The Unmarried Person Is Anxious to Please the Lord

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Unmarried Person Is Anxious to Please the Lord

Pope John Paul II


At the weekly Wednesday audience on 30 June, Pope John Paul II continued his treatment of the question of marriage and celibacy, basing his reflections on Saint Paul's reasoning as found in the First Letter to the Corinthians.

1. Saint Paul, in explaining in the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians the question of marriage and virginity (or continence for the sake of the kingdom of God), tries to give the reason why one who chooses marriage does well, while one who decides on a life of continence or virginity does better. He writes: "I tell you this, brothers, the time is already short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none...." And then: "...those who buy, as though they had no goods; those who deal with the world, as though they had no dealings with it, for the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties..." (1 Cor 7:29-32).

2. The last words of the text just quoted show that in his argumentation, Paul is also referring to his own experience, which makes his reasoning more personal. He not only formulates the principle and seeks to justify it as such, but he ties it in with personal reflections and convictions arising from his practice of the evangelical counsel of celibacy. The individual expressions and phrases testify to their persuasive power. The Apostle not only writes to his Corinthians: "I wish that all were as I myself am" (1 Cor 7:7), but he goes further when, referring to men who contract marriage, he writes: "Yet they will have troubles in the flesh, and I would want to spare you that" (1 Cor 7:28). However, this personal conviction of his was already expressed in the first words of the seventh chapter of the same letter, referring to this opinion of the Corinthians, in order to modify it as well: "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote, it is well for a man not to touch a woman..." (1 Cor 7:1).

3. We can ask here, what "troubles in the flesh" did Paul have in mind? Christ spoke only of suffering (or "afflictions"), which a woman experiences when she is to deliver a child. However, he emphasized the joy that fills her as a reward for these sufferings after the birth of her child, the joy of motherhood (cf. Jn 16:21). Paul, rather, writes of the "tribulations of the body" which spouses expect. Would this be an expression of the Apostle's personal aversion with regard to marriage? In this realistic observation we must see a just warning for those who—as at times young people do—hold that conjugal union and living together must bring them only happiness and joy. The experience of life shows that spouses are not rarely disappointed in what they were greatly expecting. The joy of the union brings with it also those "troubles in the flesh" that the Apostle writes about in his letter to the Corinthians. These are often troubles of a moral nature. If by this he intends to say that true conjugal love—precisely that love by virtue of which "a man...cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh" (Gn 2:24)—is also a difficult love, he certainly remains on the grounds of evangelical truth. There is no reason here to see symptoms of the attitude that later was to characterize Manichaeism.

4. In his words about continence for the sake of the kingdom of God, Christ did not in any way try to direct his listeners to celibacy or virginity by pointing out to them the troubles of marriage. We see rather that he tried to highlight various aspects, humanly painful, of deciding on continence. Both the social reason and reasons of a subjective nature led Christ to say about the man who makes such a decision, that he makes himself a eunuch, that is, he voluntarily embraces continence. But precisely thanks to this, the whole subjective significance, the greatness and exceptional character of such a decision clearly springs forth. It is the significance of a mature response to a particular gift of the Spirit.

5. In the letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul does not understand the counsel of continence differently, but he expresses it in a different way. He writes: "I tell you this, brothers, the time is already short..." (1 Cor 7:29), and a little later on, "the form of this world is passing away..." (1 Cor 7:31). This observation about the perishability of human existence and the transience of the temporal world, in a certain sense about the accidental nature of all that is created, should cause "those who have wives to live as though they had none" (1 Cor 7:29; cf. 7:31). At the same time it should prepare the ground for the teaching on continence. At the center of his reasoning, Paul places the key phrase that can be joined to Christ's statement, one of its own kind, on the subject of continence for the sake of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 19:12).

6. While Christ emphasized the greatness of the renunciation, inseparable from such a decision, Paul demonstrates above all what the kingdom of God must mean in the life of the person who has renounced marriage in view of it. While the triple parallelism of Christ's statement reaches its climax in the word that signifies the greatness of the renunciation voluntarily made ("...and there are others who have become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven": Mt 19:12), Paul describes the situation with only one word: the "unmarried" (agamos). Further on, however, he expresses the whole content of the expression "kingdom of heaven" in a splendid synthesis. He says: "The unmarried person is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord" (1 Cor 7:32). Each word of this statement deserves a special analysis.

7. The context of the word "to be anxious" or "to try" in the Gospel of Luke, Paul's disciple, indicates that one must truly seek only the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 12:31), that which constitutes the better part, the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary (cf. Lk 10:41). Paul himself speaks directly about his "anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:28), about his search for Christ through his concern for the problems of the brethren, for the members of the Body of Christ (cf. Phil 2:20-21; 1 Cor 12:25). Already from this context the whole vast field of the "anxiety" emerges, to which the unmarried can totally dedicate his mind, his toil, his heart. Man can "be anxious" only about what is truly in his heart.

8. In Paul's statement, the unmarried person is anxious about the affairs of the Lord (ta tou kyriou). With this concise expression, Paul embraces the entire objective reality of the kingdom of God. "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it," he himself will say a little further on in this letter (1 Cor 10:26; cf. Ps 24:1).

The object of the Christian's concern is the whole world! But Paul, with the name "Lord," describes first of all Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 2:11). Therefore the "affairs of the Lord" signify in the first place the kingdom of Christ, his Body which is the Church (cf. Col 1:18) and all that contributes to its growth. The unmarried person is anxious about all this. Therefore Paul, being in the full sense of the term the "Apostle of Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:1) and minister of the Gospel (cf. Col. 1:23), writes to the Corinthians: "I wish that all of you were as I myself am" (1 Cor 7:7).

9. Nevertheless, apostolic zeal and most fruitful activity do not yet exhaust what is contained in the Pauline motivation for continence. We could even say that their root or source is found in the second part of the sentence, which demonstrates the subjective reality of the kingdom of God: "The unmarried person is to please the Lord." This observation embraces the whole field of man's personal relationship with God. "To please God"—the expression is found in ancient books of the Bible (cf. Dt 13:19)—is synonymous with life in God's grace and expresses the attitude of one who seeks God, of one who behaves according to his will so as to please him. In one of the last books of Sacred Scripture this expression becomes a theological synthesis of sanctity. Saint John applies it only once to Christ: "I always do what is pleasing to him [the Father]" (Jn 8:29). Saint Paul observes in his letter to the Romans that Christ "did not please himself" (Rm 15:3).

Between these two observations all that makes up the content of "pleasing God" is contained, understood in the New Testament as following in the footsteps of Christ.

It seems that both parts of the Pauline expression overlap. In fact, to be anxious about what "pertains to the Lord," about the "affairs of the Lord," one must "please the Lord." On the other hand, one who pleases God cannot be closed in upon himself, but is open to the world, to everything that is to be led to Christ These evidently are only two aspects of the same reality of God and his kingdom. Paul nevertheless had to distinguish them in order to show more clearly the nature and the possibility of continence "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."

We will try to return to this subject again.

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

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