Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

God's Wisdom and Major Life Decisions

1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Teaching t22260

Introduction

Reiterate the biblical change model. In chapter 7, Paul is urging the single Corinthian Christians to consider staying single. But he doesn’t simply lay down rules. Instead, he enunciates a principle of WOG pertaining to major life decisions—(read 7:17-24).

Paul states the principle three times (7:17,20,24). He says he teaches it in all the churches (7:17). The first thing we need is to understand what this principle is.

The principle: “Grow where you’re planted”

Paul tells these adult converts that God was sovereignly involved in the life situations in which they became Christians, and that God is with them in that life situation (7:24). Since this is the case, they should in general assume that they are to walk with (7:17) and grow in Christ in that same life situation. “Grow where you’re planted.” This the opposite of a restless, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill” attitude.

Like all biblical principles, this principle has both wide application and exceptions:

Paul applies it not only to celibacy, but also to ethnic-cultural identity (circumcision was a key marker for Jewish identity; uncircumcision was a key marker for Gentile identity), and to socio-economic status (slave/free). It would apply to other major life decisions like getting divorced, career changes, church involvement changes, residence changes, etc.

On the other hand, biblical principles are not moral absolutes (like sexual purity, for example). There are legitimate exceptions to biblical principles—and you can see Paul acknowledging and even advising exceptions in this chapter and letter.

It is good to stay unmarried—but it is not wrong to marry (7:27b,28a), and marriage is even preferable if you aren’t gifted for celibacy (7:7).

It is OK to stay a slave—but it is good to become free if you can (7:21b), and not good to become a slave if you can stay free (7:23).

It is good to retain your cultural identity—but there are times when it is good to intentionally change your cultural identity (9:19-21; Acts 16:3).

So also, there are biblical exceptions to this principle with divorce (e.g., because of infidelity; abuse) career change (e.g., in order to provide for your family), church involvement change (e.g., because of spiritual deadness or apostasy), and residence change (e.g., to flee persecution; to plant a church/do missions).

What’s the use of a biblical principle like this if there are exceptions to it? And how can you know when to follow this principle or make an exception to it? (This is why legalists like rules and hate principles.) The key is to understand the wisdom that undergirds this principle...

The wisdom that undergirds “Grow where you’re planted”

It should be obvious that the WOW does not subscribe to this principle. Its wisdom in this areas is: “The better my life circumstances are, the happier I will be.” It is self-centered, so it assumes that our personal happiness is the primary goal of our lives. Second, it assumes that life circumstances are the key to personal happiness. (Even the word “happiness” has the same root as “happen” or “happenstance.”)

If you accept these two assumptions, the right to change your life circumstances becomes one of the most important things in your life. This is a central part of the “American Dream”—not just that it is good to have the freedom to make such changes (TRUE), but that this is critical in our “pursuit of happiness” (FALSE).

This is why those who subscribe to WOW dislike this principle. What is your reaction to this principle? What does this tell you about your operational wisdom?

The WOG says: “I can become more Christ-like and serve God and others regardless of my life circumstances.” It is God-centered and self-giving, so it assumes that the primary goal of our lives is to become more Christ-like and serve. (It regards personal happiness not as the goal of life, but as a nice by-product of the goal.) It is God-centered also in its assumption that God is sovereign over our life circumstances. This doesn’t mean that every circumstance in our lives was designed by God; it means that God can work within every life circumstance to accomplish His purpose for our lives.

This is Paul’s point in 7:19. Since what counts is keeping God’s commandments (love God & neighbor), I can do this whether I am culturally Jewish or Gentile. So also in 7:21,22. What counts is being a servant of Christ—and I am free serve Christ even if I’m a slave, and Christ calls me to serve Him even if I’m a freedman.

How can we know which wisdom is right? Jesus told us of one way when He said: “Wisdom is vindicated by her children” (Matt.11:19). We can know confirm God’s wisdom by seeing the long-term reward it brings to those who have followed it.

There is abundant evidence that this element of WOG rewards its “children”:

Paul himself is part of that evidence. Some years after he wrote 1 Corinthians, he was unjustly imprisoned for four long years. His circumstances were unpleasant, and he couldn’t change them. The WOW would say that Paul was doomed to misery. But he operated by the WOG, and he describes its rich reward in Phil.4:11-13 (read). Paul was content regardless of his circumstances because he lived to serve Christ—and he had learned that Christ would strengthen him to do all that He wanted Paul to do. This is why this letter is known as the “joy epistle.”

Talk to people in this church who have walked with Christ for many years. They will tell you about many life-situation changes they could have made, but didn’t because they didn’t think they would advance their goal—to become more Christ-like and serve God more effectively. But they will also tell you that they do not regret these sacrifices, because the satisfaction of spiritual maturity and fruitfulness more than makes up for it.

There is also abundant evidence that this element of WOW betrays its “children”:

Those who prioritize higher income do so because they believe that more money will enable them to have more power to change their circumstances—which will make them more happy. But they are in fact usually unhappier than those who stay at the same income level.

Those who divorce because of their unhappiness happiness are statistically far more likely to divorce again, and again.

Those who change friends to avoid relational difficulties tend to be dissatisfied with their new friendships (“Good friends are hard to find”).

Those who change churches because they “didn’t meet my needs” tend to never find a church that really satisfies them.

I saw this lived out by my own parents. My father loved me and helped me in many ways—but he subscribed to this element of WOW. He avoided many family responsibilities in order to play. He complained about his job and retired as soon as he inherited his father’s money. He spent the last 35 years of his life doing what he wanted to do. And he was pretty chronically unhappy (though he came to Christ not long before he died!). My mother, on the other hand, subscribed to WOG. She came to Christ when my handicapped sister was born, and decided to trust Him for the strength to be a servant. So she stayed in a difficult marriage. She embraced the responsibility of caring for her daughter while raising two other children. She worked as a seamstress to offset my father’s financial irresponsibility. She learned to be a thankful servant, and is one of the most content people I have ever known.

What about you? Which outcome do you want? Don’t you see that the outcome flows from which wisdom you embrace? Read Jn.10:10,11. The WOW will eat you up and spit you out because its leader (Satan) is a thief. He doesn’t care about you; he comes only to steal and kill and destroy. But Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. He is God’s wisdom, so He can lead you down its path. And you can trust Him because He laid His life down for you. Turn away from WOW and give yourself to the Good Shepherd by asking Him to forgive you of your sins and indwell you with His Spirit. You will never regret this decision!

Applying “Grow where you’re planted” to major life decisions

Once you entrust yourself to Christ, you need to learn when to apply this principle to major life decisions. There is no formula for when you should follow it and when to make an exception. But here are three key questions that will help you do this.

“What have I learned from God through the circumstances I want to change?” God has been sovereignly working in your present circumstance (especially through the difficulties) to mature you (Jas.1:2-4). Can you say that you have substantially learned these lessons, or have you ignored or rejected them?” You will take you with you wherever you go!

JOB: There are many valid reasons for changing jobs. But there are also invalid reasons. Maybe your boss is difficult—but do you have a problem respecting and submitting to authority? Maybe your job is rigorous—but do you have a problem with working hard? These are character issues that will affect your job satisfaction and your witness for Christ wherever you work. Maybe should you make progress in these before you change jobs.

CHURCH INVOLVEMENT: There are unhealthy churches that wise people leave. But much more often I see Christians “move on” because people called on them to be transparent and/or to serve, or because of interpersonal conflict. God is working through these challenges to teach you humility and forgiveness and servanthood. Maybe you should change what you seek in church instead of seeking to change churches.

“Why do I want to make a change in this area of my life?” Is it primarily to escape circumstances you don’t like, or to get circumstances you think will make you happy? Or is it to better pursue spiritual growth and service for God? Your reasons will reveal your true values—and your true values will reveal which wisdom you are following.

GEOGRAPHICAL MOVE: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with moving, but why are you moving? “Because I've always planned to, I hate Columbus’ flatness and weather, the job market is better, etc.” What about other more important considerations? Do you know you will have as good or better opportunity for spiritual growth, equipping, and service? “I can get more house for the money.” But what will this cost you and your family if you both have to work full-time? What if it makes real involvement with Christian friends more difficult? Maybe you should consider staying where you are and living more simply.

MARRIAGE: Unless you are gifted with celibacy, it is good to seek marriage. But not simply to escape being single, or even because you feel “in love.” Are you both a committed Christians? Are you are able to help each other grow in Christ-like character—including giving and receiving correction? Have you seen evidence that you can serve God better together than apart? Maybe you should wait.

“Have I sought godly counsel about this decision?” If not, why not? Is it because you are over-confident about your wisdom? If so, have you sought godly, wise counsel—or only people you think will agree with you? I cannot stress enough how important it is to commit yourself to a group of Christian friends who are committed to helping one another live according to the WOW (PROMOTE HOME GROUPS)!

Conclusion

Read 7:35. This is the spirit in which I teach you this principle, remind you of the WOG that undergirds it, and urge you to ask these questions. The WOW tells you that this principle will restrict you and make you miserable, but undistracted devotion to the Lord will always be for your own ultimate benefit!

It was possible to become uncircumcised by undergoing a surgery, and it was possible for slaves to earn their freedom by saving and paying the price of their manumission.

“Vast numbers of us have been seduced into believing that having more wealth and material possessions is essential to the good life... (But Kasser’s) formidable body of research highlights what for most of us is a quite counter-intuitive fact: even when people obtain more money and material goods, they do not become more satisfied with their lives, or more psychologically healthy because of it. More specifically, once people are above poverty levels of income, gains in wealth have little to no incremental payoff in terms of happiness or well-being. (Moreover) merely aspiring to have greater wealth or more material possessions is likely to be associated with increased personal unhappiness... People with strong materialistic values and desires report more symptoms of anxiety, are at greater risk for depression... use more alcohol and drugs, and have more impoverished personal relationships... Thus, insofar as people have adopted the ‘American dream’ of stuffing their pockets, they seem to that extent to be emptier of self and soul.” Richard M. Ryan in Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002), pp.x,xi.