And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister. (Colossians 1:21-23)
Do any of the following words or phrases describe the way you feel about your relationship with God? Merely accepted? Tolerated? Not quite there? Trying hard? Often discouraged? Feel like an imposter? Let’s review some of the things Paul told the Colossians who had been making great headway on the main highway but who were now in the ditch, stuck in some errant thoughts about their God. Let me begin by encouraging you that God is even more faithful than AAA when we are stuck. His hand is always outstretched to those asking to be lifted out of the muck.
While our heresy may not be the same as the Colossians, if we are trying hard to be a good Christian we are in the muck. We will be spinning our wheels with thoughts that keep us alienated and even hostile in mind to the grace of God. Feeling merely tolerated and trying harder is deep muck. I’m speaking as one who knows this ditch. The tow line is always the Word and the Spirit. What do they have to say?
He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach. (Colossians 1:22)
Paul is speaking to stuck Colossians. Do you hear anything about the Colossian’s contribution to their own rescue? Do your hear anything about their efforts? No, because other than asking for help, the effort (if you can even call it that) is all God’s. In fact, they went into the ditch while trying to stay out of it. They had been adding things to the simple gospel. Their vehicle lurched off the road when they began approaching God with human effort in order to sustain their holiness.
I am not unfamiliar with discouragement. I’ve been in both the south-bound and the north-bound ditches. Let me tell you first about the south bound. I grew up in a cold-Baptist turned lukewarm-Presbyterian-home. In my organ-thundering church, I was sprinkla-tized as an infant and run through the Communicant Class at 13. (None of this was voluntary.) Even though I received a presentation Bible and a certificate declaring my good standing with the church and (God?) nothing had sprouted. No fruit was produced. If I ever write a chronological account of my life, I will title the period from ages 13 to 23 as “The Decade of Alienation and Hostility.”
The following story will give you an idea of my unborn-again spirituality. I recall a mini-revival my first year at OSU. It began because I felt mini-regret for attending the Campus Crusade song service while drunk as a sailer on leave. Myself and a friend sang with unholy gusto and, as I recall, with raised (mocking) hands. That evening (yes, I had been drinking early) I proclaimed to my roommate. “We need to be better Christians.” From his Baptist-backslidden heart, he was compelled to say, “Amen!”
The next day, I glued all the drawers shut in his desk. I also stole his fetal pig for his biology class, did my own dissection, and distributed its parts strategically among his belongings. The abdominal parts went into his radio (which I had disassembled). The tail went into his toothpaste. When he brushed his teeth the next day, my sins were exposed. He was not nearly as impressed with my creativity as I was. My point? I had no clue who God was. I was buried to the axle in the south-bound ditch where I was to stay for another 5 years. I am confessing to misdemeanors here. There were plenty of felonies to come. I was headed deep into the domain of darkness. I had not been born again, no matter what the certificate said.
Whatever seed the shepherds had sown had not taken root. To this date, I don’t know if it was an issue of bad seed or a bad heart (maybe both?). My thought life was accelerating rapidly from alienation to outright hostility. I was now whole-heartedly pursuing evil deeds. In a very real sense the prodigal had taken his inheritance and was squandering it in a debauched lifestyle. I was south-bound and down.
Five years later, after flunking out of college, being thrown in jail a few times and wrecking a few cars (and lives?) I found myself buried in darkness. I was a radical failure. I was a profound looser. I hated myself and others for what my life had become. I tried hard labor which would atone (in the Cummins family religion) for sin. I also tried on pop-phycology and transcendental meditation. The world did not have any salve available for my wound. I did not just feel lost and lonely; I knew I was being held prisoner. Something dark had its its clutches in me. It was pulling me downward. I knew it intended to kill me. In my despair, I had reconciled myself to this fate. Only the detail’s of my demise were left to be worked out. Yet, in muck, up to my eyeballs, I asked Jesus to rescue me. Effortlessly, he popped me out of the ditch.
He rescued me from the domain of darkness, and transferred me to the kingdom of His beloved Son. (adapted from Colossians 1:13)
I was on the main highway. Whew!!!! OMG!!!! I had no clue what Light and Life actually looked like. It was brilliant!!! I had been born again. I reasoned, “I cannot go back into darkness. I must do whatever it takes to stay out of that south bound ditch!!!” I want to live a life that is pleasing to God! I must choose a lifestyle that embodies my gratitude (and keeps me out of the ditch). This must be my call into ministry.” And, deep in my heart, I also thought, “Is it my imagination, or do I hate myself far less than I used to?”
Did you hear the error in my reasoning? It was the “I must do ” clause. In my zeal, the seeds of human effort were already present for life as an elder brother, who would get stuck on more than one occasion in the north bound ditch of religion. As the parable tells us; elder brothers can be just as alienated and hostile in mind as a prodigal can, perhaps even worse, because they believe they have been snubbed. The elder brother’s ditch is deeper because they don’t even believe they are stuck.
Do you feel accepted? Tolerated? Not quite there? Trying hard? Often discouraged? Feel like an imposter? I began with these questions because they are elder brother symptoms of which I am intimately familiar. These are the heart cries of those in the north-bound ditch. They usually have to get muck deep in their engine before they cry out because of the perks of religion. The religious crowd will applaud them as they exhaust themselves (hopefully, for God’s sake) in the myriad wheel spinning missions of the local Shepherd and his staff.
These expenditures of spiritual energy are an affront to the grace of God. The man in the southbound ditch is alienated from God because he never knew him. He had never received the grace of God. The person in the northbound ditch has received the grace of God and then squandered it in his efforts to be a good and acceptable child. Paul would ask,
Were you placed up on the main highway by your own efforts? Did you ever get yourself out of a ditch by downshifting and giving it more gas? How do you plan on completing this journey from down there? (thoughts inspired by Galatians 3)
Having been popped out of the ditch of Pharisaic zeal, Paul has weighed in with apostolic authority. How well he understood our plight! To those in the southbound ditch, who have never tasted of God’s grace and to those who have tasted and have spit it out, he says…
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Galatians 2:20-21)
The Law happened to be the ditch where Paul was spinning his wheels. Every man has his own ditches. There must come a time and place where we acknowledge our heart’s plight and ask for the only true help available to us. If you feel like a step child to God; if you know you have not been born-again; if you feel like a discouraged imposter, reach up. Jesus eagerly waits to get us up on the main highway, where the life of Christ is our energy. Resting then in His efforts, and the Gift of His Life, we can then pray and proclaim with Paul…
Now to You Father who are able to keep me out of the ditches, and have made me to stand in the presence of Your glory blameless with great joy, to You my only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ my Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (adapted from Jude 24)
If any of you want to talk to me in greater depth about your experience or mine, I’m available.