There has been an accident. You’ve been hit hard, and you cannot lift that leg. They examine you, they flex your muscles, they look for broken bones. If the condition persists, they may stick pins into the soles of your feet. They are trying to find out whether you can feel anything. They are testing for insensitivity, because if you are past feeling, you are in trouble. If you are insensitive, you may have damaged yourself seriously. Your body will not work as it is supposed to, when sensitivity is dulled.
The world in which the first Christians lived was an insensitive world, a world in which caring for others had all but disappeared. Fully a third of the population had been enslaved. The Romans indulged themselves in whatever hurried pleasures came to mind. Their entertainments were obscene and coarse, often portraying sexual intimacies with reckless laughter. Their games were vicious and bloody, pitting grown men against each other in sports contests that quickly degenerated into blood-letting. They showed no sensitivity at all to those who were degraded by this, and either paid them off or wrote them off without a moment’s worry.
That first century world had made life a very cheap thing. They claimed to believe in marriage, but marriages were routinely abandoned. They claimed to value women, but men looked for companionship outside of marriage, and were not ashamed of it. Their worst insensitivity showed up in their treatment of children. Abortions were widespread, and when children were born, if they were weak, they were abandoned and allowed to die. Some even deliberately destroyed their female infants, or, if they allowed them to live, raised them to become prostitutes.
How unfeeling this all sounds! How incredibly callous, how cold and harsh! You say, how can people act this way? Didn’t they have any feelings? Yes, but they had lost them. Paul, in the Ephesian letter, provides a rich but succinct analysis of how people got to this point and what the consequences are. He is the master psychologist, who, with a few pen strokes, tells us about what happens when sensitivity is dulled.
Let’s bring it up to date. Let’s ask about ourselves, about now. How is it that people in our own time can be careless about one another? Don’t we have any feelings? How can someone step up and point a pistol and take another person’s life, apparently with not even a second thought? How can someone beat a small child until she is lifeless? How can anyone force women into intimacies they do not want? How can this happen? Is there nothing to stem this cold, harsh business? Is there nothing to awaken feeling, nothing to sharpen sensitivity?
I want us first to learn about what happens when sensitivity is dulled. I think it is very important that we look at Paul’s analysis.
Insensitivity begins with ignorance. Insensitivity starts with an empty mind. Sensitivity is dulled begins when someone has not learned what is right and what is wrong.
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding,
Futility of mind means emptiness. Empty heads. Nobody home. Darkened understanding means "clouded." They understand some things, but it’s clouded. Shielded from the light. In a fog.
The Bible is telling us that there are some things that people need to know, but they do not learn them on their own. It is telling us that we start to go wrong just because we don’t know some very basic things about right and wrong. Empty heads, clouded understanding.
If you do not teach a little child what "hot" means, and that she had better not touch something hot, she’s going to get burned a few times and maybe she will be seriously hurt. But we can teach her about "hot", can’t we? We may not be able to prevent a little toddler from experimenting, but we can at least work at teaching her what "hot" is all about. Now if you do not teach someone what "wrong" means, and that he had better not do something wrong, he’s going to try it a few times, maybe lots of times. We can’t prevent people from sinning,
but we can at least teach them that some things are right and some things are wrong, and that if you do the wrong ones, you will get hurt, and so will others. Sensitivity is dulled from lack of knowledge. As the Bible says, "My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge."
Have you noticed that we don’t like to get specific any more? We’re willing to teach in vague generalities about love and being nice to one another, but we don’t like to get too specific. We are afraid that somebody won’t like it. That is the beginning of disaster. Our families, our churches, our society -- all of us need to revitalize our concepts of right and wrong. We need to recognize that right is right, even if nobody is doing it, and that wrong is wrong, even if everybody is doing that. Otherwise the world will be empty heads and clouded understanding, ignorance.
But then ignorance leads to the next level. Ignorance brings about something deeper. Paul says that people with empty heads and clouded understanding are "alienated from the life of God because, of their ignorance and hardness of heart." If they have not been taught anything, they are separated from the life of God.
Do you see the cause and effect relationship? Because of their ignorance they are alienated from the life of God. If I know nothing of my Father, if I don’t have a clue as to what He is all about, then I don’t connect with Him. I don’t hook up with Him.
I’ve noticed that lots of you go to these great big family reunions. You go somewhere and you meet with literally hundreds of other people, most of whom have the same last name as yours, lots of them look like you (poor souls), and
you reconnect. Now what is really happening when you go to these family reunions? You are getting back in touch with the family’s values. You are renewing the relationships out of which your moral fiber is constructed. What do you do at these reunions? You rehearse the family’s history, you tell once again stories you have heard a hundred times before, but it’s important to tell them again, because those stories tell you who you are and what you stand for. Knowing is tied to relationship. Knowing your family’s story reinforces what is important and strengthens the connection.
Now I’ve tried to learn a lot about this family reunion tradition, because this is foreign to me. It’s not something I’ve shared in since I was a child. I don’t even know whether some of my cousins are alive or dead, and don’t know how to find them. Because I know nothing of them, I am disconnected from them. Because I know nothing of them, I have no relationship with them, and I don’t especially care about them. I don’t know what makes them tick, so I am not sensitive to their needs.
In just the same way, those who are not taught God’s word are out of relationship with Him. Those who have spent no time with God’s people don’t know the Father. Those who have not been trained to do things God’s way have gone on their own ways, like lost sheep. Ignorance is not bliss, contrary to popular proverb. Ignorance is a breach of fellowship; ignorance of God’s ways takes you out of fellowship with God.
And that’s where sensitivity gets lost. That’s where we lose the capacity to feel. When you are out of touch with God, you have no sense of the life of God, your heart does not beat with His heart, then you lose the capacity to feel. Your sensitivity will be dulled.
Review the Scripture to see how this slippery slope works:
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity ...
The slippery slope is this: if you do not know about God, then you will not know God personally. And if you do not know God personally, you will lose the ability to feel, for God and for others. Again: if you do not know about God, then you will not know God personally. And if you do not know God personally, if you are alienated from the life of God, that will destroy compassion, and you will gradually stop caring. You will become callous; your sensitivity will be dulled. You will become morally numb. What happens to others will be of little consequence to you. You will slowly but surely become mean, cantankerous, selfish, and vicious. And as the years go by and you get older, you will become insufferable to those around you and miserable for yourself.
Isn’t that a picture? Ignorance of right and wrong leads to estrangement from God; estrangement from God leads to a cold, calculating, feelingless life. If you want to learn about this, go with me to some senior adult home. You may think that you would be going into a haven for sweet old saints, and there will be some of those, of course. But I assure you that will see something else as well. You will see people who have spent years getting their sensitivities dulled, and now all they can think about or talk about is themselves and their own wants, me, me, me. Nothing is ever good enough, nothing is ever right, nothing satisfies. Why? Because knowing little or nothing of God, they are alienated from the life of God; and alienated from the life of God, they have lost all sensitivity. What a picture!
And, in fact, the picture gets worse, because the companion of insensitivity is oppressing others. The mark of a dulled sensitivity is a destructive self-absorption. Incredibly unhappy. Incredibly unhappy, and intolerable for those
around such a person. What does the Bible say?
They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
The end result of the slide down to callous insensitivity is a knotty, ugly selfishness. Paul describes it in a very pointed way. "Licentiousness" and "impurity". These words can point to sexual sins. The meaning can be broader than sexual sins, but it is right on target to include sexual issues, because, have you noticed, when a person dulls sensitivity, that is often expressed sexually? When a person abandons caring about others ’feelings, you will find that it often comes out as the utter selfishness of inappropriate sexual expression. "Oh, baby, baby, I want you." In other words, "I want to have what I want to have, now you give it to me, don’t care what you want." From Adam and Eve feeling shame, through Aaron allowing Israel an orgy around the golden calf, all the way through the Bible’s account of rapes and abuses and adulteries, just pay attention. When we have lost our sensitivity for others, when we no longer care about others, watch for that to show up in sexual misbehavior.
I do not, mind you, say that in order to condemn the sexual sinner more than any other kind. Sin is sin is sin, however it is expressed. I am just saying that here is a clue to what insensitivity looks like. One more time: ignorance of truth leads to separation from God. Separation from God leads to a dulled sensitivity. And that dulled sensitivity, that inability to feel anything much for anybody but ourselves, that interprets why we act the way we do. That tells us why we hurt and exploit others, when sensitivity is dulled.
Would you agree, then, that we are in trouble! We human beings are in trouble, and the hard part is that when sensitivity is dulled, we don’t even realize any longer how far down we have gone. We don’t even know the danger we are in.
So, now, are you ready for some good news? Are you ready to discover whether there is a way out of this mess? Are you ready to see if we can get our sensitivity back?
Yes!? Good news! Yes, we can. We don’t have to stay lost. We don’t have to wallow in insensitivity. Though sensitivity is dulled and feelings are suppressed, we are not hopeless. There is a way back. And it parallels the way down.
Remember the way down? Ignorance, alienation, insensitivity, selfishness. Now the way up tracks the way down. The way up is learn, learn Christ, put off the old, put on the new self.
First, you can be taught. Just as the way down began with ignorance of right and wrong, the way forward begins with learning. Paul reminds us,
That is not the way you learned Christ!
And then goes on,
For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him
The first step on the way back to sensitivity is to learn. To look at the life of Jesus and learn what human beings were intended to be. To discover what compassion looks like. Learning works to give us sensitivity. We found out, during the old, dismal days of racial segregation, that prejudice was based on ignorance, but that when you taught people about others who were different, when you gave them the truth about those they had never really encountered, some of them -- not all, of course, but some -- walked away from their insensitive, prejudiced attitudes. Learning works.
The first step on the way to sensitivity is to learn. The first step on the path to becoming a compassionate person is to find out what the issues of life are.
But now did you notice how Paul puts it? He does not speak about learning moral principles. He does not speak about studying ethical philosophy. He speaks about learning Christ, about learning this person. Listen to the text again:
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.
Learning Christ .. as truth is in Jesus. Now how do you learn a person? You can learn an academic subject, you can memorize facts, but how do you learn a person? Is it just a matter of accumulating facts and figures? If I know your height, weight, birth date, Social Security number, address, and phone number, do I know you? I do not. If we go out, as we will do soon now, to find an interim youth minister, and we get a resume, all neatly typed up, in front of us, is that all we need before we hire somebody? Of course not. Why not? Because human beings are more than information. Life is relationship. Reality is in personal connection. My father-in-law used to like to say that a scientist might be able to describe his wife as a very complex series of mathematical equations and chemical formulas, but, if he is at all a wise man, he’d better not do that to her face! Real knowledge cannot be reduced to information. Real knowledge is more than learning about. Real knowledge is relationship, fellowship, communion. So our hope comes in learning Christ, not just knowing about Christ. Our hope comes from knowing Christ personally, being in fellowship with Christ. That’s the way back. That’s what is going to sharpen our sensitivity. Not just looking at His compassion, but experiencing it. Not just knowing the theology of the cross, but receiving the gift of forgiveness.
When you really know that the truth is in Jesus, when you are in a relationship with Him, you want to be different. You want to be like Him. You want to please Him. You want to care. Here it is in the Scripture:
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
If you know about Christ, and you are in fellowship with Him, you want to put away self. You want to take your eyes off yourself, you don’t focus any longer on what makes you feel good, and you start to have room for somebody else. Your sensitivity is renewed, if you know Christ.
I know I’ve told you before the story of my call to ministry. But I want to repeat just one little snapshot out of that story. I had been struggling with what I ought to do. I had pretty well determined that I would leave engineering school and take on this new direction. But the crowning moment, the clincher came when I was out walking, and I passed a church where they had erected a cross in the yard. And on that cross a Scripture verse was printed, "Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?" "Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?" That sharpened my sensitivity. I felt something then. I already had some information, and I was in fellowship with Christ, but those things led me to feel and to care. I found out that it did matter to me what Christ had done on that cross. It did matter. My sensitivity was sharpened.
And the glory of it is, when this happens to you, you get more than you ever asked for. You get something far better than what you gave up. You get renewal. You get a whole new self. Paul says,
[You will] clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
You get a whole new self, and it is so glorious to be a sensitive and loving person, that you will never really want to go back to the old self again. Living right will not be something you have to do; it will be something you want to do. Living as God asks us to live will not be a burden or an obligation, it will be a privilege and a joy.
I wonder today, do you feel empty, without feelings? Do you feel as though you are devoid of compassion and you just don’t care any more? Then learn of Christ and learn Christ. Learn and live in Christ, and you will find a whole new life,
and you’ll never want to go back to the old one. Why give up feeling for dullness?
We had some folks over for a meal the other night, and Margaret served some spicy food. I announced my own preference for exotic tastes; I told someone that if I go to a Chinese restaurant, and a menu item doesn’t have a star next to it, I’m not interested. I want it hot! But after the guests had left, my wife reminded me that it wasn’t always that way, that I used to go for safe, bland food. But she taught me something different. She taught me, and because I trusted her, I tried something spicy, and now I won’t go back to the bland stuff. My sensitivity has been sharpened, because I learned and I learned from someone I trust.
Learn and live in Christ, and you’ll never want to go back to the old life. Learn and live in Christ, and your sensitivity will be sharpened. Learn and live in Christ and your zest for life will be lifted. Learn and live in Christ, and the mind will be renewed, the heart filled with gladness, the spirit lifted with joy. Learn and live in Christ, and you’ll have a new self.
Remember the way down into dullness- ignorance breaks fellowship with the Father; broken fellowship dulls sensitivity, and life becomes nothing but selfishness and unhappiness. But learn and live in Christ, and our feelings come back, and all the excitement we thought could never be is there again. All the possibilities we had thought were dead come alive again. All the love we thought was used is renewed. Wouldn’t you like a whole new sensitive, spicy self?