An Unspiritual Spirituality

We can sometimes become confused when we meet a very religious unbeliever.

We shouldn’t be.

People will go to great lengths to avoid the cross.

As someone has said, “the devil is happy to provide a religion that can seem to satisfy people while keeping them from God. Consequently you have multitudes of people who come up with ingenious plans that they believe merit salvation. They look for religion, perhaps even an intense one, which avoids the cross of Christ.”

People are willing to do almost anything to minimize the importance of Christ and to exaggerate the importance of themselves. They are willing to deny themselves many legitimate pleasures just so that they are able to fool themselves into thinking they don’t need Jesus Christ as much as the Bible says they do.

This is exactly what these false teachers seem to have been doing in Colossae.

“They were substituting what they were doing for what Christ had done.”

One of the things that may have made these false teachers seem so spiritual and may have made what they were teaching sound so enticing is that they seem to have been very self-disciplined. They weren’t just going out and living large. No, they were very strict and serious about the way in which they lived.

You remember in verse 18 that we read they were “insisting on asceticism.”

Many in Paul’s day viewed the physical part of man as inherently evil. Therefore in order to free the soul to really worship God they had to treat their bodies severely. And they came up with a whole intricate system of do’s and don’ts to. We can see in verse 20 and 21 that they were doing that by imposing stringent regulations on the Colossian church. “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” These regulations all had to do with earthly things like food and drink. That’s why Paul says their regulations in verse 22 were “referring to things that all perish as they are used…” The point being these false teachers focused on externals not the heart. If you asked these false teachers to define what it meant to be spiritually mature they’d respond with a whole long list of things that you could and couldn’t do. They’d give you this little list of rules that they made up. If you could jump through all their hoops and do their little dance then you would really be close to Christ.  Paul sums up their approach in verse 23, by saying they were “promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body.” You want to know how to gain the approval of God? Faith alone is not enough. Christ is not enough. No, you need to do something that appears very spiritual. You need to do what I say!

Now, Paul’s going to give a whole lot of reasons why this approach to spiritual maturity doesn’t work, but one thing you do have to give it credit for – it’s very popular.

When it comes to spiritual maturity, we’ve got lots of people in our world who don’t care about it at all. We’ve got others who think that can grow closer to God by keeping a list of rules. We’ve got others who seek to grow in their relationship with God by seeking experience after experience instead of studying the Word of God. And we’ve got many, many, who think of spiritual maturity in terms of externals alone, which is at the core – asceticism – and which is what these false teachers were promoting here.

This ascetic perspective on the spiritual life runs very, very deep. Almost every major religion that I know of has some sort of ascetic tendencies. You look at the history of Hinduism and you will discover that they had monks who lived in forests, and they have rituals where people beat their flesh. Buddhism certainly has an ascetic element. One writer basically defines Buddhism this way, “Buddhism is essentially a monastic religion which, in its highest degree, can only be practised by monks. The Buddha thought of salvation as a liberation from suffering and the passions: one has to eliminate all desire in order to be reunited with the Absolute. Only monks can do this. There are then monks who seek this Absolute through meditation, and non-monks who acquire merits by enabling the monks to live.” Apparently, even the natural religions of the native Americans had an ascetic element to it. As someone has written, “The famous temples in Peru under the Inca kings had communities of vestal virgins whose rules were more severe than those of the Roman vestals. The temples in Mexico had religious of the same kind: “They ate in common and slept in large halls, rising in the night and assisting in a choir like our religious at Matins. They were responsible for sweeping the temple and for its upkeep, and practiced great mortifications; they were called ‘daughters of penitence’.”

And not surprisingly, this ascetic perspective on spirituality even affected many who professed to follow Christ. That’s why in the early history of the church we discover the rise of monks and nuns and we hear of men who would go out into the wilderness and do all sorts of crazy things. I just read of one man this week, Simeon Stylites who spent the last thirty six years of his life on a fifty foot pillar because he thought that was the path towards true spirituality.

The point being, as we look at the history of the world and the church and we find so many people being attracted to this particular perspective on spirituality that should indicate it is a danger we should take seriously. The idea that you can achieve greater spirituality by depriving yourself of certain things God has created you to enjoy is one that is very, very popular and thus very, very dangerous.

We shouldn’t be surprised about the popularity of asceticism because Paul prophecies that’s going to be the case. He says in 1 Timothy 4, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

I think it’s interesting that Paul calls asceticism there in 1 Timothy 4, ‘the doctrine of demons…’ because you notice here in Colossians 2:20 that Paul connects the ascetic regulations these false teachers were promoting with the “elemental spirits” of the world. Point being, one of the devil’s schemes appears to be promoting a false view of spirituality based on asceticism, because you don’t need to be saved to practice this kind of spirituality.  

It doesn’t take the new birth to deal with externals alone.   Anyone can in Jesus’ words “wash the outside of the cup…”

That’s Paul’s point in verse 20, “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…” which are verse 22, “…according to human precepts and teachings.”

We often think of our pre-salvation condition as that of being dead. But Paul here presents it as that of being alive. We were dead to God and alive in the world. And as a result we viewed our relationship with God from a worldly perspective. We lived according to human precepts and teachings. And at the core of that humanistic teaching was the idea that we can earn approval with God on our own by keeping a little list of man-made rules and regulations. But as believers we’ve completely rejected that idea. We’ve turned our back on the wisdom of the world. Or in Paul’s words, We’ve been united to Christ and as a result have “died to the elemental spirits of the world…” We’re no longer in bondage to that way of thinking. When we became Christians a death took place. We died to thinking the way the world does about God and about religion and about what it means to be spiritual.

When people come and try to intimidate us into thinking that in order to be really spiritual we have to do what they say, we have to jump through all their little hoops, we stop and evaluate what they are saying in light of what God says and even if what they are saying sounds good, “has the appearance of wisdom,” and even if they seem really religious, and even if they are persuasive and go into great detail about spiritual experiences they have had, we completely reject any teaching that tries to get us to substitute what we do with what Christ has done.

In other words, we must reject asceticism.

For one thing, it is distracting. If we really want to grow in Christ it is pretty silly to focus our attention on as Paul says in verse 22, “things that perish.”

Why would you make things that are by their very nature passing away the central element of your perspective on spiritual maturity?

As Paul says in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not the things that you eat or drink that defile you. As Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

We are so prone to think that living for God is all about externals, and we get so wrapped up in the externals that we end up ignoring what is most important, the internals.

This is why asceticism by its very nature doesn’t work.

Paul says that it “has indeed an appearance of wisdom…” It sounds good, but it is only a façade of spirituality. I mean I guess I can see the appeal. We have this sense of guilt, we know we are sinners, and we figure that if we can just beat ourselves up enough, than we can earn God’s forgiveness, which flows out of what? Again, it flows out of pride. I can and I must atone for myself. The reality is, we can’t. The reality is, Paul says, all these rules and regulations “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

No value.

If all you deal with is the externals and you don’t deal with the heart, you haven’t even touched the root of the problem. You can poke your eyes out, and still struggle with lust. In fact, you know what asceticism and this severe treatment of the body really does? It just satiates the flesh. It feeds the flesh.

Here’s a guy who is out sleeping around, getting drunk, living large. Here’s a guy who is in his suit and tie, putting his money in the offering plate, doing his spiritual thing and trusting in his own righteousness. What’s the difference?

Not much. They both are feeding the flesh.

The one guy is acting as he were the center of the world and getting his kicks by giving in to flagrant sin. And the other guy is acting as if he were the center of the world and getting his kicks by being religious. Same root problem. They are both living for self.

Some of the most religious spiritual people in the world are at the same time the most fleshly people in the world because they are motivated to be spiritual for the wrong reasons. If I am all about being spiritual because I think that somehow by what I do or don’t do I can earn approval with God then I just have a deluded sense of my own sinfulness. I think I’m better than I am. And I don’t recognize my need of Christ.

This is how the world lives.

But it doesn’t make sense for us to live that way. When we were saved we died to that kind of thinking.

Paul writes the letter of Colossians because he wants to help us become spiritually mature. He wants to help us grow in Christ. But if we are going to grow and mature spiritually there are certain attitudes, certain approaches to spirituality that we must absolutely reject.

We must never substitute our works for Christ’s works.   We must never think or act like we can earn approval with God through what we do, but instead we must always remember that from beginning to end we are completely dependent on Jesus Christ.

We must never substitute our word for God’s Word. We must never allow the promise of some sort of spiritual experience to distract us from the reality of what God has revealed. We must allow God’s Word to tell us what is real and what is not.

And we must never substitute a true spirituality for a false. We who have been saved and submitted to the wisdom of God must not think that we are going to be sanctified by the wisdom of the world.

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