Heavenly Living for Earthly Good: The Shape of our Reorientation (Colossians 3:1–16)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

This call to reorientation means that we reshape our lives to think and do according to Jesus’ ethics in situations he never encountered. We cannot relive Jesus’ life. We must live our own lives for Jesus. We have to respond to questions in life for which Jesus does not give specific an­swers. For example, when Paul writes, “Set your minds on things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), does this mean that prayer is preferable to painting a house? Does Christian progress consist of thinking less and less about our work and more and more about harps and angels and clouds?

Paul does not abandon us to raw speculation about these things. In Colossians 3:1–17, he makes it clear that “to set your minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2) means expressing the priorities of God’s king­dom precisely in the midst of everyday earthly activities. In contrast, to set your mind on earthly things is to live by the values of the world system that sets itself up in opposition to God and his ways.

What does this putting to death “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col. 3:5) look like in concrete daily life? It does not mean wear­ing a hair shirt or taking ice-cold baths for spiritual discipline. Paul has just said that “severe treatment of the body” does no good in stopping sin (Col. 2:23).

First, it does mean putting to death “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col. 3:5). We are called to turn aside from sexual immorality (as if degraded sex could bring you an upgraded life) and greed (as if more stuff could bring more life). The as­sumption, of course, is that there is in fact a proper place for gratification of sexual desire (marriage between a man and a woman) and a proper degree for the gratification of material desire (that which results from trust in God, diligent labor, generosity toward neighbors, and thankful­ness for God’s provision).

Second, Paul states, “You must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Col. 3:8–10). The words “to one another” indicate that Paul is speaking to the church, that is, to those who are believers in Christ. Does this mean it is permissible to continue to lie to others outside the church? No, for Paul is not talking about a change in behavior alone but a change in heart and mind. It is difficult to imagine that having taken on a “new self,” you could somehow put back on the old self when dealing with nonbelievers. Once you “get rid of all such things,” they are not meant to be brought back.

Of these vices, three are particularly relevant to the workplace: greed, anger, and lying. These three vices can appear within what would other­wise be legitimate business pursuits.

  • Greed is the unbridled pursuit of wealth. It is proper and neces­sary for a business to make a profit or for a nonprofit organiza­tion to create added value. But if the desire for profit becomes boundless, compulsive, excessive, and narrowed to the quest for personal gain, then sin has taken hold.
  • Anger can appear in conflict. It is necessary for conflict to be ex­pressed, explored, and resolved in any workplace. But if conflict is not dealt with openly and fairly, it degenerates into unresolved anger, rage, and malicious intent, and sin has taken hold.
  • Lying can result from promoting the company’s prospects or the product's benefits inaccurately. It is proper for every enterprise to have a vision for its products, services, and its organization that goes beyond what is presently in place. A sales brochure ought to describe the product in its highest, best use, along with warnings about the product’s limitations. A stock prospectus ought to describe what the company hopes to accomplish if it is successful, and also the risks the company may encounter along the way. If the desire to portray a prod­uct, service, company, or person in a visionary light crosses the line into deception (an unbalanced portrayal of risks vs. rewards, misdirection, or plain fabrication and lies), then sin once again reigns.

Paul does not attempt to give universal criteria to diagnose when the proper virtues have degenerated into vices, but he makes it clear that Christians must learn to do so in their particular situations.

When Christians “put to death” (Col. 3:5) the person they used to be, they are then to put on the person God wants them to be, the person God is recreating in the image of Christ (Col. 3:10). This does not consist in hiding one’s self away for constant prayer and worship (though we are all called to pray and worship, and some may be called to do that as a full-time vocation). Rather, it means reflecting God’s own virtues of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col. 3:12) in whatever we do.

An encouraging word comes from Paul’s exhortation to “put up with one another” (Col. 3:13, as it may be translated). Most translations read “bear with one another,” but this does not fully capture Paul’s point. He seems to be saying that there are all kinds of people in the church (and we can readily apply this to the workplace as well) with whom we won’t naturally get along. Our interests and personalities are so different there can be no instinctive bonding. But we put up with them anyway. We seek their good, we forgive their sins, and we endure their irritating idiosyncrasies. Many of the character traits Paul extols in his letters can be summarized in the phrase “He/she works well with others.” Paul himself mentions co-workers Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha, and Archippus (Col. 4: 7–17). Being a “team player” is not simply a résumé-enhancing cliché. It is a foundational Christian virtue. Both putting to death the old and put­ting on the new are immensely relevant to daily work. Christians are meant to show the new life of Christ in the midst of a dying world, and the workplace is perhaps the main forum where that type of display can take place.

  • Christians may be tempted, for example, to fit in at work by participating in the gossip and the complaining that permeates many workplaces. It is likely that every workplace has people whose on- and off-hours actions make for juicy stories. It is not lying, is it, to repeat the stories?
  • It is likely that every workplace has unfair policies, bad bosses, nonfunctional processes, and poor channels of communication. It is not slander, is it, to complain about those grievances?

Paul’s exhortation is to live differently even in fallen workplaces. Putting to death the earthly nature and putting on Christ means directly confronting people who have wronged us, instead of gossiping about them behind their backs (Matt. 18:15–17). It means working to correct inequities in the workplace and forgiving those that do occur.

Someone may ask, “Don’t Christians run the risk of being rejected as cheerless, ‘holier-than-thou’ types if they don’t speak the way others do?” This could be the case if such Christians disengage from others in an effort to show that they are better than other people. Co-workers will sniff that out in a second. But if, instead, Christians are genuinely cloth­ing themselves with Christ, the vast majority of people will be happy to have them around. Some may even secretly or openly appreciate the fact that someone they know is at least trying to live a life of “compassion, kindness, humility and patience” (Col. 3:12). In the same way, Christian workers who refuse to employ deception (whether by rejecting mislead­ing advertising copy or balking at glorified Ponzi schemes) may find themselves making some enemies as the price of their honesty. But it also is possible that some co-workers will develop a new openness to Jesus’ way when the Securities and Exchange Commission knocks on the office door.