My tenth-month-old son loves to gnaw a good string. Shoelace or hoodie, he doesn’t care. There’s just something about chomping on a string that puts him over the moon. Recently a pair of my tennis shoes was on the ground, and he tried to grab one of the laces. What he didn’t realize was that he was grabbing at a shadow. Perplexed momentarily, he soon realized his mistake and found paydirt. His mistake, cute as it was, demonstrates a far more serious reality in each of our lives. We find satisfaction in shadows and ignore the substance.
Apparently, a lot of bad teaching was flitting around the Colossian and Laodicean churches, part of which was some errant beliefs about festivals, holidays, food, and drink (Col. 2:16). It seems that the false teachers were attempting to integrate certain Old Testament celebrations into the New Testament church; and those who balked were chided. However, Paul stands up for the dissenters, telling them to allow no one to judge them in regard to such things, which he says “are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). While we probably don’t have too many clashes with church leaders over observing Old Testament festivals, we too tend to become enamored with the shadow and forget about the substance.
Living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, I have many possessions, many of which vie for my devotion. Stuff can easily gain a foothold of idolatry in our hearts—just look at your response when you lose your phone or your dishwasher stops working—but how do our possessions point us to Christ? Is my smart TV a shadow of the Savior? Or my Fitbit, Keurig, or pillow? Yes. Not in a mystical, allegorical way, of course; but in this very important way, all of my precious possessions are, in fact, shadows of Christ: Every ounce of joy my belongings evoke from my heart is a shadow of the joy found in Christ.
Consider Psalm 16:11:
“You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”
Every time I push that happy blue button that gives me a cup of piping hot coffee in about 30 seconds, I experience joy. And that’s good. However, that joy is just a shadow of the joy to come, and the joy I can experience now in Christ. I can enjoy my coffee, a chocolate chip cookie, or a good book without any guilt—they are, after all, good gifts from a loving Father. However, they’re not ends unto themselves. I’m not meant to find joy in the thing. The thing is meant to point to the ultimate joy in the Savior. When I miss the substance that life’s simple joys point to, I’m just like my sweet son sitting on the kitchen floor trying to pick up a shadow.
As this post goes live, I (probably like you) am under a stay-at-home order from the governor. It was initially ordered for two weeks. We’ll see when it’s lifted. While I have the privilege of staying at home every day with my shoelace-crazed baby, I do enjoy getting out of the house and being with other people from time to time. Except I can’t do that right now. I don’t know how long it will be until our church can enjoy a normal service together, or when small-group ministries will be able to resume. It’s strange to think about how empty the western world’s churches will be this Easter Sunday. But I get it. I’m on board with “flattening the curve” and “social distancing.” However, all this brings to my attention the value of relationships. After all, we are created in the image of our triune God, whose very essence involves community. That means we are created to need other people. As John Donne famously said, “No man is an island” (except during a pandemic apparently).
On the other hand, while relationships are an important and necessary part of our lives, they are not designed to be an end unto themselves. When I try to find ultimate satisfaction in a friendship or in my marriage, I’m always left wanting. This is by no fault of my friends or husband: earthly relationships simply cannot maintain that kind of pressure. They’re not meant to. They’re wonderful, beautiful shadows that point us to a substance of ultimate fulfillment. We were created for relationships, yes. We need people to talk to, laugh with, cry on, sound ideas off of, and to set us straight when we go astray. We need to be involved in a local body of believers so that we can together fulfill the Great Commission and equip and edify one another. However, since our hearts pervert good gifts, we often put these good, God-ordained relationships into positions they simply cannot handle. All of our good relationships—and even our not-so-good ones—should point us to one relationship in particular, a relationship destroyed by treasonous rebellion but restored by Calvary love. My relationship with the Redeemer is where I can find satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment. But how often I confuse this glorious substance with a flimsy shadow!
Finally, I can seek the shadows in how I define my identity. Identity—how I present myself to myself—says a lot about me. How would you complete this sentence? I am _________________. You may finish it with positive labels: a Christian, a father/mother, a husband/wife, a son/daughter, a teacher/doctor/truck driver/pastor/artist. You may finish it with positive descriptors: kind, intelligent, generous, or patient. Of course, the possibilities are endless, but you get the idea.
Likewise, you might fill it with negative elements: I am… a failure, weak, stupid, ashamed, guilty, addicted, corrupted, worthless, empty, or lonely.
More than likely, though, you fill it in with a combination of the two lists. No matter how many ways you answer that question, if you cling to your favorite—or your least favorite—you’re clinging to a shadow. The substance of your identity is in Christ, not in who you are or who you’ve been:
- Though I am a failure, I’ve been redeemed.
- Though I am weak, in Christ I have the very power of the resurrection at work in me.
- I gave generously, but that is only a faint echo of the gift I’ve been given in Christ.
- My kindness comes only as a work of a kind God in my wicked, selfish heart.
- In Christ I am adopted, a child of the King. My earthly relationships echo that true relationship.
Let’s face it. We’re all hopeless narcissists, endlessly focused on “I am” statements and fixated on self. We are often possessed by our possessions and look for satisfaction and joy in relationships. Satan loves to keep us addicted to these shadows so that we miss the substance in the One who gives true, everlasting, soul-satisfying joy. So, my fellow shadow-addict, we must look up and take hold of the substance. When we do, we’ll appreciate the gifts of this life for what they are—glimpses of the eternal glory that awaits us in the presence of our Savior.
Remember, O my soul,
It is thy duty and privilege to rejoice in God…
Be happy in him, O my heart, and in nothing but God,
for whatever a man trusts in,
from that he expects happiness.
He who is the ground of they faith
should be the substance of thy joy. *
*Taken from The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett. “The Colloquy of Rejoicing.”