84. Everyone Has His Own Gift from God,
Suited to His Vocation
By Pope John Paul II
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."