The last several verses of Chapter 1 are soaring. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Paul could have ended the letter right there. What more is there to say? As he often does, he carries us up to the heavens and then pauses, steps back, and descends to earth again. That is what he does here as well.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”
In other words, don’t forget where you came from and the danger of the values of the world that surrounds you. You were dead in sin – which comes from an archery term – hamartia – or missing the mark. No matter how much you tried to hit the bullseye there was always something that twisted the arrow off course. You were dead in transgressions – and the word means drifting or getting off the road. In both cases, there is something working in the world that is intent on our always falling short of what we might rightfully desire – peace, harmony, safety, and rest – and making it impossible for us to ever accomplish what we know is best. We can see it but we cannot reach it. That is because of the nature of sin. We can see what is good but we cannot get there.
And the nature of transgressions means we are always drifting from our ideals. We lose our way. We are continually falling into corruption and good things becoming bad things over time. We have what St. Augustine called “disordered loves.” I like the way Tim Keller puts it:
“Augustine did not see our problems as stemming only from a lack of love. He also observed that the heart’s loves have an order to them, and that we often love less important things more and the more important things less. Therefore, the unhappiness and disorder of our lives are caused by the disorder of our loves. A just and good person “is also a person who has [rightly] ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more).” How does this work? There is nothing wrong with loving your work, but if you love it more than your family, then your loves are out of order and you may ruin your family. Or if you love making money more than you love justice, then you will exploit your employees, again, because your loves are disordered.”
A disordered love is what Paul means when he writes about the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Disordered love is what happens when what was created to be a delight begins to drive us. Disordered love is whatever is most easily deceived in our nature. It may be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. All manner of God given delights can become things that drive us.
The natural desire for safety and security can become the need to control everything in our lives and to live in fear.
The natural appreciation for beauty and youth can become a morbid fear of aging.
The natural enjoyment of learning can become pride and feeding the ego.
The Greeks resolved the dilemma by saying, “All things in moderation” but Paul says it is a deeper issue than that. It is a matter of life and death. It is a matter of what powerful spirit is working in your life. Is it the power of the Holy Spirit or is it the power of the world?
The great central idea of sin is failure. Failure to hit the target, failure to hold to the road, failure to make of life what life was capable of becoming. If we read the progressive nature of sin in James 1 it is a frightening picture of something alien becoming familiar – something outside of us entering into us and coming to control us and eventually destroy us.
“…each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
Oscar Wilde was brilliant but he lived a life under the power of the spirit of disobedience. Late in his life (he died at 46) he wrote “De Profundis” or Out of The Depths as a way of describing what had happened to him and how he had wasted his talent.
I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.
“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.”
Some sins are more flagrant than others. Some people are spectacular sinners and we make them into celebrities. Others live quiet lives of desperation and give in to an incessant drift from what they once knew to be right and good. They gradually accommodate themselves to the wisdom of the world. It’s not rebellion but simply forgetfulness. It’s almost like an anesthetic that puts their conscience to sleep. The Christian values are taken over by the values of success, power, influence, and greatness. Loving your enemies, the first being last, forgiveness, rejoicing when persecuted, are all ignored at first and then seen as foolish. We call Christian what is convenient or cultural or allows us to do what we desire by covering it over – but it is not Christian.
A Picture of Hell
One thing is the same – whether the sin is outrageous or subtle – the life that could have been is first wasted and then destroyed. Some people shake their fist at God in rebellion and disobedience while others simply fall asleep. Some light up the sky with sin in their brief moment while others simply drift away without a sound. Paul says this is a life that is deserving of nothing but wrath – because there is no life left.
C.S. Lewis wrote the following snippets in a variety of places describing this wrath – or what we call Hell.
“A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”
We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.
The doors of hell are locked from the inside. There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy.
All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World [Heaven]. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”
“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”
“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled up into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed in being bad as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.”
It’s not a question of God “sending” us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once – this very day, this hour.”
That is a description of a life that has been so taken over and twisted by sin and transgression that there is nothing left to save. As Lewis says so well, the wrath of God is not being sent to Hell as much as it is being given the freedom to choose hell over joy. It is a hell that begins now in a life that is marked by envy, grievance, self-importance, and resentment. It is a life that is visibly or invisibly shrinking every moment until it will become nearly nothing.
But that is not our fate. It might have been at one time but what does God have in store for us who have turned from desire back to delight. We have exchanged the spirit of death for the spirit of life. We have accepted the gift of grace and kindness. We are now God’s workmanship which means instead of shrinking we are growing. Instead of clenching our hands into fists we are opening our hands in gratitude. Instead of a life of resentment we are learning to forgive. Instead of becoming nothing we are living lives that have expanded and are becoming lives of substance.
Paul says to the Corinthians: “Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”
Do you know what a Russian nesting doll is? It is a carved figure that contains several more progressively smaller figures inside it. The outside is larger than the inside. In a way, our lives are just the opposite. What is inside us is larger than the outside. As we grow in Christ the inside becomes even larger and more expansive than what people see on the outside. Paul says we are jars of clay – and that is not the same as having feet of clay. We are jars that contain a treasure that is immeasurably valuable. It is not like those whose lives are heading toward a self imposed wrath by becoming nothing. No, when the outside has passed away what is inside will be revealed for what it really is – Christ in us.
I want to leave you this morning with this: we have not only been rescued from the wrath of a life that is ultimately nothing to a life that is constantly expanding but we are being prepared for something beyond what we can imagine. Remember when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them? I don’t think that meant a house where they could sit by the pool and sip margaritas. I think it is place in the sense we use it now to describe someone who has found their calling or where they fit. We say, “She has really found her place.” We are are being prepared for our place – not just our residence. We are being prepared for a role – not a retirement.
Eton College was founded by King Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to 70 poor boys who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge, founded by the same King in 1441. Eton has educated prime ministers, world leaders, Nobel laureates and generations of the aristocracy and has been referred to as “the chief nurse of England’s statesmen”. Think of Earth as Eton. Think of yourself as one of the poor who are being prepared not just for college but for a place, a role, in a future Kingdom whose King will reign forever and ever. That is what your life is about now. It is not about the outside but the inside. It is not about now but later. It is not about who you are but who you are becoming – and who you will one day be. “I go to prepare a place for you” and every single day you are being prepared for that place now.