In Colossians 2:23, Paul concludes his critique of man-made commands, restrictions, and teachings by stating, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” The path to spiritual growth lies in reliance on the Spirit rather than ascetic practices and legalistic restrictions. Human regulations, Paul says, come with false humility, which he also mentions in verse 18.
False humility generally accompanies a hypocritical and insincere form of virtue performed for the approval of others. False humility makes a person look and sound humble, but it masks a heart full of pride. It contrasts with genuine humility, characterized by reliance on God and a servant-oriented outlook toward others. False humility is self-centered, serving personal ends, whereas true humility is geared toward the glory of God and the good of others. Christians are called to eschew hypocrisy and be genuinely humble (Philippians 2:3–4; Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 5:5–6).
In the context of Colossians 2, false humility is tied to the observance of man-made traditions involving restriction on food and drink and the keeping of “a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16). All sorts of rules were being put forward: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (verse 21). But such rules, Paul says, “have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, [and] are based on merely human commands and teachings” (verse 22). Believers in Christ have been set free from such regulations.
Ascetic practices and restrictions seem humble and modest; however, it is prideful to assume we can be right with God through our effort. It is also impossible to sanctify ourselves by our own efforts alone, even after our justification (Galatians 3:3). Many Christians in the first century likely struggled with the sufficiency of Christ for salvation, and false teachers added to the uncertainty with dangerous claims. The gospel alone wasn’t sufficient for these false teachers, like the Judaizers in Acts 15:1, who insisted on adding deeds like circumcision to the gospel.
While modern Christians may be tempted to follow different rules than those the first-century Christians struggled with, we still tend to create man-made ideas that foster false humility. It’s still tempting to follow a human code of conduct with the aim of appearing externally righteous. Some common rules today prohibit watching movies, dancing, using drums, or eating meat. Personal convictions in these areas are valid, but to transform personal convictions into requirements for salvation or spiritual growth is legalistic and opposed to grace. Genuine, well-meaning Christians can easily fall into the trap of legalism, and we must always beware of false humility.
The path to true spiritual growth involves walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and focusing on what the Spirit desires (Romans 8:5–6). What the Spirit desires is what the Father and Son also desire, which we can know from the written Word. Practical steps toward spiritual growth are feeding on Scripture, interpreting it properly, and living it out. Biblically sound preachers and a healthy local church are crucial to the process. We should also fellowship with God through prayer, confess our dependence on the Spirit, and abide in Christ. By yielding to the Spirit and focusing on God’s kingdom and righteousness, we progressively become sanctified by His Spirit. He does the work; we are called to align our will with His.