The things you practice may tell a different story than your mouth.
I’m from Louisiana, but I don’t speak French. I took it in junior high and high school, and in keeping with my overall track record, I rarely did my homework. The problem finally came to a head in class, where I was asked to recite a long piece of French prose. I did. It sounded like Pepé Le Pew speaking Pig Latin. Though I insisted I had practiced thoroughly, it became apparent to everyone (especially my teacher) that I had spent my time practicing other things, like bass fishing, and shotgun-ology.
No matter how you swear otherwise, the life you practice is your life.
That sounds disturbing, especially when so much of what we practice is less than holy. How many times does it take before a behavior becomes a practice? Five times? Twenty times? How many times a week/month/year?
Paul never involves himself with such linguistic complications. Instead, he simply wrote, “put off the old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9). The old self (or, literally man according to the Greek), refers to you, before you came to Christ. And the old man has a practiced lifestyle of corruption. Yes, you are good at sin. You’re better at it than Chopin on a piano.
Your liberation, though, begins with a fact:
“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3).
Now God hasn’t instructed us to “get the chills” or be moved to tears over this. He expects His truth to do more than trigger sentimentality.
You’re supposed to do something with it, as verse 5 mentions:
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (v.5) … “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (v. 8).
We used to practice these things to the point of comfortable familiarity. Now we’re supposed to kill them. As you’ve probably discovered, they don’t die so easily.
There’s a lot of learning in those words “put to death.” We must learn for instance that some of what the cross stands for deals with our failures—applying the blood of Christ to our convicted consciences to experience redemption, restoration, and return. You’d better become proficient with this one. If mastering the clarinet is marked with frustration and failure, then how much more dealing with the six hundred pound gorilla of your flesh.
But the cross also has to do with the wisdom of cruciform thinking—making adjustments to daily life so we won’t continue in a rut of failure. After all, who wants to live confessing non-stop moral lapses. At some point we learn, under the coaching of the Spirit, to avoid triggers, and set up protections against wandering into old patterns of behavior. That’s a gracious help for us, because as Christians, we’re sometimes naive, if not dumb, and do the same things while hoping for different results.
Some of the cross/new life bundle we’ve received has to do with sheer power—inspiration that interrupts our sinful practices and lifts our eyes up from this earthly horizon, heavenward. This might mean adding regular time to bask in the glory of Scripture, sometimes privately, and sometimes with others. You won’t be willing to stop looking down at the mulch, so to speak, until the sun rises in iridescent brilliance.
Don’t forget that we’re to positively practice new things as well.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12)
There’s just as much learning in the words “Put on” as there is in “Put off.” To put on means to adopt new practices until they’re a habit. Because “your life has been hidden with Christ in God,” you learn to work in full cooperation with it, practicing something new, again, and again, and again. The proving grounds for this are few—marriage, parenting, church, work. Ninety-nine percent of all human interactions take place within these.
Don’t worry. You’ll get feedback on how you’re doing. The new things we put on are hardly cosmic. They don’t hang in the air. Virtues like compassion, kindness, and humility become substantial between you and other human beings.
In the meantime, put on, and practice. Do it until you don’t have an accent anymore. Until you speak with the native accent of heaven.