The other day, as I was driving home, making the first curve on Lake, I just about drove into a tree. No, I’m not that bad a driver, but I was most definitely that startled by the appearance of a new yard sign. If you’ve been out our way, I’m sure you’ve seen it: a big white wooden sign reading, “Impeach Obama Pelosi & Reid.” It’s not an isolated idea, either; on Facebook, there are already several “Impeach Obama” groups. I haven’t been invited to join one yet, and I don’t want to; for crying out loud, he hasn’t done anything except run for office—since when is campaigning a crime? This is just one more sign that our politics has gotten ridiculous, and not the good kind of ridiculous, either.
The problem here, at its root, is a theological one. That might sound strange, but it’s true: we’re out of whack politically because we’re out of whack theologically, in a couple different ways. First, and this is something we’ll talk more about later, is that our politics in this country has become idolatrous: rather than identifying ourselves simply as Christians, rather than finding our sole identity in Christ and letting that define us, we identify ourselves as Republicans or Democrats or Independents and define ourselves that way as well. How we vote isn’t who we are, it’s just part of what we do as we try to be faithful disciples of Christ. When we lose sight of that, we end up in this position—and conservatives get beaten up for this, but liberals are just as bad—in which we look to politics for answers to our problems, and a sort of secular salvation. We put our trust in earthly rulers, which is just what Scripture tells us not to do, as we saw last week.
When we get ourselves into that position, that leads naturally to the second theological problem, that of overidentifying our cause with God’s, and thus concluding that our opponents are necessarily God’s enemies. To be sure, there are real evils in this world, and thus in our politics, and some of them have powerful political constituencies and advocates; we as Christians have the responsibility to identify those evils and oppose them to the best of our ability. However, we need to be careful to avoid a couple traps which go along with that. One is the trap of assuming that those who disagree with us must necessarily do so out of evil motives; there are no doubt those for whom this is true, but there are many others who are seeking to do what’s best, to the best of their ability and understanding. We need to give people the benefit of the doubt unless and until they give us reason to do otherwise. The other is the trap of assuming the purity of our own motives—that because we are in the right, it makes us better people with purer hearts.
The truth is—and we must never forget this—we’re all sinners. Some of us sin less, some of us sin more, we’re at different levels of spiritual maturity and going different directions, but even the most godly people among us are still sinners saved by grace. We have died with Christ, we have been raised with Christ, we have been given new life in Christ—but in the same old flesh, well-practiced in all the same old sins. We are justified, we are saved, we are being transformed into the image of Christ, but we’re still in process. That’s just how it is in this world, and we need to keep that in our minds. In our disputes and disagreements, in our wants and desires, in the issues we face and the decisions we must consider, we must always remember that we too are sinners, and take that fact into consideration. No matter who we are, our positions, our preferences, our ideas, our desires, our plans, are all tainted by sin, and we have no right to pretend otherwise.
That said, while none of us is going to win free of that condition in this lifetime, that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress; God’s grace is at work in us, setting us free from sin, and while that work is unfinished, he never fails of his purposes. No matter how bad we might be (or might have been) or how holy we think we are now, no matter how old and set in our ways or how young and callow, God is at work in us, and he calls us to work with him, to align our efforts with his. Paul lays out two parts to that in this passage. First he says, all these things that belong to this fallen world and to your old selves, put them to death. It’s much the same thing he says in Romans 8:13, where he writes, “If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
This isn’t something we can accomplish in our own strength; our own efforts need to be a part of it, and there’s an important place for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, and silence, but it’s only by the power of the Spirit of God that we can make any real progress in dealing with our sin. The goal is the complete rooting-out and destruction of sin in our lives; we’ll never reach it in this life, but it’s nevertheless the goal toward which we work. It’s an ongoing struggle against the sin in our lives, to weaken and starve it, so that through loss of strength and lack of food, it dies away little by little, losing its ability to draw us into sinful actions. This requires us to know our own sinfulness, to be aware of the ways in which our sin tricks us and overcomes us, if we are to fight against it intelligently; and it requires constant vigilance—but then, as the Irish politician and writer Edmund Burke noted, that’s always the price of true freedom.
Along with this, Paul says, “Change your clothes!” The image here is of the old self with its sinful practices as a suit of clothes we wear, and of the new self, which is from God, as another suit of clothes. The more we come to appreciate the new life God has given us, the more we learn to see the old self, those old clothes, for the dirty things they are. Imagine coming home after some fiasco, soaked to the skin, cold to the bone, covered in mud and filth, and taking a long, hot shower, or perhaps a long, hot bath; when you’re warm and clean, are you going to put those clothes back on? And yet that, in a sense, is just what we do whenever we turn back to sin: we’ve been washed clean, and yet we put the filth of the old self back on. Paul says, “Don’t do that—put on the habits of your new life in Christ.”
If we put these two commands together, we get a complete picture. As we work to put to death the inward reality of sin, we are also to be at work stripping ourselves of our sinful habits, which are rooted in that inward reality, and replacing them with new ones. For the things we need to set aside, Paul points on the one hand to the disordered desires which lead us to pursue the pleasures and things of the world instead of God, and on the other, to the destructive passions, and the destructive language that goes with them; put those aside, he says, take them off and get rid of them.
In their place, clothe yourselves with a new way of living, one which is marked by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and a forgiving spirit. These words describe an attitude that doesn’t give way to rage when one is done wrong but chooses to show grace, and is willing to waive one’s rights for the good of others, even when they don’t deserve it. The ultimate example of this is Jesus, who at times spoke quite sternly to the Jewish leaders who had set themselves against him, yet died on the cross for them, with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. Just so, says Paul, we should bear with one another and forgive one another just as Christ has forgiven us.
Of course, it would be very easy to take these things and turn them into just another legalistic religion, just another way of putting faith in our own ability to be good enough—just work hard enough at being compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving, and you’ll please God. But look what Paul says next: clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. In other words, these virtues aren’t individual things to be worked on individually and to be accomplished by stern effort—they’re supposed to be the fruit of the love of God and the peace of Christ in our lives. When are we not compassionate, kind, humble, and so on? When we don’t love the people we’re dealing with, or when we’re not at peace—when we’re in conflict within ourselves, when we’re in conflict with those around us, when we’re anxious, when we feel the weight of our own lives resting on our shoulders. But if we open ourselves up to the love of God—because love, too, is not something we do in our own strength; love comes from God, it’s his gift to us and his work in our lives—and let him fill us with his peace, then these virtues are the result.
How do we do that? Well, you’ll note the end of verse 15—“be thankful”; we’ve talked about the importance of gratitude, and about the importance of worship in renewing our gratitude, and that’s part of what Paul’s talking about here. There’s another element here as well, though. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you,” he says—not pass through on the way to somewhere else, not just drop in for tea every now and again, not even buy next door, but move in, make itself at home, get its name on the title deed, and start rearranging the furniture. Let it fill your life, and let it do so richly. Don’t domesticate it, don’t just let it tell you what you expect to hear; don’t settle for the “elevated, obvious, and boring,” to use Frederick Buechner’s phrase. This isn’t just a library of clichés, trite sayings, and moral platitudes, it’s the word God has given us that we might know him. Open your heart to everything he has to say to you through it; dive deep into his will and his character. And as you do, and as you grow in your faith and in your relationship with God, don’t hoard that, don’t keep it to yourself, but turn around and use that to bless others, so that the word of Christ may dwell in all of us richly. That’s the goal, after all, that we would be a people in whom the word of Christ is living and active.
A key part of that is worship, and especially our worship together. “With gratitude in your hearts,” Paul says, “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” It’s worth noting the variety he commends to them: psalms, songs to God from the Scriptures; hymns, the tried and tested songs to God produced by the church; and spiritual songs, new songs to God inspired by the Spirit. I don’t know if the first-century church had anything like our worship wars, or what other issues there may have been around what they sang, and when, and how, and how much; but Paul has no brief for any of it. Use whatever, he says; use all of it. Just sing to God, and teach his Word.
May our worship be about him and him only, and move our hearts to gratitude for who he is and all he’s done for us. May we focus our minds and our hearts and our lives on him and him alone, letting his word dwell in us richly, letting him fill us with his love and his peace. As we do that, he will teach us to live in such a way that everything we say and everything we do is a gift to God, a thank-offering to him, in the name of Jesus; and the more we look at him, and the better we come to know him, the more we will see that anything we can’t say or do in the name of Jesus, anything we can’t offer up to God for his good pleasure, is something we shouldn’t say or do at all.