“This is what I mean, brothers [and sisters], the time has grown short; henceforth, let even those who have wives be as if 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 possessions, and those who use with the world as though they do not use it. For the present form of this world is passing away”
(1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
Paul says the time has “grown short.” Is he saying that the time originally set by God has been changed? God set the date for 2:30pm next Friday, but for some reason changed his mind, and rescheduled it to tomorrow at noon? If so, a suitable response might be, “damn! I thought we had more time.” There is less time than there once was. Of course, isn’t this always true of us? We always have less time than we used to have. Time is always running out. At every moment we are closer to our end than we have ever been before. There is something relentless about this fact. While that is true, imagine hearing a fateful diagnosis that takes away years from your expectations. With one word, a doctor takes decades away from you. You are reduced to months. Perhaps Paul is saying something like this?
Time is our greatest and most valuable resource. Take it away, and no other resource will mean anything.
“Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. It slips away. And all your money won’t another minute buy.” (Dust in the Wind, by Kerry Livgren of Kansas)
Jesus says something similar in Matthew: “What will it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose their own life?” (Matthew 16:26).
Who among us has the opportunity to gain the whole world? I might be able to gain a bit of it here or there – but the whole thing? Even the great emperors and kings (and Presidents) who have gained vast empires never gained the whole world. Yet Jesus says, even if you could obtain total ownership and control –fame, fortune, wealth – the whole deal – it would all mean nothing if you lost yourself.
What does it mean to lose oneself? One way to lose ourselves is in death. What wealth or power or fame would ever be able to compensate for the absence of you? You would not be able to use the wealth, or exercise the power, or acknowledge the fame if you were not there/here. Armed with the idea of resurrection, sometimes we are a little too quick to deny the loss of self that is death. If we do not pause to deeply consider Good Friday, Easter runs the risk of being somewhat Pollyanna. Think about it – everyone you know – everyone – is destined to lose everything they have and everything they know. This is tragic. Sometimes Christians are too quick to deny the awfulness of death. Surely, we can say a word of kindness or perform an act of compassion for someone who is fated to lose everything? Matthew’s Jesus would not leave us to despair in utter hopelessness. Just before saying that gaining the world means nothing if you lose yourself, he said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). This suggests that the total loss of self in death might not be the final word. There is a door of hope, as faint as it might seem – but that door is only found through loss (something we are too well acquainted with).
We were never meant to “gain” the world. Only God is its rightful “owner.” When we seek to own the world – we lose ourselves. That is, we lose an appropriate and healthy perspective on what it means to be human. To possess the world includes possessing other people in the world. When we seek to “possess” other people, we lose sight of our mutuality – our shared humanity. When I diminish someone else, I end up diminishing myself, probably without even realizing it.
So, Jesus in Matthew 16:26 asks us to imagine gaining the whole world, in doing so turns us back on ourselves to ask what is of real importance. A true gaining of the self is what is all important – not a gaining of the world. So, we should all be on a treasure hunt, but the treasure we seek is not out there somewhere – it is behind our eyes! When we acknowledge that treasure, we are in a good place to acknowledge the treasure hidden behind all the other eyes out there – human and otherwise.
What are we to do with the whole idea of running out of time? Should we rage against the approaching night? Should we calmly embrace the impending doom? Paul’s response is neither of these things.
Paul suggests that those in Corinth adopt an “as if” approach to life. This is curious. Paul says those who are married should be “as if” they weren’t (1 Cor 7:29). We can get so lost in the way things are for us at present that we can forget that it is all passing away... Paul continues: those who are sad should be “as if” they were not sad; those who are happy “as if” they were not happy (1 Cor 7:30). Mere happiness is not the final goal. For Paul, neither sadness nor happiness were not to be taken particularly seriously. When sad, be as if you were not. When happy, be as if you were not. Don’t take yourself and your moods too seriously.
To act “as if” is to act according to imagination; it is to pretend. Children are very good at this skill. A child takes a doll and animates it with her imagination. The child acts towards that doll “as if” it was a real baby.
When children approach adulthood they often lose the ability to convincingly act “as if.” Paul is suggesting to the Corinthians that they relearn this skill. In the name of the transitory nature of life on the planet, Paul suggests that we remind ourselves that whatever we are going through – be it good or bad – it will pass. Paul wants those at Corinth to be grounded not in their changing circumstances, but in God through Christ.
Paul does not say “let those who rejoice stop rejoicing!” Rather, “let those who rejoice be as if they were not rejoicing.” This means that they are still rejoicing! That does not cease. What Paul suggests is that in the midst of rejoicing they imagine themselves as if they were not rejoicing. The rejoicing continues – but now a realization is added – and that realization is that the rejoicing is subject to change and will pass. We were never meant to hold on to good feelings and not let them go. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to. Feelings come and go. Reminding ourselves of that can enable to maintain a greater perspective and awareness, not to mention emotional equilibrium.
Paul says those who buy should be “as if” they did not own, and that those who use the world be “as if” they did not use the world. Our identity should not be grounded in possessions or successful dealing in “the world.” Again, Paul is not saying that those in Corinth not buy or that they not “use” the world, rather they should pretend that they do not do these things. At its worse this could become a form of deliberate delusion, but it can also become a means of regulating how we relate to our circumstances. Our success should not make us too full of ourselves, and our failures should not lead us to despair.
Dr. Stephen Black is a Biblical Scholar and Parishioner at Christ Church Cathedral