During the time that most of the New Testament texts were written, Greek philosophy influenced social morality through a perspective known as “The Two Ways.” Basically, that meant that two mutually-exclusive paths for behavior were laid out for people to choose between them. Just as one cannot walk on two different footpaths at once, neither could one behave in the contradictory ways presented and experience integrity.
The text from Ephesians 4:25-5:2 is loosely based on this approach to moral teaching. Although the phrases are not all neatly laid out in such a formula, we can visualize the ideas together in a way that helps us see the two choices we have. And in addition, this text gives us reasons for choosing each element of the preferred path.
We need to keep in mind as we consider these pairings, that the writer was addressing Christians. This was not a text meant for the general public, so if the hearers chose the right path, they could become Christians. This was a text written to a faith community where everyone already embraced the gospel. Salvation is not at issue here; expressing the reality of one’s salvation is the issue. So let’s look at the five behavioral pairings offered for our consideration.
First, we are told not to speak falsely, but to speak the truth, because we are members of one another. The reason gives us a clue as to the writer’s intent: what do we most need in order to be together as closely as “members of one another”? I’m thinking it’s trust. I don’t think I need to convince you that trust is the foundation of any meaningful relationship. We can all think of examples when broken trust violated a relationship – sometimes temporarily, and sometimes permanently. Trust can be rebuilt, but it isn’t easy, and the burden of rebuilding is the responsibility of the one who broke the trust.
Truth, however, is a slippery thing. There is more than one kind of truth. There’s the truth of the data – presenting facts in a way that does them justice. These days, hopefully we have noticed that most of our politicians fail this test. Truth means more than simply repeating an idea or a phrase word for word from the original. Truth means supplying the authentic context and intent of the idea or phrase as well. Politics, we know, makes an art out of separating accurately-repeated words from their original intent and context. That makes them fundamentally untrue. We can do the same in our personal lives, and this text is telling us not to. Don’t misrepresent the facts.
But there is also personal truth, and this one is much harder to pin down. What is true for me today, may not continue to be true for me tomorrow: I will hopefully learn, grow, experience new events, and change my mind. I might be intentionally deceptive, or I might be truthful – my thinking may have changed. It helps for us to give each other the benefit of the doubt, at least once, when the truth being spoken is a personal truth. It would be so much easier if such behavior were quantifiable, but it’s not. We do the best we can.
The second pairing says, don’t sin as a consequence of anger, but acknowledge your anger, so as not to make room for evil consequences. I hope that by now, you have all heard just from general mental health advice, that anger per se is not our problem. It is unhealthy to deny and “stuff” our anger. We will get depressed and suffer from physical pains and ailments. However, research is now showing that the trendy practice of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when people were told to let it all out, is also unhealthy. Not only is it potentially abusive toward the person we feel has made us angry, but the ramped up physical responses keep us at destructive levels of stress.
The healthy thing is to acknowledge when something has made us angry, and take the time to figure out the real cause. Often what has seemed to be the source of our anger is only a symptom. We need to determine: Am I feeling hurt? Am I afraid? Do I see injustice? Anger can give us the energy to right a wrong, to create safe situations for ourselves and for others, and to sit down and reconcile a relationship that isn’t working. But we have to take some time to figure that out, before reacting, retorting or retaliating. It’s very easy to do the latter before the former. Reacting with demeaning language or an eye-for-an-eye plan is not productive, or ultimately satisfying. It is a quick fix, but with all quick fixes come long-term negative outcomes. That’s the part about “making room for evil.” Take three deep breaths. Count to ten. Walk away. Turn off the computer. Let the physical intensity subside so the brain can work most clearly. That’s how to manage anger without sin.
Thirdly, don’t steal, but work honestly. Here’s where it can be hard to remember that the writer is addressing Christians. But the punch line is the reason: not, “work honestly, so you don’t rely on anyone else,” not “work honestly, so you can provide for your future,” not even “work honestly because God wants you to be honest,” but “work honestly… so as to have something to share with the needy.”
Especially in this country, we are used to the first reasons to work: to provide for ourselves and our families; to do something productive with our time and energy; to keep ourselves from being a financial burden on others. But this writer wants us to think another step beyond ourselves, as to what our work is making possible for the most vulnerable members of our communities. Not, how can I fulfill myself, but rather, how can I serve others with the strength God has given me?
Fourthly, do not talk in ways that tear down, but talk in ways that build up, because your words may give grace. Grace dwells in the moments of creation, not in destruction. Jesus Christ offers grace because he offers to us a moment-by-moment renewal. Buddhism offers three guidelines for speech that sum up rather nicely what constructive communication looks like. Before speaking, one might ask oneself: is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful? And by useful, they mean, does it further the conversation in a constructive way?
To follow such questions unswervingly would leave most of us with a lot less to say, and possibly feeling paralyzed. They are helpful questions to consider, but we should remember that they suggest an ideal that none of us will achieve all the time. But perhaps remembering to ask them, especially when we are feeling offended or self-righteous, will help us to reframe how we choose to speak.
Finally, there are two lists of attitudes meant to encompass what has been suggested thus far: don’t be bitter, wrathful, and angry, don’t indulge in slander, wrangling and malice, but rather, be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving, because God in Christ has forgiven you. It would take us more time than we have here to reflect thoroughly on what forgiveness is – not forgetting, not saying everything is necessarily okay – but for this context, perhaps it would be helpful to think of forgiveness as a benefit of the doubt. Before we jump to conclusions, accusations, and character-branding, perhaps we could give each other the benefit of the doubt. At least long enough to really think about whatever it was that happened.
The author’s final word is a good word for us as well: to follow the undesirable path is to grieve the Holy Spirit. To follow the kind, tenderhearted, forgiving, truthful, constructive, honest path, is to imitate God. So, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”