Our reading for today in Colossians 3 has one of those dual lists of negative works of the flesh followed by positive works of the spirit. It’s easy to read through these sorts of lists, think “that’s an interesting list of qualities” and move on without thinking about them much. How do we stop doing things like “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (v.5) and instead put on things like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v.12)?
There are a couple of clues in the context. Paul tells us in verse 2 to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” He introduces the negative list of fleshly things as “what is earthly in you” (v.5). By saying “in you” he’s reminding us that these are things that are natural to us, what we find easy. Paul exhorts us instead to set our minds on things that are above, things that are not natural to us but things that produce compassion, kindness and patience. Setting our minds on things above is to develop a heavenly and eternal perspective and outlook. That’s the key to thinking in a spiritual rather than fleshly way. It’s when we focus on the here and now, having a short-sighted view of life, that we slip into earthly ways of sin.
Paul’s been talking about this heavenly perspective from the beginning of the epistle. Back in chapter 1, for instance, he writes, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v.13). Obviously, this isn’t a physical reality; we still await the Kingdom. But having a long-term view of life is about realizing all we think, say and do should be focused on the kingdom of God. Our lives are not about now. This is just an extremely short training period to prepare us for eternity. Anything that happens to us in life, any situation we find ourselves in, any relationship we have, should be viewed through the lens of the heavenly and eternal perspective. If we don’t do that, if we let short-term thinking control us, that’s when things like “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk” (3:8) take hold of us and bring our thinking down.
So, how do we get into that heavenly mindset? The other clue in the context of Colossians 3 is what Paul says in verse 10 – “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” What does it mean to be renewed in knowledge? Scripturally speaking, knowledge is more than just information we learn academically and store in our brains. It’s more to do with the kind of knowledge we gain through experience. It’s like the difference between looking at a map of a city you’ve never visited and learning where the roads are, and actually living in the city and understanding what roads to avoid at rush hour. There are certain things in life that we can’t know until we’ve lived through an experience, and that includes things like compassion, forgiveness and love. I can define compassion, for instance, from a biblical perspective, but until I’ve gone through a situation where I’ve had to actually practice compassion, I don’t really know what it is at all.
The list of positive qualities in Colossians 3 are about the character God is looking for in those with whom he wants to spend eternity. That means he needs to train us so that we develop them, because they’re not natural to us. And that’s why we go through the trials and problems we encounter in life. God is shaping us and preparing us for the Kingdom. We learn through experience that works of the flesh like evil desire and slander only make things worse, and it’s qualities like humility and patience that bring about positive results.
If we can view our lives through this eternal perspective and live as if we’re in the Kingdom right now, it will make our lives now better, enrich our relationships, and enable us to deal with situations the best way. But more than that, it will also mean we’re getting ready for when eternal life begins, when all the earthly things of this life will be forgotten forever.
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