Visit almost any bookstore in the country, and I can almost guarantee that you will find a section, often in or nearby the religious section, full of self-help, self-betterment books. People have realized that by nature, we kind of suck, and, to our benefit, many of us want to be better.
The religious community is especially prone to this self-awareness (or at least outward awareness) of faults and failures. As Christians, our responses to the struggles we see in ourselves and others often echo the self-help books of the secular world- setting boundaries, creating routines, passing firm judgements and making rules and regulations for ourselves- with a touch of prayer sprinkled on top for good measure.
But, in my own heart at least, all my work to stay on the path of rules I’ve created for myself (some directly from scripture, some from other views surrounding our current culture) has left me at any given moment in one of two places:
1) In a place of judging others who do not adhere to my rules as well as I do, or
2) in a place of beating myself up because I continue to fail at following my own rules, wondering when it was going to get any easier to be good and love others.
Turning to scripture for a moment, let’s look at what Paul tells the church in Colossae.
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism….and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:18-23)
It seems that a common theme that God has been trying to teach me recently is tied up in this passage of scripture.
For those of you who don’t know, “asceticism” comes from a Greek word meaning “exercise” or “training” and was a lifestyle of self-denial of various worldly pleasures and material possessions in pursuit of spiritual goals. This could be: “I can’t eat that, I can’t drink that, I can’t celebrate that holiday,” etc. People were creating rules for themselves to live by to try and keep themselves from sin, and, from the sound of the passage, were trying to impose these rules on others. Sound familiar?
According to Paul, these self-made regulations “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (v. 23) They don’t actually help! They make us feel wise and good, but they don’t change our hearts.
In trying to obey scripture, I have created lists of rules for myself that are long, heavy, and as firm and unbendable as iron. Rules about leggings, birth control, schooling our future children, what I can and cannot purchase, movies, music, saving money, my speech, alcohol… on and on. And I’ve noticed that often, I hold fast to these rules more than to Christ himself.
This is completely detrimental to my growth, because Jesus is “the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (v. 19)
If we hold fast to Christ, our Head, we naturally are nourished and grow in the same way our bodies grow. Not from our own will and discipline, but from God. Not because we made righteous rules and regulations for ourselves, but because of God. In Jesus, God did away with holiness by rules, and ushered in holiness through relationship.
We don’t have to decide whether every little aspect of our lives and culture is right or wrong. We don’t have to create rules for ourselves based on these judgements. We don’t have to “submit to regulations…according to human precepts and teachings.” We have to stay firmly rooted in Jesus, connected to him, and grow with a growth that is from God.
We weren’t made to help ourselves. We were made to be dependent on Jesus Christ.