September 2, 2007

New Clothes: Dressing Up for God
Colossians 3:17

The maid of honor in our wedding wore a beige colored dress, and the bridesmaids wore peach. The best man and the groomsmen all wore rust colored tuxes, and the plan was for me to do the same. I knew, however, that Deb, whether she came right out and said it or not, liked a white tux on the groom. Perhaps she had said as much at one of the other weddings that we had attended together—I’m not sure. But after three years of dating, I had a relatively good sense of her basic likes and dislikes, and I knew she liked white tuxes. So I changed the order without informing her. Instead of the rust-colored tuxes worn by the other men in the wedding party, I wore a white one. I dressed up, just for her. To surprise her. To please her. Pleasing my wife always was—and still is!—a great deal of fun.

Do we ever think about dressing up for God? It is an interesting thought, isn’t it? Do I, for example, experience the same satisfaction in pleasing God that I do from pleasing my wife? My father or mother? My best friend? Have I begun to learn what he likes and dislikes, and what kind of “clothing,” so to speak, he wants me to wear? Does my heart beat just a bit faster at the thought of exciting God, just like it did when I waited for my wife-to-be to turn the corner in the old Grantham Church and see me in my white tux? Do I find profound satisfaction in pleasing God—in dressing up for him—or am I stuck in the sweaty pants and dirty underwear of religiosity?

Religiosity, as you perhaps know, works something like this. You learn the rules and go to one of two extremes. You either do the least you can to get by, or you try endlessly to follow each and every detail. Those of us in the first group—the “Minimalists”—pay lip service to God and throw him a bone from time to time, just to keep him happy. Those of us in the second group do what we are told. We play by the rules. In either case, we assume that the world is black and white and similarly assume that God is interested primarily in our doing whatever he tells us to do. We wear a rust-colored tux because everyone else in the wedding party is, and it is the right thing to do. We perhaps even worry that we are not measuring up to his expectations and fear the consequences of disappointing him. So we either try harder or eventually give up in despair.

Religiosity, of course, is hardly a new thing. It is, I suspect, human nature to categorize and codify. Neat lists are simple to understand and far easier to measure, and they are attractive to many people because they promise to remove the mystery and ambiguity from our lives. “Tell me exactly what you expect of me,” children and students often say. “Let me know precisely what you are looking for.” And the history of religion offers much of the same mode of thinking. From the dawn of time, people like you and me have been trying desperately to quantify and clarify the expectations of their gods. Consider for a moment just those religions descending in one way or another from Abraham—forget for the time being all of the other religions of the world.
Judaism, to begin with, somehow managed to isolate 613 specific laws deriving from the Torah—the first five books of the Bible. 248 of these are positive, instructing people what they should do. 365 are negative, informing people what they should not do. The 365 negative laws correspond to the 365 days of the year, and the 248 positive laws correspond to the 248 bones and organs that ancient Hebrews thought made up the human body. Thank goodness they didn’t know how many bones and organs there really are! As it is, a 12-century Jewish scholar named Maimonides wrote 14 volumes—83 sections and 1000 chapters!—to explain these various laws.

Or think of Islamic teaching. Islamic law, known as Sharia, examines everything from politics and economics to family, sexuality and hygiene. There are five distinct categorizes of laws, organized according to their varying levels of importance: obligatory, meritorious, permissible, reprehensible and forbidden. It is all there—every area of life is seemingly regulated in one way or another.

And unfortunately, much of Christianity has fared no better. Over the years, Christians have often thought primarily in terms of rules and regulations. We ourselves have our own lists of dos and don’ts, or at least we’ve heard about them. My own great-grandfather, himself a preacher for many years, was notorious for his rigidity—he was a “black and white” person. At least that is what I have been told. “Strong on the rules,” people would say, “but weak on grace.” “Long on holiness,” they’d continue, “but short on joy.” Human nature, once again, finds great comfort in quantifying and categorizing—removing ambiguity and spelling out precisely what is black and what is white. No wonder one senses a drastic decline in Christian virtues these days. Religiosity can sustain commitment for only so long. It soon grows tiresome, and its followers often abandon the rules altogether.

But, and this is a life-changing “But,” if one bothers to take an honest look at the New Testament, a startling discovery is made. There are no detailed codes of conduct here. There are no endless lists of rules and regulations. Rather than reducing the world to black and white, the New Testament speaks of countless shades and blazing colors. Rather than telling us how to act and what to do under every imaginable circumstance, the New Testament speaks of values and principles that we are then asked to apply in the contemporary world in life-giving ways. And rather than reducing faith to sheer compliance—following God’s rules—the New Testament invites us to walk with God and to learn what he likes and dislikes.

How different such a view is from the one typically offered by standardized, moth-eaten religiosity. Instead of assuming that God appreciates only black and white, we begin to discover that he enjoys green and blue. Instead of concluding that he is a meat and potatoes kind of god, we learn that he has a taste for curry and even shoofly pie. Instead of believing that God wears only a rust-colored tux, we come to realize that he actually prefers white—although he will let us wear either one! And instead of thinking that God pays attention only to what we do, we come to realize that he cares deeply about us—period. The Christian Faith, the New Testament alarmingly declares, is not so much about following God’s rules as it is about getting to know him—his heart, his hopes and dreams, his plans, his likes and dislikes, his gifts of love and grace to us. When we begin to grasp this simple truth, suddenly the lights go on and dispel our spiritual darkness. As followers of Jesus, we are not called simply to follow God’s rules, but to bring joy to his heart.

The Apostle Paul eloquently summarizes such a view of the Christian life in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Much the same idea appears again here in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Elsewhere in Colossians, Paul discusses everything related to Christian convictions, Christian character, and Christian conduct. Yet Paul, though for years caught up in Pharisaic religiosity, refuses to reduce the Christian Faith to a mere set of rules and stipulations. Instead, he offers, once again, this remarkable principle which we together can then work at applying to the various situations and dilemmas that we face along the way. “And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything—everything!—in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.” Instead of asking, “Is this against the rules?” we now ask, “Can I do this in the name of Jesus?” Instead of asking, “Is this allowed or forbidden?” we now ask, “Will this bring glory to God?” And instead of asking, “What must I do to get by?” we now ask, “How can I dress up for God today?” “How can I bring him genuine pleasure?”

I buy very little clothing—perhaps you’ve noticed!—but when I do, I still typically make my selections with my wife’s likes and dislikes in mind. Ironically enough, she has on more than one occasion assured me that she does the very same thing. When she looks for her own clothing, she often asks herself, “Would Terry like this”? She knows my favorite colors and styles. She knows that I love to see her in black, red and maroon, and she likewise understands my appreciation for clothing and jewelry from other countries—Kazuri beads from Kenya, Saris from India, embroidered tops from Palestine, and even simple chitenges from Zambia. We don’t follow a rigid dress code, nor do we have a fashion calendar of any kind in our home. I don’t require her to wear two international garments each week or maroon on Mondays and Thursdays. Deb and I simply know each other’s likes and dislikes, and we enjoy pleasing each other. We enjoy “dressing up” for each other. Do we enjoy dressing up for God?