Worst-Case Scenario Advice (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)

I have always been something of a worst-case scenario thinker. In other words, I instinctively imagine the worst thing that could happen to me and mine in any situation and plan accordingly. For example, during tornado season, I make sure the storm radio is operational, stash clothes in the safe room, clear a path between the master bedroom and the baby’s room so I can run and bring him quickly to the safe room at a moment’s notice. My wife Tiffany is responsible for bringing our idiot dog.

In some people, worst-case scenario thinking becomes pathological, a phobia of possible events that paralyzes engagement with the world. I’m not pathological. By the same token, you won’t see me bungee jumping off a bridge any time soon, either. What I am is realistic. Although I was never a Boy Scout, I think their motto is sound advice: “Be prepared.”

In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul offers Boy Scout-like advice to Corinthians contemplating marriage. His advice isn’t of the “Absolutely yes!” or “Absolutely no!” variety. Rather, it is worst-case scenario advice, appropriate to what Paul calls “the present crisis” (7:28). Here’s what he writes:

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

The Greek word the NIV translates as “concerned” is merimna, which has both positive connotations (“care, concern”) and negative ones (“anxiety, worry”). The objects of merimna in these verses are both “the Lord’s affairs” and “the affairs of the world.” By the latter, Paul specifically means the desire a person has to “please” his or her spouse. It is tempting to treat the former as a positive concern and the latter as a negative anxiety, but grammar won’t allow us to make a neat distinction. Both objects of merimna are legitimate objects of concern.

Interestingly, Paul begins this paragraph by announcing that he wants the Corinthians to be amerimnous, literally, “without concern, care, anxiety, worry.” This seems contradictory. How can Paul wish the Corinthians to be unconcerned when concern for the Lord and one’s spouse are legitimate objects of concern. If nothing else, isn’t concern for “the Lord’s affairs” highly desirable?

The answer to that last question is yes. And the solution to the contradiction lies in the words divided and undivided. Celibate Christians—if that is their spiritual gift—can devote full attention to God. Married Christians must pay attention to both God and their spouse. In that sense, their interest is divided. The division of interest is not, however, sinful (7:28), even though undivided attention to God is preferable in Paul’s way of thinking.

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