I may be imagining it but I sense a touch of frustration from the writer to the Colossians. How are we to be transformed? How are we to become holy? How are we to be made over in the image of Christ?
The metaphor Paul is using is a stark one: our old life is over—it has died—and now we are alive in Christ. He draws an absolute line between how we were and how we are. The dark line of death. Once we were people of darkness and slavery and now we are alive to light and freedom. Our old life is dead. Simple. Clear-cut.
But of course it’s not. And that’s why he is writing to Colossae anyway. Because, whatever that little death has been for us—a ritual drowning in baptism or the kind of conversion that knocks you off your horse—it clearly hasn’t taken. We are as sinful as ever, as much prone to the influence of the lords of air and darkness as ever we were.
That’s why he’s hammering away about the need to kill everything in us that belongs to our old earthly life. It isn’t dead. It lives in us and strangles the life of the kingdom. As Paul says in Romans—the good we intend to do we do not do—we do not do what we want to do but the very thing we hate.
So what are we to do? How are we to conquer the sin in us? The usual strategy is to strive: to pour all our energy into eradication. To work like hell to kill it all off. Or to feel lousy because we never can. Because we never can. We never have.
No wonder the writer seems frustrated. He can shout till he’s blue in the face, ‘stop that, you’re dead to that’ but it isn’t doing any good.
I think the problem is that he isn’t taking is own metaphor about death seriously enough. The one thing we don’t have to strive for in this life is death. Death needn’t be pursued it comes to us tamely, seeks us out. Death is the big giving-in.
How are we to be transformed? How are we to become holy? Not by succeeding but by failing. Not by striving but by giving in. Not by force but by fragility. Not by grimness but by grace.
‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh.’