“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves …” There’s an order to this whole virtue-clothing process. You can’t bounce on the tip of the Colossians 3:12 diving board, spring over its first line, then cannonball into the sea of virtues with a splash. It doesn’t work that way, unless you’re into belly-flopped attempts at religiosity. And yet for many years this was my story, as I unknowingly sailed right over Paul’s opening “Therefore,” cutting straight to the bottom-line list of virtues. My mind-set was,Just give me what I need to do, who I’m supposed to be. Forgiving? I’ll figure it out. Kindness? I think I can probably smile a little more. Patience? I’ll consider blood-pressure medication.
You may not be like me in this way at all, but I grew up very duty bound. Part of this is in the Minter DNA. My late grandfather was the superintendent of the Naval Academy and commanded the Intrepid. My dad is the pastor of a distinguished church just outside of Washington, DC, a church he founded thirty-seven years ago. I have an aunt and uncle who left prominent lives in the navy to live in a hut in the middle of the jungles of Papua New Guinea to tell people about Jesus. My other aunt married a young navy man who is now a retired admiral, and she has traveled the world, entertaining and hosting as the quintessential military wife, serving her country tirelessly. One of my cousins is studying for six years in Rome to be a priest (after seven years on a nuclear submarine). Cobble all this together with a strict and intense Christian school upbringing, and you’ve got one uptight kid trying really, really hard to be successful at being good. Not to mention the added intensity of my basic personality—which manifested itself when I was four and my mom asked me if I would like to know Jesus as my Savior, to which I responded, “Not until I understand the whole Bible.”
For me, duty usually came before grace and relationship. Instead of understanding that I was already chosen, made holy, and loved, I understood the virtues outlined in Scripture as prerequisites for God’s favor, things I needed to try hard at so I could be chosen, holy, and loved. Without knowing it, I was trying to live up to the virtues so I could somehow obtain these blessings I already had in Christ, not the other way around. My thought process went something likeIf I can have more humility, God might choose and bless me. If I can forgive more thoroughly, surely this will count for some additional holiness. And if I can just manage to be more compassionate and kind, God’s love might find me more worthy. But Colossians 3:12 turns all of this around. It’s not “Therefore, since you are a compassionate, kind, and humble person, you now get to be holy, loved, and chosen by God.” Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Through Christ, we as believers are made holy beforewe are patient and loving. We are chosen before we are kind and forgiving. We are loved before we learn how to be gentle and compassionate. It’s more like, since we are chosen, holy, and loved, we get to dress like what we already are.
I have a friend whose dad is very dear to me. He’s eighty-six this year with scarcely a wrinkle. He keeps his white hair neatly combed and a close eye on his finely trimmed beard. He’d no more have a whisker out of place than a barnacle on his boat. He has blue eyes and olive skin, all his features working off one another like a finely decorated room. He was in the navy only five years before meeting his wife and moving on to a career with a phone company, but apart from the love of his life and his dynamic children, that brief stint in the navy bottled some of the most magical years of his existence.
You can’t sit with him more than a couple minutes before, “Did I ever tell ya about that tour off the coast of Thailand?” Or, “When we were sweeping the mines in the Tsushima Straits …” He could fill tomes with his stories, which is surprising for a relatively brief naval career. But I think he has so many stories because he absorbed and cherished every remarkable moment he spent in the glory of the navy. He had grown up poor and invisible, longing to be part of something that could offer him a grander and more meaningful life than the one he knew. He explains this in a story I have affectionately memorialized as the pencil story:
When he first enlisted in the navy, he was given a pencil. Of course, he had used pencils before in his writing and arithmetic classes, but none of them had actually been his. And up until that moment, he had only written with pieces of pencils, ones with shredded erasers, peeling yellow paint, and dull points. Until the navy he had never held a bright, smooth, still-wooden-scented pencil. It was given to him as part of the standard allotment to new enlistees. It was new, and it was his. And something about holding a brand-new pencil—his at the first jot—signaled he was part of something that would change his life forever. This story gets me every time; plus he tells it with an aged New York accent, so there’s a fitting cadence and authority to it. Not surprising, the pencil story always leads to the uniform story, where he tells of receiving his first never-before-worn navy attire. He washed and ironed and kept his blue and gold garments like the gold was the real thing—though I think he’d argue that getting to wear the navy gold that’s measured in prestige is more valuable than the kind that’s weighed in karats.
The thing about the uniform that still tears him up almost seventy years later is not that he’d gotten a new suit, but that the suit meant he was part of the navy. The uniform didn’t qualify him to be in the navy, but because he was in the navy, he got to wear the uniform. I think that’s a little of the idea the apostle Paul’s trying to get across in Colossians 3:12, that clothing ourselves in the virtues doesn’t make God love us, but since God already does dearly love us, we get to wear the clothes of virtue. Therefore, as a navy sailor, wear your uniform because you’re entitled to, and it tells everyone who you belong to and the great country you stand for. Therefore, as someone who has been made holy, who is chosen and loved, wear compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, peace, and joy, because this, too, is the clothing you are entitled to wear since you are in Christ.
Since Paul begins Colossians 3:12 with the idea of God choosing us, I will start with the innate desire to be chosen. A longing that manifests itself early in life. I remember little more vulnerable and nerve-racking than being a kid out on some field or cul-de-sac, gearing up for a game of softball or kickball, anxiously waiting to be chosen by one of the team captains. It was important for your reputation and overall standing in the kid community to go early. A lot rode on your name being called at the top of the selection process, because every name before yours lessened your cool factor significantly. I wanted to be wanted, and given my sensitive nature, I wanted everyone else to be wanted too, but being chosen in this manner didn’t really allow for such equally dispersed value.
None of these experiences, however, could prepare me for the rejection of my senior prom, which possibly topped my all-time list of least-chosenness. (Least-chosenness is not technically a word, but I’m pretty sure Webster peered down from heaven on my prom night and thought, Whup, missed a word.)
In high school I was part of a huge group of friends, and remarkably we all stuck together during those tumultuous and fickle years that tend to toss and scatter us around. We were almost perfectly split between boys and girls, so this played out nicely for dances and events, if not also for four years of guaranteed erratic emotions for the females. When prom rolled around, the couples who were already dating were shoe-ins for the dance, which left the rest of us to mostly pair up as friends. One by one, the guys asked the girls, and each day unveiled a simultaneous excitement and relief for whomever had newly secured her date to the most built-up night of our lives.
After every one of my girl friends had been asked, I realized there was only one boy left—let’s call him Matt—who hadn’t asked anyone to the dance. The days were expiring like sand slipping through an hourglass. Things were looking especially bleak, because I had also heard through the grapevine that Matt wasn’t even planning on going to the prom, since he had broken up with his girlfriend of three years just a few months before. After pretty much losing my grip on the last of any diaphanous hope and talking myself into thinking that staying home with my parents and younger siblings that night would be so much more fun, I got the call. Matt’s buddies had encouraged him not to miss out on the most coveted night of high school, whether he was still with his girlfriend Nina or not. (Now, Nina’s name I cannot change, because you just can’t change a name like Nina.)
I remember Matt’s words pretty clearly: “Hey, Kelly.” Nervous high-school pause. “Umm, so you know I wasn’t going to go to the prom …”
“Um, yeah, I think I heard that.” More nervous silence on both ends.
“Well, I’ve been thinking that I don’t want to miss out on this, like, really big night with all our friends … and since you’re, well … the only one left not going, I thought, um, maybe we could go together.”
Feeling super loved, chosen, and desired. “Yeah, I would love to.”
“Great! Um, so I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, yeah, at school. I’ll be there.”
More awkward banter until, hallelujah, this phone call was finally put out of its misery.
Phew! So I was going to prom! Yes!
I made all the necessary rounds of phone calls to my girl friends, met mostly with heightened screams and squeals: “We knew it would happen for you! We just knew it!” The next couple of weeks ensued with dress shopping and jewelry swapping, with lots of romantic dreams and discussions with one another, furtively held within the airtight code of silence unique to all-girl slumber parties. The boys surprised us by making reservations at a fancy restaurant in Georgetown, even securing their parents’ luxury cars for our transportation. So far, the prom was promising to live up to all its hyped expectations; and Matt had chosen me to be his date, even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Okay, so the whole night was a huge bust from minute one. Matt had his sullen eyes on Nina the entire time we were at the restaurant, each course prolonging my misery. And, if I remember correctly, I think Matt and Nina were on their way to getting back together, a turn of events that had happened sometime after he had asked me to the prom. This was indeed as unfortunate as it sounds. He made strained efforts to talk to me over our exquisite meals, kindling a sense of rejection that would fan into a full house fire by the time we reached the dance floor—a place that threatened even further insecurity considering I hadn’t danced a step in my life. (Not unlikely for most pastors’ kids I knew of back then.)
By the time we arrived at the hotel where our prom was being held, I already wanted out of the night as bad as I wanted out of the suffocating dress. And pearl earrings. And high heels—another thing my feet knew nothing of back then. My girl friends could see how Matt’s indifference toward me was deflating my heart and self-respect into a shriveled prune, and they were surprisingly supportive for such normally immature ages. But no girl could offer me what I could only receive from a boy that night: the gift of being chosen, whether romantically or not. I have only shadowy memories of standing around the outskirts of the dance floor that night, though I think good ole Matt and I “danced” once out of sheer obligation. And, again, the whole thing is rather faint, but I’m pretty sure he asked Nina to dance near the end of the night—the final blow to an excruciating evening.
The next afternoon I tried to salvage with my family some positive vestiges of my humiliating experience, rehashing the night in our window-lit family room with spring dashing through the panes. Everyone wanted to know the decadent morsels of the evening, and I think I felt some sort of self-imposed expectation to relay them as somewhat successful and enjoyable. Though I do remember being fairly honest about Matt (as in I’d never go to another prom with him if it were being held in the Eiffel Tower overlooking the Seine), I didn’t have the matured wisdom and perceptions I now have to discern everything I was feeling. But if I could distill my emotions into one concise concept, they could be summed up by the heartbreak of not being chosen.
Thankfully, Matt’s rejection or just plain disinterest was not the only defining moment in my life, though it inflicted a healthy dose of pain. I had many more experiences that left me feeling similarly unchosen, woven with just as many when I felt picked and treasured. As far as we experience the depth of ache when we’re not chosen, we experience the pure elation of joy when we are. And I’m glad I’ve experienced that wonderful feeling of being specifically desired and esteemed by different people, men and women alike, who I immensely respect and value. These are gifts.
God understands our innate need to be chosen, presumably because He made us this way. He knows we long for someone to see us, to uniquely value our personalities and giftings, the way we toss our hair, or the inflections of our voices. (Perhaps nothing speaks to this more than God’s institution of marriage, through the beauty of one man choosing one woman from the entire planet, and vice versa. How God knows about our need to be chosen and so generously planned for it.) This must be why God speaks over and over again throughout the pages of Scripture of the ways He has specifically chosen us:
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut. 7:6)
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. (John 15:16)
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Eph. 1:11)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thess. 2:13)
[We] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:2)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
If I’m honest, the idea of being chosen by God doesn’t always seem as meaningful or monumental to me as I’d like, for several reasons: He’s God, so isn’t loving and choosing people part of His job? (Like a mother thinking her children are the most talented and stunning people in the world—she’s supposed to feel this way.) And even though He has chosen me, He has also chosen countless others since Adam. I’m not sure if being just one fleck of sand on the beach of chosenness makes me feel all that special and valued. Plus, I’m so accustomed to the idea of being chosen by people, flesh-and-blood humans, that I can find it difficult to palpably relish God’s choosing of me, partly because I can’t visibly see Him, audibly hear Him, or physically touch Him.
Yet when I am able to even slightly grasp God’s choosing of me, my sentiments gravitate much more closely to David’s when He exclaimed,
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:3–4)
It is only when my view of God is distinctly human and small that I think,Well, God is supposed to choose me, right?But when I understand even a fraction of His magnificence and greatness, I have the utter opposite response—one of disbelief and gratitude that the God who governs every atom of the universe has acquainted Himself with my unique being, lovingly and individually picking me with His mighty hands, holding me with the tenderness and awe of a child cupping his first sand dollar.
And when I consider Psalm 139 and meditate on the Lord’s intimate knowledge of me, I begin to understand that I have not been mindlessly chosen as one soul in an enormous pack, like a rancher purchasing a herd of cattle. Instead, God has chosen me as a beloved individual who has been searched and known. Whose sitting and rising, and coming and going does not escape the roaming, never-slumbering eyes of God. He is familiar with all my ways, the words on my tongue before I speak them. His loving hand has hemmed me in on every side. I cannot rise to heaven or flee to hell or skip across the ocean without His presence attending me. And when I was in my mother’s womb, and God was spinning planets and drawing the tide in and out, while He was dressing the fields and feeding the sparrows, He was—somehow at the same time—knitting together my fair skin and hazel eyes with my sensitive heart and melancholy temperament, stitching together threads of genes that science has yet to even identify. And while He sits on His throne, ruling and working, He thinks about me with vast and innumerable thoughts.
I think this is what it means to be chosen. And though we are part of a vast number of saints who have also been chosen, it does not in any way diminish the exclusivity of God’s individual choosing of me—or you.
We can find Psalm 139 difficult to grasp because we may feel too sullied or flawed or sinful to ever be known and chosen by God in this way. How could He take this kind of specific interest in us when He knows our pasts and even our futures? How can He choose us when we house this inherent darkness we sometimes feel is part of the very fabric of our souls, something we can no more get rid of than our bones or ribs? But this is where we have to take the Bible for what it says, which is that Jesus came to seek and to save the sick and the lost, not the “healthy” and the “found.” It’s where we have to remember that Psalm 139 was written by King David, who stole a man’s wife and then had the man killed. We are chosen not because we are perfect or always commendable but because of God’s inexhaustible love for the world, and somehow, for just you and for just me. For “who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen” (Rom. 8:33)?
So perhaps you are wondering if you have been chosen. Please do not be overcome with any fear that you are somehow disqualified or marked unchosen, because this would be to miss the good news of the gospel. I love what my Pastor Jim Thomas often preaches from his rickety music stand: “If you’re worried that you’re not chosen, become chosen today!” He is in no way trivializing the ancient and weighty doctrines of free will or election, yet his invitation is biblically grounded, for Christ will never turn away anyone who earnestly seeks Him. This is the simplicity of the gospel. Anyone who comes to Jesus to ask for forgiveness of sins, a right relationship with God, and eternity here (starting now) and in heaven receives this new life. And becomes gloriously chosen.
If you deeply struggle or remain unimpressed with God’s choosing you, I encourage you to sit with a passage of Scripture like Psalm 139 and quietly receive its words. You may discover some lies you have told yourself, or someone else has told you, about never being worthy of God’s choosing. You may have abuse or scars or sins that continually haunt the notion that you could ever be chosen. Whatever it may be, ask the Holy Spirit to show you what is standing in the way of your embracing such a comforting and freeing truth. It is the most liberating knowledge available to the human heart.
To attempt to live the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and joy is a ridiculous, maddening endeavor apart from this incredible gift of being chosen by God—as silly as thinking you’re in the navy just because you’ve tried on the uniform. It takes the understanding and belief that God has seen us, known us, and lovingly chosen us to live the freeing life characterized by these traits. Suddenly, the virtues are no longer towering mountains we must figure out how to scale, but a journey God has chosen us for.
The power to take this journey is fueled by the holiness of God, the second truth Paul points out after his opening “Therefore.” So now that we have a better handle on the truth that we have been chosen, we move on to a potentially more staggering proclamation: that we have been made holy. And if you happen to feel even less holy than chosen, it’s okay—you can put on the uniform one sleeve at a time.