By itself, this passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers a healthy, nuanced way of approaching ethical dilemmas. He begins with a quote – something with which he agrees: “All things are lawful for me.” For the Christian growing in faith, a simple prohibition against certain behaviors is not an adequate reason to refrain from them. Having died to ourselves, we have died to the law as well. Following the rules without question no longer serves us as we seek to live in relationship with God.
What criteria ought we to use, then, to determine how to behave in dicey situations? Here is Paul’s answer. While all things are lawful, “not all things are beneficial for me,” he says, and, “I will not be dominated by anything.”
He goes on to talk about how fornication, the behavior he has focused on in this part of his letter, binds our bodies to the object of our desire rather than to God. It is not beneficial to us in our relationship with Christ, because it does dominate us.
And while I don’t believe, as he seems to, that it’s an “either-or” situation, that having sex with somebody necessarily means we are dominated by that relationship and closed to Christ, we do become one flesh with those with whom we are intimate. That’s just how it goes for us as human beings. (And for those of us who ‘sowed a lot of wild oats’ in our youths, that’s a sobering realization.)
He goes on to describe the alternative – every mystic’s delight – the indwelling of Christ, the union of Christ with the body in spirit. We are temples, he says. And by this I understand him to mean that we are like light bulbs. We are empty globes with a little coil of resistance at our center, waiting for the current of electricity that will turn us into glowing balls of illumination.
The truth is that Paul is dominated. He is dominated by his Lord, by Christ. All his efforts go into keeping the channel clear so that Christ can reign within him. And this is what all of us who follow the Way of Christ are meant for.
What relationships in my life help me to be a light bulb waiting to be illuminated by Christ and what relationships dominate me? In countless ways my partner, Rosean, helps me to be a clear channel. In certain earlier relationships, by contrast, my lover often took the place of Christ in my heart.
In my experience, when you are in the throes of being in love it is hard to know which sort of relationship you are in. Perhaps that’s ideally where the Christian community comes in. What if we had a discernment process like that for those contemplating becoming deacons or priests? What if we took the time, in community, to determine whether we ought to become involved in an intimate relationship with someone?
While I have been writing this reflection, the sun has come up. Some fuzzy clouds along the rim of the world are echoing its magnificence in hues of orange, purple and salmon. My soul responds with a thankful joy, and I think of the final phrase of the Corinthians passage. “For you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.” The coil at my center has begun to glow. Wondrous God, thanks for this day.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image from National Geographic