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.
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.
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. – 1 Corinthians 7:32-40 ESV
There is little doubt that Paul’s view is a bit idealistic. His motivation is sincere, but he is looking at the situation through the lens of his own life. He was a single man who had totally dedicated his life to the mission of spreading the gospel among the Gentile nations. He was totally committed to the commission given to him by Christ and would not allow anything or anyone to distract him. When Paul said, “I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV), he was referring to his singleness. To the unmarried, he stated his opinion that “it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8 ESV).
Paul knows that life is difficult. It is full of commitments and requirements on one’s time. There are the daily demands of life such as work, providing for one’s family, relational issues, societal demands and expectations. And for the married individual, those things multiply exponentially. Which is why Paul advocated singleness. But this is where his idealistic nature comes out. He says, “the unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32 ESV). Not necessarily, Paul. There are plenty of unmarried men and women who find themselves anxious about anything and everything but the Lord. Singleness is not an antidote to spiritual distraction or the cure for an anemic commitment to Christ. There is no doubt that the fewer earthly commitments and distractions we have, the easier it should be for us to dedicate our time and attention to the things of God. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Paul writes, “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:33 ESV). He is not saying a husband’s commitment to care for the needs of his wife and family are wrong. He is simply emphasizing the reality that the married individual will have a more difficult time finding the time to serve God without neglecting his family. Again, Paul is not indicating that caring for one’s wife and family is somehow non-spiritual or insignificant. In reality, Paul knew well that a Christian was required by God to love his or her spouse and family well. They were required to live out their faith in Christ within the context of the marriage union. To be a godly wife or husband was a huge commitment. That seems to be Paul’s point. As a single man, Paul was completely free to go and do whatever God demanded of him. He had few, if any, commitments that would keep him from responding to God’s call on his life.
Ideally, “the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34 ESV). For Paul, singleness brought a singularity of focus and he longed for others to experience that same freedom from earthly commitments and concerns. It wasn’t that he experienced no anxiety in his life, but that any anxious moments he had were usually associated with his mission as God’s apostle. Any worries he had were not about domestic issues, but about the state of the church. At one point, he told the Galatians, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:12 ESV). His concern for their spiritual growth was like a woman anxiously enduring the pains of labor as she waits for her child to arrive healthy and whole. Paul had few worldly distractions. He didn’t have a “honey-do” list. He had no car pool duties, no soccer games to attend, recitals to sit through, or do-it-yourself tasks to perform around the house. He was free to worry about the things of God. And Paul wanted that for each and every believers. Which is why he wrote, “ I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible” (1 Corinthians 7:36 NLT).
Paul makes it clear that he is not making the single individual more spiritual than a married one. To get married was not a sin. To remain single did not make you a super saint. For Paul, it was a matter of practicality. Single people have fewer distractions and demands on their time. They have more discretion regarding their time. Paul told Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4 ESV). He seems to have had in mind a stipulation within the Mosaic law that read, “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5 ESV). Undivided attention is difficult when you have divided allegiances. Paul’s primary point in all of this has to do with devotion to God. He believed strongly that he was living in the last days. He lived as if Christ was going to return at any moment. There was no time to waste. The gospel needed to be taken to the ends of the earth. The message of good news in Jesus Christ needed to be heard by every person on every continent. To accomplish that formidable mission, Paul knew he needed the help of every able-bodied believer. He simply wanted the Corinthians to know that he was out to “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:36 ESV). As Jesus had said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2 ESV).