Four Mistakes Christians Make
When I read anything the apostle Paul wrote, I often feel a sense of spiritual inferiority to him. I have a comfortable, enjoyable Christian life that is pretty consistent from day to day. But when I read about Paul's life, I notice that he savors the inconveniences he suffers on his constant mission to serve God wholeheartedly in everything he does. Frankly, few Christians suffer the level of oppression Paul did; and most of us don't want to.
Of course, Jesus' life on earth was totally perfect. But since Jesus is God, I don't struggle with comparing myself to Him. When I read about Jesus, I just want to worship Him. I know He is infinitely greater than I am and I will never compare to Him.
But Paul was born a sinful human just like we are. So his example of faithfulness can help us become more sensitive of our bad habits and sinful attitudes. Especially in Colossians 1:25-29, Paul sums up his own approach to life on earth in a way that not only challenges my wrong thinking, but lifts me up to see how I can be a more authentic Christian like Paul. My hope is that, if you struggle with similar problems, you will take heart from this in the same way I do.
God used Paul's example in these verses to correct four major ways we go wrong as Christians.
1. Missing the joy of Christ's reproach
When we engage in daily life, many of us have become used to comforts that we take for granted. We season our mundane moments with pleasurable things: getting a delicious lunch, listening to our favorite music, sitting in our favorite chair, or reading something interesting. Even when a day is terrible, we can turn to our creature comforts to decompress, laugh, or stimulate curiosity.
But listen to how Paul found joy in his daily life in Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church." Paul didn't have to do extra things to put joy into his life. When people were rejecting him socially and hurting him physically as he spread the gospel, he took joy in that process by reflecting on how it identified him with Jesus Christ.
Those of us whose lives are full of creature comforts might wince and recoil from this approach. It's our preference to avoid conflicts. But at what cost do we not preach the gospel to our neighbors for fear of conflict? When we do that, we trade our comfort for their salvation. Paul recognized that being uncomfortable throughout his life was a worthy sacrifice in pursuit of saving people and growing them to maturity with his service. He got his joy not from creature comforts, but from having a life representing the life of Jesus Christ. That life and the joy it brings is as available to us as it was to him. It is found when we care most about serving and representing Jesus Christ.
2. Replacing Christ's commission
Have you ever browsed through a church website to find its doctrinal statement, its purpose, or what makes it distinct? Amid all the colorful web-design and eye-catching pictures, it can be difficult to find the substance of what a church is all about. Even when you find these things, it's a challenge to find a church whose goals match the goals Jesus made for His church. Instead, many churches are oriented to the churchgoer as a consumer they want to please, promising them a sense of purpose, community, and acceptance. They are people-focused, rather than God-focused.
By contrast, Paul has a purpose totally oriented around God, "I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." Paul states that his mission is to make it known that God is offering His Messiah King to the Gentile world so that anyone who receives Him can be redeemed to a glorious future, rather than wallowing in their sin and unrighteousness.
This wasn't a mission or a message that attracted most people; but it fulfilled what God had told him to do. Likewise, his mission wasn't oriented around getting people to tap into themselves or Paul for personal growth, but "Christ in you". We shouldn't replace His great commission with secondary goals. Jesus Christ alone is our hope of glory.
3. Deemphasizing the sufficiency of Christ
This mistake doesn't mean not talking about Jesus altogether, although that would be a major problem. This problem is usually more sneaky than that. Open up popular Christian self-help books, blogs, podcasts, Bible studies, or videos and you will start to see the issue. We deemphasize the sufficiency of Christ when we think any life-change, program, person, or prescription can cultivate spiritual maturity by itself.
"If I slept more..."
"If I got up earlier..."
"If I pray this prayer daily..."
"If I got a boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband..."
"If I fixed this problem in my marriage..."
"If I asked my doctor about this problem..."
"If I delete this friend/app/account..."
Some of these changes could improve the quality of our lives; but we can't assume that improving our quality of life amounts to becoming more Christlike. If I get more sleep at night, I might be more alert during the day. I might even become less irritable. But if I don't grow closer to Christ, I will simply become a more alert, less irritable sinner.
Here is the test of whether a practice depends on Christ: is it something a non-Christian could do as well? If a non-Christian can do it, it doesn't cultivate Christian maturity.
Here's how emphatically Paul stated Christ as the sole means of spiritual maturity. "Him we proclaim, admonishing every person and teaching every person in all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ." (Colossians 1:28) We can grow into mature Christians as we encounter all the wisdom of God's word through our intimate connection to Jesus Christ. If I slept more hours at night and got up earlier so that I could commune with God in prayer and see Christ more intentionally through Bible study, that would cultivate spiritual maturity. But the intention has to be directed toward God through Christ for any maturity to take place.
The awareness of the sole sufficiency of Christ for spiritual maturity enables us to be discerning about popular movements within the church which aren't ultimately dependent on Jesus to sanctify us through His word and by His Spirit. These fads come and go because they can only cultivate temporary interest and leave no lasting impact on us. Jesus Christ alone changes us.
4. Working without Christ's empowerment
As Paul suffered Christ's reproach to fulfill Christ's commission of preaching Christ as the sole means of spiritual maturity, he did not merely have human energy to motivate and sustain him. This spiritual energy didn't come from his parents, his religious training, or his theological understanding.
Here's how Paul explained his own empowerment to do all he did, "I labor for this, striving with His strength that works powerfully in me." (Colossians 1:29) Paul credits Christ himself for strengthening him to do the labor God has set before him.
How does Christ strengthen us for His work?
He doesn't tell us in Colossians, but in Ephesians 3:16, he writes, "I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit". When God has a spiritual task for us to do, He empowers us to do it through the Spirit who dwells in us.
While the Spirit is a person who gifts and empowers people as He desires, we have a choice as to whether we will avail ourselves of His work or not. We may forfeit the empowerment of the Spirit by "grieving" Him by personal strife with one another (Ephesians 3:30-31) or by "stifling" Him as we despise the prophecies He has brought (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Any practice of sin or rejection of His word will result in spiritual weakness. On the other hand, as we engage in worship of Jesus Christ with our hearts, mouths, and lives, God fills us with His empowering Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-21).
Everything we do wrong has a solution in Jesus Christ. What Paul wrote at the end of Colossians 1 taps into Jesus Christ to cultivate in us a more exclusive focus than the one we have given Him. I believe this kept Paul from many of the spiritual traps we fall into. Consequently, the Spirit empowered him to be the kind of person that convicts me of all the ways where I'm being lazy, inconsistent, or living in a sinful way. In many of his letters, Paul uses the first one or two chapters to tell about his life. Much of these accounts are impressive accounts of someone dedicated to God. But Paul was not superhuman. He was simply a man, called by God's grace, filled by His Spirit, who loved and lived for Christ in a way that all Christians should learn to imitate.