Teaching series from Ephesians

Building a Distinctive Ethical Life (Part 1)

Ephesians 4:17-24

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Remind that this second major section of Ephesians (4:1-6:9) is about how we commend our God to a watching world (4:1). 

We saw that the first way we are to do this is by building quality community (4:2-16).  As people observe Jesus’ followers relating to one another as loving family members and as a diversely gifted yet harmoniously functioning body, many will want to know they can get in on this.

Now we come to the second way we are to do this—by building distinctive ethical lives (4:17-5:21).  As people observe our ethical lives, the emptiness of their lives should be exposed by positive contrast (5:8-11), so that many will want to know how they can get in on this.

What are some of the ethical aspects of this way of life?  Aspects like honesty vs. lying (4:25); industry & generosity vs. stealing (4:28); edifying vs. destructive interpersonal speech (4:26,27,29,31); forgiveness vs. bitterness and resentment and malice (4:31,32); healthy vs. destructive sexuality (5:3-5); generosity vs. greed (4:28; 5:3,5); thankful vs. sexually defiling speech (5:4); joyful praise to God vs. drunkenness (5:18-20).

There’s nothing distinctively Christian about the negative ethics here.  Most other religions and “moral” people agree that these things are wrong.  And they have some kind of approach to this moral improvement (EXAMPLES?).

The distinctively Christian part is two-fold:

The first distinctive is the positive ethics.  Much religious morality (including “Christian” and not a little “Xenoid” morality) is merely refraining from what is wrong—and usually more than a little tinged with self-righteous pride and condemnation of others.  But this ethical way of life is love-in-action (5:2), and this is what makes it good/healthy to us, and beautiful/attractive to others.
The second distinctive is how this way of life is developed.  Other ethical “ways” rely on one’s own moral will power, or social/peer pressure (“shame” cultures), etc.  But this “way” is simply one aspect of redemption—the radically new life that God impart to us through Jesus. This is what C. S. Lewis means in his essay “Nice People or New Men?”- “Mere (ethical) improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people here and now, and will in the end improve them to a degree we cannot imagine.  God became man to turn creatures into sons, not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man.  It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”1  How do you become this “winged creature?”  That’s what 4:17-24 is about.  It describes two different ways of life that flow from two different kinds of thinking...

Two ways of thinking resulting in 2 ways of life

Let’s read the whole passage first (read 4:17-24).  I’m going to summarize what Paul is saying here, and then we will apply it to a couple of practical ethical areas.

One way of life flows from thinking that Paul calls “futile,” “darkened understanding,” and “ignorant.”  In other words, this way of life is rooted in a fundamentally false perspective on what makes our lives meaningful.

It begins with being excluded from God’s life.  We are like “orphans by choice.”  Deep down, we know that we were created by God to worship him and let his wisdom guide us and have his love fill our souls.  But we don’t want to bow to God and depend on him to fill us and lead us.  We want to live by our own wisdom and resources.  And God, who wants only voluntary worshipers, allows us to orphan ourselves from him.

As orphans by choice, we become “empty takers.”  We were created to be filled by God’s love, but now our hearts are empty and insatiably hungry.  So our lives become dominated by “lust.”  This word (epithumia) means literally “over-desire.”  The idea is that of taking a desire that is normal and legitimate, and “super-charging” it so that it becomes a consuming expectation that can never be fulfilled.  It is desiring that one of God’s good gifts satisfy the hunger in your soul that only the Giver himself can satisfy.  That’s why Paul calls them “lusts of deceit” (4:22).  Common examples of “over-desire” include:

Desiring that a romantic relationship meet your deepest need for love and security
Desiring that a career meet your deepest need for significance
Desiring that your children meet your deepest need for security and significance

What happens when you a live willfully orphaned from God and driven by over-desires?  According to 4:22, the result is a progressive “corruption” of your life.  As you continue to try to satisfy your soul with people and things, this will not only never satisfy you—it will also lead to greater and greater damage and misery in your own life (and, inevitably, in the lives of others around you).2

Your over-desire for security through a romantic relationship leads you into sexual expression without life-long commitment, and broken relationship after relationship.  As you age and lose your physical attractiveness, you become more lonely, more desperate, and more hopeless about finding real security.
Your over-desire for significance through career success leads you to work 80 hours a week, and move wherever the next promotion demands.  It also leads you to become extremely manipulative, and anxious about whether you will get the next promotion.  And it leads you to neglect your spouse and children and lose whatever friends you may have had.  In the latter part of your life, you have “gained the world but lost your soul.”  You have financial security and the esteem of your profession—but you lost your family, your integrity, etc.
Your over-desire for security through your children may lead you to spoil your children because you need their acceptance be secure.  Your over-desire for significance through your children may lead you to push them into all kinds of activities and accomplishments because you need to validate your life through what they achieve.  When your children rebel, you are devastated—not just because they are making choices that will hurt them, but because your security and significance has been destroyed.  And this leads you to make more poor choices in the way you treat them.

What can you do if this describes your life?  It won’t work to merely adopt a new moral code (religion) or try to manage your over-desires in a different way (counseling therapy)!  You need to become God’s child!  You need to base your life on God’s love by receiving and learning from Jesus (4:20,21)  Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden... Learn from me, and I will give rest to your souls” (Matt.11:28-30).

Come to Christ, and he will rescue you from your orphan life and make you God’s child.  Then you can experience God’s love in your soul, and you will know that this is what you have been looking for through all of your over-desires.

Learn from Christ, and he will teach you how to depend on God’s love.  Then you can become a “full giver” instead of an “empty taker”—motivated and empowered by his love to give his love to others.  And this results in a redeemed life—a life of increasing health (& peace & hope & joy) for you and for those involved with you.

GOSPEL: Aren’t you weary of living for over-desires and being deceived and corrupted by them?  Don’t you want your hungry soul to be filled with the love of God?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be his son instead of an orphan?  God loves you so much that he paid the price of his own Son to redeem your life.  Are you ready to let him do this?  Just tell Jesus that you want him to make you God’s child...

The main reason Christians fail to build ethically distinctive lives

Paul knows that genuine Christians do not automatically build ethically distinctive lives. After all, he is writing this section to Christians.  Specifically, he knows that sub-Christian behavior (either overt unethical behavior or socially acceptable selfishness) is a symptom of remaining ignorance and/or unbelief in this new way of life.  That’s why 4:23 is in the present (ongoing) tense—“be (continually) renewed in the spirit of your mind.”  It is not enough to receive God’s love through Jesus—we must continually allow him to teach us the implications of God’s love.  What does this look like in practical terms?  It involves asking God to continue to illuminate your mind and heart in two ways:

Continue to allow Jesus to increase your understanding and appreciation of God’s love for you.  Prayerfully reflect on passages like Eph. 1-3, digest quality teachings and books on God’s grace, discuss this subject with like-minded friends, etc.  The more you maintain and deepen your focus on God’s amazing love for you, the more the hunger in your hearts is satisfied, and the more motivated you become to give God’s love to others so that they might know his love also.

Conversely, when you fail to keep letting Jesus teach you about God’s love, your heart will inevitably drift back to over-desires to satisfy the returning hunger.  Have you been experiencing more and more heart restlessness and temptation?  How much have you been reflecting on God’s love?  Can you connect these “dots?”

Continue to allow Jesus to expose your deep-rooted and subtle “over-desires.”  And as he teaches you about this, you will need to do the same thing with these over-desires that you have done with other ones.  Agree with Jesus that they will never satisfy your heart, but only deceive and corrupt your life.  Agree with Jesus that his love for you already provides the significance or identity or security or purpose you need.  And ask him to show you how to give his love away.  Here’s an example of what this looks like:

Before I met Christ, I sought significance by outperforming my peers in academics, athletics, romantic conquests, etc.  I was constantly comparing myself to others in these areas.  When I compared favorably, I felt significant.  But when compared unfavorably, I felt anxious, angry, and depressed. 

Coming to Christ freed me (substantially) from trying to get my significance from comparing myself to others in these areas.  I knew that God viewed me as significant, not because I outperformed my peers, but because he created me in his image and Jesus paid the high price to redeem me.  This in turn motivated me to embrace a life of Christian ministry—teaching others about God’s Word and leading a growing group of Christians.

However, I find that (especially when I lose my focus on God’s grace) it is easy for me to try to get my significance from how I compare with other Christian teachers and leaders.  This is the same over-desire, just a more subtle form because it disguises itself as “serving Christ” and “helping others grow spiritually.”  But the symptoms are the same: comparing my spiritual accomplishments to others, feeling good about myself when I compare favorably, but feeling anxious, angry and depressed when I compare unfavorably.  The longer I stay in this mindset, the more selfish I become. I need people to admire and praise and validate my “ministry!”

How do I get out of this?  When I notice these negative emotions are becoming chronic, I have to go to Jesus and ask: “How am I trying to get my significance from something besides your love?”  And when he shows me, it’s pretty sickening.  Then I have to admit it to him (and other Christian friends), and ask him to help me turn away from using people to feel significant and trust his love which alone makes me significant.  And then (sooner or later) I experience release from this over-desire and the joy of knowing his love and the motivation to give his love to others returns.  I have had to do this so many times over the years that I am embarrassed at how deep my vanity goes.  But God’s grace is always deeper still!

These two ways of allowing God to renew your perspective are dynamically related.  The more you focus on God’s grace, the easier it is to admit the over-desires he exposes.  And the more you let him expose your over-desires, the more this increases your appreciation of his grace!  Healthy Christians, whose lives are progressively demonstrating Jesus’ distinctive love, experience this dynamic over and over and over in their spiritual lives.  Can you relate to this?  If not, that’s a sign of spiritual danger, not spiritual health!

1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “Nice People or New Men?”

2 “A false perspective on reality generates a confusion of desires which can never be satisfied because they have lost touch with what is true.  Such desires serve the power of deceit, and so are themselves ultimately illusory and contribute to the ruin of the old person.” Lincoln, A. T. (2002). Vol. 42: Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians. Word Biblical Commentary (286). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.