Avoid Futile Thinking

By Mark D. Roberts

February 5, 2019

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.

Ephesians 4:17


Asphalt.Being a Christian means that we will act in new ways, putting aside behaviors that are common to life outside of Christ so that we might live fully for God’s glory.

But being a Christian isn’t just about what we do. It’s also about how we think.

Ephesians 4:17 reveals that Gentiles—non-Jews who are not followers of Jesus—are caught “in the futility of their thinking.” The KJV speaks of “the vanity of their mind,” whereas contemporary translations prefer “futility” (NIV, ESV, NRSV). The Greek word behind this translation is mataoites, which means “emptiness, futility, worthlessness, vanity, purposelessness.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word shows up 39 times in Ecclesiastes, beginning with the second verse, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, where mataoites is translated as “meaningless”). The Message captures the sense of mataiotes in Ephesians 4:17 by speaking of “the empty-headed, mindless crowd.”

What might be an example of futile thinking that Christians ought to reject? Consider, for example, the common notion that happiness is to be found in the accumulation of massive amounts of stuff. In our culture, we find it natural to believe that the more things we have, the happier we will be. This way of thinking is popularized in the media and reinforced by hundreds of ads that bombard our consciousness each day. But, even apart from biblical teaching, academic research shows that happiness is not correlated with more possessions after one has the basics needed for living. In fact, a recent study showed that spending money on experiences actually increases our happiness more than spending money on stuff, especially if those experiences are shared with others.

It’s easy to see how the “more stuff = more happiness” way of thinking leads to behaviors that steal us away from a life of wholeness. We exhaust ourselves trying to earn more money to buy more things, reducing time for precious activities, such as engaging with family and friends. We miss out on the joy of giving to others because we hold tightly to our possessions. We miss out on experiences that make life wonderful because we’re trying to have the money to buy more things.

The “more stuff = more happiness” mindset is just one example of empty thinking that pervades our culture. You might want to take time to consider others kinds of futile thought that influence you. Ephesians 4:17 urges us to reject ways of thinking that lead us to empty living. Instead, by God’s grace at work in our lives, we will learn to think in new ways, ways that guide us to flourish in this life and to invite others to join us.

Something to Think About:

Where do you see “futile thinking” in our world today?

How have you been influenced to think in this way?

What helps you to reject futile thinking and to choose God’s way of thinking instead?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group or a Christian friend about futile ways of thinking that are common in your workplace. Come up with a way to encourage each other in the effort to think in God’s ways.


Gracious God, I expect I am not even aware of many of the ways I engage in futile thinking. It feels normal to think in the ways of the world. Yes, there are times when I really do believe that having more stuff will make me happy.

Yet I recognize that if I’m going to experience the new life that is mine through Christ, I need to put aside such patterns of thought and to learn to think as you do. Help me, Lord, to reject futile thought and to adopt your ways of thinking. May my mind, values, assumptions, and reasoning be shaped by your truth as your Word and Spirit live within me. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary:
Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Minds (Romans 12:1–3)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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