"What it Takes to Tell the Truth" Ephesians 4:17-29 by Pastor Sean Baker - July 9, 2023
Ephesians 4:17 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. 18 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. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body.
26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Paul starts our passage today by being really harsh with non-Christians. It’s quite black and white, really. He says do not live like them: He says they are ignorant. Their hearts are hard. He describes them as confused. Like they don’t see straight or think straight. They just follow their impulses, he says, they’ve got no self-control.
But Christians, he says, should be different. We didn’t come to know Christ that way (by following our impulses). Our old self (our old way of life) died, and we put on a new self. So, he argues, we should stand out in the world. Be distinctive. We should be righteous and holy.
I’ll be honest, Paul set the bar pretty low for non-Christians and then really high for Christians by the time he gets to vs. 25. Which is where he starts getting specific, not just saying that Christians should be different, but saying how Christians should be different.
He’s setting us up to expect that Christians will have a radical new ethic. A kind of moral living the world has never seen or heard of before. But then the first thing he says, vs. 25: he says Christians should put off falsehood and speak truthfully. In other words, the big new idea for Christian ethics is HONESTY!
I don’t like arguing with Paul, but I don’t think that was such a new idea. As far as I know every major ethical system in human history: including the Greek philosophers in Paul’s day, through Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Humanism…every major ethical system has argued in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, that “Honesty is the best policy. ”
This is universal. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and call someone a liar. See how that goes for you. People are sensitive about this. Everybody’s in favour of honesty, I think, mostly, because honesty is really practical.
Lying messes stuff up. Nothing breaks a significant relationship: a long friendship, a marriage, nothing breaks it down faster than a lack of trust. And here’s the thing with trust: you don’t need big lies to break down trust: little lies work just fine. Exaggerating will do it; half truths will do it. Dishonesty in all its forms erodes trust, and it messes up relationships.
I like what Mark Twain said about honesty. He said, if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Every time we lie or exaggerate, suddenly we have to remember this whole alternative lie universe so that we can be consistent, and not get caught. Twain says that’s so much work: just tell the truth, it’s easier to remember.
Even Paul appeals to honesty on the basis of practicality. He’s been arguing since vs 1 that all Christians are a part of this body, we need each other, we need to work together, we need to bear with others.
And that’s the image he appeals to with this honesty thing: He says in vs. 25, “Speak truthfully for you are all members of one body.” This makes sense. If we lie to each other. If we do things that break down trust—the body is weaker. The parts that are meant to work so beautifully together start to break down.
Let me give you an example of something that has messed up a lot of relationships in my life: Sarcasm. Some of you aren’t sure if I’m serious right now, which illustrates my point. I am serious. I default to using sarcasm a lot, but I’m trying to use it less. Because sarcasm is a fairly dangerous form of humour.
You come up to me after the service and you say, “You know I loved that sermon, preacher.” And then I’m in suspense. I’m thinking, “Really, that one? I didn’t think it was very good. But I want to assume you’re telling the truth. But maybe it’s a joke.”
When you use sarcasm, you leave me in suspense, unsure if I’m supposed to believe you or not. I don’t want to look gullible for believing you. But I also don’t want to be insensitive and assume you’re lying. You see the problem. Sarcasm both relies on and breaks down trust. When you get a reputation for sarcasm, it can make it hard to speak sincerely to one another. You’re always wondering: was that person’s last statement a joke? Sarcasm isn’t always bad, but it just illustrates how insidious any kind of dishonesty can be. Even if it’s just a joke, it has the potential to breakdown community.
Paul says, we’re a body; He thinks this body is one of the most amazing, beautiful things in the world. But to function, we’ve got to get along, people. Quit it with dishonesty. Speak truthfully to each other. We all know this. Even if we’re not Christians, we know that telling the truth is good. And yet, just cause we know it’s good doesn’t mean we do it.
I read about a recent study which said that for every 10 minutes of conversation, a person lies, on average 3 times. More than that if they’re texting or e-mailing. We know it’s not good to lie. That it’s risky: so why do we do it?
Let me tell you a story. Last night we got into Terrace around 6pm and called Evert. We had heard about the fire west of town and we weren’t sure if we should come in last night or this morning. Anyway, we decided to go for it. Load the kids in the car; hop on the road. we’re cruising. But then, in the distance, we see flashing lights. And then brake lights. Lots of them. Kids are screaming the back; we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Sitting there 10, 20, 30 minutes. We notice some cars pulling off this side road. But my GPS tells me, that roads a dead end. But the cars aren’t coming back. We figure, hey, kids are screaming already, what do we have to lose?
So we hop on this road and every 30 seconds, there’s some hazard in the road–must have been 10-15 trees or limbs or mounds of dirt. We’re dodging and swerving and off-roading, limbs are crashing down. I’m thinking, “Northern BC is even more hardcore than I thought.” This is crazy.
And it was crazy, except there wasn’t a hazard every 30 seconds. And we didn’t go around 10 or 15 obstacles. It was like 2 or 3. Now, why’d I do that? Where’d the extra 10 obstacles in the road come from? Did the story really improve that much from 3-15? I don’t know about here, but in Michigan, three hazards in one roadway is pretty good. You don’t see that every day. Why’d I lie? We all know lying is bad. Why do we do stuff like this?
Dear friends at Telkwa, I think we do it cause we’re insecure. I added the ten extra road hazards and the falling limbs because I want people to think, “Wow, Sean is an interesting guy. I want to hang around him. Interesting stuff happens to Sean.”
The truth is, I’m not confident that people will like me with just three road hazards in my story.
I think that’s the source of a lot of those lies we tell people about ourselves that make us look better or smarter or more interesting than we really are. We’re insecure: this insecurity, this sense, that I will not be accepted or liked or included on the facts alone. I need a competitive advantage. I need to lie. I need to exaggerate. I need to flatter. I need to manipulate. I don’t trust that on the facts, I will be accepted. And this is bad enough if our goal as Christians is to be honest people. As long as we have this insecurity, this need to impress people or put people down, it’s going to be hard to be honest.
But in our passage today, telling the truth is really only the minimum for a Christian ethic of language. Remember, I said, Paul sets the bar for Christians very high.
In vs. 29, Paul picks up the theme of language again. And he really raises the stakes. He says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth…but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Whoa.
You see how the goal line just shifted? Christians shouldn’t just be honest. Everybody thinks people should be honest. Paul asks: will you even use your language to build others up.
This is a much higher bar for language. When a Christian speaks, whether they’re 14 or 40 or 84…the words that come out of your mouth ought to be words that build others up.
And not just build them up. (it keeps getting harder!)
He says use your words to build others up according to their needs. Not according to your needs. Not according to what you want. According what they need. What’s he talking about? He’s talking about empathy, right? Getting out of your own head. And thinking: not what do I need out of this conversation: not how can I use this conversation to make myself look good or more interesting: but, instead what does this person need out of this conversation. It’s empathy. It takes time. Frankly it requires a lot of not talking to get it right. It requires listening.
Paul is taking ethics to another level here. And I think those of us who have ever tried empathy, who ever tried to listen to somebody, find it takes an extraordinary amount of energy to go there. To be okay with setting aside my own needs (to look cool, to look interesting), and entering into this other person’s world.
Paul’s vision for how Christians ought to use language and the truth is Paul’s vision is extreme. And I think to live into this vision… means that we can’t be getting our identity, our sense of self-worth, we can’t be getting our sense that I’m okay just from what other people think. If we need other people to make us feel secure, we’re going to be tempted to lie, to embellish, to exaggerate, to add another limb or tree in the road. We’re going to be tempted to make ourselves look a little better. Or make him look a little worse. If we need other people to make us feel secure, it’s going to be very hard to love them according to their needs: cause I’ll only be able to think about my needs.
If we’re going to use our language the way Paul describes, honestly, to bless other people, we are going to need a sturdier sense of identity. And the good news is, vs 22 and 23 give us that. Paul’s describing this process that takes place when someone becomes a Christian: he says, “You start by putting off your old self, and putting on the new self.”
This is language Paul uses a lot in his letters. What makes this language interesting: is its clothing language. It’s like when you become a Christian you get rid of your old clothes and put on different clothes. And sometimes when Paul is talking about that, it’s like he’s picturing taking off your coat of lies or greed and putting on a coat of, like in Colossians 2, “Clothe yourselves with kindness, compassion and humility.”
But the most interesting place to me where Paul uses this language of clothing is in Galatians 3:27. He says, “You are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” That’s just like what he said earlier in Ephesians 1:5. He says, “You’re a child of God. Because all of you who were baptized into Christ (all of you who became Christians) have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
In this case, you didn’t clothe yourselves with kindness or compassion. The image is a little different here. You clothe yourselves with Christ himself. In theology circles, we say that verses like Ephesians 4:22-24 or Galatians 3 or Colossians 3, we say they are referring to this concept of union with Christ.
Union with Christ is so important for Christians. We’ve all been united with Christ…and what that means is when God looks at us…and of course he sees us as we really are: Lying 3 times every 10 minutes and more than that when we’re texting. When God looks at us, messes that we are. He doesn’t get angry. When he sees us as we are. He’s not disappointed. He doesn’t think we’re boring or uninteresting. He doesn’t think we’re a problem to solve or a nuisance to be ignored. Because when he looks at us, what he sees is our new clothing. Some theologians talk about it almost like it’s a disguise. We’re wearing Christ. When God sees us, he sees his son, who used his language perfectly, who loved selflessly…when God looks at us, that’s what he sees: his own son: and he is moved to compassion for us.
In other words, we are accepted. 12 road hazards. 3 road hazards. No road hazards. It could have been a smooth drive last night. To God it doesn’t matter. You need no competitive advantage. There’s no one to impress. With God, we don’t need to worry: will I be accepted or liked or included on the facts alone? If God really knew me, would he still accept me?
To that Paul says in Galatians: “You are a child of God. You are his Son, you are his daughter. You are accepted. He loves us completely, not because we look so good all of the sudden, but he loves us because Christ looks so good on us.”
And dear friends, that’s a foundation on which to build an identity. With our identity in Christ, “I am a Child of God.” This kind of selfless, honest love, this kind of empathy, building another up according to their needs is possible. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.