Sometimes when we get sick, we, or our doctors, make the mistake of treating our symptoms instead of their cause. This never leads to a cure for the actual problem. In fact, it sometimes makes our problem worse by masking the cause and leaving us unaware of an advancing disease process. The medicine, the procedure, or the treatment leaves us feeling better, but all the while an invisible affliction marches on.
This kind of blunder can be very prevalent in our spiritual lives. Paul touches on this truth strongly in the closing verses of Colossians chapter 2. In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul warns against trying to grow spiritually by following man-made rules. He tells us not to give into asceticism — which was a belief that strict self denial, the avoidance of any kind of indulgence, or the severe treatment of one’s body would result in spiritual growth. Paul condemns that idea, telling us in Colossians 2:23 that it has no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. What Paul means is that following rules does not make us more spiritual. It only treats a symptom and hides a much bigger problem. It does not make our evil urges abate. Instead, it tends to make us puffed up or proud (Colossians 2:18). We think we are growing spiritually because our symptoms are masked by our pious rule following behaviors. All the while, spiritual cancer eats us from the inside, and we become hypocrites with an invisible (to us) holier than thou attitude. We develop a false humility. Our fallen flesh still wants to indulge in those things for which our fallen flesh wishes to indulge, and our rule keeping behavior only keeps others from immediately seeing that fact.
Instead of trying to follow man-made rules, Paul teaches that we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). He argued this point because he knew that setting our mind on the flesh led to death, and setting it on the spirit led to life (Romans 8:6). If we put the example of Jesus first, and try to please God, and walk by the spirit, our sinful urges will diminish, fade away, and abate. The closer we walk with God, the less we need rules, because we will lose interest in satisfying our fleshly urges (Galatians 5:16). So listen to Paul’s advice. Don’t treat your symptoms. Go straight to the source of the problem. Let God change your heart, and your mind!