There are a lot of striking images in the Bible that are meant to help us visualize spiritual truths, images such as the Church as a bride, or a human body. There is the image of Jesus’ followers as vine branches or pick one of Jesus’ parables for vivid pictures of the kingdom of God. Providing these kinds of mental pictures sometimes makes a difficult, vague concept more real and concrete, something we can refer to for understanding and encouragement.
There is imagery that Paul uses in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians that stood out to me recently and made a powerful impact on how I think about myself and sin. He speaks of “putting off the old self” and “putting on the new self.” Here are those passages:
But that is not the way you learned Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:20-24 ESV)
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:8-10 ESV)
What struck me immediately is the idea of the old self as a Halloween costume. We dress up in some outrageous costume and take on the persona of that costume, whether it be superhero, movie character or horror creature. We identify with the costume character while we wear it and at the end of the night when we take the costume off we go back to being the true us.
The old self that Paul refers to is that sinful, pre-Christ person we used to be and yet, even as Christians, we “put on” that self and take on the characteristics of that old persona. We start to act and think like that person we used to be – that old self. We wear him like a costume. And the longer we wear the old self costume the more we believe him to be our true self, the more we identify with him and the harder it is to break free of his grip. That is why Paul’s words are so powerful. “Put him off! Take off that old person! That is not who you are! Cast him aside! That belongs to your old life!” I can simply imagine ripping off the Halloween mask, pulling the costume off over my head and dumping it into the trash. Never again to be worn. It’s possible because that old self is only an ugly, outer shell not the real me. I am not condemned to wear that old self costume.
Even more exciting is that I have a new identity, a new self. So when I struggle with sin and I start to think the battle is lost, I remember that it is only an old self costume that I can – I CAN – pull it off and reveal the true me, the new self. This one looks like God. This one is clean and holy. This one fits me like a glove. This one I will wear forever.