Personality and culture are the two main factors that affect how most of us live. Our personality determines things such as the degree to which we like to be with other people, whether we are more likely to react to situations emotionally or intellectually, whether we see things mostly in black and white terms or in shades of grey. The culture provides our world-view, our values, our ethical framework and things like these.
Though humans were made in the image of God, that likeness is marred by sin, this is why we all do things that are contrary to God’s standards, hurt other people, and disappoint ourselves. Human cultures, made up of sinful people, are contaminated by sin and constantly shift over time. Some things that were acceptable at one time, are unacceptable now. Other things that were unthinkable at one time are now celebrated. Human culture does not provide an absolute standard on which to base our behaviour.
When we become Christians, we find ourselves living with additional tension. We continue to live in our social culture, determined by the time and place in which we live, but we also live in Kingdom culture which is shaped by God’s person, character and standards. The culture around us often suggests one way of behaving while our spiritual culture calls on us to engage in entirely different behaviour.
In today’s passage, Paul sets out some of the highlights of what I’m calling “Kingdom culture” to contrast it with the “social culture” which surrounds us physically, day-by-day.
Ephesians 4:25 “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Let’s go through Paul’s comments and pull out some of the big themes. In verse 25, Paul encourages Christians to put away lying and adopt the practice of always telling the truth to each other. The truth brings the Christian community together. It provides an important basis for our fellowship. After all, if someone introduces a lie, it destroys the trust that we need among ourselves.
I do need to caution you to be careful to distinguish “the truth” from “our understanding of the truth.” I’ll illustrate it this way. Perhaps one day, during a church service, the preacher is addressing a particularly sensitive topic. All of a sudden, a woman pokes her husband, and whispers something into his ear. Together, they get up and quickly walk out. Everyone perceives that she was offended by what the preacher said. However, the real reason that she left was because she was feeling the symptoms of a heart attack coming on and wanted her husband to take her to the hospital. You can see how the congregation’s “understanding of the truth” was quite different from “the truth.” This kind of thing can lead to real problems within a fellowship.
After talking about truth, Paul takes up the issue of anger. Verse 26 is the only one in the entire New Testament where anger in Christians is acknowledged (and some would say encouraged). We have to be very careful about this emotion because it can be terribly destructive. Often we find ourselves getting angry on our own behalf over something that is said or done to us that we find hurtful in some way.
I would suggest though, that when we do have feelings of anger, they should be about the same thing God is angry about – sin. Romans 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Then, even if we find ourselves to be appropriately angry, we should seek to dissipate it as quickly as possible.
The very next verse in our passage, verse 27, says we should deal with our anger before sunset. God does not want us carrying grudges or bitterness against others. Righteous anger belongs to God alone because anger forces us to take a position which we can’t possibly take – that of knowing all the circumstances and the motivation of the one we are angry with. James 1:19-20 says “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” No matter how right you think you are, or even how right you really are, your anger is going to do more harm than good. Human anger can manipulate people into behaving a certain way, but that’s not God’s way of working in lives. He draws us with His love and kindness.
Human anger also fails to recognize our own sinfulness and need for grace and mercy. In some churches anger has been made into a virtue. Some preachers are very angry people. They can only justify this approach by using the world’s value system. 2Timothy 2:24 tells us that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil,” and so on. Be clear. Be direct. Be forceful. But don’t be angry.
Paul keeps on describing Kingdom culture by taking up the subject of work in verse 28. Most of us spend a great many hours of our lives at work, that is engaged in some activity for which we get paid so that we can provide shelter, food, clothing and the like for ourselves and our families. Paul makes it clear that the purpose of work is not merely to do away with the necessity of stealing. After all, if we didn’t have money to buy things we need to live, we might feel that the only other option would be to take them illegitimately. For the Christian, work provides us with the resources we need to bless others. From this verse, we learn that the money we make is not just for ourselves, but to share with those who have material needs.
The next issue that Paul addresses is communication. As human beings, we spend a lot of time communicating with each other. Sometimes, it is in large groups, sometimes one-on-one. Again we see that Paul’s intent is not simply to stop what is negative in our communication; he is promoting grace-filled positive communication. In Walt Disney’s 1942 animated film, “Bambi,” Thumper says: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” That’s a nice sentiment. It would save people from a world of hurt, but God calls Christians to a higher standard. Our words, all of them, should have the ultimate purpose of building others up and bringing grace into their lives.
The final subject Paul talks about in this passage is spiritual sensitivity. One last time, Paul pushes us beyond our fallen human inclinations. The one big difference between Christians and non-Christians is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. He seals us as a member of God’s family and empowers us to live in a way that honours our Heavenly Father.
Most of the time, most of us would feel pretty good about living in such a way that didn’t grieve the Holy Spirit, and Paul makes a point of saying: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” We know about grief. We know how it brings deep sadness. We know how it immobilizes us. We certainly don’t want our lives to have this kind of effect on God’s indwelling Spirit. But Paul calls us to a positive response to the Spirit. He wants us to live empowered by the Spirit so that “all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice would become extinct and we would be characterized by kindness to one another, with tender hearts, that are quick to forgive, as God in Christ forgives us.”
This section is one of those passages of the New Testament which forces us to decide if we are going to be whole-hearted or half-hearted followers of Jesus. I could tell you that all that is left is for you is to choose, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. The fact is that we all choose, moment by moment, day by day. Paul is not just talking about one single grand decision. The thousands of decisions we make in any given day reveals whether the chief influence in our life is the world’s culture or Kingdom culture.
Ask yourself if you have gradually let the world’s culture draw you into its values, its way of treating people, its promotion of self. Search your heart. Have you let things like deception, anger, injustice or harsh words interrupt your relationships? Know this: if your human relationships are disturbed, your relationship with God is, as well. 1 John 4:20 tells us: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
If you discover that you are living more in the world’s culture than God’s kingdom culture, do something about it – before the day is over. If there is someone you need to talk to make things right, do it. If there is something you’ve unjustly taken from another, return it. If you have to go find someone, make a phone call, write a letter, sent a text message or email, do it. Whatever it takes, make the shift from living in the culture of the world to living in the culture of the Heavenly King.