In the corner of the Bible Belt, where I grew up, there were rules, rules, and more rules. Christians weren't supposed to listen to secular music. We weren't supposed to drink, dip, or smoke. No baggy pants, face piercings, or spiky blue hair was allowed. We were to steer clear of certain substances that would alter our mood. We were expected to adhere to the inalienable stricture of abstinence until marriage. R-rated movies were off-limits. For the most pious, even PG-13 was too immoral. Using certain words that started with S, D, and F were not allowed. Fearing the scourge of all things secular, most of my friends' parents homeschooled them. However, I went to public school, which cast a dubious shadow upon my ability to be Christian.
There were so many rules, they made my head swim. Though it wasn't too hard to follow some, there were others that were nearly impossible. For my brothers and me, the hardest rules to follow were the ones that had to do with music. We loved hard rock, and it seemed to find its way to us no matter how strongly the Bible teachers insisted that we stay away from big drums, electric guitars, and wall-shaking bass. My mother, through much hard work, was able to find hard rock albums from Christian bands who offered a similar sound without the crass lyrics. These electrifying aspects held us only slightly within the boundaries of the good graces of our church peers.
As we grew, some began to dabble in habits that were off-limits for my uber-Christian friends and me. There came a divide between the Christians and those who didn't act like Christians. Or at least that's the way we saw it. We believed that we could identify a Christian by their habits. We thought if they smoked, drank, or cussed, then they weren't believers.
There was a tremendous problem with this external approach. All the rules focused on the body. Don't touch, don't look, don't listen, don't taste. None of the rules could do anything to change the underlying desire or our mindset. Every time the bouffant-haired Sunday school teacher said I shouldn't listen to rock n' roll music, it just made me want to hear it even more. Of course, I didn't… for a while. Though once I was out from under the watchful eye of those moral oppressors, I'd crank it up as loud as I could.
The rules we faced had a kind of success as long as we stayed under the social influence of those who imposed them. However, once we moved off to college, most of us fell apart. So many of my friends, who seemed incredibly disciplined while living in our small hometown, took a deep dive into the sins they had avoided for so many years. Why?
We had fallen into the trap of body-rules. You can make rules for the body. You can create rigid laws that force a kind of pseudo-righteousness. They can keep you busy trying to suppress the flesh, but they don’t work on the mind. While the body is engaged in self-discipline, the mind is free to continue its private pursuit of quiet desires, waiting for the moment. There is pleasure in sinful thoughts.
This same problem is addressed in Paul’s letter to his friends in Colossae. He has some important things for us to learn about how to avoid the trap of body-rules. He’s got a beautiful alternative that we can all learn from. Let’s take a look.
Who is Paul writing to? We’ll see it in the following verse:
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world… (Col. 2:20 NLT)
It’s important to note first, Paul is speaking to believers. He’s talking to those who have died with Christ. For all who have believed in Jesus for eternal life, something amazing has happened. We have each been set free from the spiritual forces of this world.
What does that mean? You don't have to fall prey to lust, immorality, or transgression. You don't have to live in the old way. You don't have to be a victim of the constant sin habits you used to live under. You have the power to overcome evil with good. God placed that incredible power inside of you, and it will never leave. That doesn't mean, however, that it will automatically happen. This is where Christians get so mixed up.
What is one of the ways Christians get mixed up? Check out how he puts it:
…He has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? (Col. 2:20-21)
The believers in Colossae had gotten mixed up. They had fallen into the trap of making body-rules. They had turned their Christianity into a list of dos and don'ts. This list had everything to do with the flesh. There were things they weren't supposed to handle, taste, and touch. They were making the body mind the rules, but they couldn't use this method to change the mind. They were trying to be Christians from the body out, rather than working on the inside.
This makes me think of my first car. It was a Nissan Pulsar. It cost six hundred bucks. It had all kinds of things wrong under the hood. The exhaust manifold was cracked, so the cab would fill up with smoke. The clutch mount was broken, so I had reattached it with weed eater string. The back window had fallen off, so I reattached it with a shoelace. The whole thing was a wreck on wheels.
After having this car for a while, my buddy convinced me to bring it over. He promised that we could give it a professional paint job. The reality behind the kind offer was simple. His dad had bought some car painting equipment, but he wanted a test subject to try it out on first. My car was a perfect candidate.
We painted that car a smooth shade of sports car black. It looked much better. I found myself feeling proud of its new shine. I could drive it around town with a smile. Though that paint job made the body look good, it didn't do anything for the problems under the hood. It still had a host of issues that were sure to leave me stranded or worse.
Following body-rules like, “Don't handle, Don't taste, Don't touch," is kind of like putting a paint job on a failing car. It can make the body look good, but it does nothing for what’s under the hood. It can curb external behavior for a time, but it can’t truly change what’s in the mind.
How do you know if you’ve fallen into the body-rule trap? Paul gives us a clue:
“Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”… Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them… (Col. 2:21-22)
Notice what body-rules focus on. They focus on perishable things. Body-rules are occupied with earthly issues. You can recognize body-rules because they focus on external things and how we interact with them. They don't focus on the mind and the heart. We know this because he says, Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them.
For the original audience, the body-rules had to do with certain kinds of foods they weren't supposed to eat and certain classes of people they weren't supposed to touch. A modern equivalent might include smoking, drinking, cussing, and a host of taboo activities.
Making rules that try to control the body but ignore the state of mind/heart will leave us in the same place that Paul is warning against. But why? This may seem counterintuitive. I mean, shouldn’t this help us become better people? Why are body-rules so dangerous? Paul explains:
These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline… (Col. 2:22)
They will keep you busy. They won’t be easy. They will make you look impressive. I remember in years gone by, friends commended me for being able to resist alcohol. I had friends who partied and couldn’t understand how I could resist. What they didn’t know is that I was imbibing on a stronger substance: self-righteousness. By abstaining from liquor, I could feed my need for a stronger vice: pride.
This is the first of the problems with body-rules. They make you look good. They have an appearance of strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. These erect a kind of facade that the world sees as righteousness. This feeds our pride and perpetuates the problem. It’s why we get trapped, but there’s a bigger problem still. What’s the ultimate problem with body-rules? Paul explains:
These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. (Col. 2:22-23)
The main problem with ascribing to body-rules is that it provides no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. What we need is deliverance from the evil desires that live within us. Making rigid rules for the body won’t change the desires that live within the mind. This is true even when you take it to its extreme.
There are entire groups of monks that ascribe to extreme body-rules. There are monks that starve themselves, remove themselves from society, and even whip themselves. This is supposed to mortify or kill the flesh. Paul is saying it doesn’t matter how extreme you get. Making body-rules, even to the point of abusing the flesh, doesn’t conquer a person’s desires.
Mechanical discipline only manages the body but leaves the mind bathed in lusty thoughts. If this were the end of the story, we would be in real trouble. Making body-rules doesn't help. So, what are we supposed to do?
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God… (Col. 3:1)
It's all about our focus. What are we focused on? To focus on bodily rules is to focus on earthly things. When we make body-rules, it requires us to give our mental attention to the things of this sinful realm. We have to dig through all the garbage of the world and determine what we should stay away from. Then we create rules that focus on those specific sins. It's a never-ending job, and it will leave us considering every possible sin that might arise. Do you know what happens when you spend all your time thinking about sins? It makes you sin more.
Instead of that approach, we need to set our sights on Christ and what is with Him in Heaven. What is with Him in Heaven? Jesus said, “I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.” (Revelation 22:12) One of the things that is with Christ is the reward He will give for obedience. This is a glorious thing to focus on. His reward is all about our eternal experience when we arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven. The essence of eternal reward is our closeness to Christ. Instead of thinking about the body-rules we must keep, we should think about our Lord, who is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) To seek those things which are above means to seek the things Christ has promised us. When that is our focus, it will change our ability to overcome our evil desires.
Now, remember, body-rules offer no help in conquering our evil desires, but setting our sights on Christ and His promises makes all the difference. When our minds go to God, His power to transform comes to us. Let's repeat. What are we supposed to do? Paul reiterates this idea in no uncertain terms.
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. (Col. 3:2)
It’s all about where you focus your mind. It would be easy to assume that setting our minds on earthly things must mean having a sin-focus. Though, that's not exactly what he's talking about here. He's just spent quite a lot of time explaining. Trying to keep body-rules like "Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” is an earthly focus. In this context, having an earthly focus can mean an attempt to keep moralistic rules.
Making rules like, don't drink, don't smoke, don't cuss, don't watch R-rated movies, and don't listen to rap music, etc. etc. These demonstrate an earthly focus. They may seem like a good idea, but making and keeping rules like this is not the way to change our hearts and minds.
He shoves all that aside and puts it simply: Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. Stop making rules; focus on Christ and things above. This is how internal transformation takes place.
What are some ways to set your mind on things above? Praying, especially according to the Lord's prayer, is a great place to start. Jesus designed his prayer template in Matthew six to help focus our minds. If we use it as a model for our daily prayer, we can hardly help but have our minds focused on things above.
Scripture study is another helpful habit that can get our minds focused on the things we need to be considering. Reading scripture and listening to Bible teaching is a great way to fill the mind with material for Godly focus.
A third activity that helps give the right focus is fellowship with other enthusiastic and godly believers. When we have fellowship that is Christ-centered, it can sharpen our minds. All these activities are powerful tools that can help us keep our minds focused on things above.
Here's the danger, though. Many have turned these helpful habits into body-rules. They say, "you need to pray X minutes a day, read your Bible Y minutes a day, and attend church Z times a month." The XYZ approach is taking helpful habits, which are designed to bring the right focus, and turning them into bodily rules. This is missing the point. When you pray, it's designed to focus you on things above. When you read scripture, it's intended to focus you on things above. When you fellowship, it should help you focus on things above. Turning prayer, Bible study, and fellowship into a body-rule is one danger modern Christians face.
Jesus spoke of a man who wrongly used prayer as a means to bolster his pride. (Mat. 6:5) He accused the Pharisees of studying the Scripture for selfish motives. (Jn. 5:39) Paul even showed that fellowship could be used for false motives. (1 Cor. 11) If the way in which you pray, fellowship, or study Scripture is not focusing you on things above, then you need to reconsider the method you're using. Prayer, fellowship, and Scripture study, when done the way Jesus taught us, removes our focus from earthly things, and points our minds toward things above.
Our goal should be to spend as much of our thought-life focused on God. Prayer, Bible study, and fellowship are our greatest weapons in waging war against our evil desires. The mind is a battlefield. Every minute we spend focused on earthly things is a minute lost. Every moment we spend thinking about things above is a moment that Christ will reward and the conduit through which our transformation will flow. We should engage in habits that help focus us on things above. We should not turn those habits into body-rules. What's can we expect if we focus on things above? Notice what Paul says:
For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:3-4)
Note that he doesn’t say you have to be focused on things above to be with Christ in glory. All who have believed in Jesus for salvation will be with Jesus forever. He says that Christ is our life. Everyone who has believed in Jesus for eternal life has it, and it can’t be lost.
However, his unspoken implication looms large. Since every believer will be with Christ in glory one day, it will matter a lot how they spent their time. Why? Believers who focus only on body-rules will arrive in glory, having never overcome their evil desires. They may have been able to keep some bad habits at bay, but Christ searches the heart and mind. If you spend your life following body-rules without ever focusing your mind on Christ, then when you arrive in glory, the reward will be less.
Paul prescribes a novel approach. Stop focusing on the rules. Focus on Christ. Focus on things above. When you focus on Christ and Godly things, you will be transformed by God’s power. It’s a two for one deal. Not only will your mind be transformed, but your habits will change over time. Where the mind goes, the body follows.
As we'll see in the next section, Paul explains that when our focus is on God, we are renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him. (Col. 3:10)