You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself.… Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great.” I’m quoting from New York Times columnist David Brooks’ book The Road to Character. Brooks is here listing some of the messages that are becoming more and more common in our world—and he thinks it’s a real problem. He calls it “the gospel of self-trust” (p. 7). Whether it’s Disney princesses or graduation speeches, these messages, according to Brooks and many other commentators, are indicative of the prevalence of ‘narcissism’ in Western society.
While narcissism is technically a psychological diagnosis, the word is also used to talk about a more general social attitude. Narcissism goes way beyond normal, healthy self-esteem. It’s the focussing of everything, and everyone, on yourself and your own desires. And apparently, narcissism as a social attitude is alarmingly on the rise. More and more, we’re being conditioned to have an instinctive reaction that makes everything about me: my own desires and feelings and rights. This is having serious implications for the way we think about each other and our families, and even for the way we run our nations. Political parties are finding it harder and harder to reach consensus and to govern for the good of all, because they’re driven by the need to satisfy all the desires of individual special interest-groups who all vote along these individual lines.
The Bible gives us a very different vision for living life. It is the exact opposite of the narcissistic attitude. It points us away from ourselves and towards something greater. A Christian is, fundamentally, a person who admits that it’s not all about me, and who lives for someone else: Jesus Christ. This truth is often highly confronting. But as we come to look at Ephesians 1:4–6, we see that it is also incredibly comforting.
God has blessed us in Christ—for he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his presence; in love he predetermined that we should be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace. (Eph 1:4-6a)
God chose us: be confronted and comforted
…he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his presence (Eph 1:4)
The first thing we’re confronted by in these verses is the fact that God “chose us”. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the people who choose. In fact, we can often think and act as if human choice is the most important thing in the world. After all, we choose what to buy; we choose what to wear; we choose how to live; we choose who we spend our lives with; indeed we choose who we are—so often we are told that our very identity is up to us to decide. So surely, we should also choose God? Yet here, we’re confronted by a God who chose us before we chose him! And just in case there’s any confusion about whose choice comes first, Paul speaks deliberately about God’s choice in terms of the time dimension. God chose us before the foundation of the world. He predetermined (or ‘predestined’) us to be adopted as his children. God made decisions about us long before we had any hope of making any decisions about him. This is philosophically very deep and complex. It’s true that our decisions are still real, and that we’re responsible for our decisions. Somehow, God works out his own prior plans even through those real decisions of ours. We could spend forever exploring the complexities. But let’s not lose sight of the main point Paul is making here. There’s a prior decision of God that goes before our decisions. That’s true even if we don’t realise it, or even if we decide we don’t like it! It strikes to the heart of any narcissism we might like to entertain in ourselves. It’s bigger than you and me, and it puts us firmly in our place.
Does that sound confronting? It is! But remember that these statements about God’s prior choice aren’t designed to crush us. In fact, they’re there to lift us up. They are actually the very first in a list of blessingsfrom God (see verse 3)! Paul here doesn’t talk about God’s prior choice as if it’s some annoying problem or a philosophical conundrum. Rather, it’s a blessing; a gift of God’s grace! Why is that? Because it means that our future and our lives are in God’s hands. As many deep Christian thinkers down through the ages have recognised, this truth is profoundly comforting. In fact, the fundamental statements of my own Anglican denomination say that when people consider predestination in a godly way it is full of “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort”. Why is that? Because it means that our relationship with God is not all up to us. God has it sorted. God’s in control. And when you think about it—who would you rather have in control of all this? The all-powerful, good creator of the universe? The one who loves us? Or would you rather be in control yourself? Imagine if you were in control of it all. How do you think that would go?
God adopted us: be confronted and comforted
…in love he predetermined that we should be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace. (Eph 1:4b–6a)
Paul also speaks about the blessing of being adopted by God: “in love he predetermined that we should be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself”. This is what it means to be a Christian: it means to be someone whom God has loved and has taken in as his child. And this happens “through Jesus Christ”. We can call God Father by believing in his only Son, Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the reason we know he loves us is that he loves his Son Jesus Christ, and we are ‘in Christ’.
Again, this truth can be very confronting, can’t it? It means that God made a choice about us before we made any choices about him. We don’t choose our parents (well, there’s a man who’s suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent, but I don’t like his chances). And in the final analysis, we didn’t choose to be adopted by God. As much as we may have made a real decision to accept God as Father, God is the one who made the prior decision about adopting us.
But again, this truth of adoption is wonderfully comforting. I’ve heard children who are adopted telling me that when they’re teased by their friends, they have a great comeback: “My parents chose me, but yours just had you!” To know that God has set his love on us, that he wants to be in a relationship with us as a loving heavenly Father, is a powerful thing. We can know him intimately; we can call him Father. We don’t just consider God from a distance as some detached creator or angry judge. He hears us when we pray to him as “Father”. Praying to God “our Father” isn’t a penance or a chore; it’s a beautiful privilege. He loves us. This is a great comfort.
A reason to live, and a reason to share
What do these truths in Ephesians do for us?
Firstly, they make us humble. They remind us that it’s not all about me. They help us to see God’s great plans that span from before creation to the end of time. They help us to remember that God doesn’t exist to fit into our plans—rather, we exist to fit into his. But as we do that, and humble ourselves, we discover the wonder and privilege of being known as God’s children.
Secondly, they give us a reason to live for God. God had a goal when he chose us: “to be holy and blameless in his presence”. If it were up to us and we were left all by ourselves, we would be unholy and blameworthy—worthy only of judgment in God’s presence. But God’s choice of us changes that. He forgives us through Jesus (see verse 7), and frees us from blame. And he makes us holy—special to him and special for him. This holiness is something we possess right now, through believing in Jesus (see verse 1). But as Ephesians goes on, we see that holiness is also something to work on—something to make more and more real in our lives. You might ask: “If God has already chosen us to be holy, where’s the incentive to work on greater holiness in our lives? Surely we need some incentive to do better?” But that’s just not getting it. If you’re asking about ‘incentives’, you’re acting like a customer, or an employee, or a slave of God. But that’s not what God has chosen us to be. We are dearly loved, adopted children. The more a child knows they are loved, the less they need threats and external incentives. They want to please their parents. We have a great incentive to live lives of holiness: we know that God has already got holiness sorted for us. We don’t need to prove ourselves and earn it. We grow in holiness because God our loving Father has chosen us to be holy and blameless before him.
Thirdly, as we see more in the rest of Ephesians, these truths give us a reason to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. We can be confident that God is in control. We can be secure in the knowledge that God is achieving his purposes to bring to himself the people he has chosen to believe in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, as we keep reading Ephesians, we see that he’s achieving these purposes through human beings. Yes—he’s putting his choice into effect through the preaching of the gospel. We don’t yet know who he’s chosen—but we don’t need to know or speculate. We just need to pray and humbly get on with it. And because it’s not all up to us, we don’t have to be anxious about our weaknesses and failures. We can simply rejoice that God uses our humble efforts to achieve his purposes.
What do you find hard or discouraging about the Christian life?
What truths from Ephesians might help to lift your eyes and help you to stand?