In the military, combat engineers are sometimes tasked with the job of clearing a path through a minefield. Their job is to remove the mines in a given area so that troops can move safely. After they have cleared a path that is safe to travel through, troops and vehicles are allowed to move through the area.
As people travel through the zone, however, it is important to stay only in the area that has been cleared. In a minefield, there are clear markings that show where it is safe to walk. People walking through a minefield have to walk carefully, ensuring that they stay on the path that has been made for them. The person who stops paying attention to where they are at could find themselves in grave danger.
Last week, we looked at the kind of spiritual “diet” that we should have in our lives. Paul told us the kinds of behaviors that should be present in the lives of believers and the behaviors that should be absent. He said that because we have been brought into the light, we must live differently than those who walk in darkness. He continues that thought in our text this morning, where he tells us that we should be very careful how we live, much as a person has to be careful when traversing a minefield.
Our text this morning is Ephesians 5:15-17, where we read these words:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Paul gives us three pieces of instruction in what it means to carefully live out our lives. We will look at each in turn.
Paul’s first instruction is to live wisely instead of unwisely. The Bible talks a great deal about wisdom and contrasts it with foolishness. The book of Proverbs is written as a way of passing on wisdom to the next generation, so that they may benefit from it. Proverbs declares that there is nothing in the world that is more valuable than wisdom:
Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7, NIV)
Wisdom is of greater value than anything else in the world, because it will give us success in life—and will help us to understand what true success really is. So, we must ask, what is wisdom? It may be easier to define wisdom by pointing out what it is not.
Wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge. A wise person often has a great deal of knowledge, but having extensive knowledge does not guarantee that you are wise. Wisdom is the ability to apply the knowledge, experience, and skills you have to discern how best to proceed in a given situation—and then to actually apply it to your life! There are many people who can explain all sorts of lofty concepts to you, yet seem to have no idea about how to actually live their lives. They make poor choices and find their lives in shambles. These people have great knowledge, but little wisdom.
The wise person is one who is able to look past all of the distractions and see the real issue—and act accordingly. A simple example of wisdom is the parent with a child who is resisting them. The child may be throwing a fit, seeking to make life miserable for their parent, hoping the parent will simply give in to their demands. A wise parent knows that there is more at stake than just whether the child gets what they want in this moment. Even if what the child is demanding is harmless, a wise parent will still deny the child’s wishes because they see the bigger issue. They know that rewarding the child’s bad behavior by giving them what they want will have disastrous consequences down the road. A wise parent is willing to endure the wrath of their child in the short-term in order to teach their child character and right behavior in the long-term.
This is quite a contrast to the way the world today functions. So often, we are encouraged to “follow our hearts” or to do what “feels right” or “live in the moment”. This is the epitome of foolishness! The wise person recognizes that simply doing what “feels good” is not a good test for determining what is right. The wise person understands that following our feelings and desires will often lead us into a dangerous mine field.
Let me give you an example that demonstrates how foolish it is to simply follow our desires. If we only followed our desires, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning to go to work, because we would rather sleep. If we did go to work, we would only do our jobs when we felt like it, because we desire to check Facebook, or do some online shopping, or talk to our friends, or take a nap. If we only followed our desires, we would be dangerous with a credit card, because we would simply buy what looked attractive to us, even if we had no way to pay for it. And, we would be overweight and in poor health because we would overeat and eat unhealthy foods. Our marriages would crumble because we would walk away from our spouse after a fight because we no longer felt like we loved them.
Does this sound at all like our society? This is the result of living the way our culture says—being driven by our feelings and desires. Living this way is foolish and has disastrous consequences. You and I may not make all of these mistakes, but we do make some of them. When we choose to think only about our present desires without really weighing the consequences of our actions, we act foolishly.
The wise person is able to take a step back from the situation and see beyond this moment. Here is how James tells us we can recognize a wise person,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13, NIV)
Wise people not only have knowledge of how to live—they actually live that way! Wisdom is about seeing the big picture and living based on what we know to be true rather than on what we feel. Paul says that since we have been made new by God, we must be careful to live wisely instead of living foolishly. It is not enough to know the right way to go, we must choose to do it.
Make the Most of Every Opportunity
The second instruction Paul gives is in verse 16,
Making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
Paul’s instruction, translated literally, is to “redeem the time.” In other words, Paul wants us to see that time is a valuable commodity, and we should treat it as such. He tells us that we should spend the time that we have wisely, because we cannot get more of it.
What does this look like in the Christian life? It means that we live with perspective. If we recognize that the time we have is precious and limited,
- We will cherish the time we have with our children, mindful that they will quickly grow up;
- We will share the gospel message with our family and friends, mindful that there is nothing more important than a relationship with Jesus Christ;
- We will make time to keep our relationship with our spouse vibrant and healthy because we know that a healthy marriage will help every other area of our lives;
- We will spend less time in fruitless pursuits (watching TV, browsing the internet, etc.) and more time doing things that matter (like spending time with family, seeking to feed our minds, or serving in a ministry that makes a lasting impact);
- We will work hard when we are at our jobs, mindful that we are working for the Lord;
- We will make time for rest, recognizing that God has not designed us to run non-stop;
- We will make corporate worship, personal Bible study, and prayer a priority for our time, recognizing that little else will be of greater value
Of course, in order to redeem the time in our lives, we must possess wisdom! There are hundreds of different things that are competing for our time. Many things demand our attention and fight for our time and energy. Our time is limited, and we can only choose to do so much—so we must choose wisely.
Since time is like a valuable commodity, we must approach it much like we would our money. We must make a “time budget”, recognizing how much time we have and prioritizing where best to spend it. Like in a financial budget, we pay our mortgage or rent, our light bill, our water bill, our insurance, etc. first. After that, we can choose where to spend what we have left. We can do the same thing with our time. We should spend our time on the most important things first, and then looking at what is left to choose where we want to spend it. Doing this may mean that we will have to say no to some things because we just don’t have time for them. There are some activities that aren’t bad, but we don’t have time to do because we are have made time for something better. We must spend our time carefully, recognizing that it is a limited resource, and use it in ways that will be worth the most in the long run.
Understand the Lord’s Will
Paul’s third instruction is in some ways a restatement of his first instruction. He says not to be foolish, but to understand what the Lord’s will is. A wise person recognizes that God’s will must be best, and therefore we should seek to do what God wants in our lives. We often struggle with knowing what the Lord’s will is for us in a given situation. Think about some of the questions that we typically ask:
- Should I take this job or not?
- What college should I attend?
- What should my major be?
- Should we move or should we stay where we are?
- Should I begin a relationship with this person or not?
Many people lament trying to seek the Lord’s will in decisions like these because they aren’t sure how to know what God’s will is. Many books have been written about the proper techniques for “discovering” God’s will for our lives. Knowing God’s will isn’t as difficult as some people make it out to be.
First and foremost, God’s will is found in God’s Word. Many Christians wrongly think that the only way we can know God’s will is to pray for Him to reveal it to us and then He will lead us. We should ask God to give us wisdom and to show us His will, but we must do this while also searching the Bible for the answer! Sometimes we have heard someone say that God told me I should leave my marriage, or God said it was ok to live together with this person, or God told me I should misrepresent my income, because then I would have more money to serve Him. I’m confident that God did not tell them these things. God doesn’t contradict Himself, and He has already spoken clearly about many things in the Bible.
A wise person is able to understand God’s will by looking at the principles given in Scripture and then applying them to their life. If you are asking if it is God’s will for you to enter into a relationship (romantic or in business) with someone who is not a believer, you should know the Lord’s will by knowing Scripture (Do not be unequally yoked). If you are asking if you should begin a romantic relationship with someone other than your spouse, the answer is clear in Scripture (Do not commit adultery) If you are asking whether it is God’s will for you to take a job that will require you to lie, cheat, or steal, the answer to that question is clearly given already!
There are some clear-cut answers we can find in Scripture regarding God’s will, but what about the ones that aren’t so clear-cut? What do we do when we are faced with a decision between two options that both seem good and on which Scripture is silent?
Notice the context of this passage. Paul’s instruction to understand God’s will doesn’t stand alone. He has been giving us clear markers of God’s will for our lives: to be pure instead of sexually immoral, to choose our language carefully and avoid being greedy. He has given us markers to show us His will—we can then use these markers to determine what the right path for our lives is.
In situations that aren’t clear-cut we can make a decision based what we know God wants from us and for us. We know: God wants us to put Him first, to avoid sinful behaviors, to serve Him in all we do, to care for our families, to be kind to others, etc. By looking at these markers, we can see the path God has marked off for us to travel. So when we face decisions between two seemingly good options, we must ask if both options will keep us on that path, or whether one will lead us off of it. Let’s take the example of choosing a college. Suppose you are down to two colleges, and are unsure which one to pick. You could ask several questions. Which one will help me grow in faith more? Will one draw me away from God? Does one have a vibrant campus ministry that will help me grow? Will one school challenge me to mature, both in faith and in life? These questions can help you discern if one or both of the options is leading you down God’s path for your life.
Or suppose you are trying to decide whether to switch jobs. See whether the new job will help you move along the right path. Will one job enable you to spend more time with your family? Will one allow you to be at church on a regular basis? Will one be a better work environment—one that will help you to trust in Christ more? Will one job cause you to be pulled away from the Lord? Does the new job appeal to you primarily because of greed, or are there good reasons to switch?
Sometimes asking these questions can help us make difficult decisions. They can help us to see whether one of the options leads us away from God. Sometimes both options seem to be on the path God has marked out. That’s ok! We can ask God to guide us, and He might give us a clear indicator to guide us—and He might not. If He doesn’t, I really think that either option is acceptable. Some people become paralyzed in these situations, worried that they’ll choose wrong and mess up God’s plan. Sometimes either option is good and God has given us a choice. We don’t need to wear ourselves out worrying about it. It would be like becoming paralyzed with fear because I’m not sure which socks are God’s will for me to wear today. We see the absurdity when the decision is about socks, but the same is sometimes true about much bigger decisions. If we have honestly tried to seek God’s will by searching Scripture and asking for His guidance, and both options still seem viable—they probably are! Our responsibility is to seek to stay on God’s path and trust that He has a plan.
Paul’s instruction to us is that we should be wise—understanding God’s character, His desire for our lives, and His Word—and then live by applying that wisdom to our lives in the decisions we make each day.
The essence of Paul’s instructions to us is to walk in wisdom, so it bears asking ourselves, how do become wise? I think there are several things we can do.
First, seek the Lord. The ultimate source of wisdom is God Himself. There are two primary ways to seek God. One is prayer. James 1:5 says that if we lack wisdom we should ask God for it! God doesn’t generally give wisdom overnight, but if we ask God to make us wise, he will do so. The second way is studying the Bible. I challenge you to make studying the Bible regularly a priority in your life. Don’t concern yourself so much with the quantity of your Bible reading, but be more concerned with the quality of it. Read the Bible with the intention of trying to understand who God is and how He wants you to live. Seeking God may feel unnatural at first, but if we will continue seek Him, we will become wise.
Second, spend time with those who are wise. We can learn a great deal from people who demonstrate wisdom in their own lives. Seek counsel from these people. Spend time with these people, and you will be surprised how much they rub off on you.
Third, worship and study with other believers. It is amazing how much more we can glean from Scripture when we study it together. This is why we place such an emphasis on Bible studies, youth groups, and Sunday School. These are places where we bring together people who desire to grow in their faith and walk wisely. You can learn a great deal about how to study the Bible by yourself by studying the Bible with other people. You may also be surprised at the wisdom you gain from the others in your group.
Fourth, maintain perspective. This is a difficult one. One of the challenges of walking in wisdom is that we must not allow ourselves to be driven only by our emotions, but we have to see the big picture. Remember that the choices we make have consequences—often consequences that we may not be able to anticipate.
Understand that walking wisely is intended to protect us and to guide us along the best path for our lives. If we can remember this truth, it makes it easier to make the tough choices—the choices that fly in the face of conventional wisdom or prevailing opinion—and to follow God.
Lastly, make the effort. Remember that wisdom is not just about having knowledge, but about applying that knowledge to your life. If you walk out of church today with a bunch of knowledge about wisdom but make no changes, you have missed the point! Living wisely is a lifelong process. None of us has “arrived”. There is progress to be made in each of our lives. They key is to keep moving forward. Look at your life and find an area where you aren’t living wisely. Focus on applying God’s will in that area of your life. Over time, focus on another area, and another area. It won’t be easy, and we will not do it perfectly. The key is to keep working at it. The effort we put in will eventually pay off.
Paul tells us that we should be careful how we live, walking in the way of wisdom as opposed to the way of foolishness. Wisdom’s path is like the path that has been cleared through a minefield. When we stray from that path we put ourselves in danger. Paul reminds us that walking in wisdom does not come naturally. We cannot simply coast through life on autopilot, because we will drift. So we must walk carefully. We must be deliberate in our choices, and choose to walk in the way of wisdom because there is a great deal at stake.