Everyone Has His Own Gift from God, Suited to His Vocation

Author: Pope John Paul II

Everyone Has His Own Gift from God, Suited to His Vocation

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience on Wednesday, 7 July, Pope John Paul continued his reflections on St Paul's reasons for stating that he who marries does "well", but he who refrains from marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God does "better".

1. During last Wednesday's meeting, we tried to investigate the reasoning St. Paul uses in his First Letter to the Corinthians to convince them that whoever chooses marriage does well, while whoever chooses virginity (or continence according to the spirit of the evangelical counsel) does better (cf. 1 Cor 7:38). Continuing this meditation today, let us remember that according to Paul, "the unmarried person is anxious...how to please the Lord" (1 Cor 7:32).

"To please the Lord" has love as its foundation. This foundation arises from a further comparison. The unmarried person is anxious about how to please God, while the married man is anxious also about how to please his wife. In a certain sense, the spousal character of "continence for the sake of the kingdom of God" is apparent here. Man always tries to please the person he loves. Therefore, "to please God" is not without this character that distinguishes the interpersonal relationship between spouses. On the one hand, it is an effort of the man who is inclined toward God and seeks the way to please him, that is, to actively express his love. On the other hand, an approval by God corresponds to this aspiration. By accepting man's efforts, God crowns his own work by giving a new grace. Right from the beginning, this aspiration has been his gift. "Being anxious how to please God" is therefore a contribution of man in the continual dialogue of salvation that God has begun. Evidently, every Christian who lives his faith takes part in this dialogue.

2. However, Paul observes that the man who is bound by the marriage bond "is divided" (1 Cor 7:34) by reason of his family obligations (cf. 1 Cor 7:34). From this remark it apparently follows that the unmarried person would be characterized by an interior integration, by a unification that would allow him to dedicate himself completely to the service of the kingdom of God in all its dimensions. This attitude presupposes abstention from marriage, exclusively for the sake of the kingdom of God, and a life uniquely directed to this goal. In a different way the "division" can also sneak into the life of an unmarried person. Being deprived of married life on the one hand, and on the other, of a clear goal for which he should renounce marriage, he could find himself faced with a certain emptiness.

3. The Apostle seems to know all this very well. He takes pains to specify that he does not want to lay any restraint on one whom he advises not to marry, but he gives this advice to direct him to what is worthy and keeps him united to the Lord without any distractions (cf. 1 Cor 7:35). These words bring to mind what Christ said to his apostles during the Last Supper, according to the Gospel of Luke: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials [literally, 'in temptations'], and I prepare a kingdom for you, as the Father has prepared for me" (Lk 22:28-29). The unmarried person, "being united to the Lord," can be certain that his difficulties will be met with understanding: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb 4:15). This allows the unmarried person not so much to immerse himself exclusively in possible personal problems, but rather to include them in the great stream of the sufferings of Christ and of his Body, the Church.

4. The Apostle shows how one can be "united to the Lord": what can be attained by aspiring to a constant remaining with him, to a rejoicing in his presence (eupáredron), without letting oneself be distracted by nonessential things (aperispástos) (cf. 1 Cor 7:35).

Paul explains this thought even more clearly when he speaks of the situation of the married woman and of one who has chosen virginity or is widowed. While the married woman must be anxious about "how to please her husband," the unmarried woman "is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, in order to be holy in body and spirit" (1 Cor 7:34).

5. In order to grasp adequately the whole depth of Paul's thought, we must note that according to the biblical concept, holiness is a state rather than an action. It has first of all an ontological character and then also a moral one. Especially in the Old Testament it is a separation from what is not subject to God's influence, from what is profane, in order to belong exclusively to God. Holiness in body and spirit, therefore, signifies also the sacredness of virginity or celibacy accepted for the sake of the kingdom of God. At the same time, what is offered to God must be distinguished by moral purity and therefore presupposes behavior "without spot or wrinkle," "holy and immaculate," according to the virginal example of the Church in the presence of Christ (Eph 5:27).

In this chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle touches upon the problems of marriage and celibacy or virginity in a way that is deeply human and realistic, keeping in mind the mentality of his audience. Paul's reasoning is to a certain extent ad hominem. In the ambiance of his audience in Corinth, the new world, the new order of values that he proclaims must encounter another "world" and another order of values, different even from the one that the words addressed by Christ reached.

6. If Paul, with his teaching about marriage and continence, refers also to the transience of the world and human life in it, he certainly does so in reference to the ambiance which in a certain sense was programmed for the "use of the world." From this viewpoint, his appeal to "those who make use of the world" is significant, that they do it "as though they had no dealings with it" (1 Cor 7:31). From the immediate context it follows that in this ambiance, even marriage was understood as a way of "making use of the world"—differently from how it had been in the whole Jewish tradition (despite some perversions, which Jesus pointed out in his conversation with the Pharisees and in his Sermon on the Mount). Undoubtedly, all this explains the style of Paul's answer. The Apostle is well aware that by encouraging abstinence from marriage, at the same time he had to stress a way of understanding marriage that would be in conformity with the whole evangelical order of values. He had to do it with the greatest realism—that is, keeping before his eyes the ambiance to which he was addressing himself, the ideas and the ways of evaluating things that were predominant in it.

7. To men who lived in an ambiance where marriage was considered above all one of the ways of "making use of the world," Paul therefore expresses himself with significant words about virginity or celibacy (as we have seen), and also about marriage itself: "To unmarried persons and to widows I say, 'It is good for them to remain as I am. But if they cannot live in continence, let them marry. It is better to marry than to burn'" (1 Cor 7:8-9). Paul had already expressed almost the same idea: "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote, it is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the danger of incontinence, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband" (1 Cor 7:1-2).

8. Does the Apostle in his First Letter to the Corinthians perhaps look upon marriage exclusively from the viewpoint of a remedy for concupiscence, as used to be said in traditional theological language? The statements mentioned a little while ago would seem to verify this. However, right next to the statements quoted, we read a passage that leads us to see differently Paul's teaching as a whole, contained in the seventh chapter of his First letter to the Corinthians : "I wish that all were as I myself am, [he repeats his favorite argument for abstaining from marriage]—but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another" (1 Cor 7:7). Therefore even those who choose marriage and live in it receive a gift from God, his own gift, that is, the grace proper to this choice, to this way of living, to this state. The gift received by persons who live in marriage is different from the one received by persons who live in virginity and choose continence for the sake of the kingdom of God. All the same, it is a true gift from God, one's own gift, intended for concrete persons. It is specific, that is, suited to their vocation in life.

9. We can therefore say that while the Apostle, in his characterization of marriage on the human side (and perhaps still more in view of the local situation that prevailed in Corinth) strongly emphasizes the reason concerning concupiscence of the flesh, at the same time, with no less strength of conviction, he stresses also its sacramental and charismatic character. With the same clarity with which he sees man's situation in relation to concupiscence of the flesh, he sees also the action of grace in every person—in one who lives in marriage no less than in one who willingly chooses continence, keeping in mind that "the form of this world is passing away."

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 July 1982, page 3

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