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We live in a world full of tests, examinations, and measurements. The testing starts from an early age. Even before babies are born, we use ultrasounds and other tests to check that everything is OK with the little human being in there, who is about to emerge into the world. As soon as the baby is born, there are more examinations: tests for hearing, for sight, for reflexes, and more. We test kids at preschool and at school. Then we measure their ability when they’re leaving school. We interview and measure and test people before they’re allowed to start a job. Then we review them against key performance indicators to make sure they’re doing their jobs properly. We measure our weight. Doctors keep taking blood from us to check the levels are right. In business and government and health and education, our decisions about what to do and how to spend the money are (in theory, at least) all based on measurements. Decisions must be “evidence based”. So we have to measure everything: test it, scrutinise and prove it with numbers before it’s allowed to go ahead. In so many ways, this testing and measuring brings great benefits. The lives of at least two of my children have been saved through medical tests at an early age, which led to effective medical intervention. So often, measuring and testing and examining allows us to make wise decisions and so to live healthier, fuller, more flourishing lives.
But a strange thing happens when we start to measure and test everything in life: we end up valuing only what we measure—and not valuing what we don’t measure. This is true in political decisions. In theory, we want our nation to be run through good economic decisions, based on evidence and clear data, leading to the best possible outcomes for flourishing and happiness for each individual in our society. But the problem is: whose flourishing and happiness do we measure? Who counts as an individual in our society? And so, whom do we count when we make our measurements? Very often, we decide we will only count the prosperity and wellbeing of legal citizens of our nation. That seems to make sense at first glance—and of course, it’s reasonably straightforward to measure. But when we do that, we automatically exclude others who aren’t legal citizens. For example, we exclude asylum seekers, or the not-yet-born. They’re harder to count. So we don’t count them. Which actually means that to us, they don’t count. And so we make our decisions as a nation based on maximising health and flourishing, but only for the people who count. What has happened? Instead of working out what (and whom) we value first, and then measuring it, we just go ahead and make our measurements first, and then end up simply valuing what (and whom) we measure.
In fact, this can happen in the Christian life, too. In our daily Christian walk, we can easily place a high value on those things that are easy to measure and see. How often do I read my Bible? How many minutes do I spend praying each day? How regular in attendance am I at church? How many Christian conferences did I attend this year? How many connections do I have on my social media platform of choice? How do I appear to others around me? Do people look up to me and praise me? These things are easy to test, and so we value them. We can also do it in our Christian ministry and service of others. We want to measure our effectiveness in ministry—but how do we measure it? We find things we can easily measure: How many people are in my church/group? How many different ministries am I involved in? How many people follow my ministry online? How busy am I?
The problem with all of this is that we end up valuing the things that we can easily measure. But what we should do is to start the other way around. We should first work out what matters, and then test our Christian lives against what matters. But that’s the challenge. What does matter? What are the standards we should test our Christian lives by?
Here in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul tells us to test our Christian walk. Paul gives us a measure—a standard—to use when we are doing that testing. But the measure he gives us is not something that we might naturally use. It’s worth paying close attention to it:
Test to see what is pleasing to the Lord.Ephesians 5:10
“What is pleasing to the Lord”: this is the standard. This is the measure that gives value to everything in our Christian lives. And this is what we need to scrutinise and examine our lives by—not what is easily seen or even easily measured by numbers, but what is pleasing to the Lord.
How, then, do we know what is pleasing to the Lord? This is what Paul has been writing about in his letter so far. In the verses just before this one, Paul has urged his readers to live according to “all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8–9). This is a great summary of what is pleasing to the Lord. God is pleased by what is “good”: by lives that put bad behaviour behind us and strive to be morally good. This is “right”: it is in line with God’s standards in creation, as revealed in God’s word to us. And God is pleased by what is “true”: fundamentally, by lives lived in line with the truth of the gospel, telling the truth and doing what is true.
That’s it in a nutshell: what about the details? Paul has already given many examples of things that are pleasing to the Lord (and things that aren’t). Here are just a few:
Walk with all humility and littleness, with patience, putting up with one another in love, making sure you maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.Ephesians 4:2–3
This is Christ’s purpose: … speaking the truth in love, we might grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ.Ephesians 4:14–15
So I say this, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the gentiles walk… having become callous, they have given themselves to unrestrained sensuality, greedy for every impure practice.Ephesians 4:17–19
Therefore, having taken off lying, speak the truth—each one of you—with your neighbour, because we are members of one another.Ephesians 4:25
Be angry and don’t sin. Don’t let the sun set on your provocation and so give a place to the devil.Ephesians 4:26–27
The one who steals should steal no longer; rather, he should labour, doing good work with his own hands, so that he might have something to share with those in need.Ephesians 4:28
Make sure no rotten word goes out of your mouth, but only what is good for building, as needed, so that you might give grace to those who hear.Ephesians 4:29
All bitterness and rage and anger and shouting and slander should be put away from you, along with all malice. Become kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God also forgave you in Christ.Ephesians 4:31–32
These are examples of the standard: what is pleasing to the Lord. And here, in this verse, Paul’s point is that we must test everything—everything about our lives—in light of that standard. We must not just test ourselves by what people see or what is easy to measure. Our Christian walk involves testing what is pleasing to the Lord, in every area.
Do the test—daily
The word “testing” involves thinking and deliberating and scrutinising. It’s about reflecting on ourselves and our lives and asking hard questions. This needs to be deliberate. So often as Christians, we can be “activists”. That is, we can keep filling up our time and energy simply with doing more and more, and encouraging others to do the same. We can so easily value things like activity and work and busyness. We too easily assume that the more we do—the more activity we take part in—the happier God is with us. “Busyness” is quite easy to measure. But “busyness” is not a virtue you’ll find anywhere in Ephesians. It is not, by itself, pleasing to the Lord. And in fact, when we’re very busy, it can prevent us from actually taking the time to test our lives and our Christian walk, to see what is pleasing to the Lord. We’re too busy to stop and reflect and test our lives. But we need to do that: to set aside time and space for reflection, to ask ourselves deliberately: What, in our lives, is pleasing to the Lord? What, in our lives, is not pleasing to the Lord?
This verse encourages us to test everything in our Christian lives, and not let these things remain unexamined. This includes our work, our family life, our leisure, our desires, our speech, and our friendships. And the questions to ask are not just whether these things are effective or productive, or even whether they are personally fulfilling. The questions to ask are: Are they good? Are they right? Are they true? What is pleasing to the Lord?
If this is true for our Christian lives, then it is of course also true for our Christian ministries (which are part of our Christian lives). If you are involved in any kind of Christian ministry, what do you believe matters most in that ministry? What do the people you are serving need most of all? Do they need you to know the Bible really well? Do they need you to be a clear communicator? Do they need you to have pastoral skills? Do they need you to be able to work well in teams? Well yes, these things matter. But what your people need most is for you to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. They need you to live a life that is good and right and true. They won’t always realise or tell you they need this the most. More often you’ll get feedback on your knowledge or communication or leadership or pastoral skills. But still, what they need most is for you to be living a life that is pleasing to the Lord. That’s why you need to be taking the time to test your walk, to examine your life by the standard of what is good and right and true, and to bring it all before the Lord.
Now of course, there’s always a danger in testing. We might fail. In fact, whenever we do this test on our own lives, we will always come up short. We are fallible and sinful and we aren’t in heaven yet. But because of Christ Jesus, we don’t need to be afraid of falling short. This is because of the gospel—the truths that Paul has already spelt out earlier in Ephesians. We can’t redeem ourselves, but Jesus has died on the cross to bring us forgiveness and redemption. In Christ, we are God’s dearly loved children. God has raised us with Christ to that position of security and given us the hope of glory and his Spirit is at work in our lives enabling us to turn around and walk the other way. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit give us the security to ask for forgiveness, and the power to repent and change. As we do, we can be confident that God will work in our lives, helping us to become more and more who we are: a new creation before him. And as we are changed and transformed, there’s something we need to keep doing: Test to see what is pleasing to the Lord.
Read back over Ephesians chapters 4–5. As you do, examine your own life. What areas of your life are pleasing to the Lord? What areas are not? Bring these things before God.
How can you arrange your life so that you are regularly taking time to examine your life and to test to see what is pleasing to the Lord?
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
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.