One of the things we learn (especially as we get older) is that if we want to stay healthy we need to watch what we eat (and I don’t mean as it goes into our mouths). It is common to hear that people are on diets that restrict salt, sugar, or other kinds of food because of health issues. It is a reality that a change in health doesn’t come about without a change of behavior.
When my niece was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a young girl her whole family had to learn how to think about food in a whole new way. They had to learn how to do blood tests and how to calculate how much insulin was needed to balance whatever food intake there was. They had to live differently.
Even I am reluctantly learning that if you want to lose weight the same is true. We must stop eating things that are bad for us and begin to eat better. We also need to add more exercise to our lifeL.
I share all of this because I want to show that these same things are true about being a follower of Christ. The apostle Paul has actually been talking to us about our spiritual diet. If we are going to imitate God it will require that we make some changes in the way we live.
It is tempting to hear these words in Ephesians 5:3-17 as negative and harsh and respond with resistance rather openness as you would to someone who is trying to “tell you what to do”. However, I encourage you to hear these words as those like a Doctor who is trying to save your life. Paul writes,
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. [Ephesians 5:3-7]
What Needs to be Removed
Notice that Paul is speaking to believers. He is not trying to legislate morality for the general public. It is difficult for non-Christian people to embrace the standards listed here because they are coming from an entirely different perspective. In their minds the will of the majority is what determines morality. If the majority approved of polygamy (being married to multiple people) it would eventually be considered appropriate and laws might be written to that effect.
As believers however, we determine our morality from the Law of God. Since God is Sovereign and perfect in wisdom, we recognize that His commands are superior to our desires. We do not see clearly; He does. We don’t see long term repercussions to choices; He does. We don’t see the long term impact on relationships, society, and our spiritual life. He does. We live differently from the rest of the world because we define truth differently. With that said, let’s look at what Paul tells us to eliminate from our diet,
1. Sexual Immorality the word used here is porneia (from which we get “pornography”). This word refers to an improper sexual relationship of any kind. Any sexual relationship outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is immoral (wrong or harmful) by God’s standards. In a culture that says intimacy before marriage is “accepted practice”; where sexual infidelity is frequent; and where laws legalize same sex unions, this seems extreme. However, when we turn to the Creator and designer He tells us that any sexual intimacy outside of marriage cheapens this gift of God and impacts the individual and society in negative ways. It turns intimacy into something selfish (for our pleasure) instead of being a time when we give ourselves to our spouse in an act of commitment and love.
2. Any Kind of Impurity This takes the issue of purity one step further. Immmoral behavior is not just related to the act of sexual intimacy. It is also includes “any kind of impurity”. I believe this includes contemporary problems such as: pornography, sexting, suggestive comments (verbal or electronic with someone other than your spouse), a host of cyber behaviors, and anything else you can imagine. Paul shows that this is an area of life that is a battleground. It is a point of vulnerability that we must guard diligently. These sins undermine relationships and are an offense to a holy God. Can such sins bring pleasure? Of course. For a time. If sin was not pleasurable, it would hold no attraction.
3. Greed. Greed is the motivator behind much of the sexual immorality and impurity that we have just talked about. It stems from the desire to have what (or whom) we desire. Greed also includes a preoccupation with money and stuff of any kind. The materialistic mindset puts trust in material things rather than the Lord! We begin to believe that a new car, home, computer, cell phone, pair of jeans . . . will fulfill us and make us happy. This is also about ordering priorities. The Bible says anything we put our hope or is more important to us than the Lord is an idol!
4. Obscenity. Obscenity includes but is more than just bad words. It is anything that is indecent or offensive. It is talk or actions that have no regard for proper standards of behavior. In the Bible, obscenity is more than simply saying bad words. It is very close to blasphemy. In other words, obscenity is when we take God’s name, character, or attributes and speak of them in a disrespectful way. Let me give you a couple of common examples: think of all the phrases that sometimes follow the word “Holy” (smoke, mackerel, cow). All of these diminish the exalted concept of God’s holiness, purity, and excellence. The common OMG statements in texts, Facebook and other places refer to God as if He were nothing, or at best commonplace.
5. Foolish Talk. In Greek the word for “foolish talk” is “morologia” it is a combination of “moron” and “talking”. It is to talk like a moron or a fool. It is when we make light of high standards of behavior and think it is funny or even sophisticated to make light of what is praiseworthy. As you look through the various verses in Proverbs there are several characteristics of foolish talk,
- Fools speak without thinking and it gets them into trouble (Pr. 18:6-7)
- Fools slander others and they are quick to pass on gossip (Pr. 10:18)
- Fools think wrong is funny and mock the commands of Scripture (Pr. 14:9)
- Fools quarrel about everything (Pr. 20:3)
- Fools speak nonsense; they just like to hear themselves talk (Pr. 15:2)
6. Coarse Joking The Bible is not against a sense of humor (God made us with a sense of humor). What is forbidden for the believer, is coarse or off-color humor. This would be when we make fun of others, joke about sin, or tell jokes that we probably would not (or should not) want to tell in front of our children, our mom or more importantly, the Lord. If you would feel that a certain joke would be inappropriate from the pulpit . . . it is humor we should eliminate.
What Makes These Things Bad?
On the surface of things it sounds like Paul is being pretty trivial. However, the reasons for giving attention to these things are sobering.
First, he tells us that these behaviors provoke the wrath of God. In other words, this is serious stuff. Paul says “because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient”.
The wrath that comes reveals itself in at least two ways. First, it will reveal itself on the Day of Judgment. In 1 Corinthians 6 we read,
Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, 10 or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. 11 Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT)
Galatians 5 says much the same,
19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. [Galatians 5:19-21]
These are strong words! Paul says people who live like this will not go to Heaven . . . unless they repent. It does not matter what prevailing public opinion is! It does not even matter what the law of the land says. If we continue in these things . . . the Bible says we will not be saved.
This makes us uncomfortable. I suspect every one of us can find something in this list of which we have been (or are) guilty. It is important to understand that Paul is not saying that such people can never be forgiven . . . the sacrifice of Christ makes it possible for us to be forgiven of each and every sin. In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul said that many who were in the church had come out of these very behaviors!
The key is that we must come out of this lifestyle! We are to “put away” these things. That doesn’t mean we won’t stumble but when we do we will immediately repent and seek God’s strength to overcome the behavior that is offensive and leading us away from Him (and each other). In other words, if a person makes a profession of faith in Christ but their lifestyle doesn’t change (though change often comes gradually) . . . it reveals that their profession of faith in Christ was false.
Is God being overly harsh? I don’t think so. Think about it: God clearly told us what He expects, He provides us a Redeemer to pay for our sin, and He offers the Holy Spirit to make us new inside and to empower us to do what is right. I can’t help but think that if we continue to treat God with contempt or indifference; if we continue to debase what He has called holy; if we refuse His offers of forgiveness and love; Is God harsh or just?
We also Experience God’s wrath in our day to day living. How? Part of God’s present judgment is to let us live with the consequences of our choices. The scars we carry, the empty relationships we endure, the conflict we produce with our words, the fractured homes, the growing sexual perversions, the increase in violent behavior and the sense that God is far away are all consequences of our refusal to follow the way of Christ. When we play with the fires of sin we will get burned!
Second, Paul also gives us a positive motivation for obedience: we are now light in the Lord.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Don’t miss the wording here. Paul does not say (v.8) that we are living IN the light. He says we ARE the light. As His followers we are to reveal His light to others. The best testimony we have is our life! If we continue to live like everyone else, we have surrendered to the enemy! We have turned off the light!
Paul tells us that we are to expose the deeds of darkness. This isn’t about wagging our finger in someone’s face and telling them they are going to Hell! We expose the darkness when we turn on the light! In other words, when we show honor to each other, when we maintain standards of purity even though people mock us, and when we guard our words so that we always speak with respect about the things that God has called sacred, we show by contrast that the alternative is emptiness and darkness.
A Strategy for Success
Let’s get practical. How can we pursue God’s standards more effectively?
1. Show Honor, respect, and gratitude for the things which God has given. Each of the things we are warned about is actually a perversion of a good gift of God for which we should be thankful.
- Sexual intimacy is designed to bring a husband and wife together in a vulnerable and intimate way that draws them wonderfully close to each other and deepens their relationship. It is about giving to another in love. The perversion of the gift is about selfishness and satisfying our desires. One exalts God, the other exalts pleasure. We should guard and be grateful for the good gift.
- We should be grateful for material blessings and realize that everything we have belongs ultimately to the Lord. God cares for us and provides for us. He gives us the tools we need to help others and to be agents of His love. Instead of worshipping at the altar of the material we should receive God’s gifts with gratitude and use them for God’s glory.
- We should be grateful for the transforming nature of God’s truth. Rather than making light of truth and distorting it with our flippancy, crude behavior or complaints about God’s “burden of rules”; we should show respect and honor for this truth that sets us free.
- We should be grateful that words can be agents of healing, encouragement and grace. We can change people’s lives with our words (good or bad). With our words we can worship God in a way that draws us close to Him. Words are a special gift that we must cherish rather than defile by using them to destroy others and make light of the greatness of God.
2. We must do an honest inventory of our lives and weed out destructive habits and behaviors. To do this we need to monitor what we read, watch, and listen to. As I have said before, every program, song, book or movie is advancing some kind of value system. Think about the messages we receive from the media around us:
- Sex is recreational; it is about pleasure not intimacy. Sex before marriage is normal and a good way to “test” out potential mates.
- Adultery is often justified (think about the fact that we sometimes find ourselves in movies and TV shows “rooting” for the married person to get out of their “loveless” marriage to be with their “soulmate”).
- God is whatever we believe Him to be and truth changes with the individual.
- Value and significance is determined by what we look like, how much we earn, and what we own (or drive).
- A lie is determined by the situation not by any external standard of truth.
- Revenge is satisfying.
- The only true standard of behavior is that there is no standard of behavior. Everyone should be able to do what is right in their own eyes.
All of these things are lies from the pit of Hell! Constant exposure to sinful values will slowly erode us. If we view and listen to these things long enough we begin to conclude that these things are “acceptable practice” simply because everyone says so. We have to pay attention! Paul tells us to “Be very careful, then how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the deeds are evil.” (v. 15-16) Rick will have more to say on that next week.
This whole lesson about changing our diet is summarized succinctly by this story.
An old Cherokee was telling his grandson about a fight that is going on inside each person. He said it is between two wolves. One is evil and is characterized by: anger, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego…
The other is good and is characterized by: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The old Cherokee again reiterated that the battle was fierce.
The grandson listened with rapt attention. He thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one I feed.”
The old Cherokee was a very wise man.