Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The trouble with vacuums

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour... Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work... so that they may have something to share with those in need. Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up... Ephesians 4:25-29

A vacuum is defined, apparently, as “space devoid of matter”. To you and me, in plain terms: emptiness.

Vacuums can be used by scientists - which is why, when I was a child and we went out for the day, we were grateful for a wonderful invention called a “vacuum flask” to keep our tea hot. And why, to this day, we still clean our homes with a “vacuum cleaner”. (What these devices have to do with vacuums I haven’t a clue, but who cares? - they work, and that’s what matters, so three cheers for vacuums, say I.)

But there is a saying from the ancient world which points out a problem: Nature hates a vacuum. Which means, presumably, that a vacuum is not likely to stay empty for long - all sorts of things, presumably nasty things, will come muscling their way in to fill it (a bit like a garden-shed, I suppose, or a top drawer, or a spare room, or a loft).

But if nature hates a vacuum, it’s also true that the devil loves a vacuum. Which is why, as Christians, we are called to fill our lives with good things, not just empty them of bad things. The negative must be replaced by the positive.

See what Paul says to the Ephesian Christians...

They must “put off falsehood”, ie, stop lying and deceiving. But Paul doesn’t stop there: they are also to “speak truthfully to your neighbour”. Thieves must “steal no longer”. But again he doesn’t stop there: they are also to “work, doing something useful”, and, even more, to “have something to give to the poor”. Again, they are not “to let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths”, but “only what is helpful... that it may benefit those who listen”.

In short, while it’s obviously good to stop lying, stealing and speaking badly, etc, it’s vital then to replace these bad practices with good and wholesome ones. If you don’t, you’re inviting all sorts of nasties to fill the vacuum. An alcoholic may succeed in stopping drinking: great. But they need then to find other things with which to fill the emptiness.

Think Zacchaeus (Luke 19). He was, it seems, a greedy little thief, using his official role as a tax-collector to defraud people and line his own pockets. But then he met Jesus, and his life was transformed as he felt the warmth of his purity and love. So what did he say - “All right, Lord, I promise not to steal and defraud any more”? No: “Look, Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” Luke 19:8) Wow!

Zacchaeus made that extravagant promise out of the sheer joy of being loved and forgiven. But perhaps he also instinctively sensed that the new vacuum in his life needed to be filled with good things.

Or think of Jesus’ strange parable of the “impure spirits” (Matthew 12:43-45). A man is cleansed of a wicked spirit’s presence; which is great. But the spirit cannot find alternative accommodation, so decides to “return to the house I left”. This he now finds to be “unoccupied [note that], swept clean and put in order”; so, thinking “Yay, this is my lucky day!”, he runs off and collects “seven other spirits more wicked” than himself to live there - “and the final condition of that person is worse than the first”.

I don’t claim to know the full meaning of that story (Jesus seems to apply it to the nation of Israel as a whole, not only to individuals). But it certainly confirms the thought that the devil loves a vacuum, and is very adept at filling it.

How can we avoid this danger? How can we act to replace the negative with the positive?

It calls for clear thinking, God-given discernment, and strict self-discipline - not to mention also the support of fellow-Christians and other friends. It’s a long-term project, not a quick fix.

But what a sense of achievement and satisfaction it brings! It means that we are becoming the kind of human beings God created us to be: being re-made, in fact, in the likeness of Jesus.

Paul himself puts it clearly a little earlier: “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” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

To change the picture: gardening can be hard work - but who doesn’t prefer flowers to weeds?

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God,/ In every part with praise,/ That my whole being may proclaim/ Thy being and thy ways. Amen. (Horatius Bonar)

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