There is a proverb which says ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ There is a very human tendency to think that other people’s situations are always better than ours; the proverb reflects on the fact that we are never satisfied with our own situation, but always think others have it better. Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 7:7-35 contradict this view emphatically.
In urging people to ‘live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them’ (1 Cor 7:17), Paul reminds us that contentment is a great gift from God. He applies this not only to marriage, singleness or widowhood, but to slavery and circumcision. He says, ‘And don’t be wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there. God, not your marital status, defines your life.’ (1 Cor 7:17, The Message)
It’s very easy to spend time fantasising and daydreaming about what we could do for the Lord if things were different (‘if I had a different job, if I had more money, if I had more time, if I had a more understanding husband, if my wife were more reasonable, if I had a partner, if my health were better’ and so on.) But, as Eugene Peterson reminds us in his book on Jeremiah, a prophet who surely would have preferred to live in more congenial times, ‘The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day.’ (‘Run With the Horses’, P 150) We can spend all our time looking wistfully at the green grass on the other side of the fence (something so easy to do these days thanks to social media, where everybody else seems to be living such an exotic and amazing lifestyle, jetting off to foreign destinations and living lives of luxurious indolence surrounded by doting friends) or we can live as God wants us to, cultivating thankfulness and gratitude.
Paul says ‘Friends, stay where you were called to be. God is there. Hold the high ground with him at your side.’ (1 Cor 7:24, The Message) He goes on, ‘There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple—in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things—your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out.’ (1 Cor 7:30-31, The Message) Jeremy Camp sings ‘In this life there is one guarantee/ This broken world will only leave me empty.’ (‘Living Word’, Jeremy Camp)
The sooner we realise that the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, the sooner we will be able to serve God where we are, grateful for all He gives us and enables us to do. Paul’s goal was that the Corinthians developed a way of life in which they could spend plenty of time together with the Master without a lot of distractions. (1 Cor 7:35, The Message) This in no ways condemns people to lives lacking ambition or hope (he tells slaves that if there is a possibility of freedom, they should take it – 1 Cor 7:20-22), but it does help us to refocus our attention on God, something we always need to do.
Someone has added to the original proverb, saying ‘You may think the grass is always greener on the other side, but if you take the time to water your own grass, it would be just as green.’ In marital terms, Prov 5:1-23 warns against adultery, urging the married man to enjoy his own wife rather than lusting after other women, practical advice rather in the spirit of this proverb! Certainly, Paul reminds us that godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6). Eph 1:3 reminds us that every spiritual blessing in Christ is the birthright of all Christians. There is no need for envy; a daily meditation on Ps 103:1-5 will help to set things in perspective, enabling us to see all the blessings and benefits God bestows on us.