replacing old habits with new characteristics through the new life in Christ

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed,which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:1-17

Even for those of us who have entered into the new life in Christ, there can be old habits which cling to us, and even though destructive, we can cling to them. As Pastor Jeff Manion has been pointing out recently in the series on Colossians, a new life in Christ doesn’t mean that the old habits automatically go away. In fact, it would seem quite the opposite, when you consider what the word here and in other places says.

There is no doubt that we often fall into habits from attitudes which are less than helpful. The good thing about this is that it can expose us in helping us see the dead-end and even destructiveness of what we’re doing. So that hopefully, in the words of Paul in Colossians, as graphically displayed by Jeff Manion with shirts on hangers, we’re to put off the old clothes, and put on the new, in keeping with the new life in Christ.

This can involve a radical change for us. The lists in Colossians are pretty stark, the two major categories being sexually immoral sins, and sins of anger and rage. These by themselves in some form make up something of the struggle for most all of us at one time or another. But there can be other sins we cling to, and which cling to us, as well. Because of our new life in Christ, we can take off and get rid of those sins, and in their place, put on Christ-like characteristics which will point others to him.

And we’re in this together in Jesus. It’s not an individualistic, self-help program. In fact the list of virtues we’re to put on, culminating with love can be understood only, or at least best in the context of relationships, and specifically relationships with our fellow Christian sisters and brothers. In a certain sense extending beyond that out into the world, but established and at work in the body, the church.

And so we need not despair, or simply give in to old habits which are eating away at us, and actually directly or indirectly destructive or unhelpful to others. In Christ together we have the answers toward a radical change which involves a life-long process, as we continue to take off the old, and put on the new, in and through Christ our Lord.

“add to your faith goodness”

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

From our modernist heritage we put the emphasis not on virtue, but on knowledge. One would think by now that we would understand that knowledge alone does not make one better, or the world better. It is of course what we do with that knowledge which counts.

I am one who likes to know as in learning as much as I can and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Notice the passage itself lists adding knowledge right after goodness. It is important and sometimes despised in reaction to our Modernist, Enlightenment world. Of course knowledge needs to be couched in the right context. Here it is couched in the context of of God’s divine call and enabling in and through Christ. The entire list is instructive for us. In fact rather ironically to read and consider such a list is toward knowledge, or an intellectual understanding of the same. But that does little good unless goodness accompanies it.

The heart of the matter in the life in Jesus is to live a life of love, of course in terms of our calling in Jesus. The world won’t necessary see all that we do and say with reference to that calling as good. For example Jesus is our king, and earthly masters have no total absolute authority over us. That’s not going to sit well in many places. And our confession that Jesus is Lord and the way to God along with the confession that there is one God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is not going to be tolerated in some places. While there is indeed significant overlap in the goodness referred to here which Christians are to live out, there are some significant differences as well. What is crucial is that our lives are pleasing to God and that people have nothing justly bad to say about us.

We don’t stop at goodness of course (and the list is not strictly speaking sequential, though I find the order in some ways possibly suggestive), but we add the rest of what is on this list to our faith as well. And so we in Jesus should be known for our goodness in and through him.

 

N. T. Wright on the distinguishing Christian word, agape.

First Corinthians 13 is one of the best-known passages in all of Paul…:

Love is great-hearted; love is kind,
knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
not puffed up, no shameless ways,
doesn’t force its rightful claim;
doesn’t rage, or bear a grudge,
doesn’t cheer at others’ harm,
rejoices, rather, in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things;
love hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails….

…the love of which Paul speaks is tough. In fact, it’s the toughest thing there is.

The love of which Paul speaks is clearly a virtue.

It is not a “rule” of the sort that is so out of fashion nowadaysimposed in an arbitrary fashion and to be obeyed out of a sense of duty. (We shall discuss the more serious question of proper rules and their relation to virtue later on.)

It is not a “principle,” a generated rule which a person either obeys or disobeys…

Nor, especially, is it the result of people “doing what comes naturally.”

….love is a virtue. It is a language to be learned, a musical instrument to be practiced, a mountain to be climbed via some steep and tricky cliff paths but with the most amazing view from the top. It is one of the things that will last; one of the traits of character which provides a genuine anticipation of that complete humaness we are promised at the end. And it is one of the things, therefore, which can be anticipated in the present on the basis of the future goal, the telos, which is already given in Jesus Christ. It is part of the future which can be drawn down into the present.

….The early Christians…did with the word agape  pretty much what they did with the ancient notion of virtue. They picked it up, soaked it in the message and achievement of Jesus, and gave it a new life, a new sort of life.

….Paul, like the other early Christians, settled on the word agape to do a job which nobody had realized needed doing until then. Nobody until then had really glimpsed, in quite the way those early Christians did, the challenge to embody a virtue so profound, so life-changing, so community-defining, so revolutionary—both in its nature and its effects, and in the moral character needed to aspire to it—that people in Paul’s own day thought he was mad. Indeed, people ever since, even within the church, have balked at the challenge and settled for second best. Agape sets the bar as high as it can go. The first thing to do before we can discuss it is to acknowledge that we have all failed quite drastically to clear that height. Then, with that on the table, we can set ourselves the task of thinking through, in the first place, what Paul is saying about the “perfect” and “the partial.” This is the key to understanding how he supposes virtue works, and what it consists of.

N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung on virtue as a matter of the heart

In the end, both virtues and vices are habits that can eventually become “natural” to us. Philosophers describe the perfect achievement of virtue as yielding internal harmony and integrity. Compare, for example, the following two married persons: The first, let’s call Jane. Although she resists them, Jane regularly struggles with sexual feelings for men other than her husband. The second, call him Joe, enjoys an ardent affection for his wife throughout the ups and downs of thirty years of marriage. Are they both faithful? In a technical sense, at least, yes. Jane successfully exercises self-control over her wayward desires. But only Joe embodies fidelity as a virtue. His faithfulness is deeply rooted in who he is. While we can give her moral credit for her efforts, Jane’s faithfulness stays on the surface; it is the uncomfortable voice of conscience countering her adulterous inclinations and keeping her actions in check. By contrast, Joe’s desires are in harmony with his considered judgment. Who wouldn’t rather have a spouse with Joe’s fidelity than Jane’s self-control?

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this the difference between acting according to virtue—that is, according to an external standard which tells us what we ought to do whether we feel like it or not—and acting from the virtue—that is, from the internalized disposition which naturally yields its corresponding action. The person who acts from virtue performs actions that fit seamlessly with his or her inward character. Thus, the telltale sign of virtue is doing the right thing with a sense of peace and pleasure. What feels like “second nature” to you? These are the marks of your character.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, 16.

“make every effort”

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control…

Between the effort to catch the wind of the Spirit, and ride that, and the effort required from the life and faith we have in God through Christ by the Spirit, there is a call for the Christian to work hard at, as well as work out our salvation. Of course we’re not talking about salvation by works, by our own effort. Any work we do is because of God’s grace active in our lives in Jesus.

A lot of this work will amount to simply waiting on God. That’s an important aspect of it. Spiritual disciplines rooted in scripture such as the examen, lectio divina, silence, etc., all require a diligence which does not, as a rule come natural to us. What is needed by the work of the Spirit in and through Jesus is that certain things become second nature to us over time through practice.

A wrong teaching and misunderstanding is the idea that we simply can’t do God’s will. We are going to sin in everything we do. Are we still going to sin? Yes, and the idea that we won’t sin in this life betrays a shallow understanding, I’m afraid, of what sin is, as well as missing that very point from scripture. But when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just through Christ to forgive us, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. All of this is part of the equation.

And so we go on. In this new life in God through Jesus. Looking forward not only to the redemption of our bodies in the resurrection, but growth in this new life here and now. Together in Jesus for the world.