Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use 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 your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:15–21)
I wonder how much consideration you give to how you go about your day by day tasks: the places you go, and the things you do as you bumble on through the week. A lot of life is conducted on auto-pilot, and the habits built up over decades are deeply rooted. It is often the case that there are things we do, and we are not quite sure why.
In this context, Paul’s words come as something of jolt. “Look carefully”, he writes, “how you walk”. The meaning of the original Greek is to do with precise and close scrutiny. This is really paying attention, assessing what you do, which suggests that this is important. Christianity is something which is put into practice. What you believe affects how you behave.
Paul gives us some contrasts to help in this task, contrasts which get to the heart of the matter.
First of all he highlights the difference between being wise and unwise, which of course begs the question: what does he mean by wise? It might helpful to rule out some of the things he doesn’t mean. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. To be wise doesn’t mean you know a lot of facts, or to have amassed a lot of qualifications. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence. Plenty of clever people make mistakes, they just make them more efficiently.
Wisdom is a practical affair. It is applying your knowledge to a situation, and - in the Bible - it is concerns applying your knowledge of God to a situation. How might God wish me to live here? What would be a godly response to this event? In the end it is consciously living your life in the presence of God. It is to be in awe of God’s goodness and greatness, which is why the Bible asserts that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. This is not the fear of enraging a tyrant, but rather the fear a child has of upsetting a parent. A loving fear, and something we can see a little later in the passage when Paul writes: “therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is”.
Wisdom is knowing the will of God. It is gained through prayer, and dwelling on what we find in the Bible.
Paul then goes on to give another pair of opposites: “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil”. Often I hear people say they are “killing time”. It might be watching the television, scrolling away on a phone screen or - if you are character in a Wodehouse novel - flicking playing cards into a top hat. Paul takes a different approach.
How we pass our time is important. The phrase “spending time” is helpful here. When you spend money you are careful with it, when you spend time you should be equally helpful. After all, you only have so much! The world around us is dotted with potential pitfalls, and when times change they don’t always change for the better. To be intentional in the way you spend time is an important way of living wisely, living in the presence of God.
The final of Paul’s pair of opposites give us help in how to spend that time: “and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”. Here we find two ways of seeking joy, but they lead in opposite directions. To be “drunk with wine” (or other ways of seeking happiness though material means) is fleeting and false. Mere distractions. To be filled with the Spirit is to be changed, and have happiness within. No need to seek for it elsewhere. But how might one be filled with the Spirit? Paul continues:
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Note that Paul begins with something we do together: “addressing one another…”. Worshipping together in church is something which strengthens, and Christianity is something best done in groups. We encourage one another as we sing, and the Covid restrictions have certainly showed us what we lose when congregational singing is prohibited. Singing is a heart affair, and the heart withers without it.
Next in line is thankfulness, thanking God for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. To understand your life is a gift from God is a joyous thing. To thank God for his grace is not only proper, but reminds us that we have received gifts. To be thankful is a joyful and wise pattern of living, but it does need some thought. It is not something which comes naturally as we like to think we deserve all the good which comes our way. To feed you prayers by going back over your day and identifying the things for which you may give thanks is a most helpful practice.
Paul finishes on a note of service: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”. If the church is the Body of Christ (and it is) then we see Christ in its members. To serve each other is to serve Christ, and we do so out of reverence for him. True joy is not found in serving yourself, but in serving others. Not selfish, but selfless. This is what it is to be wise, to live in the presence of God.
Yes, Christianity has its doctrine and beliefs but it also has its ways of living. The two are, of course, closely connected - your actions demonstrate your true beliefs - and they reinforce each other. You beliefs are strengthened when you act them out, and the motivation for your actions come from your beliefs. To live wisely is to have the two in harmony with each other. To live wisely is to deepen your knowledge of God, and then act on it.