“Put to death whatever is earthly in you (because you have “died with Christ”)… such as impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5)
In my last blog post, I focused on the curse of conformity and the crisis of corruption in a changing America. As a follow up to that blog post, I want to put the spotlight on one specific common sign of conformity and corruption in our secular society: our materialistic and consumer-oriented culture, or covetousness, and the need for freedom from the false values and damaging desires that have enslaved so many people. At this stage in my life, as I have found myself considering so many of the changes I have witnessed in our nation during my lifetime, the conviction has grown that greed (another word for “covetousness” which is a common translation of the same New Testament Greek word) is the driving force behind so many of the critical problems our nation is struggling with today…poverty, hunger, homelessness (a new experience for so many because of foreclosures by banks and mortgage scandals), racism, discrimination, increase in crime and homicides, injustice, unequal rights and unequal pay, the deportation of immigrants and separation of parents from their children, the abuse of political power and authority, and more.
God wants to deliver us from every form of covetousness, every kind of greed and injustice, by freeing us from all bondage, with the exception of our bondage to Christ as servants of our Servant Lord. The word that is translated “servant” in the Greek of the New Testament is “doulos” which is also translated as “slave.” That is the only kind of slavery that has God’s approval and God’s blessing. Furthermore, it is obvious in the four gospel narratives of the New Testament, the only written records we have of the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus (as well as authoritative accounts of his suffering, death, and resurrection), including some of his parables that dealt specifically with greed, that he wanted his followers to be “set free” from every other form of bondage because they were bound to him alone.
Jesus often spoke of freedom: “If the Son of man makes you free you shall be free indeed” and “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31 and 36). The Apostle Paul introduced himself in his Letter to the Ephesians as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:1). He was apparently in Roman custody at the time, but Paul wanted everyone to know he was truly a free man, although he had been captivated by Christ Jesus, who had freed him from his selfish and sinful ways, from his former passions, after taking him captive in his Damascus Road experience. From the hour of his conversion to the day of his martyrdom, he was wholly Christ’s prisoner.
The truth is that everyone is a prisoner of something or someone. Who or what are we living for? What dominates us and drives us? What do we depend upon for our sense of worth, our self-esteem? What constrains us, controls us, captures our minds, and compels us to do what we do? What concerns us the most? Your response to such questions may reveal that worldly ambitions, materialistic desires, and secular goals are the things that tend to dominate your life. Those things are not necessarily bad, unless we are in bondage to selfish passions, to things that are “earthly” rather than the “things that are above”, i.e heavenly goals that have their origin in God, and God’s purpose for our lives (Colossians 3:1-10; Romans 8:28-29). For those of us who are Christians, our one sustaining passion should be to use our time and talents in a manner that pleases God, that shows we belong to Jesus, in attitudes and actions (as well as our “reactions” to others, especially those who have offended us or hurt us) that reflects the mind of Christ, the One who has given meaning to our lives, a sense of purpose that is worthy of us as children of God, men and women created “in the image of God” , to know God, to experience God’s love, forgiveness, acceptance, and to enjoy God’s presence with us forever as servants of our Servant Lord.
There should be something about our lives that proves we are bound to Jesus Christ! Paul said, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-8). The Greek word that is translated “set” (also read and meditate on Colossians 3:2-4 once again) is a very small, but very strong word that refers to a disciplined mind, a controlled thought life, as well as one’s daily life (i.e. our character and conduct, including “self-control” which is a “fruit of the Spirit” – see Galatians 5:23-23). Verse 25 also says “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
In what is called his “high priestly prayer” (recorded in John 17), Jesus prayed to the Father that his followers, both then and now, would be kept from “this present evil age” and from “the evil one” (vs. 15). In quoting one of the messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Isaiah 61), Luke the evangelist tells us how Jesus used these very same words in his message to the people in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth, disclosing to them that this prophecy referred to his own coming into the world: “The Spirit….has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to let the prisoners go free” (4:18-19). Also, in the other writings of the New Testament, especially in the letters of the Apostle Paul, we find this same strong emphasis on our freedom in Christ Jesus (the title “Christ” is the New Testament word for the Old Testament word “Messiah”). In fact, Paul often began his epistles with this same salutation: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3-5). Deliverance from the evils of this world (not only of the apostolic age but every other age to come) is a perpetual process because of a continuing need, as this world constantly seeks to “…squeeze us into its own mold” (J.B. Phillips translation of Romans 12:1).
Therefore, we must always be persistent in asking God to deliver us from the pressures and pulls of life in this godless and greedy world, a world that has organized itself with little or no regard for the commandments of God, including this one that is so often overlooked, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). This world promises what it cannot deliver. An example of this is happiness, which we are told is one of our “inalienable rights” as citizens in the good old USA. What God offers us in Christ is not the shallow happiness so many seek during their lifetime in this world, but “JOY” – the joy of Jesus Christ himself (John 15:11), where Jesus promises his disciples “my joy” or a joy that is “complete” for it is the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). The joy that comes from “abiding” in Jesus, as the branch abides in the vine, and peace (not just the absence of war or conflict, for real peace is the peace of God). The only people who experience the “peace of God” are those who are at “peace with God”, i.e. with God as our “heavenly Father” through faith in Jesus Christ, his one and only “begotten Son”, who has made God known to us as our “Father in heaven”, who is also “the God of peace” (Luke 11:2; John 14:27; Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 14:33; Philippians 4:7).
The peace God offers to believers is not a fragile peace, but a peace that endures; not a peace that is the absence of trouble, but peace in the midst of all of life’s struggles and tribulations, like the peace that the disciples of Jesus experienced in the midst of the storm, when he commanded the wind and the waves to cease, for he had power over nature, speaking these words of command to the wind and the waves, “peace be still”, and there was a calmness that could not be explained apart from the wonder working power of God, which left the disciples of Jesus awestruck (Mark 4:35-41); a peace that is similar to the calm and stillness that is found in the “eye” of the hurricane; as well as contentment (i.e. serenity, security, and lasting satisfaction), which the world cannot really give, but Jesus Christ can; everlasting security and eternal satisfaction, that this world cannot only not give, but cannot take away; genuine serenity for our lifetime on earth, regardless of our circumstances (see Philippians 4:11-13); perfect everything in the kingdom of heaven, forever and ever; and true freedom, not the kind of freedom we enjoy in America, the “land of the free”, but freedom from the power and penalty of sin, as well as freedom from our fears such as the fear of failure, the fear of loss, and the fear of death. Also freedom from the anxieties, and mental “hang-ups” that have enslaved multitudes of people in our nation and in this world, a bondage that often leads to harmful habits, destructive addictions, the loss of hope, and increasingly to suicide.
This world offers so many artificial substitutes for the real thing, always promising more than it can deliver while often actually forging chains of addiction and false dependencies that can so quickly lead to enslavement. This includes trust in false gods, little “g” (i.e, to idolatry). This is why the Apostle Paul warned his readers that “covetousness…is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5), for the greedy/covetous person accepts other objects of worship, such as pleasures that satisfy the flesh but only last “for a season” and will soon fade and “pass away”. So many physical and material things that can never satisfy the soul or the deepest needs of every person created “in the image of God”: lasting joy, true peace, authentic contentment, and actual freedom (deliverance from all false and fleeting dependencies this world affords). For these are the benefits and the rewards of being in the right relationship with God, the one true and living God, the Creator of the heavens and all that is in them, the Giver of life, who knew us even before we were born, when we were still in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139). We were created to enjoy perfect fellowship and intimacy with God (such as Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden before “the Fall”), the purpose God had in mind for each of us, God’s plan for you and for me when he first thought of us. Because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The image of God in which they had been created was not destroyed but damaged, and the perfect fellowship which they had enjoyed with their Creator was forfeited. In the fullness of time the eternal Christ came into the world in the form of man, in the incarnation when the “Logos” (the Word of God, who spoke all things into being “in the beginning”) was “…made flesh and dwelled among us full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; Philippians 2:4-11; Colossians 1:11-20). Christ came among us as one of us in the person of the historical Jesus, in order to “take away the sins of the world” and to restore our lost spiritual inheritance by reconciling us sinners to a holy and righteous God, “…making peace by the blood of his cross” (Ephesians 2:4-8, 13-20), delivering us from bondage to “…this present evil age”, from all forms of idolatry, including covetousness – to “set us free by the Spirit”.
Paul says in his Letter to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free…stand fast therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). In his Letter to the Romans, Paul also says: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship…the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:15-17). Also, in his Corinthian correspondence, Paul was rejoicing when he wrote this ringing declaration of faith with overwhelming confidence: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is perfect freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). It is good to be reminded of this fact whenever we feel that we are allowing this world to deceive us and distract us, to succeed in tempting us to take our eyes off Jesus, to forget whose we are, encouraging us to conform to this world by adopting a selfish, greedy, covetous, indulgent lifestyle.
How about you? Is it possible that you have not learned to trust God sufficiently, to surrender yourself unconditionally to Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life forever, presenting yourself as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving for his abiding presence and power at work in your life? Is it possible that you just accepted him as your Savior, trusting in his atoning death for the forgiveness of all your sins, but never really submitted his Lordship in your life? If so, that is probably the reason you have never really been able to say with confidence and conviction, “My cup of thanksgiving overflows with the joy of Christ’s presence and power in my life, with the peace of God, with true contentment and perfect freedom; for by the power of the Holy Spirit I have been set free from the downward and backward pulls of life in this self-centered and self-serving world.”
Let each of us examine ourselves, our values and priorities, and then follow this biblical admonition: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17); remembering also these words and warnings of our Savior and Lord: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21), “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the other things you need will be provided” (Matthew 6:33), and “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he (or she) who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Those who have ears to hear, listen, trust, and obey; becoming “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22-25).