:
We urge you, brothers...to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12)
Paul’s calling as an apostle was extraordinary, and there are some believers today who are called to extraordinary things. However, most of us bear witness to the Lord in “ordinary” lives of quiet faithfulness, being good employees, husbands, wives, parents, friends, siblings, church members; loving our neighbours; being examples of honesty, chastity, and self-control.
We’re prone to thinking that if we can only change our circumstances, everything will be better, and we'll be able to follow Jesus more fully. But the reality is, every stage and situation of life has its difficulties and challenges. Another reality is, who we are now is who we will be in a different situation. If we’re basically not happy single, we won’t be happy married. If we struggle with certain sins, we’ll continue to struggle with those sins in a different geographical location. If we’re an introvert and dislike public speaking, we’ll be the same in ministry. If we don’t want to share the gospel, it won’t magically become easier on the other side of the world.
Jesus is calling us to faithfulness where we are right now. The test of our hearts is how we respond to our current situation. Obedience is respecting the husband he’s given us, even when we think he’s unworthy of respect; being content as a single person rather than resenting God because he hasn’t given us a spouse; being bold enough to share the gospel with a coworker rather than thinking we’d do so if it weren’t a work situation.
Paul goes on to say:
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. As 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 7:26-31)
Paul isn’t saying you can never make any moves to change your circumstances. Earlier he said if a slave can gain his freedom, to do so. If you are single and you have the opportunity to get married, it’s ok.
But the secret is to remember that your present life situation isn’t all that crucial in the big picture of the Kingdom of God. We need to hold the things of this world loosely, remembering that they are all temporary, and that this is only the staging site for an eternity in the presence of Jesus. Our marital status, our financial status, our career, and our possessions, won’t matter as much as we thought they did. What will matter is how we lived for the Kingdom of God, because that’s going to last forever. And all of us can do that, whatever our circumstances.
So what do we do? Seek God in his word and prayer daily, longing to be closer to him and to understand his will for us. How can we love and respect our spouse? How can we be kind to our difficult roommates? How can we be faithful employees? How can we share the gospel with our friends? Who do we know that is needy, and how can we meet that need? How can we use our finances to build the kingdom of God? What does God want for us where he has placed us?
And be ok with being “just” an ordinary Christian.