Colossians for Women: Wrapped Up in Jesus
In her book, Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life, Emily Freeman describes her life:
My idea of who I should be is at war with who I am. I want to be perfect in every situation. I just do. I want to know what to do. I want to know how to do it right. And I want to do it. All. By. My. Big. Self. Not only do I want to do everything perfectly, I want to look perfect while I do it. I want to act perfect and sing perfect and have perfect teeth. I want to parent perfectly, to wife perfectly, and to have a clean house. All the time.
My solution to the disconnect between my perfect, imaginary self and my real-life self is to force life to look the way I want. Somehow. Anyhow. And so I work and I labour and I do the right thing. I stay strong when I feel weak and I fake happy when I want to cry because my ideal image has everything to do with put together and nothing to do with falling apart. 16-17
In this scenario Emily has lost sight of the Lord Jesus. Her concern is what others think about her and how she presents herself to them, to prove to them (and God) how good she is. It cripples her and she acknowledges the constant presence of fear. She writes: “I feel fear. It washes over me with its lies and half-truths. The lies aren’t blatant. They marry themselves with a little bit of truth so the distinctions are blurry at best. And so I practice the presence of fear and refuse the presence of Jesus” (18).
Last issue I asked how we get past the distractions, so that Jesus is truly Lord of our lives. Do we just try a little harder? Find a formula to follow? Or think of someone admirable and simply choose follow his/her example? Do you find inspiration in a particular author (or blog), only to find that what looks so easy for her is so difficult for you? We saw that a core theme in Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians is to “set your minds on things above, where Christ is seated” (3:1).1Earlier, Paul had noted their rescue by the Lord Jesus from “the dominion of darkness ... brought into (his) kingdom” (1:13). Indeed, they have “died with Christ” (2:20) and been “raised in (him)” (3:1). They are thus to continue to focus on him as their Lord and Saviour, to see in him the answers to life’s difficulties and perplexities.
This time we look at some implications of this teaching of Colossians as it impacts our motivation: fear or security.
Motivated by Fear
Emily (quoted above) is motivated by the opinions of others: “what will they think if I...” She is probably not alone in this. I know that this is something I need to fight against. What about you? What motivates your decisions?
Frequently, we link fear with other religions, such as the pressure of pleasing the god Vishnu in Hinduism, or of keeping the gods happy in pagan religions. There are many Christian novels about other cultures (and times) that focus on the power of evil and the fear this generates in the characters we are reading about. Emily, however, makes a good point. Fear can motivate Christians, too, in their wish to please God and others. Sadly, however, when fear drives us, it takes us further and further away from the cross of Jesus. In seeking to help ourselves, we forget Paul’s teaching in Romans: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15). Fear of others belongs to the kingdom of darkness referred to in Colossians 1, from which we have been rescued by Jesus, of whom “we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid’” (Hebrews 13:6). Through Jesus we are in a safe place, in the embrace of the Lord God himself, who has revealed himself to us as our Father.
Fear, then, results in our trying to work things out for ourselves. Its opposite is resting in the “energy” we receive through Jesus, as Paul did. The gulf between these two perspectives is stark. Emily comments that “the energy it takes to live for you is killing me” whereas Paul writes: “I (labour) with his (Christ’s) energy, which so powerfully works in me” (1:29). Emily rests in herself, whereas Paul finds his strength in the finished work of Christ. She is needy; he is full. She tries to fix things herself; Paul finds his solutions in the grace available in Jesus.
Emily’s scenario here is an illustration of Paul’s warnings in Colossians 2, where Paul warns his readers to “see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8). She is taken captive in various ways, not least by the fear that pushes her to prove herself to God and to others. She sets up in her mind a need to achieve something in order to measure up, to justify her inclusion in the kingdom of God.
For Emily, this achievement is in a perfect public persona. Some of us suffer from this same temptation; others may not to the same extent. Perhaps the temptation comes in the guise of proving yourself some other way; for example, choosing to home-school to demonstrate how good a mother you are; feeling that no-one has married you because you have no value; wanting public recognition of acts of service in the church (or resenting it when it isn’t given); or needing to prove yourself in your career (or studies).
A major message in Colossians is, however, that we don’t need self-effort. You and I don’t need to prove anything. Nobody can improve on the perfection we already have because of Him! Paul writes that we have been “given fullness in Christ” (2:10). In Christ we have all the treasures of His wisdom, love, strength, endurance, and so on. Indeed, with the Word of God living in us (ultimately, this is Jesus), we, in turn, can overcome even Satan (the evil one) himself (1 John 2:14). In Jesus we have it all!
Paul’s plea also to you, as a woman in the twenty-first century, therefore, is not to find your security and self-worth in anything or anyone except Jesus, not to be deceived by the values of this world, but instead to remember (and rest in) your rescue from the “dominion of darkness” by the only One able to do so, our Lord and Saviour.
Motivated by Jesus
To be fair to Emily, her fear is not the focus of her book. Rather, her purpose is to show up the flaws of such a life. She writes: “I lived this toxic way for many years before I understood about The Rescue” (19). Her book is thus a reflection on the dangers of living a life behind a “mask” (in fear), as well as, and more importantly, of the liberating freedom that we have in Christ. She writes of the long time that it took for the penny to drop that, not only did Jesus die for her sins (she came to believe this when she was still a child), but that in doing so He gave her a new life (see Colossians 3:3). She writes: “I understood at an early age about the first rescue. Jesus came to save sinners. He came for the lost, the broken, the hurt, and the lonely. He came to heal sick people and to raise dead people and to die for the sins of everyone. Never once did I consider he also came to save me from myself” (124). She failed to see the completeness of her rescue. It took her a long time to realise that she didn’t need to compare herself to others, to feel both less-than and better-than others. It all starts and ends with Jesus.
A relevant question, however, is how not to be this way, especially if it has become a sinful habit. Again, Emily’s insights are helpful. She writes about the help she received from understanding Colossians 3, and summarises it as follows:
Receive: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” (3:15)
Remain: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” (3:16)
Respond: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” (3:17)
Remember: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:2-3)
Emily is quick to point out that this is not some magic formula or a how-to checklist, but spends a chapter on each one of these four points to show how these verses have helped her to overcome her self-dependence, and to lean, instead, on the Lord Jesus. She concludes:
What you believe about God and yourself and the world becomes your hiding place ... Our hiding places can be either our havens or our prisons. Setting our minds on the truth of God’s Word will ensure that we don’t stay captive ... And we will then say with confidence, “You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance (Psalm 32:7).”
Wrapped Up in Jesus
Thus, to get back to our question: how do we get past the distractions and focus only on Jesus? It is by understanding, through the grace of God, what it means to be in Christ. He is, to use Emily’s words, our “hiding place.”
Or, to use another metaphor, it is to be wrapped up completely in Christ. It is as if we are literally inside him – enclosed, wrapped up, protected, safe. It is also, to stretch the word play, to be completely absorbed (wrapped up) in learning more about him, and worshiping him in all that we do. Sometimes we say of a courting couple that they are all wrapped up in each other, to the exclusion of others. Whether we see this as positive or negative is another topic, but the metaphor is useful for us as we reflect on the totality of orienting ourselves towards God, to the exclusion of the wisdom of this world. We seek to know Jesus better, to trust Him in everything, and to imitate him (Ephesians 5:1, 1 John 1:6). This is what it means to live in the “kingdom of the Son” (1:13).
This centrality of Jesus in who I am is freeing. It prevents an unwholesome reliance on rules, checklists, how-to formulas, and traditions (a focus in Colossians 2), and, instead, provides the foundation on which to live out of the principles of Christian living found in Colossians 3 and 4.