“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, and not according to Christ”
In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, one character, Stepan Arkadyevich, picked up his daily newspaper, not to read it in a critical manner, but simply because it was the paper the majority read. Tolstoy describes Stepan as a man whose tastes, from art to politics to science, all the way to his views on marriage, family, and religion, were dictated to him and absorbed by him through the paper he read. Everything about Stepan, down to the clothes he chose, had been picked out for him by what he read in that paper.
Stepan had made the conscious choice to read that paper because it was what the majority read. His moral guide in choosing which paper to follow was which one was more popular. But after that choice, Stepan was being changed by what he read in ways he did not consciously understand. He chose neither his tendency to believe one thing over another, nor did he choose his views on the political and religious debates of his day. Once he had chosen it, the paper did the rest for him.
He is the man Paul warns about in the verse above, the man who has been unwittingly taken captive through philosophy, empty deception, the traditions of men, and the elementary principles of the world. In other words, he is the modern man of our time.
We tend to believe, as modern humans do, that we are not affected by the things around us, that we can always retreat into our minds. But, as Tolstoy noted with piercing insight in describing Stepan, we absorb much more than we think we do from the world around us, including our choices of reading and entertainment. In many ways we become what we behold, which is why it seems to be a constant refrain from Christ in the Gospel accounts and Paul in his letters to pay attention and to focus on Christ.
“Set your minds on things that are above,” Paul says, “not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2 LSB).
It is only natural to be shaped and affected by what is before our eyes. This is part of our humanity, intrinsic to our nature. We are creatures, created by a good God with limitations that God called good. We cannot and should not always be wholly conscious of our choices. For this reason, it matters what we choose to put before our eyes daily.
When our social media accounts are the first thing we reach for when we roll out of bed, and the last things we check before we hop back in for the night, that itself is a liturgy, shaping us in ways we do not know. This is not to say having social media is supremely harmful and a sin, but I do consider that we, as Christians, ought to be mindful of the ways social media changes us, and how advertisers have studied addictions and how the mind works, to tailor their websites to keep us scrolling longer, to keep us constantly engaged online.
How are we to protect ourselves against these philosophies and empty deceptions, these traditions of men and elementary principles of the world? Paul says that we must look to Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith.
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, LSB).
As we behold Christ through reading Scripture, fellowship with brethren, sitting under His word faithfully preached, and through prayer, we are being changed, Paul says, from one degree of glory to another. This does not mean we only ever read the Bible and throw away every other book, fiction or nonfiction, and never watch any movie or television show, or delete all our social media accounts. But it does mean we need to know how what we put before our eyes affects us, especially how these things shape our thoughts and imaginations.
Knowing this about ourselves, we could easily turn into little Pharisees, constantly working and striving, judging the spirituality of ourselves and others, trying to pick out specks from eyes while bludgeoning them with the beams in our own. Thankfully, Scripture peels back the layers and shows what undergirds us. It shows us how the desire to be changed by beholding Christ is a desire that comes from “the Lord, the Spirit.”
This allows us to understand ourselves, to understand how the things of the world can change us, and how they can take us captive and remove our eyes from the Christ who stood condemned in our place. Knowing ourselves, and knowing God, we can choose to put down the phone when we are tempted to mindlessly scroll online and instead pick up something of more value. While we are to be mindful of where we focus our limited attention, we understand that ultimately Christ is the one who changes us, His Spirit working in and through us for the Father’s pleasure.
Some mornings my Scripture reading seems fruitless, like box-checking. But we know anytime we open God’s word, it will change us, often in imperceptible ways. And as Stepan was changed in ways he did not know, so we are changed by what we read in ways we cannot foresee.
We focus on the things that are above, not on the things on the earth. This is sanctification. This is how we become more like Christ.
The Lord does all the work. All that is left for us, as Moses told the Israelites at the mouth of the Red Sea, is to stand firm and behold the Lord.
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JOSEPH L. HAMRICK III
Joseph L. Hamrick III is a Reformed Baptist Christian who serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3) in Commerce, TX, where he and his wife, Jesse, live. Joseph holds a BA in Liberal Studies from the Texas A&M University-Commerce and works for the Herald-Banner in Greenville, TX where he writes about the Christian life in his column entitled “Things to Consider”. When he is not at work, he can usually be found with a Bible, a work of Dostoevsky, or some other book in his hands.
October 16, 2023
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