Sunday, March 23, 2014

Put off...put on: Ephesians 4:17-32

How interesting that today's Life Group lesson should be about Ephesians 4:17-32. We continue our in-depth look at this wonderful epistle by Paul. Interesting because of how the subject matter dovetails with my current research into a literary figure of the 19th Century. The passage that particularly caught my eye was:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
The apostle's metaphor is subtle but clear. The image is of changing clothes. He says put off, whereas today we would say take off, and put on. The intent is, I believe, unmistakable. Clothing ourselves is an activity that everyone does, and we all can understand. It's also something deliberate. The cleansing from sin that comes at the moment of salvation is a supernatural thing, brought about from God's mercy through Jesus' sacrifice, at the moment we request it. That request is made evident by a stated sorrow for our sins and intention to turn from them and towards God. We can't gain our own salvation without God, as Paul has clearly said earlier in Ephesians.

But now he seems to be saying that this putting off of the old man and putting on the new is something we control. It is a deliberate action on our part. Paul goes into more specifics. Put off falsehood is the first. Yes, that seems right, that truthfulness is something within our control. We don't need a divine intervention to make that happen. Every day, in every conversation, we decide 1) to not lie, and 2) to tell the truth. We take off a garment, perhaps a hat, an old faded falling apart one, and put on a new one, fresh from the store.

That's not to say that it's easy, or that we don't need to ask for help, both human and divine. We do, especially if falsehood (or any of the other things that Paul writes about after that) has been a habit for a long time. In that case our own strength will fail us, over and over again. We need human help through stronger Christian friends and accountability partners. We need the extra strength that God gives when only we ask. With these, changing our spiritual clothes should be possible, and the new garments, once put on, will never fade, soil, or wear out, if only we continue to wear them.

Now, concerning the other factor about this. I've reported here, and at my other blog, that I'm researching the writings of Thomas Carlyle. He was a British writer who lived from 1795-1881, writing some amazing works of non-fiction. He wrote literary criticism as well as cultural and political pieces, though he really wasn't primarily a political thinker/philosopher, though that was certainly part of his portfolio. He was one of the biggest literary names in Victorian England.

One of Carlyle's most creative works was an odd book titled Sartor Resartus. That would be translated The Tailor Retailored. It was a the life and opinions of a fictional German tailor/philosopher, and it centered around the philosophy of clothes. Now, I've tried reading this work, and have never yet gone all the way through it. The language is strange, and I find I need maximum powers of concentration to read it with any understanding. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the ideas in it, while lamenting that the vehicle (i.e. the writing style and oddness of diction) would put people off and limit his readership, but that it would eventually find a large readership. This is exactly what happened. Even today, people read and analyze Sartor Resartus as an important, break-out work.

So, understanding that I have yet to read it, this comes from reading a few critiques of it, with writing easier to understand than the book itself. The gist of it is that clothes both hide and reveal. They cover our nakedness, but reveal the body at the same time, and further reveal something about the person wearing the clothes. In the case of Paul's metaphor of putting off the old man and putting on the new, the clothes reveal something about us. The clothes of hard hearts, insensitivity, futile thinking, darkened understanding reveal that life practices that are opposed to the clothes of righteousness. The clothes reveal. Yet at the same times the clothes conceal. The clothes of righteousness and holiness can be donned by one who knows neither of those, who walks in the old ways yet puts on clothes that look like a new self.

Paul talks always in the pair of suits of clothing. Putting off the old isn't enough. You must also put on the new. So it's not enough to put off falsehood. You must also speak truthfully. Paul also gives a reason for this: we are all members of one body. You must no longer steal; you must work with your hands. Why? In order to share with those in need.

I enjoy Paul's metaphors. As much as I struggle with developing metaphors for my own writing, I need to study this. And obviously not just for the metaphor, but also for the building up of the new man I became almost forty years ago.