Our theme for 2021 is Hope Starts Here. After a year like 2020 we could use some hope as we go forward. The scriptures show us that hope is found going forward and not living in the past. It is so easy to stay stuck in the past and not see the doors God is opening in our lives to move forward with him. Not only does God tell us to go forward, but he also tells us how. Normally I will just do one lesson each month that ties to our theme. But this month, each lesson is going to tie to our theme of hope as we talk about The Old You: Leaving the Past Behind. Now the title of this lesson is: You Have Problems. This may not sound very hopefully on the surface. But having this common starting point in our minds is everything if we are going to all God to work in our lives. Open your Bibles to Ephesians 4 and we will begin our study there in God’s word.
Do Not Be Like the World (4:17)
This whole section is set in the context of the first three verses of chapter 4. We are to live a life worthy of the calling that we have been given in Christ. Paul insists that we do not live like the Gentiles any longer. To refer to the Gentiles in this context simply means people who do not belong to Christ. It is a way of speaking about people who have not been circumcised in the heart by Christ. Do not live like the world any longer. In short, you cannot come at life the way you used to. You cannot approach life the way the world does. The way you look at life, the way you live your life, and the way you look at other people has to be different. Now, the apostle Paul will explain what this looks like and how we do this later. We will consider what he says about this in a later lesson. But before we can consider looking at life differently we have to see what is wrong with looking at life and living life like the world does. God knows that just telling us to not be like the world is not going to make sense to us. So he is going to explain what is wrong with the world so that we will not live and think like it. Ultimately, God is going to show us that we have problems because we are living like the world.
Before we press into this text, it is important that we remember that Paul is writing to Christians. We can easily read this text and pile on about how messed up the world is and look at all of its problems. But that is not what Paul is doing and that is not the take away God wants us to have. The point being made is that we as Christians have problems. We are not any different than the world unless Christ transforms us. So as we read this paragraph, be sure to include yourself in the picture given. We have problems because we are like the world.
The Messed Up Mind (4:17-18)
We have a saying, “You are what you eat.” Paul wants us to see, “You are what you think.” God wants us to see that we have problems and our problems come from our thinking. The way we live begins with how we think. What you think will shape how you live. Notice that Paul says that our first problem is the futility of our thinking. God wants us to see that our thinking is futile. Our thinking is wrong, empty, and pointless. Now I am sure we would quickly agree with this statement about other people. But God wants us to see that this is our problem. Our thinking is messed up. Our thinking is futile. Our way of thinking takes us the wrong direction. Our thinking is warped. Now I want to see if we bristle and resist this idea because we do not like hearing these kinds of things told to us. The way you have always thought about life, about yourself, and about others is wrong. We cannot move forward in hope until we accept this first truth about us. Our thinking is futile and warped. Let me prove that God is right by asking a question. Why do you sin? The answer is that our minds are futile. The answer is that the way we look at life, look at ourselves, and look at others is wrong. So our wrong thinking leads to wrong actions.
When we talk about salvation, one of the necessities required for saving faith is repentance. What does repentance mean? We summarize the idea of repentance as changing our way of thinking about self and about sin. Why do we need to change our way of thinking? God is telling us that our way of thinking is futile and flawed. We have problems and our problems begin in our way of thinking. Our way of thinking is broken. Our way of thinking is empty and it does not get us to the life goals that we think it will get us to achieve. It is a dead end path.
God knows that we need convincing of this truth so he continues on in verse 18. You are darkened in your understanding. This speaks to a blindness in our reasoning. Sin has completely darkened our understanding of life, of others, and of ourselves. The lights are out and we are trying to navigate life in this world in darkness. Our capacities to make moral judgments, make lifestyle choices, and make proper determinations about life are broken. This is not the only time God says this to us. He also said the same thing in Romans 1:21-22. “Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (CSB). What is so interesting about God telling us this is that we think the opposite. We think that we are enlightened. We think we have knowledge. We think we can see clearly. The world even says that Christianity is being closed-minded. God says that without him you are closed-minded. Knowing God is what opens the mind. Knowing God is what gives light to the darkened mind. Knowing God is what removes the futility of our thinking. Leaving God does not help us see but plunges us further into the darkness.
Hard Hearts (4:18)
Paul speaks to some of the results of our darkened thinking. We are separated from life because of the ignorance that is in us. Describing this ignorance is not a slanderous term like we may use the word. The idea is that you just don’t know. You cannot know life and light because you are stuck in the darkness. With your understanding darkened, you think you know, but you do not know. This is the idea of the hardened heart. Think about the times in the scriptures when God speaks of people whose hearts were hardening. Pharaoh is described as having his heart hardened. The prophets declared that Israel had hardened hearts. What did that mean? Ultimately, it is a picture of stubbornness. You think you know how to look at life, how to look at yourself, and how to look at others so that you become stubborn in your way of thinking.
Now no one likes to be called stubborn either. But this is the picture that God is painting for us. You have problems because your thinking is broken, your understanding is darkened, and you do not know because you are hearts are hardening to what God is trying to tell us. Do we see the irony when someone tells us that we are being stubborn and our response is, “No, I am not!” God is telling us that we cannot see and cannot understand because our thinking is broken about life. But our response to this is often, “No, it is not!” This is the hardness of heart that we have. We have problems because we think we know but we do not know. We think we are right and cannot listen to the possibility that actually our thinking is futile and our understanding is darkened.
Now I also want us to see that this is not our fault in one sense. Without knowing God, we cannot help but be futile in our thinking and darkened in our understanding. This is what verse 18 is saying. Being separated from the life of God is what ruins our thinking and ruins our lives. We have problems and our problems only continue to longer we do not listen to God. Our thinking just gets more and more messed up.
No Shame (4:19-21)
This leads us to our next problem: we lose all sensitivity. You see this in verse 19. We become callous. All sense of right and wrong has been warped. We are right in our own way of thinking and so we lose all shame. Have you noticed this in our culture right now? There is no shame. There is nothing to be ashamed of any longer. We advertise and proclaim what should be a complete shame. But this is the outcome of our broken thinking. We will not be ashamed of what we are doing. We will proclaim our sinful thinking as right and good. Without shame, we plunge ourselves down the road to self-destruction.
Let me take the line of thinking backward that Paul has given us so that we can see exactly where we are. Verse 19 tells us the end of the matter. We give ourselves over to sensuality, indulging in every kind of impurity. We get consumed by our sins. We become captive to our sins. We become enslaved to our sins and looks like that we cannot break free. How did we get here? We got here because we lost our sensitivity to our sins, being callous in what we are doing, because our hearts became hard and stubborn, which happened because we accepted that our broken thinking and darkened view of life was right and no one could tell us otherwise. This is how we are where we are.
But look at verses 20-21. This is not what life looks like in Christ. You are not taught to live for Christ like this. I hope that is true. I hope that you did not come to Christ believing that your way of thinking about life, about yourself, and about this world was right. God does not come to us and say that now that you are a Christian, all that I need you to do is be nicer to people, do good things, and go to church. That is not following Jesus and I hope no one ever painted following Jesus in that light to you. God comes to us and says that everything you know about life, the way you think about life, the way your think about this world, the way your think about family, the way you think about work, the way you think about other people, and the way you think about yourself is broken and wrong.
So why do we need to hear this and how does this give us hope? We will not put away our former way of life and be transformed into the new self until we see our problems and how messed up our thinking really is. As long as we think we are fine and everyone else is messed up, we will never change. Everyone else is the problem, but not us. We will surround ourselves with people who agree with us and validate us. We will unfriend and cut off everyone who does not agree with way of thinking. Stop looking at everyone else’s problems and start seeing our own. We are broken. We cannot leave the past behind and move forward in hope to what God has for us if we continue with our broken, darkened, flawed thinking. Let me show you God’s invitation that says that very thing.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6–9 NIV)
You have problems because of your way of thinking. God wants you to give those thoughts and ways up, exchanging them for his thoughts and his ways. Only then can you move forward in hope to a new life.