Unspiritual Spiritual Disciplines

Set your mind on things above, not on things that are on the earth.
— Colossians 3:2 (ESV)

Spiritual Disciplines. Bible reading, prayer, meditation, journaling... They’re often neither spiritual nor disciplined.  In fact, they feel more like “fleshly failures”—reminders of how much we still need to do to get right with God.  Or even worse, they’re the measure our spiritual successes.  Like my children’s Sparks vests, spiritual disciplines can be an outward measure of growth.  "Have you received your journaling badge yet?”  “I’m currently working on my Meditation bar.  Fifth gold star."  For this reason, some have become wary of spiritual “disciplines” lest they fall into a works-based relationship with God.  Are spiritual disciplines only a temptation to pride or burden of guilt?  Unfortunately, the topic of spiritual disciplines is usually separated from our doctrines of the Holy Spirit, salvation, and even the church. 

So I would like to use Paul’s letter to the Colossians to evaluate spiritual disciplines and our sanctification. That’s because the problem in the church Colossae, whatever we know of the heresy, was a deficient view of Jesus Christ. Christ wasn’t enough for spiritual growth. Other teachings, regulations, and mystical practices were required if one wanted to truly be spiritual. Therefore, Paulwhole letter is saturated with the sufficiency of Christ. He sings, prays, and pleads with the church. Jesus is enough!  

In Colossians 3:2, Paul says, "Set your mind on things above not on things on the earth.  As you may or may not know, Colossians 3 follows Colossians 2.  And that’s no small fact because most people miss something significant when the read Colossians 3.  They miss the true power and beauty of verse 2 by reducing it to a Christian catchphrase. Colossians 3:2 has become the catch-all prooftext for to cure problems from movies and music to depression and anxiety.  Paul wrote, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  

So what are these earthy things?  Well, the normal answer is pretty generic. Everything.  Everything is earthly.  Money, music, movies, clothes, sex, books, fun, bad friends, yourself, politics, food, and so on.  Everything in this world becomes the “application” of this verse.  And it works, because in some sense, it’s true.  All of those things, apart from Christ, are earthy in and of themselves.  But in an ironic and dangerous twist, such a generic view of "earthy things" actually flies in the face of what Paul was addressing in Colossians, creating a blatant contradiction.  It seems that one of the problems within Colossae is some form of incipient gnosticism, which would create a dualism of spiritual and material.   Thus, too often when “Set your mind on things above” is preached, it suspiciously similar to the very heresy against which Paul was teaching!  The true wonder and beauty of this rose is lost in a field of ambiguity.  

So is that what Paul is talking about?  Is he really so generic?  I don’t think so.  That’s why it’s so important that Colossians 3 follows Colossians 2.  In Colossians 2, Pauls warned them about all the false hopesthe earthly things--that they seek in order to grow spiritually.  

Paul didn’t write Colossians 3:2 as the title for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  He didn’t write it so preachers would have a heyday pouring out wrath on whatever “earthly” hobby-horse they might choose.  He wrote wrote because he knew that the thousands books, teachers, methodologies, and gimics for change will never compare to knowing the power of being known by and knowing the all-sufficient Lord Jesus Christ.