“These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:23 NLT).
The question of motive plays a large role in determining whether an action is “good” or “bad.” For instance, devotion can a positive characteristic as long as we are devoted to the right things. In a similar manner, the qualities of self-denial and self-discipline are admirable practices unless we employ them in the service of a man-made religion.
When it comes to true spirituality, these qualities are worthless at best (and harmful at worst) if they do not grow out of a genuine relationship with Christ. For example, Paul the Apostle will spend much of the next chapter exhorting his readers to “put off” a long list of negative behaviors and replace them with others that honor God. A person who is devoted to seeking God’s empowerment to “put on” these Godly characteristics is someone who exercises true wisdom.
On the other hand, the “…fabricated religion, self-humiliation, and bodily abuse” (Voice) that originates in a human-oriented approach to God does nothing to address the issues that motivate us to engage in such practices. One source defines this kind of man-made religion as a type of worship “…which one prescribes and devises for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of faith which ought to be directed to Christ.” (1)
While this approach maintains an appearance of spirituality and gratifies our desire for meaning and purpose in life, it ultimately rejects the God-ordained path of salvation in favor of a something “better” that promotes religion on our terms. In the words of one Biblical paraphrase, “These rules may seem good, for rules of this kind require strong devotion and are humiliating and hard on the body, but they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person’s evil thoughts and desires. They only make him proud” (TLB).
We’ll close this portion of our study in Colossians with a timely reminder…
“When we make Jesus Christ and the Christian revelation only part of a total religious system or philosophy, we cease to give Him the preeminence. When we strive for ‘spiritual perfection’ or ‘spiritual fullness’ by means of formulas, disciplines, or rituals, we go backward instead of forward. Christian believers must beware of mixing their Christian faith with such alluring things as yoga, transcendental meditation, Oriental mysticism, and the like. We must also beware of ‘deeper life’ teachers who offer a system for victory and fullness that bypasses devotion to Jesus Christ. In all things, He must have the preeminence!” (2)
(1) G1479 ethelothreskeia Thayer’s Greek Definitions http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=1479
(2) Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary [2:104] quoted in Notes on Colossians 2019 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [2:20-23], https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/colossians/colossians.htm#_ftn231