Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2-3).
We can infer from Colossians 3:2 that the church at Colossae was setting their minds on things below; being influenced and pressured by worldly ways of seeing life and behaving towards one another. What did Paul mean specifically when he instructed the Colossian church to think of things “above” and what particular things “below” was he particularly concerned with in Colossians 3?
The Church at Colossae
J. Hampton Keathley, III says that Paul was addressing “a serious threat of false teaching facing the Colossians [which] sought to undermine the person and work of Christ and the sufficiency of the salvation believers have in Him.”
Faced with competing worldviews, which included Deism, Paganism, and Agnosticism, Christians were tempted to blend the gospel with other religions and philosophies rather than experience persecution or deal with their sin.
Living a transformed life in Christ, however, is hard and should impact every aspect of life.
“A Christian worldview is not just one’s personal faith expression, not just a theory. It is an all-consuming way of life, applicable to all spheres of life.”
Undermining the Gospel
Colossian Christians were tempted to believe things below, earthly philosophies and religions amongst which the gospel was one of many possible paths to fulfillment and moral justification. These teachings did not agree with the sufficiency of Christ; did not portray an eternal and omnipotent, yet personal, God. The characteristics of God, as seen in the person of Christ, are those “things above” to which Paul is referring.
A close examination of Paul’s language reveals that a Christian should be changed, “converted” by the gospel, but as Tim Keller puts it, “everybody’s being converted. You’re going to be converted. You’re going to have your life radically changed. You’re going to have a new self. And it’s going to be in response to something that comes into your life.” Conversion is a universal experience, whether one is converted to Christianity, Agnosticism, or some other worldview.
Each of us, even if we say we are not religious, follows a set of rules, a system out of which we make life choices and determine right from wrong. We can follow the example of Christ or another leader, and since we live in a fallen world, there are many broken sets of beliefs; religions wearing the guise of philosophies.
No one can prove that this or that set of beliefs is better — when we choose, we must take “a leap of faith” (Ibid.). But Keller argues that Colossians 3 provides evidence that gospel-based faith is the most logical and hopeful belief when it comes to fighting against what Christians know as sins.
What it Means to Set Your Mind on Things Above
God does the work, but our part is this: Paul instructed the Christians at Colossae to “set their minds above.” In the Greek, this phrase phroneó means “they were to have understanding, to think” or to judge, direct the mind to, seek for, observe, care for.
We have a choice: we can set our minds on things above, “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). By implication, the alternative is to set our minds on things below; human beings who are also flawed.
Paul names traits, which Christ exemplified, and which we should emulate: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Although God pursues us and he has done the work of salvation, once we are saved, we can look to Christ as our example and be changed or we can look to earthly examples of which there are many.
There are numerous choices besides the gospel, and we are easily distracted if we do not keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. How does one come to a life-giving conclusion? How does one arrive at the truth?
Paul says it in Colossians 3:2 — think about it. Judge the evidence. He is not asking the people of Colossae to take a blind leap of unfounded faith but to investigate and empirically arrive at a conclusion with which they can not only have peace but also find hope that transformation is possible.
How to Set Your Mind on Things Above
The world generally acknowledges that some traits are actually bad, even if they do not label them as sinful. These include anger and impatience. Here are three of the possible ways to address these flaws/sins:
1. Accept yourself for who and how you are. You are impatient or angry, but that is not your fault: you were made this way. Embrace your identity as “angry” or “impatient.” Perhaps state some positive thoughts to the universe hoping for help, but do not expect change.
God is removed, impersonal, and uninterested for the most part. Others will have to adjust to accommodate your personality while you wait for help.
2. Behave better. Tim Keller proposed that “moralistic people do good…they live good lives, but they do it out of fear, out of pride, and out of a need for control,” even “in order to control God” (Ibid.).
Strive to fix your flaws in order to learn a moral lesson and to avoid hell and because you want God to know you do not need him.
3. Be Born Again. Die to the person you used to be; live in Jesus who is gradually sanctifying you. Admit your sin and genuinely repent.
Jesus will help you to kill sin because he loves you, because he is able, and because your character development in his name gives him glory. Christ invites your willing submission, then he acts according to his perfect and pleasing will.
Each of these perspectives requires that “leap of faith” Keller spoke of. A decision to passively accept one’s flaws is still a decision based on a belief that everyone else should be willing and able to fall out of one’s frustration and impatience etc.
A choice to learn from one’s mistakes is based on the faith that one can change if one works hard enough and finds the correct formula. This would be the measure of success or failure, and only a positive outcome will affirm the wisdom of this belief.
The only answer, which will change a person from the inside out in spite of the human tendency towards sin is the third one, and there is mercy for one who struggles with deeply rooted sin. One does not succeed or fail: sanctification is ongoing. There is forgiveness for truly repentant sinners. One is motivated to change for the good of others, but most importantly out of love for and obedience to God.
This perspective begins with a humble acknowledgment that change is needed. Salvation is a one-time event, but sanctification continues for a lifetime, and only he sanctifies. If one truly wishes to overcome sin, one must put off the old self and allow the Spirit to do his refining best.
The Perfect Example
An expanded understanding of phroneó also suggests that once the Colossians have reached a conclusion, this should mark the beginning of a new way of life — they should “care for” and “seek for” this new way of living. Once you die to self, seek out the perfect example for how to live as if for the first time.
Imagine a child learning to walk or read: he or she learns by imitation. Dying to self is like deleting the hard drive of your former, dead self and rebooting fresh with a blank slate. You need to imitate Christ in order to relearn how to live.
He is the perfect example. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). We will see sin lose its power over us. Not completely, not in this life. Some of our sins will cling tenaciously; others will grow less prevalent.
Some might disappear completely. The gospel promises (and we can trust the gospel because we can trust Christ) that we will be free from the oppression of sin once we see Christ face to face in Heaven.
His encouragement is not hopeless because the Holy Spirit is our helper and, in his strength, the believer actively submits. And there is always mercy and grace for one who truly wants to live like Jesus but cannot meet that standard because he is on the same footing as everyone else. “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
Repentance and Freedom
Repentance is a turning away from sin, but what (or whom) does one turn to? Set your minds on Christ. Change is difficult; long-held beliefs hang on stubbornly: Christ is stronger. He has defeated Satan already.
If we genuinely want to grow and mature as Christians, and authentically repent of our sin, a steady focus on our Savior will help us where apathy or striving cannot. We can rest in the knowledge that he is infinitely patient and gives us the perfect example to imitate.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.