Starting Points

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Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament.  They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”  

It’s all about you.
That’s the thesis of As a Man Thinketh, a small book by British philosophical writer James Allen that helped launch a very big movement – the self-help revolution that has powerfully impacted Western culture over the past 100 years.
The title of Allen’s 1903 volume comes from a verse in the book of Proverbs: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, King James Version).  After the title page, however, Allen’s thoughts part company with pretty much everything else in the Bible.   
Allen is convinced that you have it within yourself, right now, to reinvent your own existence.  If you order your thoughts the right way, everything else will follow.  No one else can do this for you.  You will accomplish no more and no less than you’re able and willing to do in your own strength. 
“Each man holds the key to every condition, good or bad, that enters into his life,” he asserts, “and that, by working patiently and intelligently upon his thoughts, he may remake his life, and transform his circumstances.” 
Allen wraps things up by suggesting that life can be like a journey across a storm-tossed lake.  Without mentioning Jesus, he alludes to the gospel account where the disciples have to awaken their sleeping Lord during a gale on the Sea of Galilee, whereupon Jesus miraculously calms the waters.  Allen declares that your “commanding master” who has fallen asleep is really your own mind.  After we awaken him, we have the power to calm our own circumstances. 
The final line of the book is, “Say unto your heart, ‘Peace, be still.’”    
This is heady stuff. 
Allen’s bestseller has helped inform and inspire multiple generations of self-help evangelists – from Norman Vincent Peale to Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins to Joel Osteen.  Singer-songwriter Richard Marx considers As a Man Thinketh his Bible, and always keeps a copy with him. 
When we turn to the actual Bible, however, we encounter a very different message:
It’s not about you.
Yes, Scripture enthusiastically applauds sound thinking, and certainly affirms James Allen’s assertion that whatever people see of us on the outside accurately reflects our thoughts and feelings on the inside.  But when it comes to the starting point for how a person should approach life, the majority of self-help influencers and the Bible’s authors are light years apart.  The former insist that the ball is always in your court.  It’s your move.  The latter insist that the true Actor in life is God.  And our primary task is to sit in wonder and grasp the reality that all the crucial moves are his – and they’ve already been made.
That’s the core message of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. 
Take a look at verses two and three: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
Letters in the ancient world usually began with a greeting.  “Grace and peace to you.”  Every one of the 13 New Testament letters attributed to Paul begin with the word “grace.”  They all end with the word “grace,” too.
Then the writer would offer a prayer for health.  That’s because physical health was never guaranteed.  Life around the Mediterranean world during Bible times was short and precarious.  Plagues could wipe out most of a community within a matter of days.  It was considered good manners to wish one’s readers the blessings of good health.
Paul goes a step further.  He offers a spiritual health assessment that begins in verse 3 and doesn’t stop until verse 14.  In the original Greek, this is the kind of run-on sentence that your middle school English teacher warned you never to write.  But Paul can’t help himself.  He’s overwhelmed by the blessings we have received through Christ, and he can’t bring himself to put down his pen.  What we end up with is something like a seven-layer lasagna: richly textured and nourishing, but quite a bit more than anyone should expect to handle during a single meal.
As we prepare to dive into Paul’s powerful statement, let’s step back a bit.  It’s helpful to appreciate the landscape of Ephesians from 30,000 feet.  Is there an overall structure to this book?
The Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee became known for a sermon called “Sit, Walk, Stand.”  He saw Ephesians as a three-part drama.
“Sit” is comprised of chapters one, two, and three.  Here Paul essentially says, “Sit down.  Don’t move.  If you trust Jesus, then stop trying to be somebody and simply absorb the truth that God has already made you somebody by what he has done in heaven and on earth.  You are his called, chosen, forgiven, and deeply loved child.  Just sit and take that in.” 
In chapters four, five, and the first half of six, Paul says, “Now get up on your feet and start walking.  Live the way God wants you to live.  Since you are God’s called, chosen, forgiven, and deeply loved child, there can’t be any more lying.  And no more fighting or bitterness or hissy fits.  And no more sexual line-crossing.  Learn to be a spiritual grown-up.” 
“Stand” comes in the second half of chapter six.  We are called to take our stand against spiritual evil – whether demonic spirits, principalities and powers, or systemic injustices that are bent on derailing our lives with God.
Sit, Walk, Stand.  In that order.  We launch our study of Ephesians knowing that if we don’t begin by seeking to know God as he really is – what he has done for us and what he really thinks about us – everything else is going to be a mess.
Notice that there is nothing in Paul’s grand opening statement about what we think, what we are doing, or what we are planning next.  This is all about God
Which means that we don’t begin with ourselves
First we think rightly about God.  If we do that, everything else will fall into place.  In fact, the exact nature of our relationship with God rises and falls according to what we think God thinks about us.  In the opening verses of Ephesians, Paul aims to make that very clear – something we will explore in the days ahead. 
During a family visit to a local pumpkin patch, a dad watched his young son trying to pick up a large pumpkin.
The boy was frustrated.  He had his heart set on delivering that pumpkin to the checkout stand.  But he couldn’t get enough leverage to lift it, and definitely didn’t have the strength to carry it.  Finally he gave up.  His father came alongside him.  “Hey, buddy,” he said.  “What’s wrong?  Can’t you carry that pumpkin?” 
“No, I can’t,” he answered.  The father asked, “Have you used all the strength that’s available to you?” The boy nodded that he had.
Then his dad got down beside him and said gently, “No, you haven’t.  You haven’t asked me to help you.”  Without another word he crouched behind his son, put his arms around both child and pumpkin, and stood.  Together they cradled their prize and walked it to the end of the pumpkin patch.
Life is not a series of self-help projects and self-made disasters that we have to face in our own strength.
Remember that your Father “has blessed you in the heavenly realms with every blessing.”  Ask for his help.
Ask today.