The Christian’s Spiritual Wardrobe
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.
“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:12–14).
Most of us have a wardrobe at home in which we keep our clothes. Every day we open the wardrobe and we put on some of the clothes that we store there. Perhaps we have clothes that we wear on special occasions. Perhaps we have a summer wardrobe and a winter wardrobe. Perhaps there are items of clothing that we wear frequently, for they belong to our favorites. We have other items that we seldom wear. Perhaps we have our “Sunday best.”
In these verses Paul calls the Colossians—and he calls us—to put on various items. Of course, the apostle writes figuratively. He is not interested in our clothes or fashion as such. He is interested in our “spiritual wardrobe.” He urges us to put on certain spiritual clothing.
The Christian’s Adornment
These items are spiritual graces or virtues. I call them graces because they are given to us. We did not have these qualities by nature. By nature we had a very ugly wardrobe. Paul calls us to put off those items, which are anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy communication (v. 8). We did not purchase or buy these items of spiritual clothing, for no amount of money could ever buy them. The Holy Spirit graciously works such graces in us, as he renews us after the image of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God. In reality, these items of spiritual clothing are the fruit of the Spirit. I call them virtues because God calls us to exercise these spiritual qualities and to be active in them. We do not stand like a lifeless mannequin while God drapes these things over us. Instead, we actively take them and put them on: “Put on, therefore” (v. 12).
We might arrange the items in our wardrobe into three broad categories.
The first main category found in our spiritual wardrobe is compassion. Hanging from the coat hanger labeled compassion we find two beautiful garments: bowels of mercies and kindness.
The term “bowels of mercies” is a compound phrase. Both words, bowels and mercy, refer to the internal organs or viscera of a man. We might say guts or intestines. The ancients located man’s emotions and deep feelings in his viscera or in his bowels. Today we speak of “loving someone from the heart” or “having a gut feeling.” The Bible speaks of “bowels of mercies.”
Compassion is pity for the miserable. Jesus was often moved with compassion for wretched people. Jesus encountered a leper, who was a man afflicted with a loathsome disease that made him unclean and a social outcast. People around him turned up their noses in disgust, gathered up their skirts, and ran away from him, lest they be made unclean also. Jesus did not reject the man in disgust. Instead, we read, “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him” (Mark 1:41). That was probably the first human touch that the man had felt in years. We might say, “Jesus’ heart went out to him” or “Jesus’ bowels yearned upon him.”
Men also show such compassion. The good Samaritan showed such bowels of mercies to the severely injured man whom he met on the road to Jericho. Unlike the priest and Levite, who ignored him and passed by on the other side, the Samaritan had compassion, stopped, took time out of his day, poured oil into the man’s wounds, and arranged for the injured man’s care from his own pocket (Luke 10:33–35).
When we consciously take the “bowels of mercies” off the hanger in our spiritual wardrobe, we cannot see the misery of a brother or sister in the church without being moved to pity, without longing to help our needy or miserable brother or sister, and without actually doing everything in our power to meet his or her needs. One wearing the garment of compassion does not pass by when he sees a fellow member overwhelmed, struggling, or weeping. One wearing the garment of compassion does not say, “That’s his problem—not mine” when he hears about grief afflicting a fellow saint. John warns against such an attitude of indifference, selfishness, or cruelty in 1 John 3:17: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” Such a lack of compassion shows that the Christian has not dressed properly. He or she needs to return to the wardrobe and put on bowels and mercies.
If the word mercies has any special significance, to contrast it with bowels in the expression “bowels of mercies,” it has the idea of sympathy. Sympathy is to take another’s misery and to make it one’s own. One with sympathy longs and yearns to help others and thus he manifests his pity. Perhaps the best way to translate the first phrase is “bowels in which compassion resides” or simply “a heart of compassion.” Such a heart is God’s heart to his people: “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God” (Rom. 12:1). “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies” (Phil. 2:1).
When you are tempted, therefore, to say, “I won’t put on bowels of mercies today,” remember God’s compassion for you in your sins. God never says, “I don’t think I will show compassion to my people today. Today’s the day when I will shut up my bowels against my people.” And remember, too, that every day your fellow saint needs your compassion just as every moment you need the compassion of the Almighty.
The second garment on the coat hanger marked compassion is kindness. If bowels and mercies describe the compassionate attitude of the Christian to miserable brothers and sisters, kindness describes the Christian’s actions. To be kind is to be gentle or tender in one’s treatment of others. A kind person takes account of another’s infirmities and weaknesses. A kind person is not so self-absorbed as to overlook the feelings and needs of others. A kind person even places the needs of others before his own needs and desires. His sees the effect that his words, gestures, actions, and attitudes have on others and he changes his approach to other people accordingly. A kind person is a person who understands that he is handling a precious, but fragile (delicate) vessel. He does not roughly grab the vessel, but he carefully handles it, lest by excessive force he damages it. The opposite of kindness is severity or harshness. A Christian must be kind—he must put on kindness.
A Christian husband is kind to his wife: he is not harsh, severe, cruel, or inconsiderate toward her. A Christian parent is kind to his children: he does not place upon his children burdens that they cannot bear. In this we follow the example of God himself: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13–14). Thus the apostles ground exhortations in the kindness of God: “If so be that ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious [kind]” (1 Pet. 2:3). “Behold therefore the goodness [kindness] and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness [kindness]” (Rom. 11:22).
Wake up every day with this firm resolution: “Today I will be kind; I will be gentle, tender, careful, and considerate. Today I will seek to avoid by my words or deeds to inflict injuries upon the hearts of my neighbors, upon my spouse, my children, my family, my friends, or anyone else in my life.” And if you say, “No; I don’t want to be kind,” remember the kindness of God to you. So kind was God to you that he crushed his Son in severity upon the cross because of your sins, so that he might show kindness to you. And he is kind to you every day; therefore, you must display daily kindness to your neighbor.
That’s the first category of clothing—compassion. Are you wearing compassion today?
The second main category found in our spiritual wardrobe is humility. On the coat hanger labeled humility we find two more beautiful garments: humbleness of mind and meekness.
Humbleness of mind is the spiritual grace of one who is low. The lowness is not necessarily a physical lowness, at least in relationship to others. One does not have to be dirt poor to be low. This lowness is a spiritual lowness: it is to be nothing and to have nothing in the sight of God, to be a poor, destitute, empty sinner. But humbleness of mind takes lowness further. One with such humbleness of mind knows that he is low and considers himself to be low.
Moreover, one with humbleness of mind is content to be low. Such a person is happy to occupy the lowest room. If in that low position he can serve God, bring glory to him, and serve his brother and sister in the church, he is not troubled by a low position. Such a person does not resent his low position or grumble about it. He humbles himself under God’s mighty hand (1 Peter 5:6). In addition, he does not try to assert himself or push himself forward to gain a more prominent position. A person with humbleness of mind denies himself in order to serve others. Nothing is beneath him, nothing is too much trouble, and nothing is too costly if the brother or sister is advantaged and God is glorified.
Jesus is the supreme example of humbleness of mind. “Let nothing,” says Paul to the Philippians, “be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). In lowliness and humbleness of mind Jesus did not seek to hold fast to his equality with God, but he became a man, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. It would be a very sorry sight to have Christians squabbling and boasting about who is the greatest and seeking to advance themselves at the expense of others when they claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ.
When you are tempted to refuse to wear this particular garment, say, “Shall I refuse to be humble when I am a sinner? Shall I refuse to be humble when my Lord Jesus became a worm for my sake? (Ps. 22:6). Shall I refuse to serve God in a low position when Jesus served me by dying for me on the cross? God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of Jesus! No task is beneath me, if thereby I might show my devotion to Jesus.”
The second garment hanging next to “humbleness of mind” in the wardrobe of spiritual graces is “meekness.” Meekness is a beautiful Christian virtue, although a precise definition is difficult to find. Meekness combines ideas such as mildness and quietness. Peter commands Christian wives to be adorned with “a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Pet 3:4).
Meekness should not be confused with weakness. Meekness is power under control. A meek person does not insist on the fulfillment of his desires or demands. A meek person does not say, “My way or the highway!” A meek person does not trample over the needs of others in order to be superior to others. A meek person yields to the needs of others. When a meek person is provoked, he does not insist on his rights, and he does not lash out in anger. A meek person understands his unworthiness and is willing to yield to others for their welfare and for the sake of peace.
The two meekest people in the Bible are Moses and Jesus, where Moses is a picture foreshadowing Jesus. In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, questioning his authority to lead Israel. In verse 2 they asked, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?” Moses did not lash out in anger at his siblings, and he did not assert his authority and demand respect. Instead, he held his peace, leaving the judgment to God: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (v. 3).
Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:29). Meekness enabled Jesus to endure an unjust trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, to endure innumerable reproaches and insults, and to submit to the judgment of God on the cross. If Jesus had not been meek, but had insisted on asserting his rights and privileges as the Son of God, he would never have endured the cross, and he would never have accomplished our salvation.
Meekness is necessary in our difficult interactions with one another. “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in a spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). It takes meekness to correct a brother, and it takes meekness to receive correction. If you always insist that you are right, and “to hell with everyone else”; if you trample over the feelings of others to be proven in the right; if you insist on the last word and never accept correction; if you are argumentative, belligerent, and arrogant, you are improperly dressed as a Christian. Look in the wardrobe: you neglected to put on meekness! Listen to Paul: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Or read Titus 3:2: “Speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.”
When you think that “meekness” is not the garment you want to wear—it clashes, you might say, with your personality, or it makes you feel uncomfortable or it hinders your climb to glory—you must remember Jesus Christ. Did Jesus meekly submit to the shame of the cross, and shall you assert yourself against others? Will you not meekly accept correction when you fall into sin, when Jesus (who never sinned) meekly allowed his back to be scourged, his face to be spat upon, and his hands and feet to be nailed to a cruel cross? Who are you to think that meekness is not for you?
The third coat hanger in the wardrobe of Christian graces is marked “patience” and it contains only one item—a very important item—“longsuffering.” Longsuffering is a kind of patience, but it is different from patient endurance. We exercise patient endurance in trials when we are under a burden. For example, “the trying of your faith worketh patience” (James 1:3) and “tribulation worketh patience” (Rom. 5:3), where patience is the ability to bear up under a trial without murmuring, complaining, bitterness, or fainting.
Longsuffering is exercised toward people. A longsuffering person is slow to anger. He is able to endure wrongs without a desire for revenge, without resentment, and without becoming irritable and irritated. A longsuffering person puts up with a lot from other people without becoming angry. He does not have a quick temper. He is not easily provoked.
Are you tempted to flare up in anger, to lose your temper quickly, suddenly, and even violently? Do you shout angrily at your spouse and children? Do you get into big quarrels with people at the slightest provocation? Do people have to walk on eggshells around you because they know that you are easily upset? Then your lack of longsuffering is showing. Go back to the spiritual wardrobe and put on longsuffering. And if you are tempted not to wear longsuffering, and not to be longsuffering with respect to others, then do not forget God’s longsuffering toward you. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Ps. 103:8–9). “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16). We have provoked God to anger so often and for so long, and yet he has been so patient with us. Shall we not, therefore, show such longsuffering to others?
Have you spent time dressing from the “spiritual wardrobe” this morning? Have you taken the beautiful garments from the first hanger labeled compassion—bowels and mercies and kindness? Have you dressed yourself in the clothing hanging from the second hanger marked humility—humbleness of mind and meekness? Have you put on the garment from the third section of the wardrobe, patience—longsuffering? If you have not, you are in no fit state to be in church on Sunday! You come improperly attired to worship God! Even if you are wearing a suit and tie, you are not able in your present state of dress to fellowship with God’s people! In fact, it would be impossible for you to function in any of your relationships without these items of spiritual clothing.
Paul adds one piece of clothing to the Christian’s outfit: love. “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). In other words, charity (love) will bind all the other virtues together and will make you and them complete. To use the analogy of a wardrobe, love is the belt that holds everything together, or love is the crown that completes the outfit and without which the Christian never reaches the goal of holiness.
Love is the Christian’s most beautiful, most splendid garment. Love is the crowning virtue of the Christian life. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2–3: “[if I] have not charity, I am nothing” and “[if I] have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” In fact, without charity (love) I cannot put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and longsuffering.
Love is a deep affection that I have for another person in which I seek his welfare and seek to have a bond of fellowship with him. Love is selfless, seeking the welfare of the neighbor. Love will enable me to show compassion (how can I have compassion for one whom I do not love, but hate?); love will enable me to humble myself to serve another (how can I serve another if I put myself first?); and love will enable me to be patient with others (if I truly seek another’s welfare, I will not be angry with him over every little provocation).
Above all, then, put on love—and remember the love of Christ: he was so concerned for our welfare that he clothed himself with these virtues and gave his life for us on the cross.
What a beautiful suit of garments the Lord has given us to wear! How beautiful we are when we wear these items of clothing! How delightful is our fellowship when we are adorned in this way! Far better to wear these clothes than to be arrayed in purple and fine linen or in the latest fashions of Paris and Milan! And what a privilege to be rid of our old clothes—anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and evil communication—and to be allowed by our gracious God to wear these beautiful garments!