Augustine of Hippo, one of the great minds of the late Roman Empire, wrestled with the notion of God and the question of evil, before coming to believe that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God.
He goes on in his Confessions to say that as a young adult his prayer was, “God, give me chastity and self-control, but not yet”. One day he heard a young child’s voice singing, Tolle lege; tolle lege – ‘Take up, read; take up, read.’
He had been reading Paul the Apostle’s Letter to the Romans. Going back to the place where he had left the text, he let it fall open and his eyes lit on the words from chapter 13: Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
As he read, he found the solution to his heart’s longing. “How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose, it was now joy to put away. You (Lord) cast them forth from me, … and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure…” (Confessions VIII)
Paul’s advice in Romans 13 is similar to that in Colossians chapter 3:1-11. In the opening verse there he says: Since you have been raised to a new life in Christ, set your hearts and minds on the things above… And in verse 5 he writes: Put to death therefore what belongs to your earthly nature…
He is saying that God’s people should let the light of our new relationship with the risen Lord Jesus fall on every aspect of life. Everything is to reflect our new identity. Let me touch on three examples that Paul gives us – sexuality, the tongue and relationships.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Passions. If you know the Lord Jesus, Paul is saying, then sex is for marriage only. ‘You used to do what you wanted to do,’ he says, ‘but now having linked yourself with the Lord, put to death such behaviour.’ People often insist that they are ‘making love’, but with Paul’s reference to greed in this context, he is saying that really it’s lust.
In recent years studies suggest that the internet is having a negative impact on marriages. People are so consumed by it, especially pornography, that they have less time and inclination for their for their marriage partner. What a strange paradox: ogling at pictures more than enjoying the precious gift of the personal, intimate relationship of marriage.
As Augustine came to realize, God is not interested in spoiling our fun. Rather, as our Maker, he’s providing the framework for our pursuit of the good things of this world as he prepares us for a new world, where we’ll have more true pleasure than anything we can begin to imagine.
Paul also speaks about the tongue: But now 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.
It seems strange that Paul writes about controlling the tongue in the same context as he writes about our sexuality. What we forget is that the New Testament sees the tongue as our most sin prone organ. In his Letter, James says that the tongue is a restless evil.
You may think that to get on in life you need to express yourself with vehemence and an edgy vocabulary. But malice, obscenity, and rage constantly damage and destroy relationships.
Sometimes people tell me that nobody likes a saint: they’re so self-righteous. But to say this is to forget what true humanity is. To be truly human is to be like Jesus. Let me ask, ‘Do you get the impression that he was a dull, anaemic personality?’ He was man as men and women are meant to be.
Which brings us to Paul’s further comment – Relationships:
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Here in Colossians 3:11 Paul is telling us that God’s people need to recognize the unity we have in Christ and, in turn, provide a picture to the world of God’s new society. One of the significant features of New Testament Christianity was the breakdown of racial and cultural barriers – especially between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.
Paul’s words set the agenda of unity across the social and racial divisions for God’s people. Yes, we’ll disappoint one another, we won’t always be as tolerant as we should be, we won’t always love one another, or forgive one another as we should. But we must try. That should be our goal.
Put to death therefore what belongs to your earthly nature… Paul writes.
You may find it helpful to remember Augustine’s words as he read the Scriptures: “How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose, it was now joy to put away. Lord, you cast them forth from me, you the true and highest sweetness, … and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure…”
Augustine could sum up, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
A prayer. Lord if we are honest, we find our consciences pricked by the lofty standards you have set, of sexual purity, in our speaking, and in our relationships. We know that this failure in us affects the whole world, creating injustice and protest, conflict and war. Please forgive us. Lord, we also want to thank you for the new world you have made, to which you have given us title. Help us to fix our gaze on you and your promises. Turn our hearts to love you and to honor you. Help us to live for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.