This section of Colossians 3 is really rather straightforward. Paul tells believers that because they are now children of God and no longer children of this world, their lives need to reflect that change. The way The Message puts the first verse is enlightening:
“So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.”
What follows is Paul’s description of a Christian life; it is the kind of life that is progressing in one direction, constantly dawning new attitudes and behaviors and continually rejecting others. We should keep in mind as we read these lists that they are not academic exercises for Paul, instead, they flow from the habits and experience of his own life. Though far from perfect, Paul lived a life shaped by spiritual disciplines that reflected the kind of life Jesus lived while here on earth. Paul does not hope the Colossians can be a little bit like the believer described in this passage, he knows they can be and he expects them to be.
The first lesson about spiritual discipline is found in the vocabulary in the first few verses. Paul says, “seek the things that are above…Set your minds on…Put to death…you must put them all away.” The language is of intentionality and speaks to the orientation of my will. What do I really want for my mind, soul, and spirit? What I choose to set my mind on tells me a lot about what I prioritize.
The first lesson of the spiritual disciplines is that they are an intentional act of engagement. We are all often guilty of treating our relationship with God in a passive manner. We do not pay regular attention much less deliberately tend to it, and yet we expect it to be healthy, even growing. My spiritual life is oftentimes a matter of fits and spurts—big moments followed by extended neglect. In contrast, Paul paints a picture of a disciple who takes purposeful and thoughtful steps toward the end of seeking and finding God.
Secondly, when the spiritual disciplines have their way in me, life is radically different from what I am used to. Take verse 8 for instance, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Imagine two things. First of all, if we could provide you with a pill that would automatically remove all these kinds of words and tones from your vocabulary and voice, how much of what you say would be left? And secondly, once these ways of reacting to the world are no longer available to you, how now would you react?
What that hypothetical pill does for us “mechanically,” the spiritual disciplines are supposed to do for us naturally. Frankly, a lifestyle without malice, slander, anger or obscenity is vastly different than the one I am used to right now.
And finally, verses 16 and 17 act as the capstone to this passage and answer the “How do I?” question. Notice that Paul does not recommend that the Colossians begin to pretend to engage in this behavior. Instead, he encourages the reading and memorizing of Scripture, the teaching and edification of each other, and worship. These are spiritual disciplines we engage in so that our behavior—the fruit of our lives—is changed. And this is the third lesson in this passage.
The spiritual disciplines are not primarily about behavior modification; they are first and foremost about proximity and surrender. When I am in the middle of a busy street chances are higher that I will be hit by a car than when I am in the middle of the park. The disciplines are intended to put me in the middle of the street where I am most likely to be “hit” by God. And they are also designed to be an expression of surrender; I am no longer the lord of my life, but I willingly give that place to Christ.
I encourage you to engage in one of the disciplines this week and take at least one more deliberate and thoughtful step toward your relationship with Christ.