to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lent, day 30: Taking off the Grave Clothes

Put to death, therefore, whatever is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.1 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices… (Colossians 3:5-9, NIV modified)

Lists make my eyes glaze over, even biblical lists like what we find here (and there are two of them). Some preachers can spend a month of Sundays (or more!) on a list like v. 5 or v. 8, each word a Rorschach test for what he or she thinks about morality. Paul uses these lists frequently (along with their more attractive cousins, virtue lists - like in Col 3:12-13) and if his use is similar to those of other Greco-Roman writers, he may intend readers to focus not on each word but on the collective effect of the whole list. So, in verse 5 I notice that the first four words all have to do with the dark side of sexual desire. This makes the last word, ‘greed’, seem a little out of place. People are quick to point out that greed is idolatry and by it they mean desire for money. But is that what is meant by pleonexia? Looking at its use in Romans 1:29, Eph 4:19, 5:3, I wonder if the word might not be better translated “insatiableness” or “covetousness” (options provided by the standard English-Greek dictionary, BDAG). Rather than financial greediness (which is of course inexcusable), we have here the unbridled aspect of desire, and probably specifically sexual desire (if we take the rest of the list as suggestive). It is one thing to associate financial greediness with idolatry, but what about sexual greediness?

In verses 8-9, the collective sense of the list is the verbal explosion that results from anger, where in a fit of rage one speaks maliciously, is slanderous and vile, and even lies. In both lists, the vices (sexual and wrathful) result in deterioration of relationships with God and with each other, and the sense is that the perpetrators of the vices are more like victims, victims of their uncontrolled desire and feelings.

Paul does warn that God’s wrath is stoked by these things. Some take offense, thinking God overly puritanical in that he does not want us to be sexual or to have real feelings (only those yippy-skippy precious moments kind). But God is not wrathful because we want to have sex, or even because we have sex; God is wrathful because we’ve surrendered ourselves to sexual desire and have, in our sense of entitlement, misunderstood the place of sex in our world and of us in God’s world (the irony is that those who celebrate their sexual license are very often enslaved to their sexuality). How can God’s wrath be understood as contrary to our well-being here? He doesn’t hate us; he hates what destroys us.

But Paul’s larger point is Gospel, not Judgment. Consider his statement: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived” (v. 7). He is not telling us that we must put away vicious living to avoid God’s wrath; he is telling us that we are now able to put away such living, because of Jesus’ having transferred us out from under the dominion of sexual appetite and of unchecked emotion. He is telling us that the things God hates no long have control over us, and we should live like it.

My favorite illustration for this is Lazarus’ grave clothes (in John 10). When Jesus calls Lazarus from his tomb and from death, he tells those by him to take off Lazarus’ grave clothes; Jesus’ friend is no longer a corpse and so doesn’t have to dress like one. This is what Paul is telling us here - we are no longer corpses so we should put to death in us what is already dead.

I don’t find this message easy. It should be reassuring to me that I’ve been liberated from such things. But my problem is not that I disbelieve the liberation; it is that I enjoy too much the way those grave clothes feel, they are too familiar and too much mine to let them simply fall away. I want what I want, and my desire is distinctly mine; to give that up is to give up so many well-crafted fantasies and expectations that I’ve worked on carefully and with great ingenuity through the years. And in terms of anger, well, how else am to respond to those who are outside of my control, who do what I don’t want them to do, say what I don’t want them to say. Anger is my release, the drug that pacifies my lack of control. To take my anger away is to make it finally clear that I am not in charge and am not owed the deference I want to think I am.

Heck, I look too damn good in these clothes to simply let go of them. God help me.

(This blog was submitted early Wednesday but I've changed the date of the post to preserve continuity of titles/Lent day numbers.)

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