“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Understanding that by “Gentiles,” Paul is talking about people who are not followers of Jesus, this is an uncomfortable verse. It’s not so bad that Paul calls us not to do life as they do. The uncomfortable part–especially given our culture’s embrace of pluralism and a particular understanding of tolerance–is what comes next. Paul describes them as futile of mind, darkened in understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, and having hardened hearts. Try tweeting that out sometime.
You will be labeled an intolerant, bigoted, hater so fast it’ll leave your head spinning. If you made that your Facebook post, I suspect it would be taken down. When I originally posted my sermon “Test Every Spirit” a few weeks ago on this blog, a post which included the idea that Christ is the measuring stick for every idea we encounter and that if they don’t measure up they need to be rejected, it was initially taken down by Facebook because they thought it might “violate the community standards.” They restored it after a couple of days and have now erased just about any record that it happened including changing the original notification language to say they thought it was a spam post, but if that triggered an alarm, what Paul writes here definitely would.
But…if you accept the idea that God is the definer of reality and the chief determining agent for what is true and what is not, what Paul says here has some merit. In other words, he’s not being pejorative, he’s being descriptive.
Think about it: If someone is futile in their mind, or their thinking, what does that mean? It means their thoughts and ponderings ultimately profit them nothing. Maybe there appears to be a short-term gain from them, but in the end, the result will be emptiness and a total lack of substance. Well, for someone who is disconnected from God and seeking truth in all kinds of other places, their efforts will ultimately be futile. They won’t find it there. They won’t find it anywhere else. Any thinking they do in those directions will profit them nothing.
How about this being “darkened in their understanding” piece? Well, if God is the light, then if they are understanding the world through a lens other than Him then, yes, their understanding will be darkened. They are using a lens that does not let in much light. It may allow some light in as most other worldviews touch on the truth in at least a few places, but by separating itself from the full truth, it’s light will only be dim at best.
What about the rest? What about this stuff about unbelievers being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance in them due to their hardness of heart? Again…that’s true. It’s not a very comforting, encouraging, or socially acceptable truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Think about it like this: Why wouldn’t someone accept Jesus as Lord? Because their heart is hard in one place or another. They may have a story that in their minds justifies their rejection. It may be such a good story that if we were in their shoes, we would have reacted in exactly the same way. But that doesn’t change the fact that their heart is hard.
And why is it hard? Because for some reason they are ignorant of the full character of God. They are ignorant of the sheer weight of glory of what He is offering them. They are ignorant of the consequences of staying on the path they’ve chosen for themselves thus far. This could be a fairly innocent ignorance (they haven’t had anyone explain the Gospel clearly to them and are thus operating on the basis of the bit they’ve gleaned from the culture around them), or it could be a willfully chosen one (they’ve heard the Gospel and possibly chosen to believe something else because of a bad experience they had along the way kind of like a child who covers his ears because he doesn’t want to hear something he doesn’t like), but it’s an ignorance all the same. And the result of this is that the person is alienated from the life of God.
The fact is, the Scriptures are true and right in every single thing they affirm. This doesn’t mean the truths are always easy to stomach, but this doesn’t make them any less true. The fact is, what Paul is describing here is the natural state of anyone who is not a follower of Jesus. As intelligent as they may be, their minds are not working like they should because they have willfully rejected significant portions of reality. They are trying to run a machine without all the parts it was intended to have. Maybe it’ll work for a time, but not very well and the results will not be good.
For we who are followers of Jesus, this should not be a point of pride, but rather one that moves us both to compassion in our approach to them and a fierce commitment to sharing the Gospel with them so they are not left in such a sad state any longer than is absolutely necessary.
The simple truth is that anyone who is separated from God is missing out on life as it was intended to be lived. If you are one who is enjoying it rightly, you know that’s not a state of affairs anyone should be left in for long. As Paul says here, we who know the truth need to make certain we aren’t living like we don’t, and we need to make sure they don’t have to either.