Over the last two days we’ve looked at two things that we can be tempted to add to our way of life in Christ – religious practices, and spiritual experiences – in the mistaken view that they will, in themselves, enable us to live a life pleasing to God, or that they will somehow enhance our status within the people of God. Today, we look at a third: the world of self-help gurus. But first, let’s read the next few verses in Colossians:
Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
These verses have a strong connection to certain views and practices in Greek philosophy: specifically, Neo-Pythagoreans, but many other groups more generally, like the Stoics and Cynics. Whether or not this was mixed in with Judaism as part of a coherent alternative philosophy here in Colossae is the subject of much debate, but not overly important in how it applies to us.
In simplest terms, the aim of these philosophical schools was to enable a person to live by reason, rather than be swayed by the passions and desires. This finds its origin in Plato, a few centuries earlier, who saw the passions as belonging to our material, embodied, inferior existence, in contrast with reason, which belonged to the intellectual, spiritual dimension. Through various strategies and practices – some involving self-denial and harsh treatment of the body – the aim was to be freed from being controlled by the passions, and to attain “self-mastery.”
This kind of thinking could easily be attractive to followers of Jesus, who were called to live a life that didn’t give in to sinful desires and passions, but one transformed by the mind (Rom 12:1) and living by the Word (or wisdom, or rational principles) of God. So if that’s the goal, why not give a bit of Graeco-Roman self-denial and self-mastery a go? It can’t hurt, right?
The problems, however, should be obvious. Firstly, the diagnosis was a bit off-target: passions and desires aren’t all sinful. God gave us good passions and desires, and he created this material universe (to which Plato thought they belonged) and said that it was good. Secondly, the prescribed treatment was all about self: self-denial, self-abasement, self-mastery. It was striving for something good by human effort rather than by the power of the resurrected Jesus. It was a human-devised self-help strategy to solve a human-defined problem.
If you’ve been playing along at home, you’ll already know my next question. What are the human-devised, self-help disciplines of our age? And how are we tempted to use them in the way we follow Jesus?
The Christian self-help book comes to mind – and the preaching which imitates it. Particularly the way in which they tend to look like their secular counterparts: 7 steps to this, 5 habits of highly effective that. The danger is that they reduce discipleship to a set of human-devised rules and strategies. Or, more subtly, that they give perfectly good biblical teaching on spiritual transformation in a packaging that makes it look like just another self-help offering in the marketplace. So that when it doesn’t “work” straight away, we throw it in the bin along with the latest fad diet, rather than persisting with the slow, unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit within us.
But not only do self-help techniques not work. If we’re not careful, they slowly start to redefine the problem in human terms. Our goals become more here-and-now; more self-focused. Jesus is the one who gives me physical health and financial well-being. Or Jesus is the one who makes me feel better about myself. Jesus is the one who fixes my broken relationships. And so we end up with that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism we spoke about a few weeks ago.
But that’s not what following Jesus is all about. The rest of Colossians – which we begin tomorrow – shows us what it means to “continue to live your lives in him” (2:6). It’s based not on self, but on the power of the resurrected Christ in us. It’s focused not on the earthly goals or strategies of the alternative philosophies of our world, but it’s about setting our hearts and minds on things above (3:1). But we’ll get to that tomorrow.
Paul’s point, to sum up, is that all the alternatives we’ve looked at are pale, shadowy, inferior copies of the real thing: Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwells, and who offers that to us, too (2:9-10).