“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3, NIV)
The blog theme this month is authenticity, so in that spirit, I’ll let you know from the beginning that I’m still struggling with this passage.
As I was researching for this blog, I put the phrase “set your mind on things above” into Google, to see if I could find any other interpretations of this set of verses. I didn’t find any, but I did come across a blog post that has been rolling around in my brain ever since. The blog post itself spent 10-12 paragraphs describing what the good things we are to think about are: self-control, patience, kindness; and what the bad things we aren’t supposed to think about are: anything that could be classified as sinful, with the implication that thinking negative thoughts makes you less of a believer. I scrolled down to the comments (my usual rule is to NEVER read the comments, ever, but I couldn’t help myself), and the exchange between a particular commenter and the author went something like this:
“Thank you for this. I’m really struggling with negative thoughts right now. What can I do to set my mind on things above?”
“Just stop thinking about those things. Set your mind on things above.”
“Thanks. But how do I do that?”
“Set your mind on things above.”
It was a real "fold in the cheese" moment. If you know you know.
Any time I’ve heard these verses taught or preached on, the general message is the same as that exchange in the comment section of the blog I found: think about good things, and don’t think about bad or sinful things. Sometimes, the implication is that if you do think about bad or sinful things, you as a person are bad, as well. (Sometimes, it’s less of an implication and more of an outright statement.)
I don’t believe God would give us a vague instruction like “set your mind on things above” and then be angry with us when we aren’t able to do what is asked. There has to be more to this passage than that.
I discovered that at the time of the writing of this book, the joke around the local Colossian office water coolers was about philosophers who spend so much time thinking about and gazing towards heaven, that they end up falling into actual pits alongside the road, because they weren’t watching where they were going. Apparently, they were distracted by the details about the heavenly realms, like “what are the actual dimensions of God’s throne?” and “how many angels are there, exactly?” As much as I also love to contemplate whether I’ll still get to wear glasses in heaven, I think that when we focus mostly on the “set your mind on things above” portion of these verses, we are in danger of doing something similar to those philosophers. We can spend so much time worrying about setting our minds on things above, that we miss the context of these verses.
And I believe that context is Jesus. Both before and after the “set your mind on things above” instruction, Paul relates it to our relationship with Jesus. Jesus is divine, but is not detached from humanity, and as His followers, neither should we be.
The Message version helps me to understand this a little bit better:
“Pursue the things over which Christ presides...Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ- that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.”
So we aren’t just thinking about things, we are seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes, and then pursuing Jesus’ work here on earth. I now think this set of verses is more about “on earth as it is in Heaven” than it is about rules about what thoughts to allow in my brain.
As is usually the case, my new understanding of these verses leaves me with more questions to study and pray over than I started with.
- If I truly believe in “on earth as it is in Heaven”, what do I believe about Heaven? What do I believe about earth?
- What is my responsibility in bringing Heaven to earth, both individually and as part of a community? How does this change my behavior?
- How do systems and structures on earth compare to those in Heaven? Put more simply, do I believe Heaven is a patriarchal society? A capitalist society? Is it a caste system?
- Why do I believe the things I do about Heaven and earth? Who taught them to me? How can I broaden the perspectives from which I learn about Heaven and earth?
- How do I respond when it feels like heaven is nowhere near earth, such as when a mass grave of children is found at Kamloops Residential School?
Maybe these are questions for you to wrestle with, too.