Have you ever found yourself with an assignment and thought it so difficult as to be impossible? When I went away to school, one of my first assignments was to memorize a statement of education’s purposes composed by the Victorian schoolmaster, poet and generally dubious character, William Johnson Cory [right].
It was lengthy and I can no longer recite the whole thing through, but one phrase remains forever seared on my mind: “the shadow of lost knowledge protects you from many illusions.” In it so much of our schooling is vindicated, and not merely our education, but so much other work as well. We try, we may not achieve the goal, but in the attempt we receive something else.
Colossians 3 is a passage that’s easy to love and yet also can drive us to despair. For how wonderful it is to put aside those miserable things that are in us all: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, for we know them to be idolatry! And yet we still struggle with these things.
One of the greatest intellects in Western history was Augustine of Hippo. His path to Christianity was difficult, but eventually he came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was living in Milan at the time and received instruction from Ambrose, the bishop of that city. If we examine the comments of both men on this Colossians passage, we can glimpse something about that process of working on one thing and learning something else.
Ambrose read this passage as an exhortation to fly from sinful ways. He said, “This is the meaning of flight from here–to die to the elements of this world, to hide one’s life in God, to turn aside from corruptions, not to defile oneself with the objects of desire and to be ignorant of the things of this world.”
If you’re like me, you both agree with this assessment and find yourself with a heavy heart. How difficult it is to achieve it! Indeed, the Bible gives us plenty of reasons to think we will never achieve such a goal until Christ’s coming again.
No doubt Augustine applied himself to this very aim, but he found encouragement rather than condemnation: “But what did [Paul] go on to say? ‘When Christ appears, your life, then you also will appear with him in glory.’ So now is the time for groaning, then it will be for rejoicing; now for desiring, then for embracing. What we desire now is not present; but let us not falter in desire; let long, continuous desire be our daily exercise, because the one who made the promise doesn’t cheat us.”
Augustine knew that this earthly life is marked by struggle; he had learned this as much from his pre-Christian life as he had from his new life in Christ. The good news is we have the promise of a resolution in Christ, we have the hope of peace, and by his grace we can even experience glimpses of that coming kingdom in this life.
The Devil’s trick is to make us think we can escape the fight, that by giving in to our earthly desires we will satiate them. You and I both know that’s a lie; our desires are insatiable. But rejoice, for our longing and desire can make the task of setting our minds on things above much easier.
Try, and in the process you may discover something unexpected—not only a whetted appetite for the coming banquet, but the remarkable power of God’s mercy for you when you stumble. Put to death what is earthly in you; set that goal before you, and the shadows of your struggle will forever reveal new depths and dimensions of Christ’s love.
 Ambrose, Flight from the World 7.38 (FC 65:310)
 Augustine, Sermons 350A.4 (WSA 3/10:112)