Early coal miners carried canaries into the deep pits with them as indicators of the presence of methane gas. Being more sensitive to these deadly fumes than humans, the bird would die long before the gas posed a problem for the miners. If the bird was dead, they ran for their lives.
We could all use a few canaries in our spiritual lives, to warn us when we were on dangerous ground as well as assure us when we were doing well.
Lately, I’ve been dwelling in Colossians 3:1-17. In fact, last Sunday, on Father’s Day, I urged the men in the Winnsboro, Louisiana, congregation to live in this passage for the next thirty days. Those who will read it often and think about it regularly will gradually learn a great deal about themselves and what it means to live for Christ. In time, they will begin seeing patterns in this text.
One evidence that Scripture is God-breathed and Spirit-powered is the multi-layers it possesses and the multi-dimensions on which it functions. A sixth-grader will read this passage and find that fits his life perfectly, while his grandfather will see something entirely different but incredibly beneficial.
What this grandfather sees in this passage today will be, I predict, different from what will stand out a month from now when I leave it. And yet, both will be true.
Here are four harbingers–four canaries, so to speak–(or measurements, signs, indicators) that alert the child of God who is growing in Christ that he actually is growing in the Lord. And when we finish, we’ll turn it around and see how the opposite of these likewise serve as warnings.
Four things begin to be prominent in your life as you grow in Christ.
And, may I say, we should look for all four to hold true at the same time.
1. We will grow increasingly disgusted with the old life we left behind, and less attracted by it.
Consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. (Col. 3:5)
But now, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…. (Col. 3:8-9)
2. We will be more and more Christlike but will be the last ones to know it.
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another…just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Col. 3:12-13)
There’s a fascinating irony that goes on here. As you grow in the Lord, eventually someone will say that you are the most Christlike person they know. You will laugh at the very idea. You have so far to go it’s not even funny.
They’re right. You are becoming more and more like Jesus. But you are the last to know. Why is this? For a very simple reason: The closer we get to the light, the more imperfections we see.
Late one night I was walking downtown past some stores. The reflection of my image came back at me from the huge windows of stores now closed for the night. “Pretty sharp,” I thought, looking at my reflection.
When I got home, I stepped into the bathroom which was ablaze with lights. “Holy cow!” I thought. My hair was uncombed, I needed to shave, and I’d spilled food on my shirt. None of this could be seen in the half-light on the street.
I once said to a lovely octogenarian in our church, “Marguerite, you are the finest Christian, the godliest person, I know.” She said, “Oh, honey. If you just knew.”
But I did know. I knew that we are not the judges of the Christlikeness emanating from us. Moses “did not know that his face was shining” because he had been so long on the mountaintop with El Shaddai Himself. (Exodus 34:29)
Others will see the holiness in us long before we will be able to detect it.
One other note from personal experience. The time you will know you were close to the Lord and enjoying a holiness with Him is when you lose it. When you rebel against the Lord and find yourself down in the hog pen with other prodigals, you will look back to those former days and remember how good you had it (Luke 15:17).
3. We will love people more than we’ve ever loved them but love ourselves less.
…bearing with one another and forgiving each other…. Above all these things, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body; and be thankful. (Col. 3:13-15)
The night I came to Christ as an 11-year-old, I recall walking out of church–no, floating would be more like it–completely in love with everyone I saw.
Jesus taught all who would be His disciples that the mark they would wear, the badge to identify them as His, would be their love for one another (John 13:34-35).
My observation is that closeness to Christ manifests itself in three types of love:
a) We treasure the other followers of Jesus.
b) We devote ourselves to our family .
c) We yearn for everyone to know Jesus.
The Lord told the man healed of a legion of demons who had expressed a desire to “follow you wherever you go,” No. Go home to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you and how He has had compassion on you. (Mark 5:19)
The final promise of the Old Testament is that when the Messiah arrived, and John the Baptist preparing the way before Him, “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). He would turn their hearts toward home.
Home is the first place to tell the difference when one falls into sin and the first to register the change when he comes back to the Savior.
4. The more grateful we will be to the Lord and everyone else, and the less demanding we will act.
…and be thankful. (Col. 3:15)
…singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
…giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col. 3:17)
Get the idea? Gratitude is not optional, it is not the icing on the cake. Nor is it an adornment to an otherwise complete Christian life. Gratitude is one of the essentials. Standard equipment for the believer who would count for Christ in this world.
Now. Let’s turn this coin over. The lesson is incomplete if we leave it here. What we have said is that those who grow closer and closer to the Lord Jesus in their daily walk will begin to experience these four growth-signs: we will grow disgusted with the former life we lived, we will be more and more like Jesus, we will love people and everything about us will be characterized by thankfulness.
However. When we backslide, the opposite is true.
When we quit making the effort to stay close to the Savior by reading the Word, prayer, obedience, worship with His people, etc., then we will soon see the dark side of these four principles:
1. The garbage of our old life begins to look good to us.
The sensuality, the pornographic images, the dirty talk, the tavern, the gutter–all those things you had learned to despise and feel a certain amount of shame for–now attract you.
It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.” (II Peter 2:22)
2. You look and behave less and less like Jesus and no longer care.
The backslider who was truly saved–stay with me here–almost never slanders the Lord Jesus. Instead, he turns his poison on other believers and ignores Jesus altogether. His heart is overwhelmed by guilt and he has only two choices if he is to find a level place where he can live with himself: he has to repent and return to the Lord or find someone to blame for his fallen condition. The family and the church fill that latter need.
He becomes bitter and negative, unloving and self-centered.
Not a pretty sight.
3. Your love for the people in church, your devotion to your family, and your concern for those without Christ mean less and less to you.
In fact, you find yourself being critical of the pastor and staff, resentful of fellow church members, angry at your family members, and callous about those without the Lord.
4. Resentment replaces the gratitude which used to characterize your attitude.
You even have a sense of entitlement. “I served the Lord all those years and what did it get me?” “What kind of appreciation did I get?” “No one recognized or cared that I did all those things.”
No one can torch believers like a backslidden church member.
Such a fallen believer does untold damage to the world of the Kingdom. While he was active in the church, he never entered a bar or tavern to tell people about Jesus, and now that he has fallen away, he enters it to slander God’s people.
No wonder Scripture says, “It would be better for that person not to have known the way of righteousness than to know it and then fall away” (II Peter 2:21). The damage he can do is almost irreparable. Reaching him in his rebellion and restoring him to the former place of intimacy with the Savior is far more difficult than winning him to Christ in the first place.
Colossians 3:1-17 contains far more than these allusions. But this is a good starting place.