In yesterday’s blog post, (which was actually a written version of my Sunday sermon), I mentioned that it might make sense for us to look more deeply at some of the virtues In the Letter to the Colossians which ought to be cultivated by a Christian, especially in the family setting.
The third chapter of The Letter to the Colossians, while speaking in a general way about vices to be avoided and virtues to be cultivated, has a particular family focus since it builds to its conclusion about wives being submitted, husbands loving their wives, and children obeying their parents. Because of this, I use Colossians 3 as a central text in marriage preparation.
For the sake of brevity in this post, we are going to focus on versus 12 to 17 which emphasizes the virtues to cultivate. The other verses (1-11 and 17ff) contain wonderful information as well, and ought to be dealt with it another time.
As is often the case, when we look at the words and details in Scripture, it is helpful to look to the Greek text which gives a richer sense of what these virtues really summon us to.
Here then is the text for our reflection, and then a kind of line by line commentary:
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt 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. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:12-17)
Note that the text begins with a kind of general declaration of our identity. The simple word “Therefore” articulates the teaching that what we should do, flows from who and what we are; agens sequitur esse (action follows being). And thus, all the virtues which follow should flow from the fact that we are God’s “chosen ones,” that we are “holy” and “beloved.”
These are not just titles, they are manifest realities that flow from our reception of the sacraments and inclusion into Christ as members of this Body. These are virtues that are available to us as a direct result of our union with Christ, “therefore” we ought to lay hold of them and love out of them.
The text says that we are chosen. And while being chosen is a deeply mysterious reality for which we can only be grateful, it also means that having been chosen, we are thereby equipped, empowered and enabled to live the virtues that will follow if we will but lay hold of them through the power of God’s grace which owes us.
The text also says that we are holy. To be “holy,” means to be set apart, to be special, to be uncommon. In no way is it acceptable for us to live ordinary lives, or to presume that mediocrity is an acceptable stance for us. No! We have been chosen by God to be set apart. We ought to exhibit outstanding virtue and, as Scripture says elsewhere: shine like lights, blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine like stars (Phil 2:15). Jesus also summons us to be salt and light (cf. Matt 5). And thus, these opening lines set a kind of foundation that is necessary for all that follows later.
The text then says regarding these virtues that we should clothe ourselves in them. The image here is essentially that of a garment. In many places, Scripture speaks of our life and virtue in terms of a garment. We are told elsewhere that we are clothe ourselves in Christ, and that we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ make no provision for the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:14). Jesus tells the parable about a wedding feast and of a man who came into the wedding feast not clothed in a wedding garment. He was thrown into the outer darkness on account of that because the garment is righteousness (cf Matt 22:1-13).
The book of Revelation speaks of this garment as being given by God to those who are his holy ones (Rev 6:11). The garment we are to put on then is a kind of wedding garment, a garment provided by God, a garment of righteousness (Rev 19:8). We are to adore the Lord in holy attire, be clothed in Christ and in the beauty of holiness.
Having received this garment, then let us look now at the list of virtues that follow and that we are to be clothed in by God’s grace.
1. heartfelt compassion – The Greek text is a bit more earthy and explicit rendering it: σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ (splanchna oiktirmou) meaning most literally a”gut-level compassion.”
For the ancients things were shifted down a bit. The heart was the place of though and deliberation. The “gut” or viscera was the place of feelings. And what we call the brain today and see as the seat of thought, the ancients speculated as having the purpose of cooling the blood. We still maintain some ancient expressions when we talk of a “gut reaction” or of having butterflies in our stomach.
So, splágxnon (heartfelt) refers literally to the inward or visceral parts (stomach, liver, bowels, etc.), and figuratively to the emotions. And thus note that these are “deep” feelings, not just passing or surface feelings. Thus the insight here is the capacity to feel deep emotions, to have sympathy, empathy, etc.
And oiktirmós (compassion) – refers to deep feelings about someone’s difficulty or misfortune. But note that the prefix “oik” is likely related to oikos, meaning “house” in Greek. Thus this locates the virtue of compassion to the family or household especially.
Thus the virtue to be cultivated here is a deep, tender, family-like mercy or compassion for others, especially in their misfortunes of struggles. It is to have the kind of mercy that usually is directed to a brother or sister, child, or parent. It is the tender compassion that befits the family.
2. Kindness – This is an often misunderstood virtue and tends in our culture to be seen merely as being nice or pleasant. But kindness here is understood in a far more active sense.
The Greek word is χρηστότητα (chrestoteta) And though kindness is a good translation, it speaks more to having a disposition that is well suited, useful, or profitable in a given situation. Chrestotes means that something is “well-fitting” or something that is really needed.
Thus kindness refers to more than being nice or pleasant. It refers to meeting real needs. St. Paul lists Kindness (chrēstótēs) as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). Jesus uses this word to describe his yoke as being easy, i.e. “well-fitting”.
Kindness here is to be understood as the Spirit-produced goodness which meets given needs in a suitable way and avoids human harshness.
3. Humility – Here too, humility is often misunderstood today to merely mean having a lowly estimation of oneself. But true humility is reverence for the truth of oneself.
The Greek word is ταπεινοφροσύνην (tapeinophrosynen) derived from tapeinós meaning “low, humble” and phrḗn, meaning a “moderation” that is regulated by a proper and inner perspective. And thus humility is the virtue that helps us moderate having too high an opinion of ourselves but does not mean we have no sense at all of our gifts or that we deny or hide them.
Scripturally the “lowliness” is not an artificial or merely negative self assessment that ignores our gifts and talents. Rather, it comes from comparing ourselves to the Lord rather than to others. This brings sense of self into alignment with the proper standard. Before God who can boast? And thus this virtue is to keep one from being self-exalting, self-determining, self-inflated. For the believer, humility also means to live in complete dependence on the Lord and to realize whatever good we have is a gift that we ought to be grateful for rather that glorify ourselves in.
4. Gentleness – Here too gentleness is often misunderstood to describe a person who is always mild mannered and seldom animated. But here again the virtue described is one that moderates strength and anger but does not destroy them.
The Greek word is πραΰτητα (prauteta) and is relates to the term praótēs, meaning “meekness.” Aristotle defined meekness or gentleness (praotes) and the proper mean or middle between too much anger and not enough anger.There are times when some anger is appropriate and it would actually be wrong to show no anger.
Thus gentleness or meekness refers to one who has authority over their anger and is able to moderate its use. Some one has defined meekness as “gentle strength” since it expresses power with reserve and gentleness.
So gentleness is a virtue that moderates our use of anger and channels it to good ends when we do have recourse to it. It is the perfect virtue for a parent who needs to discipline a child using some degree of anger to frame the seriousness of a matter but not so much anger as to be counter-productive. It is a virtue that helps steer a middle course regarding anger that avoids excess or defect.
5. Patience – Patience is the capacity or willingness to suffer on account of others, often over a long period of time.
The Greek word is μακροθυμίαν (makrothumian) – from makrós, meaning “long” and thymós, meaning “passion” .
Thus the virtue described here is “long-suffering”, the capacity of waiting sufficient time before expressing anger or other premature use of force.
Here is a virtue that embraces a steadfastness and staying-power. In our families, it is often necessary to stay in the conversation a long time before we see results. Parents need to see beyond the moment to the longer perspective. Spouses need to realize that change in the other spouse may take a long time, much prayer and on-going help. In a divorce, cut and run culture, here is a virtue that helps us stay and strive to work out our differences.
6. Bear with each other – Here is a realated virtue that helps us stay in the conversation even when progress is slow.
The Greek word is ἀνεχόμενοι (anechomenoi) from aná, meaning “up or through (as in seeing something “through” or completing a process”) and echō, “to (still) have”) –
Thus the virtue of bearing with others describes “still putting up” even after going through a sequence or course of action that has yet to produce all the desired results. It is to forbear; to endure, to persist.
Here too we can see how crucial this virtue to endure even when change seems slow or unlikely.
7. forgive one another, if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.- Here is another essential virtue, but one that causes a lot of fear and consternation in people. Many people think that to forgive is either to pretend something did not happen or say the there should be no consequences for wrong doing. Neither notions are necessarily contained in the concept.
The Greek word is χαριζόμενοι (charizomenoi) from cháris, meaning “grace, or favor” – and menoi – meaning to extend or grant. Thus the Greek word means to freely show favor, or extend mercy or kindness.
To forgive is to receive the grace from God to no longer be vengefully angry and seek retribution. It is the grace to let go of our anger and need to hurt or shun those who have harmed us. It does not mean that we can live in peace with everyone, especially when the one who has done the harm shows little capacity or willingness to change. Sometimes the best we can do is to extend the grace of indicating we are no longer filled with venom and a desire to seek vengeance over what happened.
Through forgiveness we let go of the need to change the past and surrender the illusion and vengeance will make everything alright. The degree to which we can resume a normal relationship with others will vary based on circumstances. But forgiveness helps us bury the hatchet wherein crime brings crime forever.
As we can see, according to the text, our capacity to forgive others is directly related to how deeply we grasp the enormous mercy that has been extended to us. Too many people today have little knowledge or appreciation of the incredible degree to which they have been forgiven. And thus they are little equipped to forgive others. Too many are “unbroken” in their spiritual walk and manifest more as pharisees than forgiven and grateful disciples.
8. Put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. – The concept of love (agape) “binding” and “perfecting” and “unifying” the other virtues speaks to the way love manifests a kind of maturity in the Christian life and crowns the other virtues. The journey to Love requires that the Lord remove a lot of sin and selfishness from us, which the other virtues assist with. Having done this he is able to give us the capacity to actually love other people with tender affection and loyalty. Believe it or not God can actually give us the power to love other people, even our enemy, and those who trouble us. This is not just a slogan, it is a virtue and a reality for those are purified by God’s grace and brought to the increasing perfection of greater maturity .
The phrase “bond of perfection” is instructive. The Greek text is σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότητος (syndesmos tes teleiotetos) – sýndesmos is from sýn, meaning “close identity with” and déō, meaning “to bind” So, “bond” here means a close identity which produces close harmony between those joined. And thus we are taught that love has close identity with all the other virtues and in a sense cannot be separated from them. And the relation between love and other virtue is two-way, for love supports, perfects and infuses them, and they also help clear the way for love.
And, as for perfection, the Greek word teleiótēs refers to the perfection of completion. It refers to something that has reached perfection in a cumulative sense, something that has reached perfection by attaining to its telos or “proper end.”
9. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. The concept of peace ruling in our hearts is a fascinating one in the Greek text.
First of all the notion of “peace” is rather abstract and incomplete in English where it is more of an absence of conflict than a truly positive and rich reality.
But the Greek word for peace is εἰρήνη (eirene) from eirō, meaning “to join, tie together into a whole” And thus “peace” is the experience of being made whole, as when all essential parts are joined together. peace is God’s gift of wholeness, of being complete. It is to be integrated and is a far more beautiful gift than simply not being at war with others or arguing with people.
And the concept of peace ruling in our hearts is even more interesting in the Greek which literally speaks of peace being a βραβεύω brabeuó meaning “to act as an umpire” And thus peace in this sense arbitrate, or makes the call” in a conflict between contending forces” whether with us or outside us.
And thus, when we are whole, complete and serene because what is essential is up and running, this wholeness and completeness “calls the shots” so that we do not overreact in error and become too vexed at what is often not real or accurate in our perception.
As members of the Body of Christ we are called to receive this gift of peace, this wholeness, this completeness. And when we receive it we become a real blessing to our family and others!
10. And be thankful – Gratitude is one of the most essential virtues to cultivate. It is a discipline of the mind and heart wherein we remember, we have present to our mind and heart what God has done for us so that we are moved, we are grateful, we are different. A grateful person is a joyful and serene person and it is pretty difficult for for a deeply grateful person to be grouchy, stingy, unkind or unmerciful. Gratitude is a wonderfully transformative grace and virtue!
The Greek word is εὐχάριστος (eucharistos) – from eú, meaning “well” and charízomai meaning to grant freely”.
In other words, by this grace and virtue we are well able to appreciate that all is gift, and that God has been so very good to us and has done so “freely” not because we earned or deserved it, but just because he is good, provident and loving.
11. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts –
The notion of allowing the word of Christ dwell in us also involves a “household” word in the Greek, which is ἐνοικείτω (enoikeito) and once again we see the root word “oikos” which means “house” or “home” Thus the text directs us to make a home for the word of the Lord in our mind and heart. The word of the Lord cannot be a mere thing about which we are only vaguely aware. It is to dwell in us richly, abundently, and habitually. It is to have a home in us, an abiding presence.
And having cultivated this for ourselves we are able to teach others, especially the young. The Greek word here is διδάσκοντες (didaskontes) which means teaching, or more literally “to cause to learn.” But the sort of teaching implied here in this word is discursive teaching which involves an on-going teaching, through the use of discussion or discourse. The Greek word here is also a participle and thereby includes the notion of an on-going action: “teaching one another.” One gets the image that the faithful are expected always to be discussing God’s word and always teaching and learning of it.
The text also speaks of admonishing. In English we hear the notion of “warning” in this word. But more literally, the Greek word νουθετοῦντες (nouthetountes) means to place the mind (from noús, “mind” and títhēmi, “to place”). The word contains the idea of appealing to the mind by supplying doctrinal and spiritual substance or content which exerts positive pressure on someone’s logic or reasoning. Thus perhaps “urging” is another way to translate this word.
The Christian home must be a place where the faith is learned and taught! Parents absolutely must read Bible stories to their children. The faith must be learned, discussed and handed on. This task cannot simply relegate to Sunday School or the Sunday pulpit. Every parent and elder in the home should immerse themselves in God’s teaching so as to teach it, urge it and deeply root it in the heart and mind of other family members, especially Children.
Psalms hymns and inspired songs are often a way to put the word more deeply in our minds. Music can often reach the depths of the soul in ways that the spoken word alone cannot. I am deeply aware of this as a preacher who also has a great choir. It is often the choir which impactfully “brings the message home” on a given Sunday.
12. do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus – The expression, “In the Name of Jesus” is more than a slogan or a way to end a prayer. To do something in the name of Jesus means that we are doing it in accord with his will. If I were to say to my congregation, “In the name of the Bishop, I hereby declare that Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation” I better have checked that out with the Bishop and make sure that it what he thinks and has decided.
Therefore this final admonition is a call for us to be deeply immersed in the actual will of Jesus through the study of his Word, his Church’s teaching and through prayer.
If every family member will do this, innumerable arguments and power struggles can be avoided since we are all on the same page, and of the same mind and heart.
OK, so this has been a workout! But there is here a rich tapestry of virtues to cultivate both for us as individuals and for our family life.