In the world, but not of it – a thin, hard line or plenty of latitude?

What does it mean to live as though you are not, even though you are?  This morning I was reading in 1 Corinthians 7 and came across this statement from Paul.  “From now on, let those who have wives live as though 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 goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.  For the present form of this world is passing away.”

What do we do with that?  Do I literally start living as if my wife doesn’t exist anymore?  Do I pretend that the sad news I received yesterday from some friends who lost their baby isn’t worth mourning about?  When I hear good news do I just ignore it?  After I buy something do I hide it away in a closet and forget about it?  Do I walk through this life as in a dream, assuming that none of this is real?

I turned to Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians for more insight, and here are some of his thoughts followed by my conclusion:

[I]n view of the “time” and the fact that the “form” of this present world is passing away, [Paul] calls for a radically new understanding of their relationship to the world.

[T]he future, what was set in motion by the event of Christ and the Spirit, has been “shortened” so that it is now in plain view.  And that will absolutely condition how one lives in the present.  Paul’s concern, therefore, is not with the amount of time they have left, but with the radical new perspective the “foreshortened future” gives one with regard to the present age.  Those who have a definite future and see it with clarity live in the present age with radically altered values as to what counts and what does not.

This perspective is given in the form of five illustrations, expressed in the strongest kind of dialectical rhetoric.  Taken literally, the five “as if not” clauses become absurdities, not to mention contradictory to what Paul clearly said earlier about marriage (vv 2-6) and what he will elsewhere say about sorrowing and rejoicing (Rom. 12:15).  But they are not to be taken literally; they are rhetoric, pure and simple.  The question is, What is the point of such rhetoric?

Paul is advocating neither the Stoic’s “aloofness” from the world nor the apocalyptist’s [fundamentalist’s??] “escape” from the world.  What he is calling for is a radical new stance toward the world, predicated on the saving event of Christ that has marked off our existence in a totally new way.  Just as in Christ the slave is a freedman and the free man is a slave (vv. 22-23) because one’s existence is determined by God, so now one does not so much live “detached” from the world (after all, Paul expects the Corinthians to continue doing all five of these things) as totally free from its control.  Therefore, one lives in the world just as the rest — married, sorrowing, rejoicing, buying, making use of it — but none of these determines one’s life.  The Christian is marked by eternity; therefore, he or she is not under the dominating power of those things that dictate the existence of others.

The final two items need comment since they set up the concluding causal clause.  Paul does not discourage buying or selling.  As with the other items, the Corinthians are expected to continue doing such things.  But Christians do not buy to possess; that is to let the world govern the reason for buying [advertising campaigns come to mind here].  Those who buy are to do so “as if not” in terms of possessing anything. . . . Thus the Christian can at the same time “use the present world.”  This is the clearest indication that Paul does not have a separatist’s bent.  The world as such is neither good nor evil; it simply is. But in its present form it is passing away.  Thus while one uses the world, one must be “as if not,” which in this case [means] . . . not to make full use of it, that is, be “not engrossed” or “absorbed” in it.  (Bold emphasis and brackets are mine.)

So what is he saying that Paul is saying?  Keep on living your life and do all the things that make you human — get married and be a good husband or wife, be sad about the death of a baby, share in the joy of your friends, give the economy a boost if you can afford it (!), go to work and do your job, whatever it is — but do all these things in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for you and me.  The right perspective can and should change the way you and I live our lives.

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