God’s Formula for Happiness

“You can’t date ’til you’re married. You can’t get married until you’re 30,” said the stereotypical father to his daughter. You’ve heard the statement. In Corinth, it had become customary for fathers to dedicate their children to the Lord, which meant that their children became the picture of purity and devotion to God alone. Apparently, there was a question about whether or not a dedicated child, particularly a virgin daughter, was free when she came of age. Paul sits his answer at the end of His admonition to the local church concerning contentment in every arena of life.

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1 Corinthians 7:36-40

36 Εἰ δέ τις ἀσχημονεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν παρθένον αὐτοῦ νομίζει ἐὰν ᾖ ὑπέρακμος, καὶ οὕτως ὀφείλει γίνεσθαι, ὃ θέλει ποιείτω· οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει· γαμείτωσαν.  37 ὃς δὲ ἕστηκεν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ ἑδραῖος μὴ ἔχων ἀνάγκην, ἐξουσίαν δὲ ἔχει περὶ τοῦ ἰδίου θελήματος, καὶ τοῦτο κέκρικεν ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ καρδίᾳ, τηρεῖν τὴν ἑαυτοῦ παρθένον, καλῶς ποιήσει·  38 ὥστε καὶ ὁ γαμίζων τὴν παρθένον ἑαυτοῦ καλῶς ποιεῖ, καὶ ὁ μὴ γαμίζων κρεῖσσον ποιήσει.  

39 Γυνὴ δέδεται ἐφʼ ὅσον χρόνον ζῇ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς· ἐὰν δὲ κοιμηθῇ ὁ ἀνήρ, ἐλευθέρα ἐστὶν ᾧ θέλει γαμηθῆναι, μόνον ἐν κυρίῳ·  40 μακαριωτέρα δέ ἐστιν ἐὰν οὕτως μείνῃ, κατὰ τὴν ἐμὴν γνώμην, δοκῶ δὲ κἀγὼ πνεῦμα θεοῦ ἔχειν.  

Virgin daughters (v. 36-38)

But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.

To close his admonition to the local church toward contentment, Paul makes a seemingly random statement about virgin daughters—as to whether or not they should be kept. He is likely responding to a question asked by the Corinthians in Chloe’s letter (cf. 1:11). When Paul instructs men who think they are acting unbecomingly toward their virgin daughters, he is not referring to anything sexual. There are more ways one can act unbecomingly. As any father goes, he can treat his family unfairly, lord his authority over his family, or treat his daughter like property instead of a person. I believe the latter is in view here. This pericope shows us the biblical view of parenting and of the biblical status and worth of women. In the society Paul writes, women are not thought highly of and retained few rights outside of their father’s household or the marriage relationship.

Even though he had dedicated his daughter to the Lord, a man does not sin if he lets his daughter marry when she comes of age. He might, however, sin if he unjustly rules over her and keeps her for the sake of being religious. He does necessarily sin by keeping her in his household if he is not being unjust (acting unbecomingly) toward her. In both cases, whether he allows his daughter to marry or keeps her in his household, a father does well if he is treating his daughter fairly and considering her good rather than his own. If a father shows his daughter that it is better to remain single and serve the Lord, he will do better—but he cannot rightly lord his authority over his daughter because, biblically, she belongs to the Lord and not him.

So, the Bible raises the status of women from society’s standard and shows men how to parent well. We raise our children under the nurture and admonition of the Lord, teaching them to serve the Lord. When they come of age, we let them go. Hopefully, we have been faithful to raise them into adulthood—to be fine men and women of God.

Here, Paul also mentions that it is good for men to have authority over their own wills. This is not a statement about God’s sovereignty, but a statement about self-control. It is good for men and women to be self-controlled, not lording authority over others as is the habit of people who are slaves to their own wills. So, there are two ways to live. Either we are slaves to our wills or masters over our wills. In Christ, we become masters over our wills—no longer given to the lusts of the flesh, including the lust for power—even paternal authority.

The secret to happiness (v. 39-40)

A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

Paul reminds us about marital contentment, returning to his own experience as a widower. One is happier, in Paul’s opinion, if she remains a widow. Paul legitimizes his opinion by claiming to have the Spirit of God, who guides the prayerful opinions of all the saints. It is not wrong for any Christian to form an opinion. We simply strive to honor God with our opinions and remain honest about the fact that they are our opinions, not God’s binding word. Someone does not sin if he or she rejects my opinion, but the explicit word of God is binding.

The secret to happiness, which we have seen in Chapter 7, is contentment. Contentment comes when we understand the providence and goodness of God; when we recognize that His grace is truly sufficient. Malcontent leads to bitterness, quarrels, complaining, accusations, division, faultfinding, reactionary living, unhealthy expectations, and the inventing of many troubles. Contentment leads to happiness, peace, mercy, forgiveness, considering others to be more important than ourselves, repentance, maturity, unity, and godliness.

I was recently in a meeting where the people professed to believe in the providence of God, but complained about everything. They complained about politics, especially the democrats. They complained about those darn kids in church. They complained about people drawing on the marker boards, people wearing jeans with a little dirt on them to church, the smells of others, how the right people didn’t get visited more often, how much exposure their church was getting, that there were too many new people, that their pastor was doing too much missional ministry. They presented themselves as better than everyone else yet trashed the body of believers, the community, and their own fellow church members. This is hypocrisy. No wonder the people aren’t happy. They speak outwardly of God’s providence, yet know nothing of contentment and love. When they speak of God’s providence, they do so to justify their own sinful actions, “This was no accident.” What a strange way to justify sin. The meeting I described is hypothetical, but many of you can probably think of a similar meeting you’ve been in. The sad reality I notice in the world today: Many so called Christians know nothing of contentment. What I have described is not one particular church group but many people in the organized church and the world. Happiness eludes them. They always have to find a fight to fight. They believe the whole world is going to Hell and they ought to send it there faster. My prayer is that we all learn contentment. We only learn contentment when we understand, not merely profess but understand, the providence of God in all things. We don’t have to have our ways, lusts, expectations, preferences, or anything else that is of us. Christ is the king, here. We don’t have to look for fights all the time. We don’t have to take a pessimistic view of the world. For, Christ has promised to renew the world rather than destroy it (cf. John 3:17). Many people refer to themselves as Christians but lack the most basic understanding of who God is and our place as humble servants. Seek contentment, brothers and sisters, and you will do well. You will be happy in this life.

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