Everyone Has His Own Gift
from God, Suited to His Vocation
General Audience, July 7, 1982
1. During 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
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
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."
Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 12 July
1982, page 3
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