READ : Colossians 3:5-11
The market is flooded with self-help books trying to teach us how to change. But the Bible says if we really want to change our behavior, we must begin by changing our clothes!
Clothing is quite odd, isn’t it? It is a necessity, but it’s still odd. Think about the things that we do with it beyond the basic need to protect ourselves from the elements and cover our bodies. Take the way clothing makes us feel, for example. Most of us get a little thrill out of putting on a new suit of clothes or a dress or a pair of shoes and going out in them for the first time. We swell up a bit and feel that much better about ourselves. But why should it really matter how we’re dressed (within reason, of course)? Do we really think clothes make us that much more attractive? Or consider the way clothing is used to fuel our egos. How many people haven’t you seen trying to proclaim their status and wealth by means of their wardrobe!
When you get right down to it, all the money, time and attention people lavish on their outward apparel seems rather silly, doesn’t it? Who do you think is presently the world’s most beautiful woman? My vote goes to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She is in her eighties, in very frail health, her tiny body wrinkled and worn out from a lifetime spent incarnating the love of Christ through ministering to the needs of the poorest of the poor. She always dresses in the simple white sari with pale blue border that has become the uniform of her Missionaries of Charity sisterhood. I remember seeing her on television when she gave a speech in Washington, D.C. before the President of the United States and many members of the Cabinet and the Congress. Imagine someone saying to her before that speech, “Mother Teresa, you’re going to appear in front of all these important people. You’d better stop in Paris on your the way to Washington and have your hair done. Get a beauty consultant to help you with your make-up, and why don’t you buy a gown from a fashionable designer’s salon.” Wouldn’t that be ludicrous! Sometimes it takes a saint to help us recognize the absurdity of our behavior.
Behavior and clothing (at least, in a figurative sense) are both very much on the mind of the apostle Paul as he proceeds in the third chapter of his letter to the Colossians:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
(Colossians 3:5-11, niv)
Paul introduces the important subject of Christian behavior here, a subject that will occupy the remainder of the book of Colossians, with two vivid and powerful images.
PUTTING SIN TO DEATH
The first image is harsh and negative: we must become the executioners of our own sins. “Put to death . . . whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (v. 5). Paul lists ten behaviors to illustrate the type of things we ought to kill. Five of them – sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed – are primarily personal and inward and involve misguided desires. These are sins that begin in the mind and imagination before they find physical expression. The second five – anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language – are primarily social and verbal sins, attitudes within us that produce attacks in both with words and actions outwardly against others. The point of Paul’s figure of speech is that we should deal with these and all other sins in our lives with total ruthlessness. “Put them to death,” he says.
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis talks about the ending of Psalm 137, a very difficult verse in which the psalmist exults in the prospect of seeing enemy babies smashed on the rocks. It’s hard to know how to read that in a positive and spiritually edifying way. But Lewis suggests that one way would be for us to apply this verse to our own sins. We should take all our corrupt desires, our self-centered attitudes, all our false or hurtful words and actions, including the “harmless” little ones, and “knock their brains out.” That’s the only thing to do with sin – kill it!
How do you really feel about your sins? I don’t mean the occasional lapses or mistakes that you make along with everyone else. I’m talking about the deeply ingrained nasty character traits and habitual faults; the sorts of things that we seem to do over and over again. How do you feel about those things? Some people feel nothing at all. They seem to have no conscience whatsoever. Others appear to take pride in their wrong-doing. They go on television talk shows and describe their immoral behavior while giggling or staring defiantly into the camera. Still others, as John Bunyan suggested, treat their sins the way a mother plays with the baby in her lap, scolding her and calling her a naughty little girl (without really meaning it), and then the next moment falling to hugging and kissing her again.
Christians have to be different. We must deal sternly and decisively with the remnants of our old, fallen nature. Instead of cosseting and caressing our pet sins, instead of excusing ourselves and rationalizing our immoral behavior, we have to put it to death! Many of us, regrettably, seem to have become pacifists in the war against sin. We need to learn how to be ruthless instead. Scripture urges us to fight against sin to the death.
The apostle offers a second image in verses 9-10:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
Becoming a Christian is like making a complete change of clothing. We put off our old selves, our old nature with its practices and habits, as we would a set of dirty clothes, and we put on a new way of living like freshly clean laundry.
Everything begins with setting our affection and focusing our thoughts upon Christ (3:1-2). By looking at him, by setting our hearts on him, it will compel us to want to change our behavior too. The basic moral problem of many people is one of motivation. “Why should I change what I’m doing?” they ask. “I like it. It gives me pleasure.” That question has already been answered for Christians. We have been stripped of our old selves. We have put on a new one. This happened when we came to Christ; now we must start living like it.
HOW TO LIVE LIKE A CHRISTIAN
But how do we actually change the way we behave so that we can live the way we’re supposed to? Let me suggest three ways, three steps to take. First, we can begin with our imagination. Many people don’t know how to behave well for the same reason they don’t know how to dress well: because no one has ever shown them. They have never had any positive models, so they can’t even imagine how people should act. It is a basic principle in life that you reap what you sow; sin, said St. Augustine, becomes its own punishment. But it’s also true that people sow what they reap. People tend to practice the behavior that’s been practiced on them before. So the child who has been repeatedly beaten will likely grow up to be violent himself. The person who experienced nothing but criticism and condemnation in her family will usually end up passing those things on to her children.
So the first thing we need in order to “put on” a new and holy way of life is to be able to see and experience firsthand what that life looks like. We need models. We need examples. Christ himself is the greatest possible one; we should set his life and character before us each day. But others can also serve to inspire us. So pick the best, the most admirable and virtuous people you know, and let their examples fire your imagination. Even stories can help. One of the most popular books in America in recent years is William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, a collection of fables, stories and folk-tales illustrating classic human virtues like courage, compassion, and generosity. Almost every human culture has traditional tales which serve to illuminate the kind of behavior that fits good people. Try reading them yourself, and read them to your children and grandchildren.
The second step is instruction. We must learn what to do, systematically. The New Testament epistles are filled with lists of conduct of both positive and negative behaviors. These are given for us to read over and memorize. We should meditate on these codes of conduct and return to them again and again. In this way we will gradually have it ingrained upon us which behaviors we are to practice and which to avoid. Colossians 3 has several of these lists. I’ve already quoted a negative one (vv. 5-9); now here’s the positive list from Verse 12:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive . . . one another . . . and over all these virtues put on love . . .
Another good example is the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
These virtues must become our daily study, they should be in our hearts and part of our prayers day by day. I have a friend who has written some of these lists on two shirts: the negative, sinful behaviors on a dirty old shirt and the positive virtues on a clean new one. He literally “strips off” the old and “puts on” the new, to remind himself of what his life must increasingly become in Christ. You might not want to do that, but you can at least start writing out your own lists from the Bible, and keep them handy so that you can study them and measure your progress against them.
The third step in the process of behavioral change is imitation. Do the things that Jesus did. Start practicing those behaviors. Begin to act like a Christian, and you will find that pretty soon people will recognize you as one – and before you know it you’ll actually be living like one. The key thing here is to do what Christians are supposed to do, whether you feel like it or not. Don’t wait until your feelings seem to be right. For instance, don’t wait until you can sense forgiveness in your heart before you try to forgive someone. Never think that you can only practice a particular virtue if you’re in the mood to do it.
When I was a student my wife worked in an office where there was one individual who was especially disliked. “I’m not going to treat her well,” another co-worker announced one day. “I can’t stand her; if I were nice to her that would make me a hypocrite.” But, you see, there is a kind of hypocrisy that we ought to practice; it’s called “good manners.” We should treat people better than we feel about them, we ought to act better than we are, because that’s how we actually become better than we were.
Have you ever watched children playing at being grown-ups? They dress up in adult clothes that are far too big for them, they talk the way they hear adults talk, they pretend to do the kinds of things adults do. But it is exactly this sort of pretending which eventually helps them turn into adults. They practice their way into reality. If we are baby Christians, then we have to practice our way into holiness. What we must do is pretend to be more spiritually grown-up than we are. Dress up in Jesus’ clothes. Walk and talk like him. Put on a mask with Jesus’ features and wear it in front of everyone you meet. If you do that long enough, you will discover something miraculous. One day you will take off the mask, and you’ll find that your face now looks just like his. If you act holy, you will be holy.