I seem to spend much of my life trying to will myself to be better: to faff less, to be more productive, to not think those things about that person, to be nicer, more joyful, more optimistic, a better wife, less selfish. The list could go on. But in reality, I nearly always fall short of my own expectations; or I feel a slightly smug satisfaction in having stuck with my will power only to fall short again before I have quite had time to enjoy being smug. In this light, Paul's command to the Colossians seems pretty unfair: "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature." (3:5) The language is deliberately violent: we are called to wage war on everything about ourselves which doesn't fit in with us being new creations living in Christ. Again, in verse 8 we are told that "we must rid ourselves" of all our unpleasantness. Paul seems totally serious in this exhorting; deadly serious given that he has already warned us that God's wrath is coming because of our sinful state (v.6).
And yet, my gut reaction is that I have tried and failed to do this. I long to look like Jesus and be distinct and shiny but I don't most of the time. Me trying to put to death all my sins very often looks like a list of rules just waiting to be broken: get up earlier so you can pray and read the bible; ask your husband how he is first when he comes home instead of launching into a rant; say something nice to your neighbour each time you see them; don't straighten your hair so much; don't join in with bitching even if it's about someone you really struggle to like; be bolder in talking to people about Jesus. And the problem with rules is that we break them. We break them and then we feel guilty and frustrated and annoyed at our lack of will power and resolve to do better: I shall set my alarm for 6am instead of 6:30am and then I really will get up on time. Fail. I guess we shouldn't be surprised; this is what Paul says the purpose of rules (the laws that God has given us) is: to make us aware of just how rubbish we really are and how unable we are to do the things we say we will do - "I would not have known what sin was if it wasn't for the law." (Romans 7:7)
It's all pretty depressing. And it - this rule making and breaking - does what I think most people expect Christianity to do in the first place: create a list of rules and regulations to make you feel really awful and condemned and force you to abide by what society says is right. The church exists to keep us in check and make sure we feel terrible if we do things wrong. It is a bleak picture. But it is bleak because it is only a partial view of the gospel; it is a gospel without Jesus. If I, as someone who follows Jesus, live my life as a miserable I'll never be good enough, I always get it wrong, I can't live up to God's standards, I'm not really allowed to do anything I want to do type person then no wonder by friends view the church as an institution of regulations resulting in boredom, legalism and, sadly, repressed desires breaking out into awful scandals.
But, if I grasp what Paul grasps then I realise that I have not been given a new life in Christ in which I am to feel condemned but one in which I am free; I am liberated to be a new person freed up from the things that are breaking the world: free from greed, free from a cheap view of sex and my own value, free from love of money, from anger, from bitchiness. I am liberated because I am not called to wage war upon my old self, my sinful self, on my own but with the power of God working within me: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God that works within you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:12-13) and "To this I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1:29). I love this. The verse division in Philippians leaves us momentarily hanging with the daunting task of working out our own salvation, of putting to death, of ridding ourselves, but we are rescued by verse 13: it is God who is at work with us. Similarly, in Colossians Paul speaks of his own sheer hard work but does so in the knowledge that his energy, his resources, his strength comes from Christ living in him. Christ in us is the hope of glory. We are not called simply to put to death our old problematic selves; we are called to do so through the awesome work of the spirit: "if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live." (Romans 8:13) This is not simply forcing our own bodies and minds to follow a set of rules and stop doing things, this is knowing that we have the power to be different because God has not left us on our own: we are fully equipped for the task of being like him because he himself remains with us to see that the task is done: "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things." (John 14:18-26).
It is easy to get excited about the prospect of God at work within me transforming and changing me - without my help he is renewing me in the image of his himself (Col 3:10) - but I am still called back to Paul's commands. This is all about God. But it is still about us. We are not called to simply sit back and watch as God does some redemptive stuff; how could Paul order the church at Colossae to physically put their sin to death themselves if this were so? Paul reminds the church that God is at work in them but he also reminds them that they too must work. There is a difference in working knowing that we are aided and equipped instead of slaving on our own. The question is what are we aided in doing? How exactly do we murder sin in our lives life? What are our weapons for putting to death the ways of the world and embracing the ways of Christ?
In his book, When I Don't Desire God, John Piper uses the writings of the puritan, John Owen, to answer these questions. Owen is too good to paraphrase so I hope I am excused from lifting the quote:
"As to the object of your affections, in a special manner, let it be the cross of Christ, which has exceeding efficacy toward the disappointment of the whole work of indwelling sin: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is cruciﬁed unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). The cross of Christ he gloried and rejoiced in; this his heart was set upon; and these were the effects of it—it cruciﬁed the world unto him, made it a dead and undesirable thing. The baits and pleasures of sin are taken all of them out of the world...If the heart be ﬁlled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirableness upon them all; it leaves no seeming beauty, no appearing pleasure or comeliness, in them. Again, says he, “It cruciﬁes me to the world; makes my heart, my affections, my desires, dead unto any of these things.” It roots up corrupt lusts and affections, leaves no principle to go forth and make provision for the ﬂesh, to fulﬁll the lusts thereof. Labor, therefore, to ﬁll your hearts with the cross of Christ...Fill your affections with the cross of Christ, that there may be no room for sin."
(John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers)
Our main aid in putting to death earthly desire is Jesus – Jesus dying for us. This is Jesus in his glory, King of heaven dying for me (See His Love, Tim Hughes). We are called to do what Paul told us to do at the start of chapter 3: don’t think about earthly stuff; think about heaven. Don’t think about your own desires; think about what Jesus gave up for you. I am not good at this. So often I get trapped and tangled up in my own thoughts and feelings (my sinful mind set and heart set) and do not even give a thought to Jesus. I once heard a preacher say that just a tiny glance at the cross, the smallest reminder of Jesus giving up everything for us is enough to pull us back from sin. I don’t know if this is always true. The sinful nature is strong; the battle rages and we are engaged in the most serious spiritual warfare. But I long to get better at it. I long to get better at looking at Jesus, at reading about what he did and said, about knowing what he has done for me so that I cannot help but be won over by his beauty.
In Hosea, God describes how he will woo Israel back to himself; in the metaphor, Israel is God’s unfaithful wife who he has rejected because of her sin but now goes to seek in the wilderness and draw her back home. The image that comes into my head is, for some reason, of the new Jane Eyre film (see picture) where Jane runs away from Thornfield onto the moor. The scenery is desolate and vast and she is completely on her own; I imagine the Israeli wilderness is a similar experience and it is in this massive emptiness that God seeks his faithless wife:
“I am now going to allure her; I will lead her in the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.” (Hosea 2:14) God has already done this for us: while we were still sinners roaming around lost in the wilderness, he came to find us. Yet, I wonder if God would be willing to do the same with us on a daily basis if we would only let him; if we spent time getting to know him, sitting with him, reading his word, would he not come and meet us and bring us back from our folly and unfaithfulness? Would he not teach us how to leave behind sin and the old ways (Col 3:7) and instead walk with him in new and better way? God is at work within us drawing us continually back to himself each time we walk away; we need to be better at knowing that this is what he is doing, to allow ourselves to be delighted by his superior beauty, by a love that is far greater than any earthly thing.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:26) I cannot say that this is true; that I desire Jesus above all earthly things. I don't most of the time. But Paul says the secret to desiring Jesus more is to know him better. We are being renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator. (Col 3:10) He prays that the Colossians will continually grow in the knowledge of God (1:10) because a greater knowledge of him means a greater likeness to him. It means more fruitfulness, a life more worthy and more pleasing. If we want to put to death our earthliness, we need to spend more time getting to know and being in awe of the one who gave up his heavenliness to come and rescue us.