So much of the spiritual life involves trying to gain control over and maneuver invisible spiritual attitudes which influence the invisible entity we call our “spirit”. For me this often feels like trying to position air. Take Paul’s command in Colossians 3:12:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
I love this verse, don’t you? Who wouldn’t want to step out the door each day wearing this spiritual finery? The people described here radiate spiritual beauty and strength. They bless others everywhere they go; anytime they step into a room. Paul says, in essence, “Go ahead, put on these wonderful spiritual virtues!”
This command, and others like it (Eph. 4:22-24, 2 Pet. 1:5-7, Eph. 6:13-17) are inspiring, but for me they’re also puzzling. Why? They’re puzzling because they come without instructions. I don’t know how to clothe myself with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” I can pull physical clothes off hangers in my closet but where is the spiritual closet filled with these garments of virtue? Where do I find compassion? What does it look like? How do I put it on? How long will it stay in place?
How can I clothe myself with godly virtues? It seems to me that I can’t do it directly. It’s an impossibly difficult task. Only God can dress me with His spiritual character. What Paul speaks of here, I believe, is not our ability to create virtue, but rather, our God-given ability to cooperate with God as He creates it in us. I’m assuming here, of course, that you’ve already come to Christ for salvation and received His indwelling Holy Spirit.
How can I help God clothe me with godly virtues?
1. I help God clothe me when God and I construct a roomy, clean spiritual closet
This closet represents my open heart toward God. If I seek God and love Him wholeheartedly (Matt. 22:37) then He has a space in which to place these godly virtues. In fact, godly virtues often develop without conscious effort if we spend enough time humbly in God’s presence, listening, loving, worshiping, confessing, meditating on His Word, and soaking in His warm love. I can do this alone and in the presence of fellow believers.
This increasing closeness to God will not just fall into our laps though. Like any intimate relationship it requires a regular investment of time and energy as well as a willingness to endure some discomfort (getting close to God is not always comfortable). And we will always have to set aside at least a few otherwise worthwhile projects in order to maintain this priority.
2. I help God clothe me when I keep my spiritual clothes in good shape and throw out sinful garments
As I go through a day all sorts of spiritual garments present themselves to me. Some, such as compassion, I want to reinforce; to keep properly hung in our closet. When a compassionate perspective comes into our hearts (“Wow, my friend Bill must be tired. He’s been working so hard!”) I can welcome it and support it in various ways
Conversely, some spiritual garments appear spontaneously in my closet which I’ll want to quickly toss in the garbage. When an uncompassionate thought or impulse, for instance, springs into my mind (“That Bill is such a loser!”) I can carefully distance myself from it. I can also toss out ungodly thoughts and impulses indirectly by requesting that God fill me with their opposites (“Lord, please give me more compassion for Bill.”) and by praying a positive blessing (“God, please give Bill the strength and wisdom he needs to deal with his challenges.”). These little invisible heart maneuvers may sound petty but when they’re part of long-term patterns God will use to transform my dispositions in those areas.
3. I help God clothe me when I put on the clothes externally though I’m not feeling the desire internally
Here’s a liberating insight: If I choose to act patiently even when I don’t feel patient it still honors God. It still counts, even though my action remains, in some ways incomplete. This incompletion may be due to my immaturity – my emotions are still too much affected by wrong thinking. It may also be due to my woundedness — I’m in real pain. Think of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane choosing to endure the cross out of obedience to God even though it was the last thing He felt like doing. He glorified God despite His intense pain and withering revulsion toward what was happening. One day, in Heaven, our emotions and actions will always synchronize. Here that’s not always possible. Right now, it’s important to be controlled, not by the emotion of the moment, but by our will, acting on what we know to be right and true. The ability to do this reflects growing spiritual maturity. Nevertheless, the next point reflects the long-term goal:
4. I help God clothe me when I seek to move beyond merely external wearing of godly virtues to internal wearing as well
Although I’ve just stressed that we can be spiritually virtuous without emotionally desiring that virtue at the moment, this is not the optimal level. God wants my external acts to be driven by an internal disposition and desire—to love one another “deeply from the heart”(1 Peter 1:22). I point this out because it’s all too easy to settle for a sort of superficial, external Christianity in which I learn to act Christ-like without ever fully being Christ-like. It’s useful to act loving even when I don’t feel loving, but don’t be content with that for the long-term. Hunger for more. Love which springs from the heart is more consistent, more powerful and more winsome than reluctant love driven by the will.
5. I help God clothe me when I become a connoisseur of fine Christian clothing
It’s easier to exercise a virtue or to develop it if I increase my understanding of what it involves (and what it doesn’t involve). This comes through a careful study of Scripture, thoughtful analysis, reading others, and careful observation of those exercising these virtues. Seek to become an “expert” on faith, patience, purity, etc. Using my mind not only gives me fresh ideas of ways to live out these virtues, it also protects me from the distorted practice of them. Attempts at purity, for instance, can easily morph into legalism if we’re not careful. And a merciful person, without prudence, may become an enabler. Good intentions are not enough. They need to be accompanied by growing wisdom.
These are all ways of cooperating with God in putting on His light-filled spiritual garments. It’s been my experience that usually these transformations are accomplished at a snail’s pace, and are seldom obvious at the moment. Over time, though, the Spirit will do His magnificent work in us if we work with Him. Periodically, in a tranquil moment, we’ll suddenly become aware that we’re not who we used to be. Since when have we been this compassionate? We catch ourselves showing greater humility or walking away from a besetting sin. During these sublime epiphanies, let’s take a moment to worship the great Tailor of souls. Whatever our earthly income, God loves to put all of us on His “best-dressed” list.