Read Eph. 2. When are the times in your life when you felt most alive? Were you in love? Were you running in the rain? Were you writing, painting, thinking, or dreaming? Were you walking on a beach, gazing at a sunset or watching the mist creep over the crest of the mountains? Were you shooting a stag – or deciding at the last minute not to? Were you launching a virtual torpedo? Were you closing a deal? Were you falling over laughing? Were you weeping with joy? Didn’t this feeling of being alive just spring on you out of nowhere? Weren’t you kind of minding your own business, doing what you do, when suddenly there you were, swimming faster, running harder, singing louder or smiling so broadly your face felt like cracking open, only it didn’t, and you kept smiling, and you kept living, and life was so good.
And then it wasn’t, all over again.
Is that the human experience? Is that the most we can expect? Is life just a struggle and then sometimes it isn’t because we feel more “alive” than we did only moments before? We say there’s existing and then there’s living. The living has a different existential quality than existing, the way the air on top of a mountain has a different texture, color and feel than the air over Beijing and our lungs and body and even soul feel the difference. We sometimes may think we’re fine with plenty of good, solid, plain existing if we at least have a hope it will be punctuated with a regular, unpredictable diet of exclamation points. We grudgingly accept that we can’t live on the tip of an exclamation point. But does that balance between fireworks and the slow flame works for us? Do we accept we can go on existing if we have hope, at least a little, that just around the corner lies a shot of what we call really living? Is that just what being alive means?
So what are we to make of the beginning of this chapter of Ephesians where Paul says that God “made us alive when we were dead”? We’re dead? Right now? And God makes us alive?
The claim here, and please brace yourself if you’re not a believer and this is new to you, is that without faith in Jesus, we are all dead. The Bible says we’re under the control of the “demon spirit”, the “prince of the power of the air.” Don’t stop reading, not yet. You probably watch a host of shows and movies with angels, demons, warlocks, wizards, witches and vampires. You may battle any number of monsters in video games. You might even describe certain people as evil.
So why wouldn’t we want to know more about this claim that we’re all dead and under the spell of an evil force and that the spell can be broken? What if it’s true that without God we’re really not even alive right now and we don’t know it? What if we were like Jim Carrey in that movie where he was raised on a TV set and the rest of humanity knew his entire existence wasn’t what he thought it was, and he has to start investigating the boundaries of what others tell him can and can’t be done in order to discover the truth? Or what if we’re like a character in The Matrix – what if there’s a deeper reality going on than the one we can perceive with our five senses? The underlying assumptions of those movies resonate for many of us, as do the forces at work in Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. We respond to art that relies on the idea that there’s a deeper reality that explains our world, that only “outsiders” or the “dispossessed” who begin to search can discover. So if you feel something in you stir at the idea you’re under a dark spell, maybe you’re sensing there’s a crack in the worldview that claims that this world is all there is and that struggling to do your best is the most you can hope for.
We see the cracks. If you’ve seen the Jim Carrey movie, you know his character starts to sense something is up and races to the edge of his town, and he finds the seams. He sees the roof. We see the roof, too. There is something restless in each one of us, I believe, that knows we were made for more than a world in which people break our hearts. We know we were made for a world in which we would never hurt anyone. There is something marvelous and great in each of us that we are sad about because we betray that side of ourselves on a daily basis. We make resolutions and don’t keep them. We tell ourselves to be kind to that annoying airport agent, and then we are not our best selves. Yes, I am writing this on a plane after a TSA agent pinched my skin three times saying, “what’s in your pocket? What’s in your pocket?” I was like, “there’s nothing in my pocket. These are jeans. And that’s my SKIN! Ow!” Was I loving and kind to her in my heart? I might have been patient (pretty patient) on the outside, but inside I was Medusa. It’s a crack. It’s a seam in the world we think we live in. It’s places like this, places of imperfection in ourselves and others, where we sense that maybe we are all “dead” in a deeply spiritual sense and completely helpless to rescue ourselves. We long for life, but maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way.
So what do we do? We have all tried harder, and the harder we try the more quickly we discover our imperfections. The Bible says if we want to earn our way to heaven by being good we would have to obey every single rule. Those rules include perfection in the heart, like “don’t ever covet anything that belongs to anyone else” and “don’t ever lie.” No one can do that. Self-salvation is doomed. But why? Why can’t we be perfect? This is another crack in our worldview.
Instead of pretending we’re perfect (because that really is the standard), let’s look head on at this idea that we are “dead in our sins” without God. According to Ephesians 2, we are “obeying the impulses of the flesh.” Our “cravings” are dictated by our senses and our “dark imaginings.” Our behavior is governed by our “corrupt” nature. It sounds so bleak. It makes us feel bad. We bleat at this kind of talk. We think it means we’re supposed to hate ourselves.
But the truth is we’re not supposed to hate ourselves if we know God’s love. The problem is that we probably already hate ourselves. That’s part of the curse of the evil spell we’re under. Some days we knock it out of the ballpark. Some moments we’re magnificent. Every now and then we’re creatures of beauty and light. Sometimes we get to see our friends and family be creatures of beauty and light, too. We’re especially prone to succumb to these feelings of warmth toward ourselves and our fellow man after a good meal, in fine weather, and great company. In those moments, we want to hug our friends and ourselves. But most of the time, we’re afraid, scared, terrified and wandering around anxious, trying hard not to offend anyone, trying to making everyone see how okay we are. It’s just exhausting. Because deep down, if we’re honest, we know we’re not that okay. And one of the reasons for this is that we follow our cravings instead of what we know to be right.
We may bristle at this idea that we follow our cravings. We like to think of ourselves as “basically good.” But don’t we get lost down the rabbit holes of cravings far more often than we want to admit? Isn’t that what happens when we proclaim we’ll go on a diet and then the very next minute gobble a cookie? We may groan afterward and ask, “why did I do that?” We usually ask rhetorically, because we don’t want to face the answer. We did it because we gave into cravings. But where did those cravings come from, anyway? What if the problem is that we’re under a spell? What if there’s a prince of the power of the air telling us to ignore the consequences of our actions? What if our “corrupt” nature tells us to do the opposite of what we want to do? This passage talks about our “sensual nature” being a problem in the same breath as it mentions the evil forces at work in the world. It’s easier for modern people to conceptualize the concept that “our flesh is weak” than that there’s a devil flying around, but I think we can’t escape that this passage claims both are at work. And both sabotage our good intentions. Both block us from living as the people we sense we were created to be.
So if we concede that this craving thing has a point, what does it mean to say that we give in to “dark imaginings.” Doesn’t that sound kind of like depression? Isn’t “dark imaginings” what happens when we let our thoughts run ahead of ourselves? Isn’t that another phrase for when we get paranoid about being hated or mocked behind our backs? Isn’t that what happens if we dwell on when we think someone disrespected us? Don’t we lie awake on our beds at night, sometimes, just sometimes, and go down a dark path where we imagine justifying and maybe even vindicating ourselves in not the best, or shall we say healthy, ways? Wouldn’t it be great if our thoughts were always light-filled? Yes, sure, of course. So why aren’t they? Why do dark imaginings plague us?
And let’s get even more serious. Why do we know and love people who have taken their own lives? Aren’t we beside ourselves with grief and fury about those losses? I am. Didn’t those people give themselves over to “dark imaginings?” They must have. Didn’t they lose hope? Didn’t they have what the rest of us who are still living (at least who still have beating hearts, because we’re working out our definition of alive here with fear and trembling) would call an attack of at least momentary insanity when they took their lives? Where did their “insane” and “dark” imaginings come from? An imagining is not a reality. So what lying force took over? Was it just warped synapses in their brain? Was it just a chemical “imbalance”? Or is there also, perhaps, evil afoot? Did a dark force whisper lies to them? Did demons screech in their heads about how they were hopeless and their lives were hopeless and everything was beyond fixing and that the world would be better off without them? And what if that same evil lurks at all of our doors, ravenous, lusting to devour us by infecting our imaginations with lies? And what if our imaginations are already infected beyond our ability to cleanse them and those lies have deadened us to what is true?
Because I know many think that life on this planet is just a struggle to stay alive, a sweaty story of self-redemption through hard work and hard play and good love. Many think that just waking up and trying hard to be a “good person” is enough. But who wants to settle for good enough? What if there’s something deeper and truer and more powerful at work in our very souls? What if there’s glory inside of us, true glory? What if there’s love so rich and magnificent and beautiful we could spend all eternity gazing at it and never get bored? What if being alive is more than just trying hard all by ourselves but instead to be alive is to be united with the source of love, a/k/a God? What if we could be wrapped up in His love? What if we were made to fly with the angels, not just trudge in loneliness and silent desperation? What if the beautiful strains of music we sometimes hear that make our heart stop and weep, just for a moment, were only a dim echo of an angelic chorus that makes all of heaven cry out with glory and longs for us to join in? What if there’s a spell shrouding all of our lives and there’s a spell-breaker who can awaken the sleeping dead? What then?
Wouldn’t that be something worth reading on about? Wouldn’t that be something worth exploring? What if all the fairy tales, fantasies, myths and legends are, on some deep level, true? What if they point to the story of a man, a simple man, a humble man, a poor man, who came from another world, a better world, a perfect world, to rescue us? What if that spell-breaker took the punishment we deserve? What if he came down to earth, disguised as one of us, and instead of demanding the worship he was due he took the demonic curses we deserve? What if there were a good man, a good God, who broke the spell by letting himself be shattered apart, gored, pierced, bruised, beaten and ripped to shreds by the claws and beaks and curses of evil? What if this spell-breaker were a king who took all the punishment that evil could hurl at him? What if our king endured it out of love even though there was more power in the hem of his garment to stop the madness than any of us could have our whole lives through all our struggles? What if our king stepped into the heart of darkness out of love for us? What if our king went to the place of abandonment by God so he could carry us home to a place of acceptance?
Wow. And what if the life God offers us is His own? What if His life is ours for the bending of the knee? What if he’s the true king we should be kneeling to so he could tap our shoulder with the flat of his blade and command us to rise? What if the key that could unlock our prison cells is so simple only a child could turn it? What then?
Wouldn’t we want to be that child? Wouldn’t we want to kneel before that lord and say yes please and I’m sorry and thank you? That’s the magic that God offers us. It’s true magic, real magic, and I apologize to anyone who bristles at the word magic. But I am trying to make this idea of death and life relevant to a world that recoils at the word “sin” but embraces the word “magic.” There’s real magic, deep magic, at work in our world. What we can see, taste, touch, smell and hear is not the whole story. We sense the cracks in the idea that this world is all there is, and in those cracks we also see glimpses of true glory.
Because the most wonderful thing about grace is that the light comes in through the cracks. The dark powers shriek that we have to pretend we are perfect, and then they shriek louder to make us ashamed about our imperfection. But the truth of salvation is the opposite. The more wounded we are, the more the wounded healer can help us. The weaker we are, the more room we can make for our creator to make us powerful. But we have to start readjusting our time traveling watches. We have to start turning our compasses to the heavens. We have to blow the dust off the oldest “spell” book of all, the truest book, the one so powerful it’s active and alive, the one that starts with the words, “In the beginning, God created.” We must step out of airplanes not with parachutes but wings. We do it the way the Orville brothers did it. They ran up and down the beaches flapping their arms watching the birds in order to figure out how men could fly.
Consider the birds. They’re made to fly. They have wings. Who gave them wings? There’s another crack for you. We feel alive, in the human sense, when we feel like we’re flying. In our world, we get that sometimes by going on ziplines, running marathons, singing an aria, or writing a story. But our king offers us that kind of living all the time, through all our circumstances, through all our faults, through all our weaknesses, through all the betrayals we inflict on others and that others inflict on us. He claims that true living is to have our fellowship with Him restored. He says we’re so dead in our sins we can’t even live with His holiness. So He came down and took the punishment we deserve and covers our imperfections with His perfection so that we can go home.
But beware. The king is dangerously beautiful. He will demand that we die in order to be wrapped up in him. Are we ready for that? Are we committed enough? Are we brave and true enough? Are we willing to accept that everything we’ve spent our life chasing is but dust in the wind, and that we need to chase God instead – or rather, that we need to stop running and let God find us?
It helps to consider that God made us out of the dust. He loves us so much that he made us from dust and breathed life into us. And when we sinned – I hope that by now I can use that word without making you turn red in the face – He came back and breathed new life into us. He gave up his dying breath to give us a living breath. He offers us the love we’ve always longed for. If we believe in Him, we actually get Christ’s life. It’s what the quickening spells in all our fairy stories are pointing to. We are seated in heaven with Christ in our true home from the moment we become believers, even though we stay alive on this earth for a while longer. Eph. 2:6.
The freedom the king offers us is breathtaking. It’s the opposite of seeing life as a struggle. Instead, we are lifted into life not through our “own striving.” Eph. 2:8. We have to lay our striving at the king’s feet. We are rescued from death not by doing good, or being good, but by admitting we can’t be good. We accept salvation as a gift from God.
So we are offered the gift of giving up the struggle. We can stop being Karl Ove’s (a reference to the gifted writer Karl Ove Knausgaard who’s extremely lengthy memoir, which I just can’t finish, is called MY STRUGGLE). Instead, we can discover ourselves as “God’s handiwork.” Eph. 2:10. We are a new creation, Paul says here, recreated in Christ Jesus to do “those good works which God predestined for us, taking paths which He prepared ahead of time.” Eph. 2:10.
That last sentence, to me, must be the heart of this chapter. It’s the paradox that will unlock everything about the prince of the powers of the air making us dead and how God makes us alive. How do I know? Because it seems to make no sense. So when we find a passage in Scripture that seems to be a contradiction, we are to dive right in. If it makes no sense to us humans, it means there’s divine wisdom in it that will explode the dead wood in our lives. God’s ways are not our ways. So anything that doesn’t make sense will lead us straight to the cross. The cross doesn’t make sense to us humans. The cross is the death of everything the prince of the air tells us about how we should save ourselves through our struggle. So let’s dive into the paradox. Ready? What does it mean that this chapter says we are not saved by good works, but tells us in the very next sentence that when we’re recreated in Christ, we will do good works. Eph. 2:9-10.
Hold it. Hit the pause button. Rewind. If we’re not saved “by” good works, why are we saved “that we may do” good works? Aren’t we supposed to do good works to be saved – oh, whoops no. I mean aren’t we supposed to do good works to stay saved – arghhh. That’s not right either. Do you see the problem here? The problem is that for us humans, the idea of the struggle, the idea of having to prove ourselves over and over again, is like a sick nightmare that keeps invading our brains in the night so often we can fear falling asleep.
The truth is that as the Bible says over and over, we’re saved by grace and we grow by grace. See e.g. Gal. 1. So we do good works through grace alone. I know some people will freak out right about now and remind me that “faith without works is not faith,” and they’re right. James 2:26. But what the powerful, explosive paradox at the heart of this chapter is telling us is that once we are made alive in Christ we will do good works for the very first time. It’s because we’re doing them out of a joy-filled heart which longs to please the God we love because He already delights in us, instead of working harder out of an anxious, striving heart. It’s because we smile later about the TSA agent who pinches our skin through our jeans not because she deserves it, but because God’s love has filled our cup to overflowing. It’s because we roll our eyes and shake our heads at ourselves after we (okay, I) inwardly fume at her, because we remember, all over again, that our salvation is a free gift of God not something we could ever earn.
We get to silence all the accusations and guilt trips hurled at us by the powers of the darkness of the air by remembering the cross. When the demon spirit at work on this earth tries to scream about our failures, we agree. We nod. And then we point past them to the cross. “Look,” we say. “You’re right. I totally messed up. Yet again. And ka-pow. God already took care of it. He forgave me. Hallelujah.”
And from that place of joy, not the place of panic, rage and a desperate desire to prove ourselves right that is death, we can actually start to live our lives. We can be more present for others. We can be joyful in our daily mundane tasks. We can sing under our breath, making melody in our hearts to our God and King. We can sing the song of the bluebell and the lark. We know the deep and ancient tunes. We can walk along the good paths that lead through our wrong turns and U-turns into the ever-loving ever-lasting arms of kindness, mercy and goodness.
We can skip like calves released from the stall. Malachi 4:2. Because, as Paul drives home here, now for the very first time, we have hope. Now we share in all the incredible promises God made to His chosen people the Jews. We are no longer in a world without God. We are reconciled to God by the cross. We’re no longer aliens. We’re no longer exiled. We’re existentially made right. We are citizens in our true home. We belong to God’s household. Eph. 2:12-19.
But beware. This household itself is alive. It’s living. It’s like one of those plants that keeps growing and blossoming and blooming. You can’t stay static in it. Remember? You’ll start doing good works. They’ll be works of the heart. But for the first time, they’ll erupt spontaneously out of you. They won’t be a struggle. You won’t even want to boast. You couldn’t. It’s excluded. Eph. 2:9. You know that when you follow good paths, it’s only by the grace of God.
The times in your life you feel most alive become the times when you point not to yourself but to the glory of God. The more you marvel in the greatness of our king, the more you experience that breath-taking joy of feeling alive – the way that used to happen only occasionally and unpredictably, when you least expected it. The smallest human experience of feeling “alive” is but a dim shadow of the kind of real, continual life our king offers us.
Salvation causes us true life, real life, and instant life from the moment we bend the knee. Because we are still human, this being alive in Christ does share one thing with our human experience of feeling alive. Those “feelings” break in when we least expect it, all over again, because they come not from us but from God. We’re not in control, and that’s the point. The joy that is true living bubbles up inside of us when we remember that the spell of evil is already broken, even when evil things happen. The cross defeated Satan for once and for all. His days are numbered.
As for us, we feel alive most when we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to the one who allowed the curses our selfishness deserves to bleed all over him. When we dwell with him in gratitude, we experience the reality of a love like we never imagined but always hoped for. We discover what it means to be so alive that the smile erupts from inside of us, and sheds light on others despite us. But finally, we discover we are truly alive all the time, and the struggle is over while we live in the joy of God’s love.
Amen. posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on June 16, 2015