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 bondservant 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 bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. – 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 ESV
Three times in this passage Paul tells the Corinthians to remain as they were when God called them. He is really addressing the issue of contentment, of remaining in the circumstances of life in which they found themselves when they first came to faith in Christ. The change that God is interested in most is internal, not external. Divorcing your spouse because they are an unbeliever will not make you more spiritual. For a believing slave to somehow get out from under his master’s rule would not make him any more free than he already is in Christ. God is interested in heart change. But as human beings, we tend to deal with externals. We think a change of circumstances is the answer to all of life’s problems. If our marriage is less-than-satisfactory, divorce seems to be the best option to us. If our job is not as fulfilling as we would like, a change in employment is the answer. This was especially true for the believers in Corinth who seemed to believe that their new faith in Christ was a license to start all over. Social status was an important concept within the Greek community. It would have been easy for a slave who came to faith in Christ to immediately assume that his salvation gave him a right to experience freedom just like all the other believers in the church. But Paul would have them understand that their “calling” has nothing to do with their career choice, social standing, marital status, financial outlook, or any other circumstantial condition. God’s call on their life was to live in obedience and submission to Him regardless of what their external circumstances might be. If God called them while they were a slave, He had a perfectly good reason for doing so. His Son did not die in order to set them free from physical slavery, but from bondage to sin. If they were married when they came to Christ, they should remain so. Jesus did not give His life so that they might experience freedom from the demands of marriage, but so that they might love their spouse sacrificially and selflessly. Their calling was to Christ-likeness, not a radical change in their heart that would have a dramatic impact on their behavior. Paul told the church in Ephesus, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV). He prayed for the Colossian believers that they would “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10 ESV).
Like most of us, the Corinthians were convinced that a change in circumstances was the key to contentment. But Paul wanted them to understand that God called them where they were so they He might change who they are. His Son died so that they might be new creations and experience a new nature, not get a new lease on life through a change in circumstances. The Philippian jailer, after coming to faith in Christ, more than likely continued to be a jailer. The Ethiopian eunech, after accepting Christ as his Savior, was no less a eunech than he was before. Zacchaeus didn’t give up being a tax collector after having met Jesus, he simply became an honest one.
One of the most important lines in this passage is the first one: “ Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” This has nothing to do with our career path. Paul isn’t talking about job titles or employment opportunities. God has a unique calling on each of our lives as believers. He has redeemed us for a reason. And rather than worrying so much about what we do for a living, we would do well to think about what God has for us to do on behalf of His Kingdom. Our jobs are simply opportunities to live out our faith in daily life. Our marriages are to be less about self-satisfaction than they are about self-sacrifice and contexts within which we can model our Christ-likeness in tangible ways.
A new job may make you happy, but it won’t make you a better Christian. The idea of a new marriage partner may sound appealing, but God would rather make you a godly spouse and teach you to love the one you’re with selflessly and sacrificially.
All of this does not preclude the fact that God sometimes changes our circumstances. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV). A change in circumstances was required. Jesus changed the career paths of several of the disciples, making them fishers of men rather than fishermen. Paul himself experienced a radical change in his occupational focus, going from persecutor of the church to proclaimer of the gospel. There are times when God calls us to new circumstances. But His greatest desire is to give us a new heart and to create in us a new desire to live for Him wherever we find ourselves. We need godly husbands and wives, Christ-like politician and plumbers, Spirit-filled teachers and selfless lawyers. To Paul, it would be better to be a godly slave than an ungodly master. He considered it far more important to pursue holiness in less-than-ideal circumstances than happiness in the best of conditions. That is why he could say, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). Our circumstances must take a back seat to our submission to the will of God for our lives: our holiness.