READ – COLOSSIANS 2:8-23
We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is writing to people who are new to Christianity and asking the questions – “What makes for a fulfilled, substantial, meaningful life?” His answer is: Jesus. In Jesus and with Jesus you have everything you’ll ever need.
Robert Bellah, a sociologist who taught at UC Berkeley, in his 1985 book Habits of the Heart talked about “Sheilaism.” In an interview with Bellah a young woman named Sheila Larsen said: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Bellah describes how Sheilaism is becoming the new norm for American spirituality – and opens us to the possibility of millions of different religions if everyone follows their “own little voice.” Robert Wuthnow in his book After Heaven describes how our culture has shifted away from a religion of “dwelling” to a spirituality of “seeking.” No longer is spiritual experience confined to old time religion and its institution – instead its sought through spiritual practices, gurus, private experience. Wuthnow comments that the new creed is “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”
In Colossians 2, Paul is describing three approaches to a fulfilled life. In Paul’s context there were two primary alternatives: moralism and mysticism, what we might today call “religion” and “spirituality.” Paul contrasts both of these approaches with Jesus – in whom the fullness of God dwells (Col 2:9). So in Paul’s mind there is God revealed in Jesus and God-substitutes that are vying for allegiance in our hearts, lives, and communities.
1. WHY GOD-SUBSTITUTES ARE CAPTIVATING
Paul saw two approaches to a fulfilled life in his culture: moralism and mysticism. Moralism is a philosophy based in “human tradition” (Col 2:8) and “human commands” (Col. 2:22). In one sense, we might describe it as a traditional or conservative approach to the divine. Moralism says that if you follow the rules and abstain from the world, you will arrive at fulfillment. Another approach is mysticism, or what Paul calls a philosophy based on the “elements of the world” (Col. 2:8). Mysticism is perhaps a more progressive approach to the divine and fulfillment. We could talk about New Age practices or Eastern spirituality. But maybe closer to home is a mystical approach that says you don’t need to follow rules, you just need to follow your heart. A moralistic approach might say abstain from the world; but a mystical approach says abstain from rules.
What’s fascinating is that Paul sees both moralism and mysticism as two sides of the same coin. How so? First, both moralism and mysticism (old traditional religion and new spirituality) are distinct from Jesus. Paul warns not to be captivated by these ways of life “rather than Christ” (Col. 2:8). Moralism and mysticism are the same in that they are both, conservative or progressive, opposed to Jesus. Second, both approaches equally try to substitute ourselves for God. A traditional moralist believes “If I abstain, obey, perform, and associate with good people, good doctrine, the right political party, then I’ll be fulfilled and OK.” But for Paul that’s the equivalent of saying that you don’t need God to experience fulfillment. In fact, it also minimizes sin and the need for God. At least part of what Paul may be addressing in Colossians 2 were religious moralists who were saying that the ancient, ritual practice of circumcision was necessary for full access and fullness in the religious life and community. Paul saw physical circumcision as a way to minimize a person’s need to be completely transformed by God. That’s why he encourages these followers of Jesus with the reality that they’ve received a “circumcision made without hands,” that is, a supernatural, transformative, unilateral divine work of God in their hearts. So moralism is saying the distance between myself and God is not that great and I can bridge it myself. On the other hand, a spiritual mystic says, “If I abstain from rules, follow my own inner voice (a la Sheilaism), and pursue my own dreams, then I’ll be fulfilled.” If moralism says, I will be my own Savior, then mysticism says, I will be my own Lord. For Paul this is a disconnection from “the Head of every rule and authority” (Col. 2:10, 19). The spiritualist says, “I don’t need a Head and I don’t want a Head, I’ll be my own ruler and authority.”
So both moralism and mysticism seek to substitute ourselves for God. Old Religion substitutes ourselves for God as savior; New Spirituality substitutes ourselves for God as lord. At their core both approaches are the same thing. They look different on the surface, but both are fundamental ways of substituting ourselves for God while questioning God’s sufficiency, competency, ability, and sovereignty. Paul warns us not to be captive by these things because they will not only control and run our lives, they’ll end up ruining our lives.
2. WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF GOD-SUBSTITUTES
There’s at least three areas of our lives that both moralism and mysticism will have destructive effects on if we are held captive to them. They’re harmful to our relationship to God, others, and the self.
God-substitutes are destructive to our relationship with God. For a moralist, obedience and performance is for the purpose of controlling God, not cherishing God. Religion is always for the purposes of using God for what He can give you, not enjoying God for who He is. Both moralism and mysticism also seek to try God, rather than trust God. We often see God as a supplement to a better self, better job, better family, rather than God being the Source of all we are, entrusting our lives, relationships, and work to Him. Mysticism ignores God, rather than thanks God. Colossians is a letter of thankfulness (as we saw last week). But the spiritual stream that says “follow your heart,” actually is a way we overlook and snub God who is the source of everything we are and have. Without saying thank you by giving Him our life, we are guilty of the worst kind of cosmic plagiarism – taking credit for all that God has done.
God-substitutes are destructive to our relationship with others. Look at the language Paul is using to describe the attitude and actions of both moralism and mysticism. He warns us not to be “taken captive” (v. 8), not to be judged (v. 16), not to be disqualified (v. 18), and not to be oppressed by regulations (v. 21). That’s why moralism and mysticism are so damaging to human relationships – they set up standards to determine who is in and who is out. Ask yourself – is this me? Here’s a good test: do I scoff at other’s opinions? Do I show contempt for people who believe and behave different than me? Do I intentionally or subconsciously judge and disqualify other people because they don’t look like me, vote like me, worship like me, parent their kids like me? The answer to that question might indicate whether our hearts have been captive by God-substitutes.
God-substitutes are destructive to our own self. Substituting ourselves for God for both a moralist and a mystic won’t work. If fulfillment comes through following our desires, then what do we do when our desires contradict each other? How do we determine whether to pursue a career or a love relationship if both are not mutually compatible? Following rules won’t work either because Paul says they won’t curb our self-indulgence (v. 23). Our hearts were made to desire, to be filled, and until we deal with our hearts’ loves we will continue to try and fill and indulge ourselves.
3. WHAT’S THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
If the essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God, then what Paul is describing in Colossians 2 is the essence of Christianity – God has substituted Himself for us. How so?
First, God has come bodily in Jesus. God is housed in Jesus of Nazareth. That means that any spiritual paradigm or program that seeks to work its way to God or merit God’s favor is fundamentally flawed because God has already sought us out in Jesus.
Second, God has come to liberate us. In Jesus and particularly at Jesus’ crucifixion, the powers of evil did their worst and were exhausted. There’s an appeal to being our own Head and Ruler, but when we are faced with the uncontrollable powers of nature, school shootings, cultural violence, structural evil, a doctor’s diagnosis, the prospect of losing a spouse to divorce or death, we can’t help but be fearful. Paul’s claim is that Jesus didn’t just endure the power of evil, He disarmed and destroyed it.
Third, God has substituted Himself for you, taking on your record of debt and nailing it to Himself. Moralism says that God owes you your life because of your obedience. Mysticism says you own your own life. Christianity says, God gives His life for yours.
Christianity is true. Because it’s true, our relationship with God, others, and our own self is radically changed. God is no longer seen as a Demander, but a Rescuer and Liberator. He is not Someone who is arbitrarily obligating us to demands, but a Savior who loves us. If God cancelled the infinite debt that we accrued by substituting ourselves for Him, then our relationships must not be defined by us demanding that others live up to our obligations and demands. Other people are no longer seen as people to be judged, disqualified, and condemned, but appreciated, valued, and loved. Finally, do you see how much you’re loved? Our hearts were made to love and they will always follow our own pursuits and selfish desires until were melted by God’s love for us in Jesus.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. “I’m spiritual, just not religious.” What do you make of that statement? How might you enter into a conversation with someone who described themselves that way?
3. Paul is counteracting moralism and mysticism in Colossians 2. Where do you see these two approaches play out in your own life? In our community?
4. Moralism and mysticism are two sides of the same coin. Explain. Do you agree? Why or why not?
5. If the essence of sin is substituting ourselves for God, then the essence of Christianity is God substituting Himself for us. How does that truth change you? How might it make a difference in your life this week?