A Conversation That Changed My Life

Let’s be honest. The majority of us – Christians – find it difficult to strip away some of the sins in our lives. In fact, many of us, even though we know we are a new creation, are still trying to deal with the sins of our former life. We know we’re supposed to be free, but freedom seems elusive. Like heaven, freedom from our sins is a promise we believe in, but aren’t sure what it’s really like. We know we’re supposed to live free because Jesus has set us free, but for some reason, we can’t break free. We know we’re supposed to “lay aside every weight and sin” (Hebrews 12:1) and that Jesus calls us to live free and not as slaves to sin (Galatians 5:1), and on and on. Why, though, is freedom so elusive? Why does it seem so hidden?

Often, we think we’re going to break free from our sins by not doing them. We say things like, “I’m going to stop [insert sinful behavior] now.” Unfortunately, we know this doesn’t work. If we’re honest, merely deciding to "stop doing," usually leads us right back to the thing. What do we do? How can we move away from the sins of our past? How can we rid ourselves of the weights that are slowing us down in our race to freedom?

I don’t claim to have the answers. But, I think one passage in particular addresses this question. Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, tells people who struggle with specific sins what to do about those sins. He writes,

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. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
— Ephesians 4:28-32, ESV

Let’s separate out the different people Paul addresses:

The Thief
Those whose speech is “corrupting”
Bitter people
Wrathful people
Angry people
Those who speak harshly
Those who slander others.

Do you fit in any of these categories? Of course, we all do. So, again, what do we do?
What’s interesting, is that Paul is addressing sins of the past. It’s as if he’s saying Christians ought to behave differently than they did before they met Christ (this is what he’s saying). 

He writes, let the thief no longer steal. It was something he did. It was, in a sense, how people would have identified him.

Notice, for each person; he prescribes the antidote to their sin. It isn’t, stop doing it, but instead, start doing the opposite.

For the thief, he doesn’t say, stop stealing. Instead, he says, start working hard – with your hands – and be prepared to give some of what you’ve earned away. For those speak corruptly, start only speaking words that will build others up so you can share grace with them. For bitter, wrathful, angry, harsh, and slanderous people, start being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. 

This is not supposed to be easy.

I worked in student ministries for a few years, and toward the end of my time, I had a conversation with a former student that I will never forget. Throughout my time as a student pastor, I prided myself on my sarcastic humor, and my ability to make jokes with the high school students. I honestly never thought I was rude or hurtful to anyone until I spoke to Mike. 

Mike graduated a year or so before this conversation, and he had continued serving in the church after graduating high school. We were talking about me being sarcastic, and Mike said, “Have you ever thought about how maybe your sarcasm and, sorry, but sometimes meanness may have driven away some of the students who knew you well? Maybe that’s part of the reason why your ministry has suffered lately.”

Bam. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was one of those times in which you knew the person who had made you feel awful was completely right. I didn’t spend hardly any time telling the people I led how much they meant to me – how much I appreciated them. I spent more time making jokes and poking fun at them than I did telling them the things I enjoyed about them. Showing appreciation wasn’t something that came naturally to me. And, because I didn’t show appreciation, people – my students especially – didn’t know how much I valued them.

All of us, no matter our background, will admit we’ve brought baggage from our life before Christ into our new life. Whether it’s heavy doses of sarcasm, or stealing, lying, lust, slander, anger, etc., we know that it’s difficult to overcome these things.

I cannot write this and tell you I’ve figured out how to overcome my insensitivity and unappreciative behavior, but I can tell you I’ve improved and moved past allowing it to be my response in any situation. I was able to do this through the wisdom of a former student and the brilliant passage we’ve looked at today. I decided I was going to try to do the opposite of poke fun, and tell others how and why I appreciate them more often. 

This isn’t natural to us, it’s supernatural. We have to submit ourselves to God and ask him to help us produce the fruit that ultimately helps us to eliminate the sin in our lives to which we – over and over – choose to be enslaved. Finally, Paul wraps up this passage with a perfect reminder. He ends it with the reminder that Christ has forgiven us. The gospel message ought to drive us into good works and pull us further and further from the bad. That is my prayer today, for you and me. 

What about you? What opposite behaviors can you start today to fight against the sin in your life?