We heard earlier some verses from the middle of 1 Corinthians 7. We will be looking more closely at that passage, and indeed the chapter in which it comes, so it would be useful if you could turn to that in the Bibles in the pews. 1 Corinthians 7 is on p1148. My headings for this evening are on the back of the service sheet, under the title "Guidance". Making decisions can be difficult. But some decisions are more important than others. Some of us might agonize over which pair of shoes has just the right combination of comfort, style and street cred. Others might sweat over where to go on holiday. Or whether to have Shreddies or Weetabix this morning for breakfast. Or whether to take the shorter route with a greater risk of a traffic jam but with the potential prize of two and three quarter minutes shaved off the journey if all goes smoothly. These are painful choices indeed. But even in the throes of indecision, we do have a vague awareness that the choice we make may not make News at Ten: "And Finally, Weetabix today the won the Battle of Breakfast Time for a record ninth day in a row, it was announced by a spokesman from Lily Avenue. The Shreddies share price fell sharply on the news, but rallied on rumours that there was only one Weetabix left in the box, and a trip to Tesco was unlikely today." Most of our choices are not exactly earth-shattering. What is likely is that not one of the decisions we make will ever even cross the desk of the news editor, never mind make the bulletin. But News at Ten does not in fact define what is ultimately important. And decisions do come along which are very significant for us, individually. They can shape our lives. What is disconcerting is the discovery that apparently small decisions can have momentous consequences. Taking the short cut does not pay off. Once clear of the jam, you put your foot on the accelerator to make up lost time, lose concentration because you are thinking about being late for the meeting, lose control on that tight bend, and end up in hospital. The Christian writer and speaker Joni Earickson decided to take a dive in the sea one summer when she was about seventeen. She hit her head, broke her neck, and has been paralysed from the waist down ever since. One momentary and apparently insignificant decision has shaped her whole life. We like to think that we control the direction our lives will take. Clearly things are not that simple. But there are times when we make choices that we do know will have a major effect on the pattern of our lives. During my final year at University, I decided that I would marry Vivienne, work as a civil engineer for two years, then go to theological college for three years, and be ordained in the Church of England. All of those decisions were made, finally, in the space of one half hour period. Now, admittedly one or two other people besides myself had a good deal of influence in how those decisions worked out. Not least Vivienne. Who said "yes". Nonetheless, those thirty minutes have indeed shaped my whole life. Had I decided differently, the whole course of my life would have been different. Such times of decision come along for all of us, at various points in our lives. Decisions not to do something may be just as influential as the choice to do something. But we all make vital choices. If we are not following Christ, we are pretty much on our own at such times, which can be a lonely place to be. If we do know Christ, and want to obey him, then the good news is that we are not alone. We walk through life with him by our side through the Holy Spirit. God says to us through he prophet Isaiah:
[The Sovereign Lord] tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40.11).
And Jesus said of himself:
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me " (John 10.11).
Of course if we do not believe that Jesus is the good shepherd, or if we don't want to know what God wants us to do because we would rather go our own way, then the issue doesn't arise. We cannot claim any of God's promises. We have our own agenda, and we will follow it. But how does the good shepherd guide us? When we are faced with an important choice, how do we know what he wants us to do? Well, I what I want to do in answer to that is to build on what those of us who have been here over the last couple of weeks have been learning. Two weeks ago David spoke about sexual holiness. Last week Ian talked about listening to God and hearing his voice in the pages of the Bible. So as we think about decision making, I am going to take the example of marriage. And we will take a look together at 1 Corinthians 7, which is one of the key sections of teaching and guidance about marriage that you will find in the Bible. What we will do is this. We will work through the chapter three times. As you can see it is fairly long - 40 verses in fact - so our approach will be broad brush rather than fine detail. But each time we work through the chapter, we will have a different question in mind. First of all, we will ask: "What guidance does this give about marriage?" That is by way of a case study of one particular important area of decision making in our lives. If you are asking yourself the question: "Should I get married?", or indeed: "Should I get out of my marriage?", this chapter is for you! Then the second time through, we will ask: "What does this say about what lies behind the scenes of our decisions?" Then the third time through our question will be: "What guidelines for decision making in general can we learn from this passage?" So first, A CASE STUDY IN GUIDANCE What is happening here? The Christians in Corinth are a wilful lot. There are deep divisions among them. What is more, this is a society, and even a church, in which there is a great deal of sexual immorality. And the Corinthians are appealing to the apostle Paul for some answers on all kinds of issues, one of which is marriage. Chapter 7 begins the section of the letter in which Paul tackles the issues that they have raised with him. Hence v1: "Now for the matters you wrote about" Some of them, it appears, are saying that any sexual relations, even within marriage, are unspiritual and should be avoided. I go along with those who say that the better translation of v1 is what is in the margin at the foot of the page. Paul is quoting the Corinthians, as he does in other places in this letter, and they are here saying to him: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" (or, more literally and euphemistically, "not to touch a woman"). So let me run through the teaching that he then gives. Verses 2 - 6: On the contrary, marriage is a good thing. One reason for that is that it helps prevent immorality. (Paul is quite clear in other places that marriage has other benefits and brings other blessings, but his focus here is on immorality, which is a major problem then and there, as is it is also today.) Neither husband nor wife should withdraw from the other physically, except occasionally under certain conditions, and then only by mutual agreement, and temporarily. Verses 7 - 9: There are indeed great advantages in staying single (as Paul was). But some are given by God the gift of marriage, and others the gift of singleness. For those who would otherwise fall into immorality, marriage is the better option. Verses 10 - 11: Those who are already married need to understand that Jesus himself taught that divorce is not an option. The one exception (the case of adultery) is on condition that the divorced spouse remains unmarried, or (if possible) is reconciled. (Why is that? It is because the marriage bond is not broken by divorce, only by death.) Verses 12 - 16: If you are married to a non-Christian (presumably because you were converted to Christ after your marriage), then again, you should not divorce. Your marriage and, not least, your children are acceptable to God. But if your unbelieving spouse abandons you, you are not obliged endlessly to pursue him or her. Who knows, the way you behave towards them may even be the means of their salvation in the end. Verses 17 - 24: The basic principle is that whatever situation in life God has put you into, you should serve him in it. That applies not only to your marital status, but also to your ethnic and national background, as well as to your employment and social standing. You belong to Christ, and he put you where you are. Verses 25 - 28: It is tough being a faithful Christian. Being married brings even more problems, so my advice is: if you are single, stay single, for your own sake; if you are married, stick with it. If you are single, and you do decide to get married, that is OK too. There is no disobedience to God in that. Verses 29 - 31: Everything we do must be from the perspective of our eternal destiny. We live in the last days - the time between the first coming of Christ and his return at the end of the age when he will come to judge the world and usher in the kingdom of God. He could return at any time. Neither marriage, nor pain and grief, nor possessions are ultimate things. They are part of our preparation for the age to come. They will all be transformed in the new heaven and the new earth. We need to learn to keep one eye on eternity and not get so caught up in the world that we begin to think that it is all there is. Verses 32 - 35: If you are married there very easily arises a tension between your devotion to Christ and your devotion to your spouse. Of course your love for your husband or your wife is part of your obedience to Christ. But in practice the two can pull in different directions, and the tension can be hard to handle. This is one of the disadvantages of being married. Verses 36 - 38: Engagement is not the same as marriage. When you are engaged, you are not yet bound to one another. If you rethink what is best for you both, and decide that it would be better not to marry after all, that is not a sin. If, however, you have a strong desire to marry - then get married. That, too, is OK. You just need to be clear what you are doing, and make up your own mind. Verses 39 - 40: The death of a spouse (more often than not, a husband) releases the surviving spouse from the marriage vows. She (or he) can marry again, so long as the person is a Christian. However, it would probably be more of a blessing to you if you stayed single. Now quite a lot of that could do with further unpacking, but that is the essentials of 1 Corinthians 7. There is a lot of clear guidance here on the subject of marriage and singleness. Some of what the apostle Paul says is strong meat, and takes some chewing over. It is a chapter that repays close study by anyone, whatever their marital status. But let me now pick up some of the things that Paul says that help us to see more clearly what is going on when we seek guidance from God in order to make a decision in line with his will. This is under the heading: Secondly, BEHIND THE SCENES OF OUR DECISIONS One thing that is clear is that we need to distinguish between the kind of choices that we have to make. Sometimes the choice before us will be between an option that is sinful (that is, contrary to a command of God), and an option that is not sinful. In that case the right choice is clear. Clear but not necessarily at all easy. Sometimes, though, the choice will be between two or more options, none of which is sinful. Whether to marry or to remain single is one such choice, but there are many others. When you face a choice that is not a matter of avoiding sin, it may still be the case that one option is better than the other. For instance, when Paul says in verse 6: "I say this as a concession, not as a command", he is saying that it is OK for a husband and wife to abstain sexually for an agreed time, but at least in general it is better not to. Another example of this in this chapter is that Paul unmistakeably says that, if you are given the gift, being single is to be preferred to marriage. You avoid certain kinds of hassle, and you gain certain kinds of freedom. He recognises, though, that singleness (for all its advantages) is not for everyone - indeed most people are not suited to it. Another important thing to recognise is that we are not autonomous in our decision making. Other people are inevitably involved, and it is good and right to consult them to see what they think, and then to take account of what they say. We are bound to one another in various ways, and we need to fulfil our responsibilities to one another. Such responsibilities must be taken into account when we make our decisions. This is never more clear than within a marriage. Verse 4:
The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
The section about how to treat an unbelieving spouse (v12-15) makes something else clear, and that is that we are not responsible for what we do not control. Put like that, it sounds so obvious. But many tears have been wept and much guilt has been felt over situations that outside the control of the one who is grieving. That is not an excuse for abdicating responsibility where it does exist. Many a man who has abandoned his wife and children has said to himself that he cannot help his feelings for the other woman, nor is it his fault that his heart is cold towards his wife. That is wicked nonsense. One of the most crucial lessons to learn is that God is guiding us, whether we are aware of it or not. Our lives are under his providential control. Paul says in v17 that the Lord has assigned to us our place in life. He has called us to the particular combination of circumstances that makes up our life, our work, our family - all of it. And this was true even before we became Christians. Read the Book of Ruth for a fantastic example of the way that a situation that from a human point of view is messy and tragic is woven into God's purposes not only for the pagan woman Ruth, but for God's whole plan for the salvation of the world. Ruth was King David's great grandmother. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we understand what God is doing with our lives. At times, maybe, we get some provisional glimpses. But God's plans are far more exciting than we can see. But we do know one thing about where he is guiding us. He is leading to heaven. And he is moulding us into the likeness of Christ. That is the wonderful promise of Romans 8.28-29, which we should remind ourselves of when we have decisions to make:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son
If you are agonising over a decision, never forget how valuable you are to Christ. Verse 23: "you were bought at a price." We belong to Christ, and so long as we are genuinely seeking to do his will, we can trust him with our future. Guidance is in the end his problem, not ours. So keep that eternal perspective. We live in the last days, between the first and second comings of Christ. Life will be tough at times. We should expect that. Verse 31: "For this world in its present form is passing away." And remember too that God's will and God's wisdom do not limit our potential. They set us free. Verse 35:
I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
God is at work behind the scenes of our decisions. We are not in control. He is. But he does give us responisibility. He does require us to make choices. What are some of the principles that we need to be aware of as we seek guidance to make the right choices? This then is my final heading: Thirdly, GUIDELINES FOR DECISION MAKING What approach to decision making is revealed by the way that Paul tackles these questions that are thrown at him by the church in Corinth? Well, this chapter is a rich source of guidance concerning guidance, never mind marriage and singleness! Here are a few of the guidelines that we can glean:
Let holiness be our aim. Make our relationship with God the Father through Christ our prime consideration. When we let that slip from the centre of our thinking, our decisions will always tend to be skewed off course. That is the positive way of saying what Paul puts in a negative way in verse 2, where he says that the appropriate way to act is the way that enables us to avoid immorality. Avoiding sin is the other side of the coin of pursuing holiness.
Another aspect of that is that we should not live according to what we can get away with. We must not resent God's law and wisdom and go around looking for loopholes. We should not be wanting to squeeze every drop out of every concession our Father makes to the hardness of our hearts. Instead, we should trust that God's will is good for us, and seek to be straight down the middle of the fairway, not veering off into the rough hoping that we will make it to the green somehow. We should be guided by our gifting. That is the clear implication of verse 7:
I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
It may take some time for you to begin to work out what gifts God has given to you. In the mean time there are two things we can do that will help us to figure it out. First, we can ask people where they thing we might be of some use, without prescribing what we will be willing to do. Second, we can get on with the task in hand to the best of our ability. As we behave in that way, it will become clear, possibly sooner to other people than to ourselves, what our gifts are. Which is another good reason to talk to others about what they think we should be doing. Crucially, we should seek out, listen to, and obey God's commands. That is what Paul is laying down in various places here, such as verse 10 where he says "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord):" And he spells it out in verse 19: "Keeping God's commands is what counts." This, of course, is especially true when we do not like God's commands. Obedience is easy if God is telling us to do what we want to do. In fact obedience is hardly even necessary in that case. But there will be times when God's will, clearly revealed in Scripture, will cut right across what we want to do. That is where obedience comes into play. And trust that he knows better than us what is good for us. The simple fact is that if we are not willing to obey the commands of God, we cannot expect to be given wisdom when the way forward is less clear cut. "Keeping God's commands is what counts." Once that framework of obedience is in place, then there is another vital principle, that Paul lays great stress on in this chapter. We should stay put in the circumstances that God has placed us in. Verse 17:
Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
He makes the same point in verse 20, and then again in verse 24. Clearly he means to be taken seriously. We should not give in to escapist tendencies, always thinking that the grass is greener on the other side. So don't disown your cultural, ethnic and social identity. God put you where you are! And keep your job, don't chuck it in. Even if you happen to be a slave. Of course, if you have no choice in the matter, that's pretty clear guidance. Be clear, though, that staying put is not an absolute rule. Life moves on, and there may be any number of reasons why we are required not to stay put. You cannot remain an undergraduate for more than three or four years. Well, some people seem to manage it - but as a general rule! What is more, it may be legitimate to make a move - change your job, for instance - if you have the freedom to do so, and if there is an opportunity that is better. What is better? Well, let holiness be your aim. Let the Kingdom of God be your priority. Then you won't go too far wrong. So Paul says to those who are slaves (v 21):
Were you slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you - although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
Don't yearn for freedom's that are not available to you - but take good opportunities. And by the way, don't be seduced (in the name of freedom) into being a slave to fashion of any sort in order to secure the good opinion of others. True freedom is a godly contentment in the situation where God has placed us. Let that be the starting point for all our decisions. One last guideline. The time comes when we have to make up our own minds. That is how God guides us. He gives us a framework of commands to obey. Within that framework, he teaches us wisdom as we saturate ourselves with his word. He assures us that he is guiding us, whether we see it or not, and that our lives are under his control. He gives us one another so that we can pool whatever wisdom we have. And then he gives us the responsibility for making our minds up. The process of guidance is not a matter of looking for signs and clutching at straws so that somehow we do not have to make a decision. God gives us his word and his wisdom, and he asks to decide. See how Paul puts it in relation to marriage (v37):
But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin - this man also does the right thing.
Finally, there is, I am aware, one question I have not touched on in relation to our case study, marriage. You might ask: "If I do decide to marry, who should I marry?" To which I answer three things. First, make your mind up. Do you really want someone else telling you? Second, just exactly how many people are saying to you that they want to marry you? Third, as Philip Jensen says in his helpful book which used to be called 'The Last Word on Guidance' until they brought out a revised edition: the time will come when you can be absolutely sure who God wants you married to:- when you wake up on your honeymoon.