I recently read a story of two men in Sweden who, while drunk, took turns strapping on a vest. They believed the vest was “knife proof.” They then began stabbing one another to see if the claim was true. In Australia, a drunk jumped a tall fence and attempted to ride a large alligator in an enclosure. The alligator bit the drunk’s leg off. One forty-two year old man in the U. S., while drunk, walked into his house and took a shower—only it turned out to be someone else’s house.
Singer and actress Whitney Houston died earlier this year from alcohol and drug abuse. Last year, singer Amy Winehouse’s death was due, at least in part, to drug and alcohol abuse. In 2008, actor Heath Ledger died from prescription drug overdose. And even Memphis’ own Elvis Presley, in 1977, died of drug abuse. These are all testimonies to the destructive and reckless behavior which drugs and alcohol can lead to.
Perhaps these are the kinds of stories Paul has in mind when he writes these words: 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery (Eph. 5:18 ESV). Paul writes here about cause and effect. Effect: debauchery. That’s a word we don’t use much anymore. The original meaning of the word is “incurable.” Debauchery literally refers to someone who is not well. Someone not behaving in a healthy way. The word eventually came to refer to “one who lives a wild and undisciplined life.” While telling the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus uses this very word: 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living… (Lk. 15:13 ESV). “Reckless living” is the word Paul uses. Effect: reckless living; debauchery.
Cause? Alcohol. Getting drunk with wine. What causes people to behave in wild and reckless ways is the abuse of alcohol. Paul is saying that if you want to live a wild and reckless life, fill yourself with spirits. If you want to be known for debauchery and despicable behavior, fill yourself with alcohol.
A recent study at the University of Missouri found that too much alcohol actually dulls the part of the brain which warns us when we make a mistake. Normally, when we make a mistake, the part of the brain that monitors our behavior kicks into gear and sends out an alarm that the behavior we’re engaging in is wrong. We need to change course. But alcohol reduces that alarm signal meaning that you no longer realize or care that you’re behaving badly. If you want to live a wild and reckless life, fill yourself with spirits.
Imagine, for some unknown reason, that you wanted to become more wild and reckless in your behavior. Imagine, for some strange reason, that what you longed for was to have your inhibitions and shyness eliminated, your fears significantly reduced, and your self-control gone. Imagine that you wished to be a person who walked into strangers’ homes and took showers or jumped into animal cages and hitched rides on alligators. Imagine that you wanted to be a person who cut short an acting or singing career while you were in your prime. Let’s say that was the vision you had for your life. What could you do to achieve that vision? I suppose you could read some books on how to be more wild and reckless. You could hire someone to coach you to be wild and reckless. You could try really hard to be wild and reckless. Or, Paul says, you could just fill yourself with alcohol. If you fill yourself with spirits, you’ll be led to become that kind of person. Faster than you could have done it by reading books or hiring a coach. Fill yourself with spirits and you’ll become that wild and reckless person you always hoped you’d be.
That, of course, is what Paul is trying to avoid. The reason he does not want us getting drunk is that he knows what will automatically happen. What will inevitably happen is that we will become wild and reckless, hurting ourselves, others and God. Some of you can testify to this very thing. You’ve been drunk and you’ve deeply regretted what happened as a result. Some of you have been hurt by drunk drivers or drunk coworkers or drunk neighbors. You know the destructive power of spirits. If you want to live a wild and reckless life, fill yourself with spirits.
And Paul is saying that’s not the life God wants for us. And it’s not the life any of us want for ourselves. Ask most alcoholics. That’s not the life they want. They want out. They want something completely opposite. Thus, Paul follows this verse with four verbs describing a very different kind of life. Listen to these four verbs. All four verbs are written in a similar style, indicating that Paul is thinking about them as a collection. All four of these actions go together. They comprise the exact opposite of a life of debauchery: 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:19-21 ESV).
Notice the type of life Paul describes here. First, it’s a life of encouraging other people in the most important part of their lives. “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” refers to things we do to encourage others in their spiritual growth and their life with God. That’s something most of us want isn’t it? Don’t we want to be a source of inspiration and courage for people when it comes to their walk with Jesus?
Second, it’s a life of genuine relationship with God. No more hypocrisy. No more going through the motions. No more playing games. “Singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” refers to a life lived with God that is from the heart. It’s not just external. It’s something that comes from deep within you. That’s something many of us want, isn’t it? We want our Christianity to be heartfelt.
Third, it’s a life of gratitude and thankfulness. Don’t you just love people who always have a smile for you, who can always help you find a reason to get up in the morning? Don’t you wish you could whine less and shine more? I think many of us want this. We want to be able to be joyful and positive. We want to be able to “give thanks always and for everything.”
Fourth, it’s a life of submission to others. When Paul writes about “submitting to one another” he simply means putting others before yourself. It’s meeting someone else’s needs before meeting your own. And isn’t that what most of us want? Don’t we want to be known as loving, giving and serving people? Paul is using these four verbs—addressing one another; singing and making melody; giving thanks; and submitting to one another—to describe the kind of life that is the exact opposite of debauchery.
Then what Paul does for the next 21 verses is flesh out that fourth verb—submitting. In his mind, he visits the typical household of his day and he shows how a life of submission—putting others first—would work. In Eph. 6, he shows what it would look like for slaves to put their masters first, and for masters to put their slaves first. He shows what it would look like for children to put their parents first and for parents to put their children first. And in Eph. 5:22-33 he shows what this would look like in marriage. Paul paints a picture of a husband who puts his wife first and he paints a picture of a wife who puts her husband first.
Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful relationship? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a marriage where that it’s normal and expected for a husband to put his wife first and a wife to put her husband first? I recently read of the marriage between long-time movie critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz. Ebert has suffered greatly since 2006 from the effects of cancer. A tumor removed in 1987 reoccurred and stole his voice in 2006. Multiple surgeries ravaged his thyroid, salivary glands and jaw. They left him with a chin whose skin dangles loosely and leaves a gap where his throat should be. He’s nourished by a feeding tube. But one person has helped Ebert through the ordeal: his wife Chaz. In his memoir Life Itself Ebert describes her support during this period of hardship:
How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she is the love of my life, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave. Does that sound too dramatic? You were not there. She was there every day for two years, visiting me in the hospital whether I knew it or not, becoming expert on my problems and medications, researching possibilities, asking questions, making calls, even giving little Christmas and Valentine’s Day baskets to my nurses, whom she knew by name.
I’d venture to say that when it comes to marriage, that’s the kind we want. We want to be able to put our spouse ahead of ourselves no matter the cost. That’s the kind of marriage Paul is describing here.
The question is this: How do we get that? That’s the effect. But what’s the cause? How do we get that kind of marriage? If our current marriage doesn’t look like that, how do we get there? If our marriage does look like that, how do we keep it there? If we hope someday to get married and experience this kind of relationship, what’s it going to take? If this is the effect, what’s the cause?
Paul’s answer is surprising: 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit… (Eph. 5:18 ESV) Here’s the cause: “be filled with the Spirit.” Paul follows the command to “be filled with the Spirit” with these four verbs—addressing one another; singing and making melody; giving thanks; and submitting to one another. He’s saying that if you want a life of those four verbs, it comes by being filled with the Spirit. If we want a marriage characterized by mutual submission, two people regularly putting each other first, Paul’s saying we must be filled with the Spirit.
Paul is saying that if you want to have a loving and lasting marriage, be filled with the Spirit. The key to having that kind of life is to be filled with the Spirit. If you want a life of debauchery, be filled with spirits. But if you want a marriage like this, be filled with the Spirit. Timothy Keller writes: Without the help of the Spirit, without a continual refilling of your soul’s tank with the glory and love of the Lord, such submission to the interests of the other is virtually impossible to accomplish for any length of time... It’s the work of the Holy Spirit within a husband and a wife which make mutual submission possible. Paul is saying you cannot have a life characterized by these four verbs unless you are filled with the Spirit. Only the Spirit can empower you to live this life, including the marriage of mutual submission that flows from it.
Let’s consider three aspects of this phrase: “Be filled with the Spirit.” First, notice word “be”. This is passive. We can fill ourselves with spirits, with wine. But we are filled with the Spirit. This is not something we do. We can’t go out and buy a bottle of Holy Spirit and drink it and thus be full of the Spirit. This is something God does to us. Our responsibility is to place ourselves in circumstances in which God’s Spirit is present. God then does the filling. It’s like sailing. We don’t make the wind blow. But we do orient our sails so that when the wind blows, we catch it. A husband and wife must therefore place themselves in circumstances in which God’s Spirit is present and then orient their hearts and minds to catch the wind of that Spirit. This means that the first step in marriage growth is spiritual growth. The first step in bettering your relationship with your spouse is bettering your relationship with your God. Marriage is like a triangle. The husband is at one corner. The wife is at the other corner. God is at the top. As both husband and wife grow closer to God they also grow closer to one another.
Second, notice the word “filled.” The goal is to be full of God’s Spirit. Not to just have a taste of his Spirit. Not to just have some drops of his Spirit. We are to be quenched by his Spirit. We are to become as full of his Spirit as we once were with ourselves. Author J. D. Greer explains why fullness is so important.  Let’s say that this balloon represents us. Floating upward represents moving higher toward the standard of marriage which Paul writes about here in Ephesians. Floating downward represents moving lower toward selfishness and insensitivity in marriage. If the balloon is just filled with self, like blowing it up with my own breath, there is only one way to get the balloon to move upward. I have to whack. It have to hit it. And this is what religion does. It attempts to hit us higher with rules and guilt and traditions. And while it works temporarily, we almost always float back down to our normal behaviors which are selfish and insensitive. What’s needed is a way to empty the balloon of self and fill it with something else. Becoming filled with the Spirit is like this balloon becoming filled with helium. Now I do not have to introduce some external force to get the balloon to rise. I don’t have to hit it with rules and guilt to get it to be loving and serving in a marriage. Now, the balloon has what it needs within to float higher. On its own, because it’s now filled with something different, the balloon moves higher and higher. In the same way, as we become empty of self and fuller of the Spirit, we begin to move higher toward the love and selflessness in marriage which Paul describes.
Third, the language Paul uses in this sentence refers to something that is ongoing, not something that happens one time. This is like the fuel tank on a car. You can’t just fill up the fuel tank on a car one time and never again visit a gas station. You have to regularly stop to refuel. In the same way, Paul literally says, “Be filled in an ongoing way with the Spirit.” A husband and wife cannot expect to just have a brief season in which they fill up with the Spirit and then go back to life as they know it. This is a lifestyle. This is a way of living. Each day, each week, each month a husband and wife must seek ways to be filled with the Spirit so they can combat their selfishness and insensitivity within which threatens their marriage.
If we want a wild and reckless life, we just need to fill ourselves with spirits. But if we want a different life, including a married life in which we constantly put our spouse first, we need to be filled with the Spirit. It’s something God does to us as we place ourselves in spiritual environments that give us access to God’s Spirit. And the more full we become with God’s Spirit, the more empty we are of the spirit of selfishness and insensitivity. And we seek ongoing ways of having the Spirit dwell fully within us and thus lead us to better ways of loving our spouse.
A story is told about Augustine, one of the greatest Christian thinkers, and the power of the Spirit in his life. Before Augustine’s conversion he had a mistress named Claudia. Shortly after he found Christ, Claudia saw Augustine on the street in the city. “Augustine! Augustine!” she cried after her lover. Augustine ignored her. “Augustine! Augustine!” she cried out again. “It is Claudia!” “But,” Augustine replied, “it is no longer Augustine.” And he continued on his way. Already, even as a young Christian, the Spirit had given Augustine a new identity. He was no longer the old Augustine. He was living a new kind of life. Even as a young Christian, the Spirit had already begun filling him and replacing his selfish desires with more noble ones. It was by the power of the Spirit that Augustine was able to do this. It is by the power of the Spirit that a marriage can experience the kind of self-giving and sacrificial love to which God calls us all.
 . Vol. 1: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (506). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 . Vol. 1: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (507). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 Keller, Timothy (2011-11-01). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (pp. 49-50). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
 J. D. Greer, Gospel: Recovering the Power That Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H Publishing, 2011), pp. 97-98
 William M. Greathouse, Romans: Beacon Bible Expositions (Beacon Hill Press, 1975), p. 103