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Turn around and walk the other way (Ephesians 4:17–19)

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

In August 2017, electronic music legend Avicii released what turned out to be his final single. It was called ‘Lonely Together’. Musically, the song is cheerful and richly layered. But after I’d listened a few times, I started to pay attention to the lyrics. When I did, I realised that the song is telling quite a bleak story. Here’s the chorus:

I might hate myself tomorrow but I’m on my way tonight
At the bottom of the bottle, you’re the poison in the wine
And I know I can’t change you and I, I won’t change
I might hate myself tomorrow but I’m on my way tonight
Let’s be lonely together
A little less lonely together…

Avicii, ‘Lonely Together’ (Featuring Rita Ora), released August 2017.

‘Lonely together’, despite its bright rhythm, is a raw and honest song about aching isolation and self-loathing. It’s about the futility of trying to use drink and sex to ease the pain, about plunging into the futility regardless, because at least it’s better than nothing. Of course, Avicii and his collaborators weren’t doing anything fundamentally new in writing these words. Avicii (his real name was Tim Bergling) was one of a long series of talented, tragic poets, using the forms of his art to reflect the world and our lives back to us. And sadly, from the reports of his death, the much-loved DJ felt the pain of living in this world all too keenly. Yet still, his final, and perhaps his darkest, song topped charts in multiple countries. It became a song for the world to dance to.

That fact itself is tinged with tragedy, isn’t it? Darkness, futility, and desire: this is the way the world dances. In fact, in so many ways, this is the way the world walks, day by day. It’s what the apostle Paul is talking about as he writes these words in his letter to the Ephesians:

So I say this, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the gentiles walk: in the futility of their minds, having been darkened in their thinking, separated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, through the hardening of their hearts; having become callous, they have given themselves to unrestrained sensuality, greedy for every impure practice.

Ephesians 4:17–19

Why is Paul writing these things about the world? He’s not writing so that we can gloat. Nor is he writing so we can judge. He’s writing so we can live. Paul knows that those who believe in Christ have something far greater to live and hope for. If we believe in Christ, we don’t need to walk the way the world walks. We have hope. We have a great calling. And so we can—in fact, we must—turn around, and walk the other way.

Ampelmann, Berlin

No longer walk

Paul says here:

So I say this, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the gentiles walk

Ephesians 4:17a

Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been laying out the glories of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, salvation from God’s judgment, and a wonderful hope for the future. This gospel, says Paul, has gone out from Israel and is being preached to the gentiles. These gentiles, including the Ephesians whom Paul is writing to, have come to believe in that gospel message. Paul here tells them that the gospel has to change the way that they walk. That is, the gospel needs to affect everything about their daily lives. Even though they’re gentiles, they belong to Jesus Christ. That means they need to stop walking like gentiles.

Paul is talking here about the concept of repentance. Repentance means turning around. It means thinking and living in a totally different way to the way we used to think and live. The word “walk” helps to express repentance vividly. It helps us to see that being a Christian means deliberately turning around and acting differently in our daily lives, step by step. We need to walk differently. Differently to what? Differently to the way we used to walk. Differently to the way we might naturally feel like walking. Also, differently to the way the world around us walks. Repentance means going against the tide of the crowd and walking in the other direction. That’s hard. Yet it’s possible because of Jesus.

Feet walking on the Martyr's Cross, Oxford

Paul goes on to describe how the world around us walks. It’s a bleak picture. Yet it’s important to realise that these words aren’t designed to make us feel smug or self-satisfied. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul has reminded his readers that all of us—even God’s people Israel—had once “walked” in “offenses and sins”, according to our own desires, which meant that we were all facing God’s wrath. We’ve been saved only by God’s grace, not by our own efforts. And even though God has given us new good works to “walk” in, none of these works are anything for us to boast in (see Ephesians 2:1–10). So we can’t be judgmental. We’re not superior. We’d be in exactly the same place, except for the grace of God. Yet even though we must never feel self-righteous towards the world, we need to be realistic about the world. So Paul here gives us a true picture of what the world is like. He wants us to feel the futility, so we can see how important it is to turn around and walk the other way.

A stupid walk

The world’s walk, says Paul, is a stupid walk. The gentiles walk

in the futility of their minds, having been darkened in their thinking, separated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, through the hardening of their hearts

Ephesians 4:17b–18

The words Paul uses here are about our inner selves. He’s talking about things like thoughts, conscience, heart, will, and desires. Paul says that in this world, even the inner thoughts of people are tragically broken. Minds are given over to “futility”: purposeless. Thoughts are “darkened”: irrational and without understanding. There is “ignorance”: not just ignorance of certain facts, but ignorance of God himself. It’s a culpable ignorance. Hearts are “hardened”, set in their ways, not willing to soften or listen or change, and so there is no true life from God. All this futility in mind and heart is what informs the “walk” of the world around us.

Nonsense phone booth, Oxford

You might think this is a little bit over the top. After all, there are a lot of clever people in the world, aren’t there? Of course. But from God’s perspective, a person can be very clever and still be walking stupidly. You don’t need to look very hard to see it. History—and even the daily news—is littered with stories of clever individuals who are at the top of their chosen profession, and yet whose stupid decisions have made a train wreck of their personal lives and relationships. From US Presidents (from both sides of politics) to local celebrities, most of us can name examples of people who are professionally very clever and personally very stupid. In fact, there’s an element of it in all our own lives, if we’re being honest. Can you honestly look at your own life and the lives of those around you and say that we’re all really quite clever in the way we live our lives, that we do just fine, and have it together? The walk of the world is, says Paul, a stupid walk.

Walking over the cliff

The stupid walk of the world has dire consequences. It’s expressed especially in uncontrolled desire:

having become callous, they have given themselves over to unrestrained sensuality, greedy for every impure practice.

Ephesians 4:19

Paul is talking here about letting our lives and our actions be ruled by our desires. Becoming “callous” means ignoring what’s right and true, losing a sense of right and wrong, going with our desires instead of our consciences. This leads to “unrestrained sensuality”: this is when we let sensual pleasure rule our actions. But when we let sensual pleasure rule us, it rules like a tyrant. It’s a tyrant that doesn’t stop. If we let it rule our lives, it makes us yearn for more and more “impure practices”, things that are wrong and outside the bounds of what God wants for his people—especially when it comes to sexual practices.

You don’t have to look too far to see this happening, do you?

Several years ago, when I lived in the UK, I heard a BBC radio broadcast from the Charleston Festival. Charleston is the home of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of artists and intellectuals such as Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. The members of Bloomsbury were famous for their enormously influential intellectual and artistic output. They were also notorious for their complex polyamorous sexual relationships. In the program I was listening to, the contributors were discussing the various sexual revolutions that have occurred in Western society from the eighteenth century Enlightenment until today. It was a fascinating conversation, but it ended up in a heart-breaking place.

In the final ten minutes, the contributors were talking about how movements for sexual “freedom” usually have disastrous effects on children. The contributors to the program, one by one, acknowledged that children are almost always the “victims” of sexual revolutions. They affirmed that children suffer “emotional shrapnel” from the sexual exploits of their parents. They admitted that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment saw large numbers of illegitimate children being exposed and/or left to die in ill-equipped orphanages. They described how Rousseau (a chief figure in the Enlightenment) was guilty of packing countless numbers of his own illegitimate children off to such homes. They confessed that sexual revolutions always hurt people and disrupt their families. They also talked especially about how the Bloomsbury Group itself had seriously messed up the children of their own polyamorous relationships. The contributors agreed that this stems from an apparently misguided Western notion that sex is just a private matter for individuals.

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash

But just before the end of the discussion, there was a brisk change in tone. It was as if they realised that they were getting a bit too harsh on Bloomsbury. The contributors back-pedalled. After all, they said, these sexual revolutions are good things, aren’t they? For all the damage they do to children, the sexual revolutionaries are commendable and necessary. Sexual revolutionaries “change things” and “push out boundaries”. Here’s the final statement in the discussion:

And I still think that sexual freedom of that kind is better than sexual repression by the state and the church of a kind that used to persist in Western history until the eighteenth century and indeed still exists around the world in many places today.

“Grayson Perry at the Charleston Festival” (Start the Week, BBC Radio 4).
See also this transcript of the final minutes of the interview.

This was the logic: what matters most is that we have freedom. Freedom to follow our desires, freedom from social norms, and most of all freedom from God. Of course, this means that the most vulnerable people in our society will be hurt, that our offspring will have life-long emotional scars, and that children may indeed be left to die. But so be it. That’s the price of our freedom. If it’s a choice between limiting the unrestrained freedom of adults’ desires and the misery, suffering, and death of children, then adult freedom wins each time.

This is an example of stupid walks in action, isn’t it? They were very clever people. And yet, they were walking in futility, ignorance, and darkness. It wasn’t any different in Paul’s time, and it’s no different in our own time. We know the children still suffer. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious today that the victims of this kind of stupid walk include more than the children. It includes the adults involved too. Especially women. Today, in case after case, we’re aghast at what actually happens when people—especially men—follow the catch-cries of the sexual revolution, letting their own desires rule their lives and actions. Yet the revolution is still rolling on, being played out in our homes, as various levels of pornography—from the “soft” variety to celebrations of abuse—become mainstream entertainment which shapes our deepest desires and causes us to want more and more. It’s stupid. It’s tragic. It’s very, very real. And it’s the walk of the world.

Turn around and walk the other way

That’s why we must turn around and walk the other way. Actually, as Paul says elsewhere, we need to run away (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:14). We need to repent. Christians—including Christian leaders—aren’t automatically immune from any of the stupid ways of walking that Paul describes here. We still live in the world, and so we’re easily affected by the walk of the world. But we do have something the world doesn’t have. We have something to lift our eyes to. We have the great hope of the gospel. We have the risen Jesus, who is Lord over all, now and forever. We have God’s Spirit, who seals us for the day of redemption, and gives us access to God the Father and also the power to live for him. We have the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, which means that even if we have been walking in these futile ways, we can always come to God in repentance, and we can be sure that God will hear and forgive us through his Son’s death for us and continue to help us to live for him.

Of course, this hope of the gospel isn’t just for us who are already Christians, is it? It’s a hope for the world. Later in Ephesians, Paul says that as we repent and walk this way, we ourselves become a light that shines in the darkness of the world. We’ll come to that. But for now, Paul’s point is this: the walk of the world is futile, ignorant and dark. We can, and we must, walk a different walk. So turn around, and walk the other way.

Feet walking against the world

For reflection

How does understanding the reality of the world’s “walk” help you to live for Christ?

Is there a specific area of your life where you need to repent: turn around, and walk the other way? Talk to God about it, and consider enlisting the help of others as you seek to change.

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Want more?

This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

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