1 Corinthians 7:31

‘use the world, as not using it to the fullest.
For the mode of this world passes away.’
(1 Corinthians 7:31)

Jesus said that He’d come so we might ‘“have life, and… have it abundantly”’(John 10:10). Here Paul seems to suggest that we shouldn’t live life to the full in this world. So how does that fit? How should we live and how should we experience life in this world?

It’s helpful to examine Paul’s argument first, then consider how that fits with what Jesus teaches, seeing how to experience the joy of life in full abundance, in this world and the next.

Regarding the next world, Paul’s reasoning ‘For’ is based on the fact that ‘this world passes away’. Peter sums it up: ‘the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up… all these things will be destroyed’(2 Peter 3:10-11). That might seem a potentially distant prospect, but even so, as David wisely realised about three thousand years ago, for each individual ‘Man is like a breath. His days are like a shadow that passes away’(Psalm 144:4).

That in itself, as Paul points out later, might be all the more reason to, ‘“eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”’(1 Corinthians 15:32). But his point is the opposite; there’s more, a ‘resurrection’(1 Corinthians 15:13). This world is just the departure lounge; we’re actually heading somewhere rather better, where we’ll be forever. Our excitement and focus should be there, realising that we’re on a journey: ‘If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth’(Colossians 3:1-2).

So we don’t have to suck all the experiences we can from the departure lounge, rather use and inhabit this world for what it is. We can have a loose attachment to the emotional and material experiences of this life, which is what Paul means by his profound and easily misunderstood run up to this study verse: ‘those who have wives may be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they didn’t weep; and those who rejoice, as though they didn’t rejoice; and those who buy, as though they didn’t possess’(1 Corinthians 7:29-30). In fact he’s using these general principles to explain some specific points about marriage, so we can do the reverse, considering all worldly things as he does marriage: ‘I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife. There is also a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world – how she may please her husband. This I say for your own profit; not that I may ensnare you, but for that which is appropriate, and that you may attend to the Lord without distraction’(1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

But note, although it’s good to avoid ‘distraction’, we don’t turn down the dimmer switch on this world’s lights to sit in gloom. It’s so that we can see the glory of heaven more clearly, like viewing the stars without light pollution. And that’s not all. We’re to absorb then reflect that light into the world around us, helping to establish and express Jesus’ truth, grace and love in it. As Paul wrote later to the Corinthians, we ‘with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image’(2 Corinthians 3:18). And so we are to ‘please the Lord’(1 Corinthians 7:32) by using our freed-up time and energy to reflect and express our faith here on earth. That’s living like Jesus, who turned down ‘the kingdoms of the world’(Matthew 4:8) etc., and demonstrated how to ‘Walk in love’(Ephesians 5:2). Living likewise, in Him, is to ‘“have life, and… have it abundantly”’(John 10:10). In this we can ‘rejoice greatly with joy that is unspeakable and full of glory’(1 Peter 1:8). That’s real full-filled living.

So there’s no contradiction. As we fast from the world, using it but not to the full, we focus on heaven and are filled to overflowing, spilling God’s light and love everywhere as we travel on. Fasting, filling and spilling is abundant living.

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