There are eight godly attitudes in Colossians 3:12–14 that are foundational to biblical peacemaking. But to understand them we need to understand the preceding context. In Colossians 3:1–4 the apostle reminds believers of their new spiritual position in Christ. We died with him, we were raised with him, and we will gloriously appear with him when he returns. Because we are united to Jesus, we should fix our hearts and minds on him (Col. 3:1–2) and put off all vestiges of our remaining sin (Col. 3:5–11). The sins listed are comprehensive, reflecting the attitudes and practices of our old nature. In contrast, Paul calls us to live out the new life that God is forming in us, patterned after Jesus’s glorious image.
In verse 12, the apostle cites three identity descriptors that are foundational to the eight peacemaking qualities: we are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.”
First, God chose us. Nothing will encourage us more than to know that God has handpicked us, that in eternity past he chose us to be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet nothing will humble us more than to know that this was not based on anything good in us, but solely because of his sheer pleasure and unconditional grace.
How does this impact the way we handle conflict? Knowing our secure acceptance by the God of the universe allows us to absorb mistreatment and injustice:
- Who cares if your teacher doesn’t like you or if your coworkers criticize you? God has favored you.
- Why does it bother you so much that the band director bypassed you or the coach benched you? Almighty God has chosen you.
- Why are you jealous that your friends are married and you are not, or upset that the spouse you do have mistreats you? Jesus Christ is your life.
- Why does it matter so much that your boss ignores you? Your Lord has promoted you from death to life.
- What about the bitterness you feel after your church bypassed you for that ministry position you wanted? The God of heaven has singled you out for spectacular glory.
Second, God possesses us. The term holy (or sanctified) fundamentally involves being possessed by God and set apart for his special purpose.1And so “holy” in verse 12, especially when sandwiched between “chosen” and “loved,” means that God has made us his. He has set us apart as his possession; we belong to him. Moreover, by his Holy Spirit he desires not merely to own us but to control us (Gal. 5:16–26; Eph. 5:18). When a pro athlete performs at an exceptionally high level, sports announcers say that he is “playing like a man possessed.” That’s the Christian’s unique identity when we face conflict: We belong to God and we handle adversity like men and women possessed by him.
Third, God loves us. The apostle completes his triad of identity descriptors in Colossians 3:12. We are “dearly loved.” Through Jesus’s death, the Christian knows the everlasting love of God—the love that never ceases, never lets go, and never gives up. Even when people turn against us, God’s love remains. Moreover, even when we mess up—when our desires to please God falter—God’s love assures us. J. I. Packer writes:
There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me. . . . For some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.2
God loves us even though he knows the very worst about us. He does not love us because we have been good boys and girls or because we are loving, loveable, or lovely. He loves us simply because he wants to love us, for reasons known only to him. The cross is the result of that love.
In Colossians 3:5–11 Paul describes the evil we must put off. Verses 12–14 set forth the eight attitudes we are to put on. The Greek New Testament verb translated “put on” or “clothe yourself with” continues the clothing metaphor begun with the “put off” exhortations in verses 5–11. Paul lays out eight articles of clothing that make up this outfit.
1. Clothe yourselves with compassion.
Compassion is that inward, deeply felt emotional response of pity for a suffering person, coupled with a desire to alleviate that suffering. Notice three ingredients: compassion (1) sees the suffering person, (2) feels tender pity in response to the suffering, and (3) acts to alleviate that suffering when possible. That sense of tender pity must be distinguished from any self-righteous, condescending, air of superiority that looks down on the sufferer but remains aloof and unengaged. As one commentator notes, “The Christian, then, is to be a man of pity, a man who cannot see suffering or need or distress without a sword of grief and pity piercing his own heart. There can be no more complete opposites than callousness and Christianity.”3Godly compassion feels the needs of others and seeks to help. We see this in God the Father: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:3–4).
We see this in Jesus as he ministers among the crowds: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:35–36).4 Jesus saw the sufferers (harassed, helpless, shepherd-less sheep), felt their need (had compassion), and acted to help them (by teaching, preaching, and healing).
Of course, it is one thing to show compassion to victims. But what about those who suffer because of their own sins? The testimony of God’s compassion in Nehemiah 9 stuns us.
But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, “This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,” or when they committed awful blasphemies.
Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. (Neh. 9:16–20)
Here we see God’s amazing grace for people who not only do not deserve it but have provoked his wrath and deserve the exact opposite. And what Nehemiah 9 specifies as the attribute that led God to show goodness to rebels and blasphemers is his compassion. This insight is vital in our conflicts. It is easy to become so bitter over our own hurts that we cannot see the hurts that the other person experiences. The result is a relational gridlock. Godlike compassion toward the other party, however, includes seeing, feeling, and trying to alleviate the suffering even of those who have mistreated us. Such compassion can begin to break through the relational impasse.
2. Clothe yourselves with kindness.
Kindness means showing mercy and doing good even to people who do not deserve it or who deserve the opposite. The term frequently refers to the Lord’s saving actions (e.g., Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4). In the same way, Jesus calls us to be like God the Father, showing kindness even toward the ungrateful and rebellious: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36).
God extends his saving kindness even to the undeserving and even to the counter-deserving. It is one thing to give $300 to a stranger who deserves nothing from you; it’s another thing to give $300 to someone who has spit in your face or attacked you and who deserves the opposite of kindness.
Of course this is not our natural tendency when we face conflict. Too often our hearts reflect the opposite:
- “That’s the last time I do him a favor.”
- “Enough is enough. This relationship is over.”
- “No one will do that to me again.”
- “After all I’ve done, this is the thanks I get!”
Thankfully, this is not the way God treats us, and it is not the way we have to treat others. How is it possible for you and me to show kindness in these situations? The answer is simple but profound: kindness does not depend on the other person’s character; it depends on us. God does not call us to show kindness to the other person because the other person deserves it, but because God deserves it and because he wants his sons and daughters to be like him.
3. Clothe yourselves with humility.
Humility means recognizing that all you have comes from God and that you are absolutely dependent on him as both your Creator and your Redeemer. Humility was no more valued in Paul’s day than it is in our day. Both worlds were, and are, populated by prideful people. People swaggered and strutted, like they do today. They admired dominance, self-assertion, and one-upmanship. Humility in Paul’s Roman culture was an abject, servile quality, yet Paul exalts it as a strength in Colossians 3:12, as does the rest of our Bible.
This is the one I esteem:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit,
and trembles at my word. (Isa. 66:2)
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic. 6:8)
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:5; also James 4:6)
God dwells with the humble, esteems and highly values the humble, walks with the humble, justifies and exalts the humble, and gives them grace.
God dwells with the humble, esteems and highly values the humble, walks with the humble, justifies and exalts the humble, and gives them grace.
What does that look like in our horizontal relationships? Biblical humility involves an utter trust in God that allows others to be honored above me. Humility means preferring others over me. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). It means taking the last seat as a guest at someone’s dinner table, letting another car switch lanes in front of you, and waiting for others to go through the line first at a church potluck meal. Since God is in complete control, I don’t have to be first. I can lower myself, let others have the top spot, and know he will provide for me in his way, in his time.
4. Clothe yourselves with gentleness.
Popular understandings of gentleness sometimes confuse it with weakness or femininity. This is a mistake. The apostle Paul was not a weak man. Yet he describes himself to the Thessalonians as “gentle among you” (1 Thess. 2:7; cf. 2 Cor. 10:1). Jesus was not a weak man. Yet he said of himself, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:28–29). Someone has observed that this is the only place in the Gospel records where Jesus describes his inner character. As I regularly remind men, if our definition of manhood does not feature humility and gentleness as central, then it is sub-Christian. That lesson doubles for men who are Christian leaders. At his core, the greatest Leader who walked this earth was gentle and humble.
5. Clothe yourselves with patience.
Several New Testament Greek terms can be translated as “patience.” One term connotes endurance under trial and perseverance amid hardship. But Colossians 3:12 uses a different term that primarily concerns relational patience—being long-suffering, long-fused, and long-tempered toward those who irritate us. William Barclay describes it as the ability to bear with people, not to grow angry or bitter or irritated or annoyed with them, even when they are foolish or ungrateful or even apparently hopeless. . . . It is the ability serenely to take people as they are, with all their faults and all their failings, and with all the ways in which they hurt and wound us, and never stop caring for them and bearing with them.5
What does this look like in the daily life of conflict? How well do you show self-restraint toward people who provoke you? Slow people? Boring people? Messy people? Gabby people? Thickheaded people? How about drivers on the road? (“Don’t they know I’ve got to be somewhere!”)
6. Clothe yourselves with forbearance.
Paul continues in verse 13, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” Forbearance—an older term for bearing with each other—is a synonym for relational patience.
I appreciate the Bible’s realism. The apostle assumes that people will annoy us and that relationships become tense. Conflict is inevitable. Jesus knows that until he returns, there will be problems in his church. He knows that teen communication, or the lack of it, will frustrate parents. He knows that husbands will leave socks on the floor, and wives will want to talk at times when husbands don’t. He knows that new church leaders will want to do things differently than previous church leaders. Learning to bear with one another is an indispensable skill for pursuing peace in daily living.
7. Clothe yourselves with Christ-like forgiveness.
Not only will people irk us; they will sin against us. And so the apostle commands us in Colossians 3:13, “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” Again we see the Bible’s realism: even brothers and sisters in Christ will sin against each other. Paul then issues God’s vertical standard for all horizontal forgiveness: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (v. 13; cf. Eph. 4:32).
God’s forgiveness of us is his decision, declaration, and promise to not hold our sins against us but to graciously hold them against Jesus as our substitute. In fact, God’s forgiveness emerges as a major theme here in Colossians. In chapter 1 Paul recalls, “For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14). In chapter 2, he rehearses more details, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). He forgave us all our sins; therefore we should forgive others their sins.
8. Clothe yourselves with love.
In Colossians 3:14 Paul concludes his list, “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” The apostle prioritizes love—our self-sacrificial giving for the other person’s best— as the most important virtue, the supreme relational grace. The binding image here apparently pictures love as that outer garment that holds the other seven articles of clothing in place.
- See David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 136–37 (summary); John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1977), 277–84; and D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), August 27 entry
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 37.
- William Barclay, The All-Sufficient Christ: Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 126.
- The Gospel writers record six other scenes where the same Greek term is used to show Jesus’s compassion for others (Matt. 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13); Jesus also attributes compassion to both the loving Samaritan (Luke 10:33) and the prodigal son’s waiting father (Luke 15:20).
- Barclay, The All-Sufficient Christ, 123–24
This article is adapted from Pursuing Peace: A Christian Guide to Handling Conflicts by Robert D. Jones.
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