Text: Ephesians 4:17-24
We have heard this said repeatedly: You are what you eat. It’s true. The body can only use what you put into it to make the resources it needs to live and move. Everything that your body has – all of its cells, organs, and energy sources – have been culled and remade from the material that has been ingested. We don’t become a cow for eating beef or a carrot for eating our vegetables, but what we eat defines who we are. When we eat healthy portions and healthy foods, we are healthy. When we eat unhealthy portions or unhealthy foods, our bodies are unhealthy. We are what we eat.
This is true in regards to our physical bodies. But there is a similar expression for who we are spiritually. I first heard it put into words by Alan Hirsch earlier this month in Richmond. He said it this way: Spiritually, you are what you think. It does not take a lot of creative biblical thinking to find some scriptural support for this. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” The mere thought condemns the man.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, it matters what we think about, what we use our brain power on. What we think about affects us, and it affects us most deeply on the spiritual level.
In today’s portion of Ephesians 4, Paul emphasizes this truth that, spiritually, we are what we think. It is a common refrain in many of Paul’s letters, most notably fleshed out to a great degree in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul says,
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
For Paul, any Christian’s life can be broken up into two periods: what we were and what we are. Those two periods are utterly, completely different from one another. Or at least they should be. Before we became faithful believers, our minds were saturated with the world. It’s all we thought about or could think about. The habit became so ingrained, that we could find no other way. We did not even want to find another way. Everything was all about me, myself, and I. Pleasure, debauchery, and anything that satisfied my wants in the moment. You, just like me, became “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Like the preacher-philosopher of Ecclesiastes, we were open to exploring every rock, corner, and crevice in the hopes of finding … something. We were not even sure what we were looking for. Ecclesiastes tells of seeking wisdom, wealth, pleasure, hard work, philanthropy, and every other pursuit under the sun and finding each and every one of them “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
This is what we were. This is what we all were. Busy, chasing after the wind.
Fortunately, Ephesians 4, verse 20 contains that wonderful word of Scripture: “but.” If we are faithful Christians, what we were is no longer what we are. All of the sin and evil thoughts that possessed our minds before our salvation have been exchanged by the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. This is now what we are. Or this is what we should be. Our brains, our thought processes should be reshaped so that what once occupied our every waking thought and sleeping dream has been utterly changed.
What we seek in the transition from non-believer to believer is the complete rewiring of our brains, an upheaving of our mental landscape so that the terrain of our minds after salvation bears no resemblance to what it was before the change. I think of the Amazon tribe called the Waodani, whose story was told in the movie End of the Spear. Prior to contact with missionaries Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and three others, 60% of the Waodanis died by murder from within their own tribes. Since their introduction and conversion to Christianity, however, the Waodani are a different people. They think differently. They act differently. They talk differently than they once did.
Paul compares this transformation of our minds to the taking off of old clothing and the putting on of new clothing. We who have been in church for a long time immediately think of baptism, where the old is laid to rest, and we come out of the waters in newness of life, truly renewed and reinvigorated to live life in God-honoring ways different from the chaos and sin of our former walk, whatever it may have entailed. As believers, our minds are changed, being continually shaped and formed into the new ways of thinking taught to us by the Holy Spirit through the words, actions, and life of Jesus.
What we were is no longer what we are. We are new and different. Where we had turned away from God, now we are redeemed by Him and restored to Him. Where we were guided by every whim of our desires, now we are guided by the mission of God. While we were in the likeness of the evil of the fall, now we are in the likeness of God – righteous and holy.
We have put off the old in order to put on the new. How do you look in your new clothes? How do you act? How do we look different from the world from which we came? Or do you? Do you still look longingly at your old attire, even allowing yourself to it back on now and then? Do you allow yourself to escape back into the folds of a dying world to enjoy what pleasures it imagines it offers?
We cannot and should not do so. Though we remain in the world, we are no longer of the world. We can no longer even look as if we are. The patterns of our thoughts that drive everything that we do and believe must change because of our identification with Christ. What we enjoy, what we say, what we read, what we watch, what we buy – all of it is necessarily influenced by this overarching change in our minds from what we were before Christ to what we are now in Christ.
As we celebrate this national season of Thanksgiving this week, be thankful for this: you are no longer now what you once were. Your darkened minds have been enlightened. Your dim eyes see dazzling new lights. Your depravity has been exchanged for God’s righteousness and holiness. It is time for us to grow up into the roles that we now have, into the clothes that we now wear, into the thoughts that we now think. We can no longer look longingly at the world and desire its desires or seize its wants.
Our desires are now heavenly desires. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” His love for the world becomes our love for the world. Not love in the self-seeking, sinful way to which we were accustomed before, where we were seeking our own ends. Rather, where we once loved only ourselves and everything that magnified and enhanced our own lives, now our love is matches God’s. What He loves, we love. The broken. The sick. The dying. The wounded. The lost. The hopeless. The downtrodden. The captive. The weak. The undesirables. The dirty. The unrighteous. These are who God loves, because He wants to do for them and to them what He has done for and to us. Our desire now is singular: it is to magnify God and enhance His glory and His renown.
Our goals are now kingdom goals. “Go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples of every nation.” The goal now is not what it once was: our bucket list items that might contain things like taking a yearly vacation to Pigeon Forge, Lancaster, or Disney World. No longer can our goals include such mundane things as paying off our house or our car and securing a comfortable retirement. No longer can we harbor merely selfish goals like driving a certain car or fitting into a certain clothing size. None of these are wrong in and of themselves. However, they are all subordinate to our new, overarching goals.
Our new goals are now kingdom goals. Our goals are to see that everyone whom God loves has a chance to hear that God loves them. Our goals are to help make that chorus of every tribe, tongue, and nation surrounding God’s throne that is pictured in Revelation. And so we think differently. We plan differently. We purchase differently. We react differently. We live differently. Because our minds have been transformed so that they are not confined only to thoughts of self, but instead set free to ponder the wonders and glories and miracles of God.
We are changed. We are different. We are new. We are made so by Christ’s transformation of our minds so that what we think affects who we are. Physically, we are what we eat. Spiritually, we are what we think. So let’s think about Christ’s work for us. Let’s ponder God’s love. Let’s meditate on Scripture that we’ve worked hard to memorize. Let’s be consumed by praying over the needs around us that the Spirit brings to our attention. Let’s give thanks not just on the fourth Thursday of November, or even each day of November, but constantly – always, as Paul says in Philippians.
We are a changed people. Think differently. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.