Do you have a regular Bible study plan? Well, I’m so glad to hear that! You don’t? Well, maybe that is not so bad. You know, a lot of people who have a regular Bible reading plan are very systematic about it. Certainly you’ve met the type: they read a chapter a day, or some other arbitrary amount. I don’t care for that sort of scheme.
Except for Proverbs, the Bible is not a series of disconnected aphorisms that you can pick up and put down at any point. It’s more like a television mystery show, where if you leave the room for a moment, you might be left with the wrong impression about what happened.
Today, let’s take the first part of the third chapter of Colossians and see what can go wrong and what we can miss if we pulverize the Bible and contemplate its atoms:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
—Colossians 3:1-4, NIV
If this is all you read today, you might gain the impression that you are supposed to think about lofty, ethereal thoughts, and so you might go around trying to be uplifting and cheerful all the time. You might force a constant smile. Of course, it isn’t natural for people to have the same emotion all the time, so you have to fake it when you’re not feeling it. People will notice this right off. You think you’re being ‘spiritual,’ but they think your psychiatrist has you on medication.
Pretty soon, the facade will crumble. You’ll get in trouble with your boss for some petty lapse, or you’ll have a fender-bender in the parking lot. Or maybe your daughter will ask you to rescue her because her battery ran down because she left the lights on for the third time this week. Or maybe the plumber will suggest major surgery. Anyway, you’ll find that you can’t think lofty, uplifting thoughts all the time. So you figure, the Bible may be very spiritual, but it isn’t practical. The only people who can smile all the time are marionettes and mannequins.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
—Colossians 3:5, NIV
If this is the reading for the day, you might think that it is good advice to avoid immorality, but since you didn’t read the preceding verses today, you won’t know what the ‘therefore’ refers back to. The ‘therefore’ says that if you were raised in Christ to a spiritual life you shouldn’t be living a carnal one. This implies that if you consider yourself a Christian, you are a hypocrite if you don’t live like one. If you read it with the preceding verses, this passage is a warning, but by itself it isn’t so impressive.
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.
—Colossians 3:8-10, NIV
If this is the reading for today, you might complain that it is unrealistic. Not everyone can live like Caspar Milquetoast, which this passage seems to demand. Everyone gets angry sometimes, and everyone says things in the heat of the moment that they don’t really mean. The bit about the ‘new self’ and the ‘old self’ passes right over your head.
But if you read the preceding verses, you follow the argumentation. If you have been raised in Christ to a new spiritual life, you shouldn’t continue to live the old, fleshly one. This means that anger and abusive speech will no longer characterize you. If you really do live with the broader horizons of eternal life, little things in this life won’t tick you off as easily. After all, the old self is gone; you have a new self in Christ, and that means you have a whole new perspective on life.
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 whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…
—Colossians 3:12-15a, NIV
If this is today’s reading, you will jump over the ‘therefore’ which essentially tells you that this is the conclusion of things that have gone before. You might presume that this passages speaks of some general amnesty from God for all people, that all are holy and should exhibit these traits. However, ten minutes in the world will tell you that that isn’t true. People in general do not live up to these words. And so you will conclude that this is very uplifting, but not terribly practical. It would be nice if everyone could live this way, but they don’t.
But if you read all this text at one stretch, you see the argumentation:
If you are a Christian, you have a new perspective on life, because your life is eternal and transcends all the cares of this world. Even if you lose the battle of this life, you are on the winning side of a larger war! If this is true, your values will be governed by the long haul and not by immediate circumstances. You can relax about things in this life; after all, they are passing away, but you aren’t. You don’t need to get all worked up over them. You have the strength to be kind and compassionate in adversity. So if you find yourself living carnally, you need to go back and check your spiritual vision. If you are overly concerned with short-range things, you need to check your long-range vision. We all laugh at the foolish person who in the process of saving a dime squanders a dollar; let’s not be caught doing the same thing with our spirituality. If someone gets very upset in the course of playing Monopoly, we tell them that it is only a game, that life goes on. Likewise, we shouldn’t get worked up about life. Life will end, but eternity will go on! Therefore let us live with eternity in mind, and take the petty troubles of this life in stride.
If you read this part of Colossians in bits, it sounds like idealistic and uplifting religious pie-in-the-sky. But if you read the whole thing at once, it makes a lot of practical sense.
If you have an infant in your house, you probably spend some time running food through a food processor to make it into a smooth paste. Well, that is nice for people who have no teeth, but do you run your steak and potatoes through the blender and smear it on your face? Of course not! You’re an adult!
So if you are an adult, stop running your spiritual food through a blender to break it up into little bits. Read the Bible like an adult!