Urgency and Gratitude

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

One way to describe the Christian life is to say that it is made up of paradoxes. That means that there are things in our lives that don't seem to make sense, don't seem to fit with other things in our lives. And yet we Christians have seen enough of God's power and wisdom and love that we believe with good reason that the paradoxes of our lives really do fit together in God's mind, even if we can't always figure them out now.

Paradoxes of the Christian Life

Let me illustrate some of the paradoxes of the Christian life by simply quoting the apostle Paul. He described his own life in 2 Corinthians 6:8–10 like this:

. . . as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

This is what I mean by the paradoxes of the Christian life. Paul says he is "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing." How can you be always rejoicing if you are sometimes sorrowful? There must be some kind of "sorrowful joy" and "joyful sorrow." Indeed, there is—that is one of the deep paradoxes of life for those who rest in a sovereign God and live in a sinful world.

Paul says that he is "as having nothing, yet possessing everything." You may recall that on Reformation Sunday—the last Sunday of October—I commended Martin Luther's essay called "The Freedom of a Christian." In that great essay Luther captures this particular paradox of the Christian life in two sentences. Paul said he has nothing, yet possesses everything. Luther put it this way,

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In other words, when you are adopted into the royal family of God through faith in Jesus Christ, some of the same paradoxes that marked Jesus mark you as well. Having nothing yet possessing everything. Subject to no man, yet servant of all.

There is another place where Paul describes some of the paradoxes of the Christian life, namely, 1 Corinthians 7:29–31,

The time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.

If we obey these admonitions of the apostle, we husbands will love our wives with the faithfulness and firmness and tenderness of Christ and yet in a sense as though we had no wives. Those of us who grieve will grieve in a sense as though there were no tragedy. And when we do business with the world, we do it as though our dealings with the world were nothing.

So the Christian life is the living of many paradoxes. Little by little as we draw near to God, we begin to see the unity and harmony of it all. But in every case we see through a glass darkly. We know in part. And we wait until the last day when the secrets of the human heart will be made plain.

But I don't think the Lord wants us to live in continual confusion and frustration. There is some light to shed on the paradoxes of our lives. And sometimes even just being aware that the paradox is biblical helps us live with it and even thrive on it.

Ready for Battle and Filled with Peace

So what I want to do today is focus our attention on the paradox I see in today's text and simply ponder it with you and see how it applies to our lives. Let's read the text (Ephesians 5:15–20):

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

When I was pondering this as our Thanksgiving text back in August, I was gripped by the tension in the verses. Let me try to capture it for you.

Be Careful and Vigilant

On the one hand the text says, Watch carefully how you live, that is, be alert, be vigilant. Apply wisdom to redeem the time. That opportunity will never come again. The days are evil; opposition is great; be wise as serpents. Understand what the will of the Lord is. Don't surrender your powers of judgment to alcohol.

These words ring with a sense of urgency. They are like the words of a platoon leader addressing his unit just before they enter combat. The air is tense and your heart is beating fast and, even if you love battle, your hands are sweaty. "Watch your step; be smart; don't miss your opportunity; keep yourself lean for the battle!"

Sing and Make Melody with Thanksgiving

Then come verses 18b–20: Be filled with the Spirit, and sing to each other—sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. And let your heart fill up with melody where nobody else can hear but God. And let the golden thread of all your songs be thanksgiving to your heavenly Father—thanksgiving for everything!

Now it sounds like the war is over! The tension and vigilance of conflict are gone. We're back home with the family. It's Thanksgiving Day. There's a fire in the fireplace and marshmallows on the skewers, and a game spread out on the dining room table; and sweet music is in the air.

And so I have called this message "Urgency and Gratitude." And I want us to just meditate on this paradox of being a vigilant people at war and yet a thankful and singing people at peace. And even if we can't fully explain how this can be, my prayer is that the mere awareness of it will help you live with it, and perhaps even thrive in it.

Three Ways to Express This Tension

So let me try to take the overall paradox that I see between urgency in verses 15–18a and gratitude in verses 18b–20 and break it up into three parts—three ways of expressing the tension of these verses.

1. Evil Days and Thanksgiving for Everything

First, there is the paradox here between the evil days in verse 16 and the call to be thankful for everything in verse 20. Verse 16: "Making the most of the time, because the days are evil." Verse 20: "Always and for everything giving thanks."

Evil Days

Paul is not naïve about the world. He says the days are evil. In Galatians 1:4 he said that "Christ gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age." The age is evil because God gives Satan so much leash that he can be called "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The age is evil because God allows so much pride and wickedness in the human heart to go unrestrained for now. The age is evil because so many natural catastrophes bring suffering and misery on the world, on both the good and the bad.

And Paul knew all of this first hand. He was not an armchair critic. He wrestled with his own sin in Romans 7. He felt the sins of others when he was stoned and beaten with rods and imprisoned. He went without food and clothes and shelter. He was harassed in almost every city, never knowing when his life would be put out by a dagger beneath the robes of some mercenary.

And on top of everything, he suffered some kind of chronic ailment that God would not remove no matter how hard Paul prayed. Instead God taught Paul some of the purposes of struggling with sin and suffering.

One lesson he tells about in 2 Corinthians 12:9–10. Christ told him that his power was made perfect in Paul's weakness. So Paul is given the grace and faith to say, "I will all the more gladly exult in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

Thanksgiving

And so when Paul gets to verse 20 of Ephesians 5, he is not in some dream world where all is easy and healthy and holy. He is not telling us to do any more than the Lord has given him grace to do: be thankful for everything. It does not say "in" everything (like it does in 1 Thessalonians 5:18). It says "for" everything.

But let us be very careful here. It doesn't say you should dance around the coffin. It doesn't say you can't cry if you have cancer. It doesn't say there is no place for anger against injustice. But it does say, "Always be thankful for everything." And this is the word of God, not merely the word of man.

If it puzzles us, if it even provokes us, we must not become cynical or rebellious; we should be like Mary when the angel said she would conceive a son without a husband. She asked humbly, "How can this be?" And Gabriel gave her not a whole explanation, but all she needed: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you . . . with God nothing will be impossible."

And is that not the same answer Paul would give to our perplexity here in Ephesians 5? Wouldn't he say from verse 18: It is beyond your understanding and beyond your emotional ability to give thanks to God for all things; it comes with the filling of the Holy Spirit: "Be filled with the Spirit."

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10). If you trust him, he will unfold for you how your omnipotent and all-wise Father in heaven can even take the evils of the world and work them together for your eternal good.

And when he begins to teach you that lesson, you will experience the truth and the depth, and maybe even the unity, of this first paradox: the days are evil, but give thanks always for everything to God the Father. He is wise and he is sovereign and he is good.

2. Analysis and Exultation

The second way of expressing the paradox of these verses is to say that we must live in the tension between analysis and exultation. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Analysis

Verse 15 says, "Look carefully then how you walk." Verse 17 says, "Do not be foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is." So together these verses call us to use our minds in careful thought. Look carefully! Know yourself, know your enemy, know your commander, know the situation, apply your mind to understand what the Lord wills in this crucial time. This is what I mean by analysis. It is the use of the mind to scrutinize, to examine, to sort out distinctions and seek relationships and patterns and to draw conclusions and inferences.

Exultation

But then verse 19 says that we should be full of exultation. We should make melody to the Lord in our hearts. Our emotions, not just our minds, should be engaged. We should not merely scrutinize the providence of God; we should also be carried away by it. We should not just analyze the message of the Bible, we should be swept up into song when we read it. We shouldn't be content to formulate a theory of salvation, we should be filled with thanksgiving that we are saved.

The Two Do Not Easily Fit Together

This is a burdensome paradox for us because the two states of mind don't fit easily together and yet both are crucial: analysis and rigorous thought on the one hand and exultation and thanksgiving on the other. This is why we get concerned when our young people go off to college or seminary or graduate school. It's not just because they will sometimes have unbelieving teachers and wrestle with secular ideas. It's because we know that exultation and thanksgiving can be swallowed up by the analytic demands of academic work.

But on the other hand this paradox is why many of us are unimpressed by much charismatic renewal. It's because the life of the emotions is often cultivated at the expense of the life of the mind. Careful thought and study and right doctrine is swallowed up by the ecstatic demands of the community.

An Admonition

My admonition this morning is this: Keep these two things alive and well in your life, the powers of analysis and the pleasures of exultation.

If you are all cerebral with little emotion, don't brag about it. It's a weakness not a strength. Strive to nurture your heart's capacity for joy in God, lest you be stunted forever and have a little cup of joy all through eternity.

And if you are all emotional with little bent for study and analysis, don't brag about it. It's a weakness, not a strength. Strive to nurture your mind's capacity for thinking and understanding the work of God.

Don't surrender the paradox. It stands in Scripture. And without it your celebration of Thanksgiving will have exultation and yet be superficial or it may have intellectual depth and yet be lukewarm. Hold the paradox together and your heart may experience the deepest gratitude you've ever known because your mind has seen more of God's truth than it has ever known.

3. Wartime Vigilance and Peacetime Thanks

The third way of describing the paradox of these verses is to say that we must live in the tension between being vigilant people at war and yet a thankful people at peace. Or another way to say it is that we must be careful about our walk in the world and yet carefree about the outcome of our lives. Vigilant yet secure. Careful yet carefree.

Vigilance

You can see the call for vigilance and carefulness in verse 15: "Look carefully then how you walk." You can see it in verse 16: "Since the days are evil be alert how you can snatch up every opportunity for good." You can see it in verse 17: "Don't be foolish. Apply your mind. Think through what the will of the Lord is."

In other words, the Christian life is a vigilant life, defensively guarding itself from the subtleties of the evil days and offensively redeeming the time to strike for love and righteousness again and again. We are a vigilant people at war with unbelief and evil.

Thankful Peace

But on the other hand you can see the restful, thankful peace, especially in verse 19. What amazes me about verse 19 is not that we are supposed to sing songs of thanks to God, but that we are to have a musical heart. I can imagine a wartime scene with a church surrounded by hostile forces. They have no escape and so the company commander (i.e., the minister of music) leads the church in hymn after hymn while the enemy closes in. I can imagine that.

But what is harder to imagine is that not only outwardly would the mouth be singing, but inwardly the heart would be singing. This is what I mean when I say we should be a thankful people at rest in God. Our hearts should be carefree about the outcome of our lives. This is what Paul says happens when a person becomes a Christian. A paradox is born:

  • vigilance and carefulness in the way we live our lives lest evil gain the upper hand, and yet
  • carefree restfulness and thankfulness that the out come of the battle will be victory.

"He who called us is faithful, and he will do it" (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

The Glue That Holds the Paradoxes Together

What is the glue that holds the pieces of these three paradoxes together?

  1. the paradox between living in evil days and being thankful for everything.
  2. the paradox between rigorous analysis and thankful exultation.
  3. the paradox between being vigilant people at war and being thankful people at peace.

The glue that holds them all together is the work of the Holy Spirit: "Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit!" And God will uncover for you

  • the mystery of gratitude for all things, even when the days are evil,
  • the pleasures of exultation even in the midst of analysis,
  • and the peace that passes all understanding even in the vigilance of our daily conflict with evil.

Urgency and gratitude. Glued together in one heart by the work of the Holy Spirit. This morning we have been heavy on the side of urgency, analysis, and vigilance. Tonight we will pluck the fruit of our analysis and blow the roof off this old building with exultation in the sixth annual Festival of Thanksgiving.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org