A few weeks ago, Bruxy Cavey at the Meeting House preached a sermon using Pinocchio as a metaphor for our existence as humans who are justified in Christ but have not yet entered into the full humanity we will fully receive when we are glorified. I was listening to it on the podcast as I worked in the Dominican Republic. I ended up using Pinocchio a little differently in my sermon that I preached in Santiago this past Sunday but the basic topic was the same: the new humanity we receive from Jesus Christ that Paul writes about in Ephesians 4:17-24. So here’s a basic paraphrase.
Pinocchio is a puppet who can walk and talk, but he’s made of wood and he wants more than anything to become a real boy. A cricket named Jiminy is hired to be his conscience since puppets don’t have consciences. If Jiminy Cricket can help Pinocchio behave, he will become a real boy. If Pinocchio behaves poorly, then he will be transformed into a donkey instead.
I feel like Pinocchio’s story is a good metaphor for our situation as humans in a world of sin. We are all like puppets with invisible strings in that our personalities and behaviors are shaped by other peoples’ influences more than we would like to admit (especially in America, the land of “self-made” men and women). Our family, our culture, what we see on TV and on the playground all shape us profoundly before we are old enough to make thoughtful decisions about which behaviors we ought to emulate. Our influences leave us with puppet strings we didn’t choose.
This is the basic truth of the doctrine of original sin. We learn to sin before we know what’s going on. It’s not our fault that the world corrupts us and yet when we sin, what we do can’t really be blamed on anyone else. The fact that somebody else started the chain of sin doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility for what we do. So we’re stuck being puppets whose strings are the heritage of other people’s bad habits that have been passed on to us.
Another way of putting this is the image Paul uses in Ephesians 4:17-24: old and new clothing. We are like kids who are stuck in hand-me-down clothes. Now I wore a lot of hand-me-downs when I was little. The way that kids grow, it’s not very responsible to buy new clothes for them when they’re not going to fit in six months. But the hand-me-downs that Paul is talking about are the filthy clothes passed down to us from the very first humans which have acquired layers of funk and stain in every generation since then. That’s just the way humanity happens. We never get a fresh start. Our life clothes are already stained with other peoples’ problems as soon as we’re out of the womb.
Paul tells the Ephesians that Jesus has provided them with new fresh clothes to wear. (This is a reality that I am appreciating in a very visceral way right now on my way home from a mission trip; nothing in my suitcase does not smell terrible. I ran out of deodorant yesterday so I actually took cologne out of my suitcase and sprayed myself when we got through customs since my stench was making me physically ill. I am going to be so happy when I get to take a bath and put on pajamas that smell good tonight.)
In any case, what we believe as Christians is that Jesus’ blood on the cross cleanses us from the residue of the sin that we’ve inherited as well as the stains that we’ve added to our clothes. (Check out my sermon series “Ugliness into Beauty” for several different dimensions as to how this happens.) We have an opportunity to start fresh and put the past behind us. In Pinocchio terms, Jesus cuts away all the strings so we can be real boys and girls in His new humanity. But just “believing” this as a cognitive factoid isn’t the same as trusting it enough to live according to that trust.
Recall that Ephesians like all of Paul’s letters is not evangelism for non-believers but exhortation to people who are already Christian. He wouldn’t be warning the Ephesians about “no longer living as the pagans live” (4:17) if it weren’t a credible threat to their salvation. The problem with continuing to wear the old clothes after Jesus has given you new ones is that the way of sin “hardens your heart” and “darkens your understanding” (v. 18). In Pinocchio terms, you’re not only a puppet but you’re being transformed into a donkey.
Sin dehumanizes us because underneath everything in the depths of our hearts, we know the truth about what we’re doing in our consciences when we do things that hurt our neighbors and dishonor God and so our little Jiminy Cricket voice pesters us until and unless we drown it out with a series of excuses and lies. It’s the coverup that does the most damage, because each lie “alienates [us] from the life of God” (v. 18) more and more, like bricks in a thickening wall between us and God (we did a lot with bricks for our mission project building the front porch of a school so they were very much on my mind). If we continue on this path of dehumanization long enough, we will reach the point where we “lose our shame and abandon ourselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (v. 19). In other words, we lose our humanity and become like donkeys.
There’s a song I learned from a girl named Maria in the town Cuesta Arena where we worked that captures our circumstances beautifully:
Gozo gozo gozo (Joy joy joy)
Gozo yo quería (Joy I wanted)
Pero lo buscaba (But I looked for it)
Donde no lo había (where it wasn’t)
Pero vino Cristo (But Christ came)
El dador de la vida (the giver of life)
Y me dio el gozo (and he gave me joy)
Del que yo quería (just what I wanted)
The tragedy of a life of seeking gozo in the selfish pleasures that could be called “the way of the donkey” in Pinocchio terms is that it’s not life at all, but death, since living “alienated from the life of God” behind the walls of our self-justifying lies is no less than living in hell, the “outer darkness” that the Bible speaks of. Hell is by definition eternal isolation from God. We don’t have any concept of the total darkness of complete isolation from God because even when we’re on the path of sin, God is always reaching out to us with the light of His love and truth. Even when we are ignoring the voice of our Jiminy Cricket, God is constantly looking for ways to break down our walls of lies with His love. We have no idea what it would be like for the light to go out on us completely forever.
We need the new clothes that Jesus is offering. It’s not enough to just acknowledge this. We need to “put away our former way of life” (v. 22), take off the old clothes and just throw them away. Nobody can keep on going with the clothes that they’ve got because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
But we have to clarify something at this point. Because there’s a sin that’s more subtle and hidden than all the other sins which creates an even thicker wall between us and God. What makes it so pernicious is it isolates us the most from God at the very moment when we think we’re the closest. It’s the sin of Lucifer and his army of self-righteous accusers (who are more prevalent among the “elect” than among the “reprobate”). It’s the sin of spiritual pride.
It happens when I forgot that my new clean clothes are only a gift of the Lord; when my worship doesn’t serve to glorify God but myself; when my Christian life is a showcase to exhibit what a great person I am; when I delight in denouncing the sins of others in order to meditate on how much better I am. Jesus describes this type of person in Matthew 23:27 as “a polished tomb that shines on the outside but inside is full of bones and death.”
We must especially guard ourselves against this pernicious sin. There’s nothing that isolates me more from God than to worship myself as my own God. I’m not any better than any other person; whatever good I do is purely an expression of the grace and power of God. And the cleanliness I have received through the blood of Christ is supposed to strengthen me so I can get my hands dirty sharing God’s love throughout the world amidst all of its sin.
Jesus doesn’t have any use for monuments of purity in a museum of holiness. The holiness He gives us has the purpose of shaping us into vessels of His mercy. That’s the point: to be cleansed of our own stains and smelliness so that we can focus on loving and showing hospitality to others. If our holiness lacks mercy, it reveals itself to be a Luciferian mockery of the One who reigns through mercy.
Jesus wants to heal us; He wants to make us clean; He wants to cut every puppet string that keeps us from being free. He also wants to “renew us in the spirit of our minds” (v. 23). We can’t be renewed if we think we’ve figured everything out already. That’s the other dimension of this: to think you have “arrived” is tantamount to staying in the dirty clothes. Jesus is like a suburban mom of two little boys with a daddy who likes to get dirty with them; His washing machine never stops spinning. If we really want to live in His new humanity, we will always be changing out our clothes.