As Christians, our inward needs cry out by the dozens. Nothing on the surface is able to answer. Nothing delivers the serious supply required for life at another level. Well, almost nothing.
The Hazards of Ignorance
Once upon a time my wife and I lived in a little house with a long brick planter in front. For a while that planter sat empty. Then one day, we (that is, my wife), decided to spruce the place up with flowers. I wanted ferns, instead. Ferns are cool, like in all the jungle movies. So we put some in the planter. Within about two weeks they started to die. After several more weeks, and desperate rescue attempts, the planter was full of brown skeletal remains.
We tore all the ferns out, deciding to go low maintenance instead. So I poured a big bag of wildflower seed in the planter. We ended up reaping what you see along the shoulder of the interstate—weeds with tiny token flowers. Our house started to look like a couple of hillbillies were living there. All we needed was a car on blocks and a couple of chickens.
We ripped all the wildflowers out of that planter and decided to let it be dirt. I concluded that I had a brown thumb. Of course, the brown thumb is a myth—there’s no such thing. There’s only such a thing as a guy who didn’t learn about the principles of plant care and maintenance.
Your Life as a Plant
There are principles of care and maintenance for the Christian life, too. Unfortunately, most of us ignore them, like I did with my failed adventures in gardening. That’s dangerous. Consider a story Jesus told, where He portrayed Himself as a man sowing seed in a field. The seed represents His word. The soil represents the human heart.
Matthew 13:5 says,
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.”
Root and depth are critical principles neglected in the Christian life. Too many of us are interested in Christian activities, Christian culture, and Christian events, but not the deeper, internal dimension where so many of our needs lie. You can ignore it, but as the parable points out, sooner or later the sun will rise, a necessary thing for all life, but a killing thing for the shallow seed.
The parable implicitly cautions us against neglecting depth and root. If you do, eventually something will happen—suffering, persecution, or offense—and you’re not going to last.
False Starts and Real Answers
How do we address our depth deficit? The Apostle Paul lays it out in Ephesians 5.
He starts by telling us not to get drunk—“Do not be filled with wine.” Human beings resort to alcohol because we think it is a valid answer to inward needs like grief or loneliness, anxiety, or just plain old boredom. Wine is only one possible drug of choice. Other candidates might include shopping, pornography, money, food, or anything else we might use to self-medicate.
Paul says these are not a solution. They actually make things worse, because they lead to “debauchery,” an excessive involvement in sensual pleasure. Sensual answers cannot satisfy the deep immaterial questions of the human heart. Think of the actress who finally wins an Oscar, only to reveal that she has never been more lonely. Or the guy whose business has generated its first ten million, but says he’s never been more empty.
The Apostle has an alternative—“Be filled with the Spirit.” If his solution sounds religiously clichéd to modern ears, then that is a commentary on our own ignorance. Consider Genesis chapter 1, when the whole world was a mess. The Earth was without form and void, empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. But in that same verse, it says the Spirit was hovering upon the face of the water (v.2). He was there, in the middle of all the dark disorder.
When God started speaking, His Word, together with the Spirit, brought light, and then dry land, vegetation, fish, birds, animals, and finally on the sixth day, the image of God. The Spirit was able to bring glory out of chaos.
And Paul said to be filled with that Spirit.
Call me biased, but his solution sounds like a reasonable alternative to marijuana.
The Church—Relevant, Promising, and Regular
Remember that these verses are written to believers, people who have already received the Holy Spirit. Receiving is a one-time event. Filling on the other hand, is ongoing. The question we want to ask is, by what means will this filling occur.
In verse 19, Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” As believers immerse themselves in a church atmosphere of almost celebratory speaking and hearing—Psalms, hymns, spiritual songs—simultaneously, the Spirit fills. How many times have you come back from a meeting rich in joyful words, and you felt enlivened? Perhaps it was a one-on-one encounter over coffee, or a discipleship session, or a small group gathering. At any rate, the Spirit overflowed you and the other participants in His own winsome way.
Not only so, but this horizontal experience of “one another” links with the vertical aspect of “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (v. 19b). Together, these create a complete setting, a container that the Spirit happily moves to fill.
The church could never be a mere production spectators come to watch. It’s a filling station, the place most likely for us to encounter the Spirit. We can certainly be filled with the Spirit by ourselves, and we should learn private spiritual disciplines, as we’ll see in a moment, but this level of regular saturation is less likely to happen in isolation.
Let’s be honest. The grind continues with demanding kids, endless laundry, dinner, dishes, projects, and assorted emergencies. At the end of the day, you’re exhausted, but don’t forget to set your alarm for oh-dark-thirty the next morning, so you can repeat the madness. Under these circumstances, an individually focused time for spiritual saturation can become a hit-or-miss proposition. But church gatherings have the potential to jolt us out of lethargy, reminding us of our untended depths, and offering the Holy Spirit.
The Power of “Thank You”
In verse 20, Paul takes us into a more personalized dimension of experience: Giving thanks. “Be filled…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What, you don’t feel like giving thanks? No kidding. At any given time in life things aren’t going the way any of us want. That’s why we need to be filled with the Spirit—because if not, we’re dwelling in a default wasteland of either anger, disappointment, or hurt.
The solution is not to wait for a better mood to come along. That might not happen for months. Rather than become prisoners of our temperament, we need to make deliberate decisions to address our needs with the Spirit. I recommend traveling the gamut of thankfulness to God. Start with simple things—the weather, your health, your spouse. Thank the Lord for your kids. Yes, they drive you crazy, but you don’t see them on the St. Jude commercials. That means there’s a lot of room for thanks.
If you really want to jump into the deep end of the pool, begin thanking the Lord for His redemption. Deeper? Thank Him for His divine government where the glorious Christ reigns as Lord of all. Or you can try the Mariana Trench, by thanking God for His holy kingdom that will renovate the world in fire. The more profound the thanks, the more profound the filling.
Winning by Losing
Finally, in verse 21, Paul says we should be filled, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Let’s eliminate the idea of submission to physical violence from one another and things like sexual abuse. Submission is more legitimately realized in the church when we don’t insist on getting our way. When you back off something and decide to let go of an issue out of reverence for Christ, the Spirit fills you. Conversely, when you’re conscious of trying to win a power struggle, your spiritual supply seems to strangulate down to a trickle.
I once visited a small church where two women had been embroiled in a battle of wills for a long time. Eventually it became so bad the two had a fist fight. Months later, in the aftermath, I sat down separately with each family and listened as they laid out their version of the event. Each had compelling reasons as to why the other was wrong.
Both were equally “innocent,” but I couldn’t help but notice that both were spiritually depleted, as if low tide had occurred, and every rock on their shore lay exposed. To encounter either one of them was to encounter their problem with the other. Both had a similar thought—“I’ve got my rights.” True, I thought, but you also have the “right” to run on empty your entire Christian life. Is that what you want?
Submission to one another offers a powerful conduit for the Spirit into your heart. That’s why in the following verses, when Paul describes a spiritual family life, he mentions a wife submitting to a godly, loving husband, and kids submitting to parents. The apostle also included slaves submitting to masters, demonstrating that in the ancient world, even the lowest person on the totem pole could be filled and empowered with the Spirit.
The Days Ahead
Christians routinely ignore, even disdain, the exercises of speaking to one another (Church? Nope. I don’t have time for the hassle), giving thanks (Nah, not until my life turns around), and submitting to one another (No way. I will not be a doormat).
For this reason, it’s not unusual to meet believers who can count the number of times on one hand that they’ve experienced being filled. They might know the rudimentary teachings about Jesus. But they hardly know the Holy Spirit.
We were saved once for all through the death and resurrection of Christ. Past that point, the Spirit seeks to save us thousands of times, not from eternal hell, but from the shallows where we tend to settle.
We decided once. Now we need to decide daily.