“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.”
That’s pretty close to how I hear Republicans and Democrats describe each other today. There is not much middle ground and it would be pretty easy for any Gentile to take offense at Paul’s description of them here. Hopefully, he was thinking about the logical conclusion of what we would call secularism and not assuming that all non-Jews were automatically lumped into this category. Otherwise, it would be hard to imagine how the Church became rather quickly a Gentile institution.
But, the description of the mindset is a warning to all of us. It is the mindset of an entire culture of people who over time have become deluded. He is not describing only an individual but a culture that has given itself over to a particular worldview.
Let’s look at what that worldview has created.
First, their thinking and their minds have led them into futility. The word here means both emptiness and vanity. Nothing could sum up the vanity of this thinking than the phrase of the Greek philosopher Protagoras who lived almost 500 years before Paul: “Man is the measure of all things.” In other words, there is no absolute truth but that which individuals deem to be the truth. What is true for you need not be true for me. Today, we call that moral relativism but Paul labels it rightly. It is futility. Truth is nothing more than what is conveniently true for you at the time or to justify your choices and preferences. It is inevitably a dead-end for anyone. In the end, we call that Hell. “Be sure that there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God’s power to prevent your being eternally miserable. While that something remains, there can be no Heaven for you, just as there can be no sweet smells for a man with a cold in the nose, and no music for a man who is deaf. 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.”
But there is more to the futility of thinking. It also means their minds are wasted and trivialized because they have used their minds for mindless things. They have devalued growing and have settled into entertainment, ideas that do not stretch them, and the ease of no challenge.
Second, Paul writes of an understanding or intellect that has been darkened. The word for intellect is dianoia which describes an active movement of back and forth or something that is constantly revolving. This is not the double-minded person who is unstable in all they do in James but it is the person who is always connecting and reconnecting the dots; always reconsidering the possibilities and not fixed in their biases. A darkened intellect is a motionless mind that is unwilling to entertain new ways of looking at things or, when confronted with facts that question their beliefs, only dig in deeper in their beliefs to protect them. It is what we call confirmed bias. If you shower me with facts that contradict what I choose to believe I will only believe more strongly. Your arguments not only fall on deaf ears but make me even more adamant in my bias.
Third, it is a life that is alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that comes from a hardened heart. Instead of having a heart for the truth and moving toward it they have become fixed in ignorance and their hearts – their minds and their emotions – have become cold and lifeless. Paul says in Romans that they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Not just a single lie but a life built on lies. In Perelandra, Lewis describes what we sometimes call a devilish smile.
We have all often spoken of a devilish smile. Now he realized that he had never taken the words seriously. The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted.
That is what it looks like to be alienated from the life of God. The creature is whole-hearted but lifeless.
Fourth, they have lost all sensitivity. There is no compassion, no feeling for others, no empathy or even a sense of what is proper and improper. In becoming the measure of all things they have become a standard unto themselves. Whatever gratifies them is good. Whatever inconveniences or intimidates them is bad. They have become senseless – except in their almost animal-like sense of danger and fear. They are almost inhuman with no real capacity to love. In his biography of Elvis Presley titled “Careless Love,” Peter Guralnick writes, “He constructed a shell to hide his aloneness, and it hardened on his back.” That is a description of the person Paul is warning us about here.
Fifth, while they have lost all capacity for sensitivity they have become even more hungry for sensuality – for some kind of feeling. “They indulge themselves in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” Because of a growing hardness, they require more and more stimulation to feel anything at all. Their capacity for risky behavior increases. Their self-delusion become grandiose. The irony is their desperate need for even greater stimulation and excitement destroys any capacity for feeling or joy. Again, Lewis puts it so well: “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…There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy”
But we should not think that they have been overwhelmed by these things. Just the opposite. Paul says in Romans that they have made a conscious decision to give themselves over to it by degrees. It has been a conscious exchange of truth for a lie, of life in God for the death of feelings, to a continual and impossible lust for something they can never possess. Again, Lewis writes in Perelandra:
The forces which had begun, perhaps years ago, to eat away his humanity had now completed their work. The intoxicated will which had been slowly poisoning the intelligence and the affections had now at last poisoned itself and the whole psychic organism had fallen to pieces. Only a ghost was left – an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, an odor of decay.”
And, of course, this is what evil desires. Not only one person so distorted and destroyed but an entire people having given themselves over to self-delusion, hardness, impurity, insatiable lust for more, and darkened minds lost in futility.
It’s not so much a picture of an orgy, our usual image of corruption, but of deadness, darkness, motionless, empty, wasted, used up, shrunken, hardened, stupid, senseless – nothing.
Then Paul goes on to describe how we are to live as those who have exchanged a lie for truth and have been taught the truth that is in Jesus. It is a matter of putting off and putting on. There needs to be a balance between the two.
If our whole life is an attempt to put off things we will end up legalists. We will live a life that consists of discovering how many things we need to eliminate from life to please God. There is no end to those things for the more we eliminate the more we find that could be displeasing to him. We can never be pure enough by subtraction. A life of subtraction is dominated by fear.
I believe the Christian life is one of replacement and not subtraction. The goal is not self-annihilation and it is not about spiritual steroids – more Bible study, more church, more Christian radio, more of everything we consider to be pure. No, it is putting off and putting on.
Paul says in his letter to Timothy that he is to flee from the love of money and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Yes, there are things from which we are to flee but I think genuine maturity follows from the pursuit of virtues. That is a different way to live. It is not a life of elimination but a life of pursuit. It is a life of genuine contentment. That is why I love Ecclesiastes. It is not the cynical book so many make it out to be. It is of all the books the one that likely illustrates what Paul describes as the futility of a darkened mind – but it also includes hope as well.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their hard labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.”
The essence of the Christian life is simple – and humanly impossible. That is why there will never be a truly Christian corporation or nation or organization. The Christian life is defined by how we love each other – and that love is supernatural and only available through the Holy Spirit. While a life consisting solely of putting off will become consumed in fear, a life of putting on will replace fear with joy. A life of elimination becomes self-centered and self-obsessed in seeking approval. A life of pursuit is the one that builds up the whole body of believers.
Of course, there are times when fear is necessary when love is not yet the motivation. I have had conversations with men over the years about why they avoided having affairs when it was a present temptation. One told me that he was afraid of what it would do to his career were it to be found out. The other told me his love for his wife and family kept him from giving in. Two different motivations but both of them worked.
And, as we have been saying, this is not an exercise in individual piety. Paul is interested in the body and not any particular part. There is no Christianity outside the body of believers for Paul and that is why our behavior toward each other is not a measure of our personal growth but is part of growing the health and maturity of the body.
I like the image of putting off and putting on because it reminds me not so much of getting dressed every morning but of helping someone struggling to put on their coat. Have you ever had someone help you when you cannot find the sleeve or when your collar us up when it should be down? I think that is what Paul is talking about here. It is not just an individual putting something off and then something on but we are to be helping each other do that. If I see you struggling to put on truth or take off anger then it is only common courtesy for me to help you with that. It’s not confrontation but courtesy. It is assuming that you don’t want to walk around with your coat half on and half off. It is the work of a valet more than the work of a critic.
We put off falsehood and put on truthfulness to each other because speaking and hearing the truth is the basis of all trust and relationship. Those who lie and promote lies only destroy trust. We don’t strive to speak the truth so that we might be known as someone who “tells it like it is” but because truth will eventually drive out untruth and benefit the whole body.
We put off anger and put on understanding because anger destroys both parties. You know the saying, “Revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” So much research today is telling us that young people are running away from evangelical churches because we are angry people. We are hateful, spiteful, mean-spirited, self-righteous, and harsh. For all the often invisible good we are doing around the world we are increasingly defined by celebrities and hypocrites who are offensive and divisive. We are drinking poison and expecting our enemies to die.
We put off stealing and put on work in order to have something to share with others. It’s interesting to me how much the purpose of work has changed since Paul wrote these words. For Paul, the purpose of work was to have something to add to the community of believers and those in need. As he says in Thessalonians, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Work was a part of witness. Today, that has changed. Our work has become a way of giving our lives meaning or identity or value. We have loaded work down with things it was never intended to carry. Why do we work? In order to be useful and to share with those in need.
Put off unwholesome talk, not for personal improvement or a moral discipline but because it builds up the body. Again, it is for the sake of the larger whole that we control our tongues. As well, it is not that we are to be silent for fear of saying something unwholesome but that we are to learn how to say things that benefit those who listen. We are to put on talk that builds up.
“Put off bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
This is the word of the Lord for us this morning. Help each other put off things that are a struggle for them and put on those things that are useful and build up the body of Christ.
“Are you putting me one?” is the right question being asked by truth, contentment, compassion, joy, trust, sharing, and encouragement this morning. How can we say to each other, “May I help you?