A few weeks ago I mentioned a new book coming out by Ron Sider called The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Sider was talking about the ways that the lives of Christians aren’t really that different from the population at large. We talked about this at a macro level the other week, but I think we need to bring it down to the individual level as well. A lot of us are frustrated that we aren’t changing as much as we had hoped we would.
We know this pain on a personal level. A lot of us wished that we didn’t struggle with certain areas of our life the way that we do. Hang around anyone for long enough and you discover the same about them. They have character flaws they wish they didn’t have. They have anger problems, relational challenges. They are prone to stretch the truth or to gossip or to do something that they believe is sinful. It’s frustrating and it’s reality.
Some of us know the sense of shame that comes after this. We may have been flipping the channel and stayed a little too long at a cable TV show that we’d be ashamed to admit that we watch. We might have a couple of websites we visit that we wouldn’t want anyone to know about. We might have a tendency to blow our stacks or to cut corners at work. They used to call things like this besetting sins – areas of struggle that are continual, that don’t go away no matter how much we’d like them to. Since we believe that Jesus is all that we need, and has done everything that we need, how can we handle this in our lives? How can we put up with our tendency to keep falling into the same sins all the time?
I’ll tell you two approaches that don’t work. The first approach that doesn’t work is to expect that when you become a Christian, the struggles stop. I remember hearing a man talk about being free from temptation ever since he became a Christian. I sat back and said, “Yeah, right.” I wish it was true. I wish that all of a sudden, there was no more temptation or struggle. The opposite is actually true. There’s an old saying that the mark of a saint is the struggle. It’s not perfection, it’s struggle.
There are times that I’ve heard of somebody quitting some behavior cold turkey after beginning to follow Christ. That might happen sometimes, but it’s not something we can expect. The struggle continues long after we start to follow Christ.
The other approach that doesn’t work is willpower. I’ve tried this approach myself. No matter how much I try not to do something, I inevitably fail and end up doing it all over again. Willpower is a terrible way to fight sin.
So if becoming a Christian and sheer willpower is not enough to overcome sin, what does work?
There is no series of simple steps you can take. There is, however, some new ways of thinking that can help in the transformation process. The good news is that it really isn’t a question of trying harder or being more determined. The key really is to make real in our lives what has already been done for us. In essence, it’s not making something happen. It’s more recognizing that something has already happened, and to live in a way that reflects that reality.
We’ve been studying the book of Colossians. Paul’s been writing this everyday group of Christians a letter, and it’s been pretty heady. He’s been talking about who Christ is, how we have everything that we need in him. He’s warned them against accepting substitutes for Christ or adding to what they already have in him. Now, in Colossians 3, he spends a lot of time unpacking how this looks in our lives. He essentially gives us some insights into how we can be changed in the light of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
I hesitate to put what Paul says in a list, because it almost makes it seem like a formula. It isn’t that neat. There are three insights or ways of thinking, though, that he uses in this chapter to help us experience the transformation process. Let me give them to you from this passage and we’ll unpack them a little.
1. Change your focus
Paul writes in verses 1 and 2: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits at God’s right hand in the place of honor and power. Let heaven fill your thoughts. Do not think only about things down here on earth.”
It’s a fact that what we think about determines how we live. There’s a lot of literature out there that talks about taking a longer view. I’ve read books that help you get over bad incidents by asking, “Will you even remember this in a year?” Others ask you to picture the end of your life and to live backwards from that perspective. Paul elevates our perspective to a much wider one. He encourages us to look beyond what we see with our eyes, and to develop spiritual eyesight that is aware of the realities of heaven. It’s an awareness that sees Jesus as ruling over all things. Let the perspective that he’s talked about in the first two chapters of this letter change the way that you see life.
Paul isn’t saying that we stop living on earth and only think about spiritual things. That’s called dualism, and it’s not Scriptural at all. Look at the Bible and you discover it’s a gritty book. We’re not supposed to leave earth and think only about heaven. We should be gritty and real, to enjoy good food and friendships and nature and sports or whatever. It’s not about checking out mentally from earth.
It is, however, about expanding our perspective to see all of live in light of what we know is true spiritually. It really does make a difference when our way of thinking includes theological truth. In fact, if theological truth doesn’t make a practical difference in the way that we see the world and live, there’s something wrong with it.
You may not be a deep metaphysical thinker, but you and I think a lot of metaphysical thoughts. We have developed a way of understanding the world, and that influences the decisions that we make. We see life as random or purposeful. We think in terms of a small window of time or a long period of time. We all have ideas of what is important. Our mental perspectives translate into reality, and changing our perspective makes a much bigger difference than focusing on individual behaviors.
Paul says, “Begin to see spiritual realities. Begin to see the world as it really is. Don’t just think about what you can see and touch. Begin to really live as if you believed that Jesus is all that you need, that he is holding everything together. Let that reality and perspective change the way you live.”
2. Kill off the old self
Paul says in verses 3 to 8:
For you died when Christ died, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your real life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.
So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust, and shameful desires. Don’t be greedy for the good things of this life, for that is idolatry. God’s terrible anger will come upon those who do such things. You used to do them when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language.
You don’t discipline the sinful nature within you. You don’t try to control it. You go much further than that: you kill it. You don’t even keep it around. You completely root it out and bury it and put it to death. It’s a death more than it’s a prison sentence.
That sounds pretty violent and, well, impractical. How do you kill the tendency to do wrong within you? Well, you don’t really need to do the killing. It’s already been done for you. Verse 3 says, “you died when Christ died.” The death already took place at the cross. When Jesus died, your old nature died as well. Your new life is present, but it’s hidden. It’s not yet revealed and obvious to everyone.
So why does it say that your old nature has already died, before it says to put it to death? If you’ve ever watched a scary movie, you know that the enemies have a way of springing back to life. They’re dead, and just when you let down your guard they pop back to life and attack again. The old nature is like that. It’s dead. When it springs back to life, you just have to look back at it and say again, “You’re dead.” It’s a lot easier than fighting it. Instead of fighting it, remember that Jesus has already dealt with it. It’s already a reality. You just have to work it out in your experience.
Anne Lamott puts it this way:
…when you ask God into your life, you think that he…is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a little cleaning – and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look outside the window one day and see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you’re going to have to start over from scratch.
What needs to happen in our lives won’t happen with gradual measures or minor repairs. It involves a complete tearing down and reconstruction. It involves a complete death and resurrection. Our job is to remember that this has already been accomplished for us, and we just need to make it real within our lives. It’s about actualizing what Christ has already done.
It’s not just about the areas that we think about. It’s interesting that the two lists include things that we normally think of as sinful – sexual sins and rage and so on. It also includes things we don’t normally think of as sinful: greed for the good things of life, for instance. According to Paul, consumerism is just as dangerous as pornography. We need to put all of this to death in our lives, by realizing that Jesus has already dealt with it.
Verse 6 contains a bit of difficult teaching for us to accept these days: “God’s terrible anger will come upon those who do such things.” You don’t hear a lot about God’s anger these days. We talk more of God’s forgiveness. Here in Ontario, we witnessed the Walkerton water scandal a few years ago, where a whole town was exposed to contaminated water. Seven people died and more than two thousand people became ill. We are repulsed by the idea of drinking contaminated water. God is equally repulsed by the idea of sin and what it does to us. Anger is not too strong a word to describe God’s reaction to sin.
Kill off the old. Don’t let it hang around. Remember that Christ has already killed the old nature. You don’t have to even kill it yourself; you just need to remind it that Christ has already killed it for you. Make real in your life what has already happened.
3. Switch clothes
Paul writes in verses 9-14:
Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old evil nature and all its wicked deeds. In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You must make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. And the most important piece of clothing you must wear is love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.
Paul gives us another image for what we need to do. It’s a similar word picture to the idea of killing the old nature and distinctions. Here, instead of killing, you strip off the old evil nature. You recognize it for what it is and you take it off. It’s dirty and shredded and disgusting and ready for the garbage. You take it off, and in its place you clothe yourself with elements of the new nature.
The Message paraphrases verse 10 this way: “Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete.” You’ve got custom-made designer clothes made by God for you to wear. Take off the old and simply begin to wear the new clothes God has already provided for you.
The new clothes are much more fitting. I love the fact that the new clothes Paul describes are all relational qualities. The new nature shows itself most powerfully in our relationships with others. The most essential piece of clothing to wear, as part of the new nature, is love.
I also love that the new clothing is continually renewed, according to verse 10: “In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you.” It’s like clothing that never gets dirty and never needs washing and never goes out of style. This is what has been given to us in Christ.
The way that we deal with sin isn’t by trying harder or by expecting to instantly change. The way we become holy is by living out what Jesus has already done for us. It’s already reality. We just need to work it out in our experience.
The summary of what Paul says is found in verse 17: “And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father.” Understanding what Jesus has done, allowing that to become a reality in our lives, and living as his representatives changes everything about our lives. It’s all been given to us. We just have to live it.
Last night we decided to order pizza. Last summer, we bought one of these coupon books that are good for two free pizzas and all kinds of other deals. I pulled it out and called the number. While I was on hold I looked at the fine print and realized that all the coupons expired at the end of January. We’ve been sitting with this coupon book for months and haven’t used a single one, and now it’s no good.
To get a pizza, we didn’t have to work for it. We didn’t have to make it ourselves. All we had to do was to enjoy what we already had – something we failed to do.
We don’t have to work for a new nature. We don’t have to try harder to be transformed. All we have to do is to remind the old nature that it’s already been killed, and to enjoy the new nature that Christ has already given us. That is the route to transformation.