In the streets of Brighton the spiritual climate is high. Posters stapled to lamp-posts beckon those who pass by to meet a Psychic, visit a holistic healer, or attend a class in meditation or some other spiritual technique. There is a sense in the city that you can create your own spirituality in the pick ’n’ mix offered.
During one short-break in the city, for a treat I booked my first massage. I found myself at a posh self-proclaimed ‘urban retreat’ called ‘Body and Soul’. Inside I was greeted by stone statues from the Far East. Upon entering the dim room that was to be my sanctuary for twenty-five minutes, flickering candles welcomed me as soothing music played and the rich smell of oils filled my nostrils. The whole experience was tailored to promise well-being of mind, body and soul to women … for a Visa or MasterCard payment. It was a massage for one’s aching muscles but I could not help thinking that some women went with an aching soul.
This appetite for ‘the spiritual’ is not unusual to Brighton. A visit to your local bookshop will confirm the huge variety of products available in the ‘Religion’ or ‘Mind, Body and Soul’ sections. Beside books on Islam and Catholicism, you can also buy tarot cards, manuals on finding your ‘inner spirit’, manuals on finding your ‘soul-animal’, or your ‘inner goddess’. At one large American bookshop I used to frequent you could even acquire a Hindu god with an accompanying textbook or a mini Zen gardening kit. Whatever your spiritual cup of tea, it’s out there.
So spirituality has become pretty fashionable in our twenty-first century world. Sadly in all this desire for a personal spirituality that brings peace and happiness, the Christian gospel has been rejected. Today we want connection to a ‘Higher Power’ without traditions, rules, and responsibilities.
What are we thinking of when we use the term ‘spirituality’? Of course, this is a subject under much debate. But here we will simply understand ‘spirituality’ to be the daily pursuit of the spiritual, that is, the reaching outside of self for that which is seen to be ultimate. As Christians, we believe the God of the Bible is the ultimate being. Therefore, what we need is a spirituality that is solidly biblical and thoroughly reliable.
These spiritual trends are confusing for Christian women. We all see what the world has on offer through the media and the latest craze talked, texted, blogged, or ‘tweeted’ about, but how do we filter these ideas? How do we know what is right and true or unhelpful and incompatible with the gospel? It is essential that we turn to God’s Word. Only our Bibles can truly help us.
In their pages the eternal God speaks personally and powerfully to each of us. And in His Fatherly care He gives us answers and direction for the whole of our lives. Remember, as the Bible says of itself, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:16 [ESV]). As Christian women living in today’s world, the Bible is our own God-given resource for spirituality. Our lives should be shaped by it. If we have a spirituality based on something other than the Bible then it is dangerous.
The church in Colossae also struggled with novel ideas on spiritual life buzzing through their ranks. The Apostle Paul wrote to this new Christian community, living in what is now southern Turkey, in the New Testament letter of Colossians. Paul was painfully aware that these Christians lived in a Roman society with a multitude of ‘man-made’ ideas relating to the divine. Pagan deities and mysterious secret cults were the flavour of the day. Undoubtedly the Colossian Christians were finding it tricky to keep their heads above water and not be pulled under by those who mixed the gospel with other beliefs.
Yet some visitors had made their way into the church family and were disturbing the group with promises of deeper Christian experience and knowledge additional to, but not contradicting, the gospel. These false teachers had come amongst the church family claiming that they knew the secret to a fuller spiritual life. But their ‘secrets’ had not been part of the gospel that Paul and the Apostles had taught these new Christians. We read one of Paul’s warnings regarding this in chapter 2 verse 8. ‘See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.’
So how does Paul help the Colossians? Simply … he presents Jesus Christ to them. Instead of teaching some new angle about how to know Jesus more, Paul tells them that as Christians they possess the person of Christ. Christ is their own. The Apostle teaches them that through their faith they enjoy a special unity with him. And because the church is in a saving union with Jesus, they need nothing else! This is their true, authentic spirituality.
Let’s look further at what Paul writes to encourage and strengthen the Colossians in the faith and away from the nonsense of these ‘theological troublemakers’. Paul knows that the best antidote for this confusion is to give them raw undiluted truth about God. So he makes sure that the Colossians are clear about their glorious Saviour by writing them a letter that revolves around the kingship of Jesus and the fact that he is all they need. This God-inspired book can clear up our confusion too and help us be women who keep our eyes fixed firmly on our Lord and Saviour.
Who is Jesus? ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15). After all the greetings, introductions and prayers (vv.1–14), Paul goes right to it in verse 15. He is the physical representation of God. Our Jesus is fully God. ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Col. 1:19). This is staggering. This man who walked the dusty ground of Palestine is a full member of the Godhead!
This section between verses 15 to 20 of Colossians chapter 1 is sometimes understood to be a hymn all about the person of Christ. This is not surprising since in these few verses, the Apostle seems to shout about who Jesus is, his power, his kingship, his deity, his supremacy, as well as what he has done. Paul wants his readers to know that Jesus is King, and because he is God he has no rival.
Throughout Paul also reminds us that our King Jesus shares our humanity. He is the God-Man. Paul writes, he is ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (v.15). Here Paul is referring to Jesus as the human fulfilment of the small broken body of the lamb whose painted blood saved the life of every Hebrew first-born son on Passover night, during the Israelites’ last days in Egypt (Exod. 12). As God’s ‘first-born’ Jesus saves us by his blood, not just for one dark terrible night, but for now and always, even after death.
As God, Jesus was present and active in creating the earth at the beginning. ‘For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him’ (Col. 1:16). If all things were created ‘by’, ‘through’, and ‘for’ him, then Jesus must have existed before creation. We must not forget that our Saviour lived before his Christmas birth on earth as a man. There are many times when Jesus confirms this himself in the New Testament’s gospel accounts. This is why he prays in John 17; ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed’ (John 17:5). This is what Paul means when he writes, ‘he is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (v.17). Every day we take for granted the harmony of our planet. But where would it be without Christ’s cosmic power sustaining it?
So Paul is teaching that Jesus is the forerunner and ruler of creation, but he himself was not created. He has always existed. And he is supreme over creation, as the God-Man he stands at the centre of it all. These things are hard for us to grasp. We are talking of eternal God-truth. As human beings, as small and limited as we are, we must recognise the mystery of our God. God would not really be God if we had him completely figured out. This is tricky to get our heads around I know … but stay with me—these truths can change your life.
Paul continues and makes it personal, ‘And he is the head of the body, the church’ (Col. 1:18). Paul comforts the Colossians with the fact that Jesus is intimately leading and guiding them in their own situation. This is not abstract, but practical and personal. Christ has authority not only as King but also as head. In the same way that the head is vitally connected to the whole body, so Jesus is not distant but united personally to the church. This must have been a great comfort to the Colossians. They were not alone, having to fight for truth in a community beset by troublemakers. The reality of the situation was that their Lord and Saviour was sovereignly leading and guiding them. This is an encouragement for us too. If Jesus is supreme over the church then he is supreme over its disappointments. Christ is bigger than the blows and persecutions that society might deal to the church and its Christian faith.
Because Jesus is supreme over everything, he is the only genuine Saviour. He is totally dependable. He is not a god (with accompanying textbook) we can buy from a local bookshop, or a lifeless idol carved out of wood. King Jesus is ‘the first and the last’ (Rev. 1:17), supreme over the whole of planet earth; over deep space, over the skies and seas.
And Jesus Christ holds us together (Col. 1:17). He is Lord over our DNA, our bone marrow, our cancer, our arthritis, our appearance, our fatigue, our infertility, our anxiety, our depression: Lord over our finances, our singleness, our marriage, our unbelieving spouse, our rebellious children, our loneliness, our losses, our failures, and our successes, our work or our retirement. This means it is the same gentle but powerful pair of hands that formed planets and solar systems that keeps us in one piece, comforting us when we are broken about life.
And these same hands give us victory at the cross. For Jesus is Lord even over death; the one power which renders every one of us powerless; ‘He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent’ (Col. 1:18).
King Jesus trounced death. That fateful curse, which in life haunts us with its finality, was crushed. Which is why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Cor. 15:55). If Christ is our own, if we acknowledge him as our authentic Saviour, then death is really no death for us since our last breath is the start of an eternal life with him. Even now he is waiting to take us to his heavenly home to be with him forever (John 14:2–3).
Having confirmed the superiority of Christ the God-Man and his victory over death, the writer Paul now turns to what Jesus achieved through his death: The work ‘to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:20). Because of who Jesus is, because in his miraculous person both divinity and humanity are supernaturally united; he is our sufficient Saviour. Only the untainted God-Man could take on all the mess of humanity and stamp out sin with his innocent blood. Only the powerful God-Man could reconcile a holy God with rebellious humans. It is because Jesus has the utmost supremacy in all things that his death is more than adequate to do what would be otherwise impossible. That is why Jesus said, ‘it is finished’ on the cross. The deal is done. Our death penalty has been transferred to him. The bill is paid. Our slavery to sin and death is over because our Saviour is enough. His death and resurrection are powerful enough to rescue us.
So we need nothing outside of Christ to save us. The theological-troublemakers were coaxing the Colossians to extreme spiritual practices, such as fasting and rituals, and warped ideas on the worship of angels and visions. Paul writes, ‘Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head’ (Col. 2:18–19). Paul calls such ideas ‘sensuous’. So although these teachings might sound super-spiritual, Paul writes them off as excessively physical (or carnal), extravagant, and produced by pride. The teacher of these notions is allowing his mind to shape his spiritual life instead of ‘holding fast to the Head’, who is Jesus Christ. ‘These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’ (Col. 2:23).
Christ’s sufficiency can become clearer to us when we understand how horrific our sin is and the mess we are. Sometimes we can be so ignorant of how spiritually sick we are that we have no idea we need a doctor as soon as possible. It is only the Holy Spirit who can open our eyes to our fatal condition. Hymn-writer Augustus Toplady knew this when he wrote the line,
‘Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die.’
In seeing how vile we really are, we can do nothing but run as fast as we can to the cleansing fountain that is Christ. This running is not like coming in from a day’s country walk, cold and wet and in need of a hot bath. No, it is more akin to the sexual assault victim who rushes to the shower to wash off the offence, the dirt, and the shame. For the reality of the gospel is this: We are all sinners; worthy of nothing but a dark stifling dungeon that reflects our own state. Clinging to our sin we are indifferent to the fact that we sit in our own spiritual filth. And yet God, in his infinite grace, opens a grill in the ceiling, filling the place with light, giving us a first glimpse of our condition. Then, he reaches in and pulls us out, saving us from the grim lifelessness of our situation. But he does not stop there. In the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, God does not just forgive us. He places us on a palace roof, and clothes us in the royal robes of his Son’s righteousness, uniting us to Christ, making us co-heirs with him, and adopting us into His family as daughters of the King. How can such a Saviour be inadequate?
As women in today’s world we need a spirituality applicable to all areas of our lives—one that works from Monday to Friday and not just Sundays. This has to be grounded on raw truth, not on fads, experience, or even emotions. Nothing but a spirituality centred on Jesus can genuinely bring redemption, contentment, and wholeness. Otherwise, the core problem of sin is not dealt with and we will continue to stumble around in the dark. Only through King Jesus has the Father ‘delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Col. 1:13).
This article is taken from Crazy But True: Connected to Jesus for Life (Bryntirion Press, 2014), and is reproduced with kind permission from Bryntirion Press.
Natalie Brand lectures and supervises research at Union School of Theology. She is the author of Crazy But True: Connected to Jesus for Life (Bryntirion Press, 2014) and Complementarian Spirituality: Reformed Women and Union with Christ (Wipf & Stock).