Monday, January 13, 2020


Breaking the Cycle of Destructive Behavior
Ephesians 4:17-32
As I noted last Sunday, when Paul speaks of the church as a unified body, he states it as a fact. He does not qualify it in any way. He calls the church unified even though he realizes that at the present, we see many divisions within the church. He does this, I believe, because he is viewing the church in much the same way as we as believers are viewed by God.

Under the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for our sins, we are perfected. This does not mean that we suddenly have no faults, but only that all the provisions for our perfection have been completed. There is still growth that is needed, and all of us still require maturity.

The author of the book of Hebrews states this very succinctly when he writes, “By a single offering He has made perfect for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). 

Perfect—Yet Not So Perfect

You will notice that there are two descriptive phrases in this statement, “made perfect,” and “being sanctified.”

He has made perfect for all time those who are being sanctified.

Those covered by the sacrifice of Jesus are made perfect. It is a completed act with no qualifications. There is nothing lacking, nothing left to be done.

But then Paul also speaks of being sanctified. This is stated differently than the perfection. Our sanctification is not something that has been completed. It is written in the continuous tense, showing that it is an action that is in process.

What Does Being Sanctified Mean?

We have in our English language the word sanctimonious, as describing someone with a self-righteous, holier-than-thou and hypocritically pious view of themselves. But we should not link the phrase used by Paul with this description.

The word sanctified means literally “to set apart,” that is; it speaks of something that is dedicated for a specific purpose. When we speak of a believer being sanctified, we mean it in the sense that he or she has the purpose of living for Christ and the kingdom of God, and no longer for the goals and purposes of the world.

This is a process. This is where all of us are at the present. If you are a believer in the words and sacrifice of Jesus, you are perfected in the sense that there is nothing else to be done in relation to your standing with God.

But all of us are still working on sanctification. We are learning what it means to put behind the lifestyle and aspirations of the world, and finding our place in the kingdom of God.

As Paul continues to teach the Ephesians what it means to be a Christian and how we are meant to relate to one another as part of the body of Christ, he compares the life we are to live with the life of “the Gentiles.”

The normal definition for the word Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish. However, when Paul speaks here of the Gentiles, he is not speaking in any racial or ethnic sense. Rather, he is speaking of those who live their lives separate from the life of God. Most of the people in the church to whom he was writing actually were Gentiles ethnically speaking, but spiritually speaking, Paul does not consider them such. 

The Futility in an Endless Cycle of Thought

As Paul begins to compare the life of Christ with lives that are apart from God, he describes a cycle of thought in which the Gentiles, or the non-believers are caught. What he says of them is not complimentary: 

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19 ESV) 

As we can see, Paul describes the Gentiles as walking “in the futility of their thinking.” Their way is futile because people without the perspective of God are caught in what becomes an endless cycle of values and lifestyles that can never lead to a satisfactory conclusion. 

The Way of the Gentiles

First of all, these people are in a state of being darkened in their understanding. This darkness in understanding is not because they do not have the opportunity to see, but as Paul described this situation to the Corinthian church, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV).

Because of this darkness, Paul says that they are in the condition of being alienated from the life of God. To be alienated simply means that they do not participate in the life of God. They cannot, because this is something that is foreign to their way of thinking. Their failure to enter into this life of God may not even be as a result of a determined or an outright rejection, but because of their ignorance of what the life of God really is.

However, even though there may have not been an overt refusal of the life of God, it a refusal nonetheless. Their hearts have become so hardened that the word of God cannot penetrate their thinking. This is what keeps them in a state of ignorance. The longer that they remain in this state, the more callous they become toward spiritual matters. The King James Bible translates this word for callousness as being “passed feeling,” which, of course, callousness is.

A callous forms on our skin in areas where there is consistent abrasion. The most obvious example of this is what happens in the palms of our hands when we are doing manual work. At first, this manual work may give us blisters, but as we continue to work, a thick layer of skin eventually forms on our hands to protect against the abrasion. After a time, the callous becomes thick enough so that we are able to work without getting blisters. We no longer feel the abrasion against the skin.

This may be good for our hands if we are working, but not so good for our hearts.

The same thing can happen in somewhat the same fashion to people who at first may feel the abrasion of a guilty conscious when doing wrong. At first, what they did really bothers them. However, as they continue in the evil practice, a callous against feeling eventually forms around their hearts and conscience, so that they no longer even have a sense that they are doing wrong.

Finally these people reach the point where there is no longer any inward struggle at all against evil. As we see in this continuing futile cycle, these people simply give themselves over to any form of sensuality.

When we think of the word sensuality, we often think about it in a sexual context. This may well also be primarily how Paul intended to use it, but we know that sensuality can be anything that appeals to any of our senses. We also know that when the driving force of our decisions is the stimulation of what is sensually pleasant, there can in fact be no lasting satisfaction. A person in this condition needs continually greater amounts to reach any kind of temporary satisfaction. That is why the drive to practice every kind of impurity takes the form of greedy indulgence.

Greed is another of these telling words in describing the spiritual condition of these individuals. Greediness has no regard for reason. Greediness is often what drives a millionaire to want to be a billionaire. This may not always be the reason, of course, but it often is. It is beyond reason that a person should need that much money, but when the opportunity is there for that person to gain it, greediness will drive him or her to do it, even if it is at the expense of others who may indeed need the money, such as the workers who have been doing the labor to generate this wealth.

It is for this reason of greed that gluttony is so strongly condemned in the teachings of God. The gluttonous person’s desire for food goes beyond any reason, so much so that it actually is bringing harm to him. It is as much a part of the cycle of greed as is anything. 

The Gentile-a-Cycle

Thus we see in these verses we have the futile cycle of depravity of thought, in which the Gentiles are caught. Because of the hardness of their hearts, their understanding has become darkened, which causes them to be ignorant of the life of God and not a part of it. This ignorance only results in them becoming calloused by being insensitive to their condition, so instead of making correct decisions, in greed they try to gain satisfaction from the world. This, in turn, only increases their callousness, further darkens their understanding and causing them to be even more ignorant of the life of God.

Hardness of heart → Darkened understanding → Ignorance of the life of God → Callousness and insensitivity to their spiritual condition → Greediness.

When they reach the point of greediness and are unable to satisfy their sensual desires with whatever they seek in the world, it even deepens their depraved state as they continue this same hopeless and pointlessness cycle of futility. 

The Beneficial Manner of Thought

This is all quite contradictory to the way of the believer in Christ. In fact, after going through the futile cycle of the Gentiles, Paul says, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!” (Ephesians 4:20 ESV).

Paul then urges his readers to put away their old selves, that is, the selves who were caught in the futility of the previous cycle. That way is the way of corruption. Instead, Paul introduces us to the creative and productive manner of thought for the believer.

This way of thinking, he says, is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” He urges us “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23-24 ESV).

We need to break the old destructive cycles and be renewed with new and beneficial ones. 

Breaking the Cycle of Falsehood

We will notice in this new manner of thought that instead of insensitivity and callousness causing us to cycle further and further down into futility, we are to counter the wrong natural tendencies with that which builds and matures. For instance, Paul first says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25 ESV).

The first step in breaking this cycle of falsehood is quite obvious—stop lying. If a person is getting away with deceit, even if they are not overtly telling a lie, they will tend to continue with that false impression and even build upon it. One must deliberately determine not to lie.

He said the same thing to the Colossian church when he told them, “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9 NAS).

That is the first and obvious step.

But for one who has been caught in the cycle of falsehood, it may not be so easy to do this. The pattern of falsehood may be old and ingrained in one’s personality. In order to free oneself from this pattern, the destructive habit of speaking lies must not only be abandoned, but it must be replaced by a new and beneficial habit.

Instead, Paul tells us to make a deliberate effort to speak the truth. “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.”

This, we see, is the same reasoning that Paul is giving throughout much of the book of Ephesians. He continually instructs us to not only turn away from our old manner of life, but to also replace the destructive habit with something else that is beneficial, and begin to live in the new way. 

Not Only For Our Own Benefit

Also, to the Ephesians, Paul gives an additional motivation for telling the truth. He says that we should speak the truth with our neighbors because “we are members one of another.” One of the great themes of the book of Ephesians is that of the church as the body of Christ. If indeed we are a body, then in simply makes sense to live in truth to one another.

Taking again the analogy of our own bodies, if we know that there is a problem with our heart, for instance, but deny that there is any difficulty, the whole body will soon suffer. Likewise, if we live as the body of Christ, any falsehood in living will affect the whole body.

It is true that in the church, this is often far less discernable than the rather obvious example I gave of a heart condition in a physical body. We can often be living a lie within the church without any discernable consequences. However, the principle remains the same. The lie will have eventual detrimental effects on the entire body.

Paul told the Corinthian church: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:26-27 NAS).

He does not say that when one member suffers that we ought to empathize with that member and give him or her our pity, but that we indeed do suffer, whether we know the cause of not.

Not only that, but if we believe that our lie is undetected, we will have a tendency to not only continue in our lie, but we will begin to be caught in the futile cycle of thought that we talked about earlier, in the way of the Gentiles that will eventually end in destruction.

 So it is that Paul tells us, “Put away falsehood, and let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.” 

Breaking the Cycle of Anger

Another way in which we break the futile cycle of the thoughts of our old nature is in the way that we handle anger. We all get angry from time to time. Some get angry more than they should and at people or at things that are perhaps not deserving of that anger. It is possible, of course, that our anger is controlled by sin, but not all anger is sinful. There are things, situations, and people that are deserving of anger.

However, the way that the believer should handle anger is much different than those people of the world. In our old nature, there was no control on anger. Any anger was allowed to develop and grow without any inhibitors. It is true that we can sometimes put this anger aside for a time, but this is only letting the pot of anger continue to stew on a back burner.

As any cook can tell you, this is a dangerous situation. When there is a pot simmering on the back burner, we may not pay it much mind. Our cooking time and attention is concentrated on the immediate pans cooking on the front burners. We are not really thinking about that back pot sitting on the warm burner. Nevertheless, the pot is continuing to gradually get hotter and hotter until suddenly and without obvious warning, it boils over, running all over the stove top.

Anger that is unchecked is something like that. We may put it aside for a time, but just because it is out of sight does not mean that it is completely inactive. It can suddenly cause us to explode into behaviors that we would have thought unthinkable.

Paul instead says that we should not let the sun go down on our anger. This means that we should not let anger consume us. We should not merely put it aside, but we must recognize it and deal with it. If we need to ask forgiveness, then we must do that. If we need to take some action, we should do it without exploding. In any case, we should, as Paul further says, “Give no opportunity to the devil.” 

Breaking the Cycle of Theft

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28 ESV).

We would probably all agree that the one who has a problem with theft needs to reform his or her ways, but we may not all agree on the method that this reform should take. Incarceration is a common method of reform. Certainly this jail time is at least partially meant as a punishment, but the true goal is that while in jail, the thief learns the error of his ways. Many would say that restitution to the wronged party should also be part of the reform, and we can also see the reasons for this way of thinking.

However, in the body of Christ, Paul gets more to the heart of the issue. Certainly a thief should no longer steal, that is clear. But again, Paul goes to the next step by replacing the negative with the positive.

The former thief must instead put himself to labor, not only to supply his own needs instead of stealing, or even only to make restitution to the one from whom he stole. Rather, we see that the true reason is so that he may have something to share with anyone who is in need. It goes beyond simply “making things right” with the offended party. It extends the good to all people.

Most generally, the reason that a person steals something is so that he can get something for nothing. It is the opportunity to gratify his desire without paying for it. To rid himself entirely of this practice, it is not enough just to stop stealing, since he still will have a perceived drive to gratify his desires. Even if he stops stealing, the driving force of his life will still be self-gratification.

Instead, Paul says that this basic problem of self-gratification needs to be addressed. Attention must be taken off of self, and placed on another. The labor of the hands of the one-time thief will be so that he has something to give to those who might be in need. It is in this way that the motivation for gain has been changed. It has been taken off of self-interest and placed on what is good for others. Only when this becomes motivation of the former thief that the cycle of theft will be broken. 

Breaking the Cycle of an Evil Tongue

James tells us that “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.” In fact, he goes even further than this in his description of the tongue. He says it is what “defiles the entire body, sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6 NAS).

Paul may not have used such descriptive language in talking about the tongue, but like James, he also recognizes that the words that come from our mouths have the power to do great harm. He tells us, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.”

However, even though Paul may not have spoken so forcefully as did James about the evil of which the tongue is capable, he exceeds him in how we are to deal with this problem. Just as in the problems of theft, anger and falsehood, we are to counter an evil tongue not only with ceasing to say bad things, but we are to also take it one step further and instead make a definite effort to say good things. We are to speak words that are “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29 ESV).

Again, we can see the practical usefulness of this advice. While some people are of a more restrained and quiet personality, it is the nature of others to be quite active talkers. When that talk takes the form of gossip and slander, when the words that come from our mouths take the form of cursing, or when what we say causes division in the family or the church, it becomes what James described, “The very world of iniquity.”

Stopping this abusive speech is of course the first step, but for one of a talkative personality, these people are probably simply unable to stay quiet. Like nature that abhors a vacuum, some tongues abhor being silent. If that is the case, then the advice of Paul becomes very important. Instead of spreading slander and bringing ruin to others, our speech can be used to “give grace to those who hear.”

It is by purposefully saying what is good that we can combat an evil tongue. What is it that our moms used to tell us?

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!” 

The Holy Spirit Within Us

I have mentioned the importance of remembering that we are the body of Christ, and that what we do affects the rest of the body, but there is another factor in considering our actions that is of even greater importance. This, Paul brings out in the following sentence:

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30 ESV).

Although it is something that is beyond our understanding, it is a fact that the Holy Spirit of God lives within those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is our “seal,” or the guarantee of our inheritance until we come into complete possession of it (Ephesians 1:14; 2 Corinthians 1:22).

The actions that we do in our own bodies not only have an effect on the whole body of Christ, meaning those other individuals of the church, but because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within our individual lives, we also have the possibility of grieving the very Spirit of God.

Breaking the futile thought patterns of our culture is sometimes a difficult task. However, in the principle that Paul is teaching us, we see that it is not only that we stop the destructive patterns of thought and actions, but that we replace those with what is good.

Paul says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV).

This is a demanding task, and one that we cannot complete on our own. As Paul continues to write to the Ephesians, he begins to explain the help that is available to us.

We begin to look at that help in the following Log Church sermon.

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