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Anxiety and Peace
Anxiety can rob us of the enjoyment of life. The causes of anxiety are numerous: health, work (or lack of it), finances (debt, unpaid bills and so on) and much else besides. Some of the biggest causes of anxiety are those dealt with in today’s New Testament passage: relationships, marriage (or lack of it), sex (or lack of it), singleness and divorce.
In our Old Testament passage, the book of Ecclesiastes suggests that much of the anxiety we experience is caused by something deeper. This could be described as the anxiety of meaninglessness. We are called to live in peace. In each of the passages for today, we see something about this subject of anxiety and peace.
1. Seek consolation in the midst of anxietyPsalm 94:12-23
The psalmist knew what it was like to experience great anxieties (v.19a). He writes, ‘You grant … relief from days of trouble … When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul’ (vv.13a,18–19).
He goes on, ‘But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge’ (v.22).
Surrounded by great anxiety, he turns to the Lord for help. ‘When I was upset and beside myself you calmed me down and cheered me up’ (v.19, MSG). In God’s love he finds relief, consolation and joy. God provides ‘a circle of quiet within the clamour of evil’ (v.13, MSG).
Lord, today I come to you and bring my anxieties to you …
Thank you, Lord, that you give us relief in the days of trouble. Thank you that your love supports me. Thank you that your consolation brings joy to my soul.
2. Live at peace with your situation1 Corinthians 7:1-16
‘God has called us to live in peace’ (v.15c). How do we find this ‘peace’? In this chapter Paul sets out how we find peace in relationships, marriage, singleness and separation. He begins by asking the question, ‘Is it a good thing to have sexual relations?’ (v.1, MSG). He responds, ‘Certainly – but only within a certain context’ (v.2a, MSG).
In this passage, Paul is dealing with two opposite dangers; he is waging war on two fronts. On the one hand, he is dealing with the ‘ultra liberals’. These libertines say that anything goes, ‘All things are lawful’ (see chapter 6). This leads to immorality.
On the other hand, he is dealing with the super spiritual – the ‘ultra conservatives’. These ascetics deny the body totally. They argue that if someone is really going to be a Christian then there should be no marriage and if married, either they should get a divorce or at least stop having sex.
In this passage, Paul answers a number of vital questions about sex, marriage, relationships and singleness:
- Is marriage God’s general will for his people?
Marriage is the norm for all men and women: ‘It’s good for a man to have a wife, and for a woman to have a husband’ (v.2, MSG). God’s general will is for people to get married. Singleness is the exception. It is a special call.
The reason Paul gives here is because there is ‘so much immorality’ (v.2). ‘Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder’ (v.2, MSG). He is dealing with his opponents on their own terms. They were reacting against immorality and arguing for no sex and no marriage.
Paul replies that, on the contrary, the temptation towards immorality is a good reason to get married. It is not that Paul does not have more positive reasons. He holds, like the rest of the Bible, a high view of marriage – for partnership (Genesis 2:18), procreation (Genesis 1:28) and pleasure (1 Corinthians 7:1–5).
- What is the Christian attitude to sex within marriage?
There is no such thing as a spiritual marriage as his opponents suggest. Within marriage there is sexual freedom and sexual equality: ‘The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality – the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband’ (v.3, MSG). The only reason to abstain is for short periods of prayer, if mutually agreed, and that is a concession not a command (vv.5–6).
- Is it better to be single or married?
Paul writes that both are gifts from God. They are both good (vv.7–9). In a way, it is best (for reasons to be given later) to be single: ‘Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me – a simpler life in many ways! But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is’ (v.7, MSG). As marriage is a gift, so is singleness (v.7). But it is also a good thing to get married. Paul is not negative about marriage (v.9).
- Should a Christian ever seek a divorce from another Christian?
The general principle of this passage, and the rest of the New Testament, seems to answer this question: ‘No’: ‘If you are married, stay married ... a husband has no right to get rid of his wife’ (vv.10–11, MSG). Of course, this is a very complex issue. (I have tried to look at this question in more detail in The Jesus Lifestyle, chapter 6).
- What about relationships with people who are not Christians?
Paul does not encourage a Christian to marry someone who is not a Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1, 1 Corinthians 7:39). However, if they are already married that is quite different. They should not seek to dissolve any existing marriage relationship.
Paul’s opponents were worried that being married to someone who was not a Christian would pollute the marriage. Paul’s response is that the opposite is the case. ‘The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be left out; as it is, they also are included in the spiritual purposes of God’ (v.14, MSG). If the person who is not a Christian insists on leaving, and clinging to the marriage would lead to nothing but frustration and tension, then the Christian should let them go for the sake of ‘peace’, not purity (see v.15).
Lord, thank you that you have called us to live in peace. Help us at whatever stage we find ourselves, regardless of our marital status, to live according to your standards and know your peace.
3. Find the answer to the anxiety of meaninglessnessEcclesiastes 1:1-3:22
Ecclesiastes is a story of one person’s anxious search for meaning. The writer, in the shoes of King Solomon 3,000 years ago, searches in various areas.
‘Ecclesiastes doesn’t say that much about God; the author leaves that to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. His task is to expose our total incapacity to find the meaning and completion of our lives on our own ... It is an exposé and rejection of every arrogant and ignorant expectation that we can live our lives by ourselves on our own terms.’
He says, ‘What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?’ (1:3). Everything's boring, utterly boring – no one can find any meaning in it’ (v.8, MSG). ‘So what do you get from a life of hard labour? Pain and grief from dawn to dusk. Never a decent night’s rest. Nothing but smoke’ (2:23, MSG).
He begins by chasing after ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ (1:18a), but this only leads to ‘much sorrow’ and ‘more grief’ (v.18b). ‘The more you know, the more you hurt’ (v.18b, MSG). Accumulating wisdom and knowledge does not deal with the ultimate cause of anxiety – meaninglessness.
The next thing he tries is hedonism – the doctrine that pleasure is the chief good or proper aim. ‘I said to myself, “Let’s go for it – experiment with pleasure, have a good time!” ’ (2:1, MSG). He tries escapism through ‘laughter’ (v.2). He tries stimulants – ‘cheering myself with wine’ (v.3). He then turns to music, ‘men and women singers’ (v.8). He tries sexual pleasure, ‘and a harem as well’ (v.8b). Solomon in fact had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. All this still did not satisfy.
‘What do I think of the fun-filled life? Insane! Inane! My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it?’ (v.2, MSG).
He concludes, ‘Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind’ (v.11). He experiences the paradox of pleasure – the law of diminishing returns. The more people seek pleasure, the less they find it.
He tries materialism – ‘The tendency to prefer material possessions to spiritual values’. He tries various ‘projects’ (v.4). He obtains property (vv.4–6). He has people working for him, ‘male and female slaves’ (v.7). He has many possessions, ‘herds and flocks’ (v.7b). He acquires money: ‘I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces’ (v.8). He achieves greatness, success and fame (v.9). He has a successful job and career (v.10b).
Yet death makes this entire search ‘meaningless’ (vv.16–18). The expression that occurs throughout is ‘under the sun’ (vv.17–18). It comes twenty-eight times in the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer’s search for meaning never moves beyond this life and this world.
Ecclesiastes raises the questions which the New Testament answers. Meaning is found not ‘under the sun’, but in the Son.
Lord, thank you that in Jesus, we find the true meaning and purpose of our lives. Thank you that in him we find the answer to the anxiety of meaningless. Thank you that in him we find true peace and purpose to our lives.
‘There is a time for everything …’
But there doesn't seem to be much time for the Bible in One Year (even though I'm on holiday!).