COLOSSIANS #17: THE PROBLEM OF RELIGION.

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This is the sort of thing that gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into the “religion” trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we do this, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. We’re just trying to use God to get what we want. This is not the way of Christ.

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Colossians #17  Colossians 2:8-10

Be warned: don’t be carried away through philosophy, or empty lies, along with traditions that come only from human beings. These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ. In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.(Colossians 2:8-10 my translation/paraphrase)

There are all sorts of different philosophies and lies and human traditions that might lead us away from Jesus. I have mentioned two of them before. One is the lie that Jesus is just one of many ways. “You can’t be so exclusive,” say those who advocate this. “Jesus may very well work for you, but how can you expect everyone in the world to believe in what is after all, a religion of Western culture? People in other parts of the world are very different from us, and we need to accept that Jesus just might not ‘work’ for those people.”

This attitude, though it sounds enlightened, is actually very ignorant. Though Western culture was shaped by Christianity, the Christian faith was not produced by Western culture. In fact, today, most Christians in the world do not live in Western countries anymore. There are more Christians outside the United States and Europe than in. Christianity “works” in Nepal, New Guinea, Malaysia and Madagascar. People follow Jesus in the huge cities of Asia and the savannas of Africa and the mountains of South America. South Korea sends missionaries around the world, as does Brazil and even Bermuda. To say that Jesus “doesn’t work” for other cultures is to ignore the fact that there are Christians from virtually every culture and country in the world.

Another big lie we recently considered is that human sexuality is all about our own personal preferences, and God doesn’t care about it. But God gives the commands about sexuality to protect us, and allow us to thrive. The thought that these commands are “outdated” is the lie that is currently destroying Western culture. When sex is disconnected from loving marriages, the result is millions of children who are either not really wanted, or who are raised in chaotic, unstable homes, and they become profoundly damaged emotionally (and sometimes physically). The backbone of any stable civilization is the family, and our current attitudes toward sex are destroying it. In addition, women become more vulnerable, and more likely to be seen as sex-objects than people. We also damage our own emotional wellbeing when we have multiple casual sex partners.

But we have considered those before. I want to add another lie that has sometimes tempted me. I am an intellectual person, and I have great respect for modern science. But some scientists (certainly not all) have little or no respect for Christianity, and they claim that you cannot believe both the Bible and modern science.

This is a lie. It is not a choice between the two. God speaks most clearly through the Bible, and nothing he says or does will contradict that. Everything we need to know for spiritual life and truth is in the Bible. And contrary to the popular belief, there is nothing in the Bible that contradicts science. God also uses even those who are not believers to accomplish his purposes and reveal some of his more “general” truth.

For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about electricity. We don’t need to know about it for the healing and salvation of our souls. People lived without using electricity for thousands of years. But the Bible does tell us that God made everything there is. Therefore, we know that God made electricity, and it is not wrong to find out about how it works, and how to use it. God has given some people the ability to that, for the benefit of all people. The truths about electricity are God’s truths (since he created it) but we don’t need the Bible to discover them. On the other hand, we don’t need to know anything about electricity to be saved by Jesus Christ.

Modern science was made possible only by the worldview of Christianity, which taught people to believe that the world was orderly, and that human thinking is rational and can be used to discover the world around us. It is no random occurrence that modern science arose from the only culture that was shaped by a Christian worldview.

In addition to the lies of those who are not religious, it seems like Paul might be warning particularly about people who are insisting on certain kinds of religious practices. He talks about external circumcision (a religious practice of the Jews) as opposed to “circumcision of the heart.” He talks about “the written code, which was against us.” And he concludes in verse 16:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, ESV)

We will cover all of that later on, but for now, we should understand that it possible to be led astray even by people who call themselves religious. Elsewhere, Jesus warns us about “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” (Matt 5:17) and Paul says to Timothy:

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.(1 Timothy 4:1-3, NLT)

Timothy was in Ephesus at the time Paul wrote that, and Ephesus was relatively close to Colossae, the place to which this letter is addressed. So I think now Paul is talking about not only lies of an ungodly culture, but also lies that come from those who claim to be Christians.

I want us to pay close attention to something from verse 8:

These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ.

There is a gigantic difference between “the basic principles of the world” and “the way of Christ.” The Greek phrase “basic principles” was used in ancient Greece in three related ways. One meaning is that of “elemental spiritual forces.” This would refer to pagan religious practices and or demonic forces. Another way is it used to mean the elements of which the earth is made. A third way in which this phrase is used to describe a sequence of events. In this last meaning it would be something like this idea: “If you do A, you will get B.”

I think Paul intends two parts of the meaning here: both the idea of demonic spiritual forces, and also the idea that the way to practice religion is to: “Do A, so that God must give you B.” He uses the same Greek word in verse 20:

20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. (Colossians 2:20-22, CSB)

There (in verse 20) the “elements of this world” lead people to say “Do this, and don’t do that, in order get what you are after.” In verse 8, he calls this “human traditions” and in verse 20 he calls them “regulations,” and, “human commands and doctrines.”

So, I think what he is saying is this: “Be careful not to be deceived by religious traditions, and religious talk that sounds good, but is not the way of Christ.’ What sorts of things is Paul talking about? Remember that phrase “elemental principles” or “elements of this world” refers to the idea that if you do A, you get B. Now, this is a powerful lie because it has elements of the truth. If you get drunk at night, you’ll most likely have a headache in the morning. If you treat people badly all the time, most likely those people won’t help you when you need it. If you spend more than you make, you will end up in financial trouble. So, in some instances, it is true that if you do A, you will get B.

But Paul is talking about this idea being used to more or less manipulate God into blessing you. For example, many people think that if you live a good life, then God has to bless you. Many religious people – people who claim to be Christians – say this.

Another example of this idea is that if you pray hard enough, or you pray in exactly the correct way, God must answer your request more or less exactly as you presented it. People who fall into this sort of deception treat the Bible as if it is some sort of legal document that we can use to argue our case in a spiritual court to force God to keep up what we think of as his end of the bargain. Or, some folks think it is some sort of code that must be unlocked; if we can just figure out the right way to do things we can manipulate God into doing what we want. In other words: if we do A, then God must do B.

This is the sort of thing gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into this trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we treat religion this way, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. Though many would not consciously say it, those who operate this way are not God’s people, put on this earth for His purposes; instead they become servants of our own desires, and God/religion is just a way for them to achieve those desires. One of the reasons this is so dangerous is because on the surface, we can look like good, religious people. We can do and say mostly the right things. But we are doing things the way of the world; we are trying to get what we want in the time and in the way we want it.

But Paul says this thinking is the way the world operates. We humans want to control our own destiny, and often our religious efforts are just one way that we use to try and control our own lives. Paul says this is not the way of Christ. What is the way of Christ? Paul tells us:

In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.

Christ is the fulness of God in a human body; and we have the fulness of  Christ in us. Therefore, in Christ, we already have everything we need. We don’t need to manipulate. It is pointless to do A in order to get B, because we already have all the “B” we need. It has been freely given to us in Christ.

Paul is going to return to this theme again and again in Colossians. He’s already said that we are holy and blameless in Christ. Now, he says we are filled with Christ, just like Christ is filled with God. That’s a huge statement. I think a lot of the time, it is very difficult for us to believe. I understand the problem, of course. The problem is that we don’t feel like we are filled with the fulness of Christ. We don’t feel like we have everything we need.

This feeling arises, I think, from three things. In the first place, we don’t always recognize that our feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. Feelings do always correspond to truth. You can feel worried when there is absolutely nothing to worry about. You can feel fearful when you are perfectly safe. You can feel a very deep desire for things that will ultimately be bad for you, and hurt you. You can feel like Christ is absent when in fact, the scripture right here says he is filling you.

A second problem is that we often don’t truly know the difference between what we need and what we want. I think human nature has a way of accumulating habits and little luxuries, and becoming so used to them that we think of them as needs, rather than what they really are, which is strong preferences or very useful conveniences. Even when something is useful, that doesn’t automatically make it a need. For instance, a microwave is very useful and convenient. Many people might think of it as a basic need, but I didn’t actually have the regular use of a microwave until I was almost thirty years old, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even suffer. If you can live without it, it isn’t actually a need.

The same thing is true with spiritual and emotional things. We aren’t good at distinguishing our needs from our wants, so we think we don’t have what we need from Jesus, when the truth is, as long as we have Jesus, we can get along without many of the things that we want, the things that comfort us.

I have found both fasting, and my experience of intense chronic pain, to helpful in distinguishing between wants and needs. When we abstain from food for the sake of prayer, we are learning in a very concrete way that we need Jesus more than we need anything else, even more than food (or whatever you may be fasting from). Suffering teaches us the same sorts of things. When you suffer, you realize that you can actually get along in conditions that you might have previously thought intolerable. And when you realize that, you recognize that we don’t actually need many of the things we thought we did. Suffering clarifies things for us. It sharpens our need for Jesus above all else.

The third issue is this: we are complete, without need in Jesus…in our spirits. This “being filled with the fulness of Christ” is a spiritual reality. But our flesh is not in sync with our spirit. Imagine you are driving in your car, listening to the radio. The station that you want to hear is broadcasting. Every bit of the music and talk that the station is producing is crystal clear, and is available to anyone who wants to tune in. But your radio doesn’t work right. The music and talk sort of comes and goes, and gets fuzzy and blurred with static. It’s not the problem of the people putting on the radio program. It’s not even a problem with the radio station. The problem is with your particular radio receiver. The program is totally available, but you can’t always get it loud and clear.

That’s how we are spiritually. We are filled with the fulness of Christ in spirit. But our flesh is like that faulty car radio. Even though the whole program is available to us, we can’t always tune in, and sometimes, things seem a little fuzzy and full of static, and we don’t get it loud and clear.

Unfortunately, this will be at least partially true until we die. When Jesus gives us our new resurrected bodies, they will be totally in sync with spiritual reality. But for now, we can do some things to help us tune in, to help us live in the reality that all the fulness of Christ has been given to us. There’s nothing new here: pray, read your Bible and “do life” with other Christians. I know I keep saying those things over and over. I’ll keep on saying them until I’m convinced that everyone who reads these message is doing these things on a regular basis.

When Spiritual things are not loud and clear, we can still trust that they are there, and God is delivering us grace and life, even when we can’t hear it well. We don’t need to control things by doing certain rituals, or saying certain things in exactly the right way. In Christ, we already have all that we need. Let us trust it to be true, and begin by thanking him for it.

  • What are some of the lies you are tempted to believe? What reminds you of the truth?
  • What are some ways that you are tempted to “manipulate God” into giving you what you want?
  • How can we live in the fulness of what we have in Christ? What does this even look like?

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