Evil Imaginations

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   (Genesis 6:5)

. . . the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.   (Genesis 8:21)

The Genesis account of the Great Flood begins and ends with God woefully acknowledging that the humans He created had a heart which was inclined toward imagining evil  even from when the human is quite young.  Before and after the Great Flood, nothing had changed in the humans.   Evil  is described in Scripture and Tradition as coming from within the human – from the imagination of the heart – not from Satan or demons.   Humans don’t need a great evil force to push us to do evil, we are quite capable on our own of imagining evil things and then doing them.

The Virgin Mary at the Annunciation sings a hymn in which she recognizes that God’s incarnation means the healing of the human heart.   “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …” (Luke 1:51)  For the Theotokos that imagination of the human heart which has conjured up so much evil and caused so much grief for humanity has been blown away by God entering the human condition in the incarnation.

Jesus Himself points to the human heart as the source of all sin.  Christ teaches:

And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:20-23)

The rabbis at the time of Jesus also taught that the origin of evil is not in Satan but rather evil resulted in the world from the presence of a wicked imagination (or desire) in the human heart.  The 2nd Century Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas repeats this rabbinical idea that evil in the world originates in the imagination of the human heart.  We both can conceive evil and bring it into existence.  This idea then is found repeatedly in Orthodox theologians.  St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) writes:

“Man was …. the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination: man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all  mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.”  (From Glory to Glory, pp 112-113)

St John Cassian (d. 435AD) says:

“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 2212-24)

A thousand years after those early Patristic writers, the Orthodox tradition continued to offer this same idea that human are the source of evil int he world.  So St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) teaches:

“That evil which is evil in itself, namely sin, originates from us.  . . .  Just as illness was not created by Gd, although the creature who suffers from it was, so sin was not made by Him, although the rational soul created By Him willingly turns aside after it.  This soul was honored with free will and independent life, as without this honor it would have been pointless for it to be rational.”  (The Homilies, p 518)

In our daily Orthodox Vespers service we find a prayer asking God to deliver us from this evil imagining of our heart:

O Lord our God, Who bowed the heavens and came down for the salvation of the human race; look upon Your servants and Your inheritance; for to You, the awesome Judge, Who yet love mankind, have Your servants bowed their heads and submissively bent their necks, not waiting for help from men, but asking for Your mercy and looking confidently for Your salvation.   Guard them at all times, both during this present evening and in the approaching night, from every foe, from all adverse powers of the Devil, from vain thoughts, and from evil imaginations.

We pray every day at Vespers that God will deliver us from the evil imaginations of our heart.  We ask God to guard us against the evil that comes from within our hearts.   We ask God daily to prevent us from becoming the source of even more evil in the world.

Great Lent is our time to set a guard over our heart, so that we will not be inclined to evil.  This is something for which we pray throughout Lent:

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, nor to practice wicked deeds.” (Psalms 141:4)



To Know God is More Than Just to Think About God

He presented Himself to them living (Acts 1:3).

With these words, Luke is telling us that the fullness of time has come (Gal 4.4), that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Christ had to suffer, rise from the dead, ascend into the heavens, and resume His place at the right hand of the Father, in order to ensure the promise of their salvation; so that their deepest desires would not remain unfulfilled.

Thus Christ presented himself living in order to show his disciples that, if there was any point to their existence, it was precisely the vision of God: in seeing the living Christ. True communication with God is not simply thinking about God; neither is it a loving disposition toward Him. Instead, it is perfect knowledge of Him, a ‘grasping’ of God in the sense of taking possession of Him, making Him your own, having an experience of God as living. And that God is living means that I stand in relation to him as to life itself, a relationship in which the two of us – two lives, two activities, two persons – live and move together, in a process of mutual giving and receiving.

By saying that He presented Himself living, Luke is telling us that the aim of life is the vision of God: to see and enjoy the living God. Thus if I am unable to see God, or lay hold of Him, or win Him over; if I am unable to love God truly, with a love that is a true dynamic embrace, then God for me is not a living God: He is a dead God. And Luke’s words are consequently a testimony to the resurrection. In Christ, God became man, suffered, was buried, and rose from the grave – without ever ceasing to be the Son and Word of God – so that man might share in His divinity and thereby partake fully of true life.”

(Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 167-168)


The Ladder of Divine Ascent

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  (Genesis 28:12)

“Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The Ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”   (St. Isaac the Syrian, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 71)

The counter intuitive insight of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition is that to find one’s way to God’s Kingdom, one does not  look outside of one’s self – one doesn’t look to the heavens, but rather one has to learn how to go inward, into one’s heart and mind for there is where God has placed the way to Heaven.   God is not out there somewhere – distant, remote, transcendent – God is found within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within  you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (Isaiah 57:15)

Being a Disciple

The Lord said: “Go and teach all nations.” The Church is concerned with individual souls but she also is concerned with whole nations and peoples. In the formation of cultures and civilizations, the Church has a prophetic word of witness she wants heard. She presents the transcendent in its own eucharistic reality and her paschal message of the Resurrection makes her more than relevant, for she is beyond every age. The Church proclaims that Christ has come to raise the dead who are sleeping and to awaken the living.

Every people appropriates to itself a historic mission, and in constructing itself sooner or later encounters the plan of God. The parable of the talents speaks of this normative plan proposed by God for the freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom and creativity. It demands all the maturity of an adult and requires infinitely more of ascetic discipline, of freely accepted constraint and of risk than any ethics of the Law. 

(Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p. 206)

The Power of the Gospel

“The Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasios, the Cappadocians, Saint John Chrysostom, and others had a distinct vision of the power of the apostolic kerygma. Time and again they reflect on the miraculous success of the apostles, with their simple words about the crucified and risen Lord. Not logic and philosophy, but the fishermen’s message, so the Fathers were convinced, saved souls. The truth of the apostolic message was guaranteed by the authority of God and became effective through the power of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual power was in the apostolic message, not in human words of eloquence or wisdom. According to Saint Basil, the message of the Gospel carries the power to overcome souls and arouse them by grace to an unshaken faith in Christ.

The efficacy of the Gospel can be experienced in our midst today when we concentrate on the nature of the Gospel, its blessings, demands, and promises. By way of explication, let us look at several major features of the Gospel. First, priority must be given to the content of the Gospel, i.e., the saving work of Christ, which is the basis of our reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of sins, and new life. The life, teachings, and person of Christ must frequently be proclaimed in simple language as the source of our salvation. Christ must be preached without apology as our crucified and risen Lord–the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Light of the world. The heart of the Gospel is Christ Himself, Who dwells in the church and with Whom each Christian is united by faith and sacrament. The primary aim of preaching, according to Saint Basil, is precisely to bring all people under the dominion of Christ within the Church and there to continue to build up their lives in their struggle against evil. Therefore, at every opportunity, whether in worship, preaching, the classroom, group meetings, or church assembly Christ and his work can in suitable ways be “publicly portrayed” (Gal. 3.1) as the ground of salvation. The essential Gospel must not be displaced by advice for better living, noble, moral teachings or even profound theological wisdom–despite the fact that all of these matters have value in their proper place.”

(Theodore Stylianopoulos, The Gospel of Christ, pp. 14-15)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

The New Law is Christ

“The new law, then, is spiritual because the Spirit works everything. The former law is written because it goes no further than letters and sounds. Therefore that law is “a shadow” (Heb. 10:1) and an image, the present one is reality and truth. The words and letters are like an image in relation to reality. Before they were realized God foreshadowed them on many occasions by the tongue of the prophets. “I will make,” he says, “a new covenant, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers” (Jer. 31:31-32). What does this mean? “This,” He says, “is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel and the house of Judah: I will put my laws within their mind and in their hearts I will write them” (Jer. 31:33)–that is, not composing them by mere sound of words, but by the Lawgiver’s presence, without intermediary. For He says, “no longer shall each man teach his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:34). Because he had obtained this law David also uttered this blessed saying, “I know that the Lord is great” (Ps. 135:5). He says, “I know,” having experienced it himself, not by having head it taught by others. Wherefore he leads others too to the same experience, saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is gracious” (Ps. 34:9).”

(St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 95)

Falling Asleep on the Cross

Christ … for my sake fell asleep on the cross  (Lenten hymn)

The imagery of some Orthodoxy hymns about the crucifixion of Christ, seem all too pleasant …  Jesus falls asleep on the Christ.  No mention of the agony and torture he would have suffered.  Many icons reflect that same calm demeanor.  It was Christian humanism of the Middle Ages which really took an interest in the suffering and agony of Christ and began to describe and portray the agony and torture which crucifixion is.  Read the biblical texts and we see that the bodily suffering of Christ is hardly mentioned.   It was the focus on Christ’s humanity which was seen as realism, that started Christians moving away from a focus on Jesus as the incarnate God.  Instead of seeing God, all that was seen was another human dying a painful death.

The image of Christ falling asleep on the cross is deeply rooted in the theology that God is passionless.  God is not moved by emotions and their visceral affects on us – God doesn’t have a body so does not experience emotions like we do.  God does not love us as a reaction to us for God is love.  God dying on the cross does not change His reaction to humans: He continues to love them.  And so Jesus says while dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  He came into the world because of divine love and dies on the cross for the same reason (John 3:16-17).  Christ doesn’t forgive in reaction to what his tormentors are doing for He came into the world as love in order to forgive humans.

God is love, and doesn’t wait to see what we will do before reacting to us.  God always acts towards us in love.  God becomes incarnate because God is love.  God dies on the cross because God is love.  The crucifixion does not change God’s relationship to the world.  Sin does not change God’s reaction to humans.  God forever acts in love toward humans no matter how humans behave.   As another Lenten hymn says:

In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the cross raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree.  Therefore, You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises forever!

God loves humanity and accepts that love means God will suffer for us humans.  God suffers for us, with us and in us.   God does this for our salvation.  God is not changed by our sin, by our reaction to God, by our rejection of God, by our crucifying God’s Son.  God is love.  Thus the Passionless God suffers the passion as one of the great mysteries of God’s love.  And because it is God on the cross, the suffering is infinitely deep, yet God is still love and God continues to act toward us in love.  This is why the icon is so correct in portraying the sleeping Christ on the cross – divinity suffers in us and for us and with us in all eternity and yet this does not change God’s love for it is God’s love for us.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:8-10)

God even takes on a human body and experiences all the pain, sorrow and torment of being human because this is God’s love for us.  It is a love infinitely and eternally deep – yet it is the love that God offers to us and invites us to share with Him so that our life, and our suffering, becomes our life in God.   God dying on the cross is still love, and still loving us.

Christ lives and dies for Adam, Eve and each of us.  The hymns of Lent often move from images of God dealing with Adam to God dealing with each of us.

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

Christ’s death on the cross is the sign of the blessed Sabbath Day on which the Lord rests for His work for us and for our salvation is complete.  Christ sleeps on the cross in order to awaken us from the sleep of death and to awaken us from our having fallen asleep in the world when we should be awake, alert and vigilant.  In Christ we awake from our sleep whether in this world or the world to come.

In Christ dying on the cross we see God’s love for us undisturbed by the sin of the world, encouraging us to unite ourselves to Him so that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”  (Romans 14:8-9)

See also my post Arising From Sleep.


If Christ is Not Risen

A tremendous task faces us of correlating our theology with the gospel, for ‘If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14).‘ The world was converted to Christianity not by the subtleties of the Palamite controversy, but by this impossible, unheard-of affirmation that ‘death has been trampled down by death.’  Whose death? Christ’s death. How could he? Because he is the Son of God. Why ‘Son of God’? Because he was obedient to his Father. We are back to the Trinity, to Christology.”   (Alexander Schmemman, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 153-154)

The Paralytic: Overcoming Obstacles

And again Jesus entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”

And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  (Mark 2:1-12)

Pope Shenouda writes:

Those who carried the paralytic offer another example of how to overcome obstacles (Mark 2.1-11). It would have been very easy for these people to make excuses to the paralytic, telling him that they could neither help him nor take him to Jesus. The house where Jesus was staying was full of people and very crowded. All the paths were blocked, there was no outlet nor entrance, and no way to get to the Lord. But they did not shrink from these obstacles, because their love of doing good was stronger than the obstacles. They carried the paralytic on a stretcher, uncovered the roof of the house and let down the sick person in front of the Lord to cure him. How great is this charitable intention, how powerful this will! Truly, as the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

The strong heart finds a hundred ways for the thing it wishes to do. The fathers said, ‘Virtue asks you to desire only it, and nothing else.’ It is enough for you to desire. You will find that grace will open every door which closed before you. The Holy Spirit of God will strengthen you, and the spirits of the angels and the saints will surround you. Therefore do not let obstacles be an excuse, but think correctly about how to overcome them.”   (Pope Shenouda, The Life of Repentance and Purity, p. 124)