There’s a verse in the Bible that uses this strange phrase “put to death….” (Colossians 3:5). The full verse actually finishes the sentence with “what is earthly in you” and by “earthly”, it means what is sinful, what is of this fallen age. The Christian life includes killing sin in our lives.

Two quick asides on this:

One, the phrase “put to death” can go in one ear and out the other when you’re not constantly faced with the reality of death, as so many of us are blessed to be in this modern American culture — myself included!  We need a refresher — and I’m not talking about revisiting death by watching a Hallmark movie. I’m talking about the violent act of killing — murdering — butchering — bludgeoning. Graphic enough yet? Perhaps we could rephrase this as “slaughter the sin in you.” Ok, we’re getting closer.

Second, let’s revisit this concept of sin, or what the ESV folks translate in this verse as “what is earthly in you”. By way of definition, sin is attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to the way of life God intended for us. Its offensive to Him — He doesn’t like it because it’s not of Him. So fill in the blank: “slaughter the [fill in the blank].” Actually, the author of Colossians is kind enough to give us some ideas: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Notice how most of these in the list aren’t strict, quantifable behaviors? Impurity…evil desire…covetousness…these are not always something you can see on the surface in someone, unless they wear it on their sleeve. Rather, they are easily hidden, kept in the dark of our own deceitful hearts, for only our eyes to observe (and maybe, at times, those closest to us). Sure, they have their behavioral symptoms, but behaviors can be modified — through hard work and discipline and our own will power. Heart attitudes, however, are not so easily destroyed. That’s why one of the other main times the phrase “put to death” is used in the New Testament is in direct reference to the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence in the life of the believer: Romans 8:13 reads “…if by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Body, in this context, refers to a metaphor for sin). We cannot change our heart attitudes which are offensive to God apart from the work of His Holy Spirit in us.

So why all this elaborate Bible study? (I mean, apart from how it might be a helpful reflection for you…)

Because I want to tell you about how I am currently filling in the blank for Colossians 3:5.

The title of this post gives it away: I am in the long-haul process of putting to death the religion that is in me. That begs for definition.

In my words, religion is a systematic set of rules and outward symbolic traditions that lack the integrity of a heart’s desires and passions engaged in the behavior. Wait, no that’s just hypocrisy. Hm, let me try this again: For me, religion is when I have dwindled Christianity down to a sizable, manageable lifestyle that I can do apart from the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Ah yes, that’s more like it.

You’ve probably heard it before: “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” The growth trajectory that God has me in right now reveals how even a dedicated Christian like myself can misunderstand that simple statement. For I spent many years of my life unintentionally and blindly believing relationships were sizable, manageable interactions that I could control.  But relationships aren’t controllable; they’re not one-sided. There is an entirely different, “wholly other” being with their own will, desires and passions that no matter how hard I try, I cannot modify to suit my pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t consciously trying to be in control of my relationships. Rather, I was doing everything in my power to love others just as God commanded. But that was the problem — I was doing it in my power. (Remember Romans 8:13?)

In fact, my old interpretation of Colossians 3:5 and Romans 8:13 (at least practically-speaking) was the very definition I just gave of religion: a set of rules I was to practice in order to please God. In other words, it was my responsibility and mine alone to kill off the sin in me, and the only sin I had the power to do anything about was the behavioral. I figured that if I killed off the behavioral sin enough, the heart’s underlying attitudes would take care of themselves. There is some truth to the idea that practicing obedience to God’s commands does affect the passions of the heart, but it is not enough to completely change the heart — to get rid of entirely, 100%, the evil passions within it. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve invested the full weight of my will power over a period of at least a decade in changing certain habits in myself that were displeasing to God. And not only did I fail in managing the outward expressions of my heart, but I also fell short of affecting any long term change in my drive, my motivation, my passions — even when I was “sober” of my sin for long periods of time. The temptation was always there, under the surface, ready to spring up again, if I watered the soil enough.

But God broke through; in His healing and transformative power, He made deep areas of my heart new. That’s not cliche. I really mean to say He actually changed me. I can’t go back that old way, even if I wanted to. It’s just gone. Dead.

So when I say that Colossians 3:5 is referring to much more than self-discipline, I mean it in the context of Romans 8:13’s key phrase “by the Spirit” so that we don’t get confused by reading into it “religion”. Yes, it is a command that God intends us to obey. There is action we are meant to take, we have a role to play in the transforming process. But so does He.

And that’s where relationship comes in. And that’s what I’m currently learning: God’s part in my transformation. And as I better understand God’s part, my understanding of my role will fall into line.

For me, I am relearning how to be a Christian. I am learning to walk away from my “religious interpretations” of Scripture (as I described above); I am ceasing to resort to dealing with my sin in my own power and strength.

I wish I could say I understood what the opposite is — what it means to be partnering with the Spirit in killing off that which currently lives in me that offends God. I have my old ways of interpreting that too. But I am still learning. I guess the religion in me still needs to die some more, so that the seeds of true understanding have room to spring up and blossom.

I am on a journey of discovery — and the anticipation of what lies around the corner — the satisfaction of actually being in a living, active, two-sided relationship with the God of the universe — is enthralling! I get to discover more of who God is, and I cannot seem to drink enough of this fountain, for it is much more satisfying to drink in who He is, then to keep focusing on myself and controlling my behaviors to please a God I hardly know beyond the scope of my own mental assent.

That is, at least in part, what I mean by relationship.

I look forward to sharing more with you as the Spirit helps me to slaughter the religion in me, and brings to life new understanding of what it really means to be a Christian.