Have you ever reached the last chapter of a novel, full of hope and anticipation, and then felt cheated by the ending? Personally, I’m thinking of one in particular (which shall remain nameless). Here’s a summary of the major plot points: a couple relocates to another country because of his job; they experience marital conflict as they adjust to the new demands and the culture; she’s murdered by mistake. End of story. It’s not often I find myself sitting with a book in my lap and my jaw dangling in disbelief.
No wonder some people read the last chapter first; they just don’t want to deal with the disappointment.
But so much of Scripture is just like this: it gives us something of the last chapter of the story. And with that knowledge, in anticipation and hope, we are meant to live the present chapters differently.
In 1 Corinthians 7:25-28, Paul answers questions about whether getting married is a reflection of a lack of spiritual commitment. No, he says, marriage is not a sin. But he also refers to a “present crisis” in light of which married people will face extra difficulties, and he doesn’t want to see people suffer unnecessarily. He then puts these difficulties into their larger narrative context:
This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them. Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31, CEB)
In various places in his letters, Paul writes as if expecting Jesus to return at any moment. But the timetable isn’t the point: he views the world as already having entered its final chapter, however long that chapter might be.
And that has consequences for how we think and live. When he says that those who have wives should be like those who don’t, he isn’t telling spouses to divorce (which would flatly contradict vs. 11) or to ignore each other. He’s telling people who have raised anxious questions about getting married that marriage is not the end of the story. Likewise, sadness and tears are not the end of the story, and neither is happiness. Possessions are not the be-all and end-all of human existence.
Marriage, happiness, worldly possessions: Paul’s words have a contemporary ring. The Corinthians have asked what’s permissible to them as Christians. But Paul wants to do more than say yes to this and no to that. To the extent that believers are locating their purpose and identity in the world’s preoccupations and social categories, they are living the wrong story.
What’s our preoccupation? What’s the “happy ending” toward which we bend our effort and energy, our dreams and desires? Married and unmarried, sad and happy, haves and the have-nots: believers must hold these distinctions lightly, because the world, in the form we take for granted, is passing away.