Stepping Stones

Watch how you walk (Ephesians 5:15–17)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

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

On 20th August 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke left Melbourne with 18 others on an expedition to cross Australia from South to North. The journey was to blaze the trail for a telegraph line to link the burgeoning new city of Melbourne with the rest of the world. It was an ambitious, visionary quest. But there was one problem: Burke had zero experience in exploration.

Not surprisingly, the whole expedition was plagued with almost farcical tragedies. Their preparations were a joke. For food, they took dried meat instead of live cattle, which created three extra wagonloads. On other wagons, they brought such essentials as cedar and oak dinner tables and chairs, rockets, flags, a Chinese gong, a large bathtub, twelve sets of dandruff brushes, and (allegedly) four enema kits. When they got partway to Cooper Creek, they dumped most of the gear and food and left most of the men with it all. But Burke, along with his second-in-command William John Wills and two others, soldiered on—with not enough food, and still not much of an idea about what they were doing. Amazingly, they made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria. But on the way back, they were plagued by monsoon rains. They had to shoot and eat their horse. When they arrived back at Cooper Creek, they discovered that the remaining men had left just hours before. And not long after, by the end of June 1861, Burke and Wills were both dead.[1] Still, their monumentally tragic trip has gone down in history as a touchstone of Aussie bravery and battling against the odds.

Booth (1873). The Return of Burke and Wills to Coopers Creek
Booth (1873). The Return of Burke and Wills to Cooper’s Creek (Public Domain)

Is this how we’re supposed to live our Christian lives? In other words, is the Christian life all about setting outrageous and ambitious goals to glorify God, then setting off into the spiritual wilderness, assuming it’ll all be right in the end, because we have God on our side and we just need to have faith that he will make our plans all work out fine in the end? Putting it that way sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But sometimes we can act a little like that is the way to live the Christian life. We can live our Christian life—walk our Christian walk—with big goals, but without thinking properly about how we’re going to achieve the goals, what it’s going to cost, and how we might need to prepare and plan for the long haul. Is this really what God wants us to do?

Of course, it’s not wrong to have big goals for our Christian walk. Paul spells out some pretty huge aspirations in his letter to the Ephesians. He urges believers to “become imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1), to “walk in love”, imitating Christ’s costly sacrifice for others (Ephesians 5:2), and to “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8), so that Christ shines through us and transforms the darkness. Paul has big ambitions for the Christian walk, and it’s right for us to consider how these aspirations should play out in our own lives. It’s good to have ambitious goals for ourselves. But as we do, we mustn’t be naïve or unprepared. Because Paul doesn’t just lay out big ambitions and leave it there. In Ephesians 5:15–17, Paul goes on to tell his readers:

Watch carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise people, reclaiming the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but grasp what the Lord’s will is.

Ephesians 5:15–17

These verses are full of important advice and wisdom for us as we live our Christian lives—i.e. as we “walk” our Christian “walk”.

Stepping Stones

Watch carefully

Paul says:

Watch carefully, then, how you walk…

Ephesians 5:15

As we walk our Christian walk, Paul says, we need to “watch carefully” how we do it. The word translated “carefully” is a word for accuracy and precision. It means to be exact and meticulous. In other words, living the Christian life isn’t just about having big goals and dreams and plans. It’s also about the details. It’s about making sure we’re taking particular care as we put one foot after another, day by day. Paul says that we need to be considered and careful about the nature of our Christian walk. We need to look out, pay attention, take care, think and consider how we walk.

Walk wisely

This means that as we live our Christian lives, we need to live

…not as unwise but as wise people…

Ephesians 5:15

What does it mean to walk as “wise” people? Wisdom in the Bible isn’t just an intellectual thing. It means understanding the shape of God’s world, and living appropriately. It’s like the difference between knowing that a tomato is technically a fruit (that’s intellectual knowledge), and knowing not to use a tomato in a fruit salad (that’s wisdom). Wisdom includes intellectual knowledge, but it’s more than that.

In the Bible, wisdom is described in different ways—because there are different ways of looking at the shape of God’s world. In the biblical book of Proverbs, wisdom involves understanding the shape of God’s created order, and living appropriately. In the prophetic book of Isaiah, which describes the rise and fall of nations and empires, wisdom involves understanding the shape of the political order under God, and living appropriately by trusting in God rather than in human strength. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, wisdom involves understanding the true shape of the social order under God, and living appropriately: the wise person doesn’t live for factions and power plays, but for Christ crucified. And here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, wisdom is about understanding the shape of God’s world in the broadest, most cosmic sense. God’s wisdom is multidimensional and vast (Ephesians 3:9–11). The wise person understands who rules the world, what the world is really like, and where the world is heading—and lives appropriately.

Sun over city

We learn a lot about wisdom in Ephesians. The wise person understands that Christ is risen and victorious and rules all things. The wise person understands that God has an unstoppable plan, to bring all things under the headship of Christ. The wise person understands that God is achieving this plan through the gospel being preached and believed. And yet the wise person also understands that this goal is not yet complete. The days we live in are still “evil”. We live in a world where there is rebellion against God. But this rebellion is temporary and passing away: “the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). Christ rules. So the truly wise person will live appropriately. The wise person will not follow what the world calls wisdom. The wise person will not live life for the moment. The wise person will not get caught up in pleasure or sensuality, chasing after comfort, or advancement, or career. Rather, the wise person will understand that the world is Christ-shaped, in the biggest sense, and will live appropriately.

Reclaim the time

That’s why true wisdom involves:

reclaiming the time, because the days are evil

Ephesians 5:16

The word “reclaiming” is a commercial word. It means buying back something that’s been lost, so that you can use it positively, for your own purposes. This is what we Christians need to do with “the time”. What time? The time we live in, in this world. It’s time that has been lost, because it’s a time that’s been given over to disobedience, godlessness, and hopelessness (see Ephesians 2:12). But God has a plan for the “fulfilment of time”, which is “to sum up all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). So we need to reclaim the lost time of this world, and use it for God’s purposes rather than for the futile and evil purposes of the world.

That means our attitude to the world and to our time in these evil days should be to use it, to spend it, for God’s purposes and plans. We are not to love the things of the world, or to spend our time simply pursuing the things of the world. That would be foolishness. Rather, we should use the things of the world and the time we have for what really matters: for the glory of the Lord Jesus, for speaking the gospel, and for living for the gospel together as Christ’s body, in all of the multidimensional wisdom of God.

Dark tunnel coming out of the Amphitheatre, Pompeii

Time management

That means Christians need to be people with good time management skills! But it’s not time management the way the world thinks about it. The ultimate goal of our time management is not to be relaxed or happy or retire early or have a clear uncluttered joy-filled existence. Rather, the ultimate goal is to reclaim and use the time in this evil age, and to use the things of this world in this time, for the sake of the glory of the Lord Jesus.

So it’s worth asking ourselves serious questions about our time management skills.

Are you wise in the way you use your time? I don’t mean, “Are you very busy doing Christian things?” In fact, if you’re always busy—if people ask you how you are and nine times out of ten your first answer is “busy”—that’s probably a sign that you’re actually quite foolish in the way you use your time. The world trains us more and more to be busy responders. Our phones, our emails, our notifications, our schedules always want us to respond now. And if you’re always busy, it means you’re perhaps not watching carefully how you walk, but you’re perhaps following the wisdom of the world.

Are you wise in the way you use your time? I don’t mean, “Are you happy and relaxed?” In fact, if you’re always happy and relaxed, that’s probably a sign that you’re too comfortable in this world, and have forgotten that the days are evil.

Are you wise in the way you use your time? I don’t mean, “Do you have big ambitious goals?” It’s good to have big ambitious goals, but if all you have are big plans and dreams without carefully considering how you will live your life, then you’re not being wise with the way you use your time—you’re being foolish.

Are you wise in the way you use your time? I mean: are you wisely using what you have, in these evil days, for the sake of Christ? Are you wisely considering carefully how you walk?

Youth praying, Finchale Priory

For example, do you deliberately put prayer first, before anything? This means not just knowing intellectually that prayer is a priority, but actually prioritising it: by actually making costly decisions to put aside other things so that you can pray.

Are you deliberate in making sure you have reasonable routines of sleep and rest, as much as you can in your life stage?

Do you, under God, seek to control your own life and your own time, not letting pings and emails and notifications and tweets control you, not letting TV control you, not letting the urgent control you, not spending your entire life responding to crises without ever taking time to stop and consider how you might avoid some of those crises in the first place?

Do you regularly review your walk with God and life in general? Do you actually stop, and spend some time considering, reviewing, praying, and asking yourself how you are putting sin to death, asking yourself how you’ve gone over the last day or week in your walk, and clothing yourself with Christ?

What is the shape of the world? God is bringing all things under Christ. How do we act accordingly? By watching carefully how we walk. By thinking about it, and by living in light of it. By prioritising the things that matter—not just the urgent things. And often, that means saying “no” to good things for the sake of the best things.

Grasp the Lord’s will

Paul continues:

So don’t be foolish, but grasp what the Lord’s will is.

Ephesians 5:17

We’ve already seen that God’s “will” is his purpose and plan for all of creation, which ultimately involves summing up everything in Christ. This is the “will” that God has graciously disclosed to us in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10). Paul urges his readers to “grasp” what this will is. This doesn’t just mean intellectually understanding it. You’ve only really grasped the Lord’s will when it challenges you and changes your life. You need to “get it”. And you haven’t “got” it until it “gets” you. In other words, you haven’t grasped God’s will until God’s will has grasped you and made a real difference in your life. And that includes making a difference in the details of your life, even the little things. It means each day, step by step, seeking to be careful in how you walk for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Of course, none of us has all the details of our lives fully sorted out yet. We should keep growing in this over the course of our lives, becoming more and more who we are in Christ (see Ephesians 4:22–24), as God gradually and graciously shows us more and more details for us to bring to him for help, by his Spirit, so we can walk carefully for him.

Stepping Stones

How could you do that more? Christopher Ash has written a wonderful little book called Zeal Without Burnout.[2] In that book, he talks about the concept of “sustainable sacrifice”. “Sustainable sacrifice” doesn’t mean having a happy life without stress while you do amazing ministry work on the side. Rather, it means maximising your sacrificial Christ-like giving of yourself for others and doing that over the long haul. It’s about taking up your cross, day by day, for the years ahead—not burning out quickly with a few years of cross-bearing then being useless for the rest of your life. How do you do that? Not just by relaxing, or running away from hard things. You do it by wisely, carefully thinking and taking control of your life whenever you can, under God. You do it by watching carefully how you walk.

For reflection

Consider one aspect of your daily life. How does knowing the shape of the world in Christ change the way you think about this aspect of your daily life?

Do you need to do a serious and careful review of your Christian walk? Make some definite plans now to do it (e.g. by blocking out some time in your schedule).

If you’re looking for a starting point, you could ask yourself the questions above under the heading “Time Management”. You might also like to check out Carl Laferton’s short, affordable book Spiritual Healthcheck.[3]

[1] See Sarah Murgatroyd, The Dig Tree (2nd Edition. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012).

[2] Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice (The Good Book Company, 2016).

[3] Carl Laferton, Spiritual Healthcheck: 16 Steps to a Thriving Christian Life (Good Book Company, 2017).

Audio podcast

Want more?

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

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.