Hi. My name is Rick. And I’m a recovering social anxiety-olic. (I just made up that name. It means a person who deals with social anxiety.)
A long time ago in a former life I was very anxious when I found myself in a new group. Instead of focusing on them, all I could think about is what they were thinking about me. “Do they think I’m smart? Do they think I’m stupid? Do they think I’m funny? Or just funny-looking?”
Can anyone relate? If you are anxious, nervous, or uncomfortable in social settings, you may be suffering from social anxiety. Guess what? You’ve got good company—I don’t mean to make you anxious because now you’re thinking about being in a company of people—but this is the third largest psychological disorder in America. Feel better now?
Social anxiety is defined as “the fear and anxiety of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” People can feel judged when they are in social settings.
Unfortunately, people can feel judged when they are in a church setting too. You’ve heard that Christians are viewed by many non-Christians as far too judgmental. Before you want to say they are wrong, consider this. A survey was given to self-identified Christians that measured their attitudes and actions and whether they lined up more with Jesus’ attitudes and actions or those of the self-righteous Pharisees. The result? “Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.”
Christians who judge others even judged themselves as judgmental. Amazing! If you suffer from a social anxiety you tend to stay away from people. And if you’ve experienced judgment from the church that makes you feel as if you don’t measure up, you’ll stay away from the church too. Unless you find a Judgment Free Zone.
That’s what the Colossian church needed. They were being torn between grace and grit. On one hand they had heard about grace which says Jesus is enough and grit which says you’re not enough. Living judged by others is not a good way to live. So Paul starts where it all started: grace.
“So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him… (2:6). A good question for any believer to keep in mind is this: “How did you receive Christ?” If you were taught well, you know that there was nothing you did to secure your own salvation. He came to you as a gift of grace from God.
For Father’s Day this year my family had asked me what I’d like to do. I said it would be nice to just stay home, grill and play some board games. They ad-libbed and added to that a gift of an Apple Watch. Now, how do you think I received that watch? Imagine if I had grabbed the checkbook and written a check to them for it. Or what if I had asked, “Now, what can I do for you so we will be even?”
Of course that did not happen. I received their gift with thankfulness and put it to use every day. A gift is given with grace and is received that way. Paul says to continue to “live in him [Christ]” in the same way you received him. If you received him by grace, then you will live in that same grace.
The word he used for “live” is peripateo which literally is “walk.” It means to “walk around.” It conveys with it the way you walk around in life. For Paul, the way you live out the way you received Christ is to continue to live in him in grace. He depicts what that walk looks like by giving four mixed metaphors of various steps to walking in Christ:
- You are rooted in him. Paul envisions us going deep in Christ’s grace.
- You are built up. With strong roots or foundation, you build on that grace, like a building going up you are built up the more you lean on grace.
- You are strengthened in the faith. The word for strengthen here comes from a judicial setting. He’s saying that like a signed legal document what has been done in Christ is settled. What is settled is the faith that comes from the gospel.
- You are overflowing in thanks. Thanksgiving is the dominant word here as Paul uses it throughout this letter (1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15, 16, 17; 4:2). When we are walking in thankfulness we are living or walking in Christ.
We receive Christ and then we live in him. There is a way to live and the Colossian Christians were “taught” these things: Grace. Growth. Strengthening. Thankfulness. That’s not a bad way to live, is it? The problem was that those ideas were getting smothered by some new ideas.
That’s where the grit came in. Paul warns against grit. “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world…” (2:8). He says this teaching with these new ideas is based on the “elements of the world.”
The word he uses here for “elements” is the Greek word stoicheia. He uses it three times, twice with “of the world” or “of the universe.” Some understand this to mean that the stoicheia are spirits or astral deities that are thought to rule this world. Paul does mention “principalities and powers” (1:16; 2:15) and “angels” (2:18) in his letter.
Then others understand stoicheia to refer to the “basic principles or tenets that represent the world’s point of view and standards.” “Stoicheia (elementary principles) refers primarily to the letters of the alphabet. It literally means “things in a row.” Paul is saying that what is being taught—a boundary marker spirituality—is not deep. It is simplistic. It is immature.
All groups tend to have boundary markers. For instance, John Ortberg once gave the example of bikers. What is a biker’s favorite color? Black. Favorite fabric? Leather. Favorite mode of transportation? Harley. Favorite beverage? Beer. Favorite woman? Biker chic. (How did you know all those answers?)
The false teachers were erecting boundary markers to identify who was in and who was out. The Jewish law reveal three basic marker they had: the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision. It may have been that the false teachers in Colossae were teaching circumcision, so Paul takes time here to reteach them that they do not have to be circumcised as the Jewish people were but rather they have been circumcised in Christ. When did that happen? When they were baptized in Christ. Some of the male believers sighed a deep sigh of relief when they heard this.
In other words, he is warning them to watch out for teachings that aren’t connected to what they have been taught in Christ. It’s a different point of view. They are being judged in these matters. And it’s no fun to be judged.
Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God. — Colossians 2:16-19
Judgment. Condemnation. Someone comes in with another idea that adds to Jesus and professes to have a superior way of walking in Christ. But it’s not walking in Christ. It’s a different idea, a different point of view.
It’s walking in the world. It’s elementary. “Food, drink, festival, new moon, Sabbaths” were part of the Jewish religion that were apparently being put on the Gentile converts to adopt. He summarizes the regulations being put on the church as “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (2:21) which were important identity markers in the Jewish religion.
Then he mentions “ascetic practices and worship of angels.” Whatever was being taught in particular, it was used to make the church members who were not pursuing these things feel as if they were second class. They did not match the boundary markers. Boundary marker spirituality does not lead to transformation. It is all about doing on the outside but not becoming on the inside. These teachers were leaving the church feeling they did not have enough.
But they did. They had all they needed in Christ. Paul says the false teachers were practicing false humility, worship of angels and going on in great detail about their visions and describes them as being “inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind” (2:18) and not “hold[ing] on to the head” (2:19).
Instead of listening to their ideas, listen to gospel ideas. Mind the ideas that enter your mind. Here’s what Paul says to listen to:
For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. 11 You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him. — Colossians 2:9-15 (CSB)
Paul’s reasoning is you died to that way of life so why would you still be living in it? He uses the words “full” and “fullness” again. What he said to them he says to us. We have been filled up by Christ. When something is filled up, there is no room for anything else.
No room for judgment.
No room for condemnation.
No room for inflated stories by others that make us feel left out of some experience.
No room for being made to feel less by people who have nothing more than you already have.
No room for boundary marker religion.
There is no room for a boundary marker spirituality. We like boundary markers. Are you studying this set of books, notebooks? Do you worship in this way? Do you do these things and not do those things? It’s an elementary religion based on what you do and don’t do and not based on Jesus.
The gospel is not against philosophy. Just philosophy that is not connected to Christ. The gospel is not against human traditions. Tradition can be stabilizing. Tradition can teach. But tradition not based on Christ will only make you a captive.
You’ve spent enough time feeling like you’re not enough. And you’ve spent enough time letting others make you feel you are judged.
It’s time to recover from being a social anxiety-olic, especially if you have been in a church that heightened your fear of judgment. Here’s what you do:
- Find a judgment free zone church and go to regular meetings on Sundays to help you do that.
- Plant yourself in environments that will help you grow: places of teaching and community.
- Hold on tightly to the Jesus story. He is all you need.
The program should consist of walking in Christ the same way you received him. It’s a walk that will keep you healthy. With Christ you live in grace. And grace will make your social-anxiety-olicism disappear.
 Marianne Meye Thompson, 53.