Most people have heard the old story of the Emperor’s new clothes. The vain and gullible Emperor in the story is tricked into wearing a set of “invisible” clothes which were not clothes at all and is too foolishly “blind” to admit his own nakedness till it is pointed out to him.
The story reminds us of a striking statement in the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus admonishes certain Christians who thought that they were spiritually “well dressed”: “I counsel you to buy from me … white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (Revelation 3:18). These Christians, despite their status as believers, thought they were clothed, but like the emperor in the old story, they had deceived themselves and were blind to reality.
Fortunately, the New Testament contains a specific “shopping guide” to enable Christians to know the spiritual clothing they really need. We find this guide in the words written by the apostle Paul. Almost all Christians are familiar with Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 6 of the spiritual armor we should wear, but we are not always under attack and in a defensive posture, of course. In his letter to the Colossians Paul gives a much less well-known description of the everyday clothing Christians should wear:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Notice some things about this wardrobe of spiritual clothes. First, the words Paul uses here have striking meaning. The word enduo has the meaning of putting on an article of clothing; used in the middle voice, as it is here, it means to dress oneself. God may provide the clothes through his Spirit, but we must put them on, and the imperative form of the verb suggests immediately needed action. If we are not dressed with these things we need to be wearing, we must not “put off” putting them on!
The items of clothing Paul mentions are largely self-explanatory, but each one deserves our close thought and meditation, as the concept of clothing is used to signify things we should have on every day, at all times. It can be helpful to look at these verses in different translations and versions. For example, the paraphrased Message Bible actually catches the meaning of the verses quite well:
“So … dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it” (Colossians 3:12-14 MSG).
As is sometimes said, love is Christianity with its work clothes on, and the clothes Paul mentions are indeed aspects of our characters that are needed to do the work we are called to do. If we are “wearing” these qualities in our daily lives, they will not only be the fulfillment of the way of life to which we are personally called, they will also be a vital part of our witness to others. Indeed, the difference between the Christian’s new clothes and those of the Emperor in the old story is that everyone can see the clothes God gives us.