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)



Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal Amazon.com so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

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 Sin of Envy

“The Christian concept of envy is twofold. It is the resentment experienced by one person when another person is perceived to have some good that he or she lacks, coupled with the strong desire that the other person be deprived of it.

Rather like vultures and flies, which gravitate toward stenches and festering sores, envious persons glory in the faults and failings of others, relishing the opportunity to broadcast such misdeeds to tarnish reputations.

Thus the healing of the illness of envy requires re-educating the mind as to what constitutes true good (i.e., virtue) and redirecting our fundamental, ambitious impulse away from the noxiousness of envy to this healthy end.”

(St. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 122, 129, 126)

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)

Confess Your Sins so that You May Be Healed

“Confession extends the healing of baptism to the realities of sinful life after baptism. ‘Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects‘  (James 5:16).  Accountability to the other, and ultimately to the Other, is a healing act of humility, a necessary and often painful condition for real change and repentance. When one bares one’s soul to at least one other person then real accountability and potential for change can occur.”  

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 243)

In confessing our sins to another, we come to experience our human life as being truly social – we are members one of another.  “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another”  (Ephesians 4:25).  Confession is teaching our self to put away falsehood – lies, pretension, pretending, covering up, deception, self-deception, hypocrisy, acting for show – so that we speak the truth about our self not only to our self but to those we are supposed to love.  In confessing to another, we get outside of the confines of the self, and experience our organic unity with the rest of humanity.  We realize we share a human nature not only with the sinful Adam but also with the Christ.

Every human is part of a bouquet – there is beauty in each of us, and yet when arranged with others, the glorious result is even more stunning and profound.  The individual beauty of each flower is highlighted and intensified by being in and with all of the other flowers, leaves, stems and greenery of the arrangement.

The Icon of the Crucifixion

“The icon encourages us to reflect on this climax to our Lord’s earthly life; his work has been accomplished, and he commends himself to the Father. The following verses come to mind: ‘I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work that thou gavest me to do’ (John 17:4); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30); ‘Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And these verses from the letter to the Hebrews seem equally appropriate: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2); ‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:12-14).

The following extract from St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Adoration of the Cross shows how the victorious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross was interpreted by a great teacher of Orthodox theology (759-826):

How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp. 108-109)

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)

Confession: Seeking the Compassion of God

“Our tendency is to conceal and minimize our sins, thinking that God’s compassion means that He will ‘go easy on us’ and understand that ‘we’re only human.’ This section of the Canon [of Repentance of  St. Andrew of Crete] invites us to a different view: that all our sins are very serious (even those we don’t know about), and yet God is abundant in mercy. He already knows all about our sins, and is ready to rush toward us in compassion. All that is necessary is for us to admit we need his compassion. Repentance is truth telling, and ‘the truth will make you free‘ (John 8:32). What hidden sins can you begin to admit, and allow God to take away?”

(Frederica Mathewes-Green, Firstfruits of Prayer, p. 14)