Yesterday, we saw how Paul’s Colossian readers were tempted to add Jewish religious practices as a way to live a life pleasing to God, and to fit in with his people. (And we looked at ways in which we’re susceptible to elevating our own religious practices to a similar status.) Today, while the background may still have a Jewish flavour, the focus moves to those who would chase mystical experiences as a way of connecting with God.
Colossians 2:18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.
What “false humility and the worship of angels” precisely refers to is a matter of much debate. It could refer to the humility of fasting in preparation to receive a vision; or possibly the humility of angels in their worship of God. And does the “worship of angels” mean that angels were the object of this worship, or were people participating in the angels’ worship of God?
Whatever was going on, it’s not going on now, for us, in precisely that form, so to some extent the details don’t overly matter. The point is: people were seeking mystical experiences in order to get a sense of connection with the divine. (A lot of the local pagan religions in Asia Minor had this element, and there’s evidence that some from the local Jewish population had, over time, mixed these practices into their worship of the Hebrew God.) And the motivation is significant: they want the experience so they can boast about it (“puffed up”, v18) and gain status by telling everyone about it.
Paul’s response? It’s a distraction which can disqualify you – i.e. draw you away from the true worship of God. They think they’re being spiritual, but only because their mind has not been renewed by God’s Spirit. They’re doing it for reasons of status, just like we saw with the other religious practices (Jewish food laws and special days) yesterday. They’ve made it all about themselves – their experiences and status – and in so doing disconnected themselves from Christ and his body, the people of God:
Colossians 2:19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
We’re not being misled by mystic religious practices from Asia Minor (I’m guessing). But there are plenty of religions in the world that have similar elements: some quite exotic, such as the whirling dervishes of the Sufi branch of Islam who spin themselves into ecstatic trances, or the narco-cults of the Caribbean which add traditional drugs into the mix; others more common, like the New Age spiritualities that seek a feeling of connection with the natural environment or the spirit world. This common human desire for a religious experience can influence the way in which followers of Jesus practise their faith – seen in the various Christian groups which prioritise the experiential aspect of faith over the cognitive and behavioural.
For us, are we influenced by this desire for an altered state or an emotional experience of the divine? Are there experiences we seek out because they make us feel more connected to God, or they give us a sense of importance among others in the church? Here are a few things that came to mind – I’m sure you’ll have others – that we need to evaluate regularly about ourselves:
- Do we attend church services primarily for the feeling it gives us? (And then, sometimes, get disappointed and feel spiritually disconnected when that feeling doesn’t turn up?)
- Do we make sure we look like we’re having an emotional or spiritual experience in public worship, with an eye to how other people perceive us?
- Do we place undue pressure on others to have the same kind of emotional or spiritual experience we have in worship, when God may just have wired them differently? (And then judge them when they don’t look like they are?)
- Are there particular events or conferences or other Christian gatherings we go to just because we want a particular feeling?
- Do we chase supernatural experiences (such as exorcism, prophecy, tongue speaking) because we need such experiences to sustain our relationship with God, or because we need such experiences to feel important and useful to him? (Here, our motivation is what I’m talking about, not those practices per se.)
In other words: have we made spiritual experiences into an idol, disconnecting ourselves from our Head in search of feelings and experiences which continually need “topping up” in order to sustain our faith?
This is not to suggest, in any way, that experiences and emotions and the supernatural have no place in our relationship with God. Of course they do! But it’s God himself whom we are to seek, not the rush of emotions that may (or may not) come with that from time to time, and not the experience of supernatural phenomena themselves.