“This is what I mean, brothers [and sisters], the time has grown short; henceforth, let even those who have wives be as if they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who use with the world as though they do not use it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
Paul says the time (kairos) has “grown short” (sustello). Is he saying that the time originally set but God has been changed? God set the date for 2:30pm next Friday, but for some reason changed his mind, and rescheduled it to tomorrow at noon? If so, a suitable response might be, “damn! I thought we had more time.” There is less time than there once was. Of course, isn’t this always true of us? We always have less time than we used to. Time is always running out. At every moment we are closer to our end than we have ever been before. There is something relentless about this fact. While that is true, imagine hearing a fateful diagnosis that takes away years from your expectations. With one word, a doctor takes decades away from you. You are reduced to months. Perhaps Paul is saying something like this? Perhaps he is saying that we all thought we had more time – and we did have more time – but things have changed, and we now we have very little left.
Time is our greatest and most valuable resource. Take it away, and no other resource will mean anything.
“Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. It slips away. And all your money won’t another minute buy.” (Dust in the Wind, by Kerry Livgren of Kansas)
Jesus says something similar in Matthew: “What will it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose their own life?” (Matthew 16:26).
The end imagined by Paul is different than the one imagined by Livgren and Jesus in Matthew. For Paul, the “time” refers to the great Parousia – to Jesus’ coming in the heavens leading to the end of history as we know it. It is “end” writ large. The end imagined by Livgren is personal – the end of a life. Specifically, it is not the end of just anyone’s life – it is the end of yours! Whoever “you” are, the words of Dust in the Wind are for you.
Jesus, as Matthew has it in 16:26, is also describing the potential fate of one person. Typical of Jesus, the statement is hyperbolic. Who among us has the opportunity to gain the whole world? I might be able to gain a bit of it here or there – but the whole thing? Even the great emperors and kings (and Presidents) who have gained vast empires never gained the whole world. Yet Jesus says, even if you could obtain total ownership and control –fame, fortune, wealth – the whole deal – it would mean nothing if you lost yourself.
What does it mean to lose oneself? If could be taken in two different ways. The first and most obvious – the plainest meaning, is death. In death we lose ourselves. What wealth or power or fame would ever be able to compensate for the absence of you? You would not be able to use the wealth, or exercise the power, or acknowledge the fame if you were not there/here. What value is the whole world if you yourself have been lost from the world? This is a striking way to speak about death. Armed with the idea of resurrection, sometimes we are a little too quick to deny the loss of self that is death. Think about it – everyone you know – everyone – is destined to lose everything that have and everything they know. This is tragic. Sometimes Christians are too quick to deny the awfulness of death. Surely, we can say a word of kindness or perform an act of compassion for someone who is fated to lose everything? The loss of everything is a terrible thing to contemplate. However, Matthew’s Jesus would not leave us to despair in utter hopelessness. Just before saying the gaining the world means nothing if you lose yourself, he said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). This suggests that the total loss of self in death might not be the final word. There is a door of hope, as faint as it might seem – but that door is only found through loss (something we are too well acquainted with).
Another way Matthew 16:26’s “losing of self” can be understood is figural. We were never meant to “gain” the world. We were never meant to possess it in this fashion. Only God is in a position to possess the whole world. Something strange happens when we seek to own the world – we lose ourselves. We lose an appropriate and healthy perspective on what it means to be human. To possess the world includes possessing other people in the world. When we seek to “possess” other people, we lose sight of our mutuality – our shared humanity. When I diminish someone else, I strangely end up diminishing myself, probably without even realizing it. If I reduce the value of my neighbor, I make the value of humanity contingent upon the metrics that I used to devalue him or her. This makes not only my neighbor but myself subject to this loss. In God’s world, no one gets the right to diminish the value of anyone else. When we do this, we lose touch with God, and God’s world – and surprisingly, we lose touch with ourselves as well. The act of gaining of the whole world results in a loss of the self.
So, Jesus in Matthew 16:26 asks us to imagine the hyperbolic possibility of gaining the whole world but pivots us back on ourselves and asks what is really important. A true gaining of the self is what is all important – not a gaining of the world. Only those who first lose themselves truly gain themselves. So, we should all be on a treasure hunt, but the treasure we seek is not out there somewhere – it is behind our eyes! When we acknowledge that treasure, we are in a good place to acknowledge the treasure hidden behind all the other eyes out there – human and otherwise.
What are we to do with the whole idea of running out of time? Should we rage against the approaching night? Should calmly embrace the impending doom? Paul’s response is neither of these things.
Paul suggest that those in Corinth adopt an “as if” approach to life. This is curious. Paul says those who are married should “as if” they weren’t (1 Cor 7:29). On one level, I don’t know what acting “as if” I were not married might even look like. I am not sure my wife would want to find out! On another level, it seems plain enough. We can get so lost in the way things are for us at present that we can forget that this is all passing away. Both my wife and I are both fated to lose everything. The day is coming when I and my wife will lose ourselves in death, and our marriage will also be lost. We are together for a moment, and then gone. In Paul’s thought, keeping one’s eye on the greater work of God in Christ has an apocalyptic shaping. Given that all things are closer to the end (however understood) than they have ever been, we might be able to take upon ourselves something of this apocalyptic sensibility as well.
Paul continues: those who are sad “as if” they were not sad; those who are happy as if they were not happy (1 Cor 7:30). If it were me, I figure out a way where we could all simply be happy – but that is not what Paul suggests. For him, both sadness and happiness were not to be taken particularly seriously. When sad, be as if you were not. When happy, be as if you were not. Don’t take yourself and your moods too seriously. Don’t get lost in them.
Paul doesn’t actually say “don’t mourn,” or “don’t be happy.” He is more elusive. Rather he says, “Those who mourn, be as if you did not mourn.” To act “as if” is different from actually being something. To act “as if” is to act according to imagination. It is to pretend. Children are very good at this skill. A child takes a doll and animates it with her imagination. The child acts towards that doll “as if” it was a real baby. This doesn’t make the doll a real baby. The doll remains a doll throughout the whole process. In the child’s mind – or at least in a large part of it – that doll is alive, although if pressed, I suspect that every child know deep down that the doll isn’t really alive. Children know the truth I suspect, but they still are able to act “as if.”
When children approach adulthood they lose the ability to convincingly act “as if.” They want what is real, and “as if” isn’t real enough for them. This is an important stage in their development. When we become adults, we put “as if’s” behind us. Paul is suggesting to the Corinthians that they relearn how to act “as if” – that is, how to pretend. In the name of the transitory nature of life on the planet, Paul suggests that we remind ourselves that whatever we are going through – be it good or bad – it will pass. Paul wants those at Corinth to be grounded not in their contingent circumstances, but in God through Christ. To be happy and yet act “as if” they were not is to maintain a degree of equilibrium through a constructive use of imagination.
Paul does not say “let those who rejoice stop rejoicing!” Rather, “let those who rejoice be as if they were not rejoicing.” This means that they are still rejoicing! The truth of the moment is that they are actually rejoicing. That does not cease. What Paul suggests is that in the midst of that rejoicing that they imagine themselves as if they were not rejoicing. The rejoicing continues – but now a realization is added – and that realization is that the rejoicing is contingent and will pass. We were never meant to hold on to good feelings and not let them go. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to. Feelings come and go. Reminding ourselves of that can enable to maintain a greater perspective and awareness, not to mention emotional equilibrium.
Paul says those who buy should be “as if” they did not own, and that those who use the world be “as if” they did not use the world. Identity should not be grounded in possessions or successful dealing in “the world.” Again, Paul is not stating that those in Corinth not buy or that they not “use” the world, rather they they should pretend that they do not do these things. At its worse this could become a form of deliberate delusion, but it can also become a means of regulating how we relate to our circumstances. Our success should not make us too full of ourselves, and our failures should not lead us to despair.
Paul’s eschatological horizon is a central element of his message. His challenge in chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians is how to balance a life fully lived unto his apocalyptic hope with the messiness of the present situation and context. Paul want to maintain a pure vision of the coming future, but also wants to address the here and now. Indeed, his pure eschatological mindset is complicated by the here and now. Isn’t that always the way — the present always complicates the future.