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, focuses in particular on the family, building to the conclusions about wives submitting to their husbands, husbands loving their wives, and children obeying their parents. For this reason, I use Colossians 3 as a central text in marriage preparation.
For the sake of brevity in this post, I’d like to focus on verses 12 through 17, which emphasize the virtues to cultivate. The other verses (1-11 and 17ff) contain wonderful information as well, but they can be dealt with it at another time.
As is often the case, when we look at the words and details in Scripture, it is helpful to examine the Greek text, which gives a richer sense of what these virtues really summon us to.
Here, then, is the text for our reflection, followed by my 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).
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)). Thus all the virtues that follow in the passage 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 His Body. These virtues 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. Being chosen is a deeply mysterious reality for which we can only be grateful. 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.
The text 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 or mediocre lives. No! We have been chosen by God to be set apart. We ought to exhibit outstanding virtue, 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). Thus these lines from Colossians set a kind of foundation that is necessary for all that follows.
The text says that we should clothe ourselves in these virtues. 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 in other passages that we are clothe ourselves in Christ, and that we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ making no provision for the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:14). Jesus tells a parable about a man who came into a wedding feast not clothed in a wedding garment. The man was thrown into the outer darkness 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). Thus the garment we are to put on 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. We are to be clothed in Christ and in the beauty of holiness.
Having received this garment by God’s grace, let us look at the list of virtues that follow, the virtues in which we are to be clothed.
I. Heartfelt compassion – The Greek text is a bit more earthy and explicit: 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 thought and deliberation. The “gut” or viscera was the location of feelings. What we call the brain today and consider the center of thought, was believed by the ancients to have the purpose of cooling the blood. We still maintain some vestige of these ancient expressions when we speak of a “gut reaction” or of having “butterflies in our stomach.”
So splágxnon (heartfelt) refers literally to the visceral parts (stomach, liver, bowels, etc.) and figuratively to the emotions. Thus note that these are “deep” feelings, not just passing or surface feelings. The insight here is the capacity to feel deep emotions, to have sympathy, empathy, etc.
Oiktirmós (compassion) refers to deep feelings about someone’s difficulty or misfortune. Note that the prefix oik is likely related to the Greek word oikos (house). Thus this locates the virtue of compassion especially in the household or family.
The virtue to be cultivated here is a deep, tender, family-like mercy or compassion for others, especially in their misfortunes or struggles. It is to have the kind of mercy that usually is directed toward a brother, sister, child, or parent. It is the tender compassion that befits the family.
II. Kindness – In our culture, this virtue is often misunderstood as meaning “niceness” or pleasantness. But in this passage kindness is meant in a far more active sense.
The Greek word used is χρηστότητα (chrestoteta). Though kindness is a reasonably good translation, the Greek word 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 really needed.
Thus kindness refers to more than being nice or pleasant. It refers to meeting real needs. St. Paul lists kindness (chrēstótēs) as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). Jesus uses this word when describing his yoke as being easy, i.e., “well-fitting.”
Kindness here is to be understood as the Spirit-produced goodness that meets given needs in a suitable way and avoids human harshness.
III. Humility – This virtue is also often misunderstood today, to mean having a low estimation of oneself. But true humility is reverence for the truth of oneself.
The Greek word used is ταπεινοφροσύνην (tapeinophrosynen), which is derived from tapeinós (low, humble) and phrḗn (a “moderation” regulated by a proper inner perspective). And thus humility is the virtue that helps us to moderate between having too high an opinion of ourselves, and having no sense at all of our gifts or denying/hiding them.
Scripturally, “lowliness” is not an artificial or purely negative self-assessment that ignores our gifts and talents. Rather, it comes from comparing ourselves to the Lord instead of to others. This brings our sense of self into alignment with the proper standard. Before God who can boast? And thus this virtue is keeps one from being self-exalting, self-determining, and self-inflated. For the believer, having humility means living in complete dependence on the Lord and realizing that whatever good we have is a gift from Him for which we should be grateful (rather that glorifying ourselves because of it).
IV. Gentleness – Gentleness is often misunderstood as the quality of a person who is mild-mannered and seldom animated. But the virtue of gentleness is one that moderates strength and anger without destroying them.
The Greek word used is πραΰτητα (prauteta) and is related to the word praótēs, meaning meekness. Aristotle defined meekness or gentleness as the proper mean or middle between too much anger and not enough. There are times when not only is some anger appropriate, but it would actually be wrong not to show it.
Thus gentleness or meekness refers to the quality possessed by one who has authority over his anger and is able to moderate its use. Meekness has sometimes been called “gentle strength,” because it expresses power along 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 to exhibit it. It is the perfect virtue for a parent who needs to discipline a child. Some degree of anger is necessary in order to underscore the seriousness of a matter, but not so much as to be counterproductive. Gentleness is a virtue that helps one to steer a middle course with anger that avoids both excess and defect.
V. Patience – Patience is the willingness to suffer on account of others, often for a long period of time.
The Greek word used is μακροθυμίαν (makrothumian), which comes from makrós (long) and thymós (passion).
Thus the virtue described here is “long-suffering.” It is the ability to wait a sufficient amount of time before expressing anger or using some kind of force.
Patience is a virtue that embraces steadfastness and staying power. In our families, it is often necessary to “stay in the conversation” for a long time before we see results. Parents need to look beyond the moment to the longer perspective. Husbands and wives need to realize that change in their spouse may take a long time, and require much prayer and ongoing help. In our divorce, cut-and-run culture, patience is a virtue that helps us to stay and to strive to work out differences.
VI. Bearing with one another – This is a related virtue that helps us to “stay in the conversation” even when progress is slow.
The Greek word used is ἀνεχόμενοι (anechomenoi), which comes from aná (up or through (as in seeing something through or completing a process)) and echo (to have (still)).
Thus the virtue of bearing with others describes “still putting up” with them even after going through a course of action that has yet to produce all the desired results. It is forbearing, enduring, persisting.
We can see how crucial is this virtue to endure even when change seems slow or unlikely.
VII. Forgiveness (of one another) – If any of you has a grievance against someone, forgive him as the Lord forgives you. This is another essential virtue, but one that causes a lot of fear and consternation. Many people think that to forgive is either to pretend that nothing happened or to say that there should be no consequences for wrongdoing. Neither notion is necessarily contained in the concept.
The Greek word used is χαριζόμενοι (charizomenoi), from cháris (grace or favor) and menoi (to extend or grant). Thus the Greek word means to freely show favor, or to extend mercy or kindness.
To forgive is to receive the grace from God to no longer be vengefully angry, seeking retribution. It is the grace that allows us to let go of our anger and our need to hurt or shun the one(s) 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 that we are no longer filled with venom or with the desire to seek vengeance.
Through forgiveness we let go of the need to change the past, and we surrender the illusion that vengeance will make everything all right. The degree to which we can resume a normal relationship with the person(s) will obviously vary based on the particular circumstances. But forgiveness helps us to bury the hatchet, so that crime doesn’t continually bring further crime.
As we can see, 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 of, or appreciation for, the incredible degree to which they have been forgiven. And thus they are poorly equipped to forgive others. Too many are “unbroken” in their spiritual walk and manifest more as Pharisees than as forgiven and grateful disciples.
VIII. Putting on love – Putting on love binds all the virtues together in perfect unity. The concept of love (agape) “binding,” “perfecting,” and “unifying” the other virtues speaks to the way that 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, and the other virtues assist with this. 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 enemies 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 particulars of the phrase “bond of perfection” are instructive. The Greek text is σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότητος (syndesmos tes teleiotetos). Sýndesmos comes from sýn (close identity with) and déō (to bind). So the bond referred to here is a close identity, which produces 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. The relationship between love and other virtue is two-way: love supports, perfects, and infuses them; and they help to clear the way for love.
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, by attaining its telos or “proper end.”
IX. Letting the peace of Christ rule in your heart – We are called to peace because we are members of one body. The concept of peace ruling in our hearts is a fascinating one in the Greek text.
In English, the idea engendered by the word “peace” is rather abstract and incomplete; it refers more to an absence of conflict than a truly positive and rich reality.
But the Greek word for peace is εἰρήνη (eirene), which comes from eirō (to join or tie together into a whole). And thus the “peace” referred to by the Greek 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, of being integrated. It is a far more beautiful gift than simply not being at war or not arguing.
The concept of peace ruling in our hearts is even more interesting in the Greek, which literally speaks of peace being a βραβεύω brabeuó (one acting as an umpire). And thus peace in this sense arbitrates or “makes the call” in a conflict between contending forces, whether within us or outside us.
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 vexed at what is not real or accurate.
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 to others!
X. Thankfulness – 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, what God has done for us so that we are moved, grateful, and different because of it. A grateful person is joyful and serene. It’s pretty difficult to be grateful while also being grouchy, stingy, unkind, or unmerciful. Gratitude is a wonderfully transformative grace and virtue!
The Greek word used is εὐχάριστος (eucharistos), which comes from eú (well) and charízomai (to grant freely).
In other words, by this grace and virtue, we are able to appreciate that all is gift and that God is so very good to us. God does this “freely,” not because we have earned it or deserve it, but because He is good, provident, and loving.
XI. Letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly – We do this as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in our hearts.
The notion of allowing the word of Christ dwell in us also involves a “household” word in Greek: ἐνοικείτω (enoikeito). Once again we see the root word oikos (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 something of which we are only vaguely aware. It is to dwell in us richly, abundantly, and habitually. It is to have a home within us, an abiding presence.
And having cultivated this for ourselves, we are able to teach others, especially the young. The Greek word used is διδάσκοντες (didaskontes), which means teaching or more literally “causing to learn.” But the sort of teaching meant here is discursive teaching, which involves the use of ongoing discussion or discourse. The part of speech of the word is a participle and thereby indicates an ongoing action, that of teaching one another. The faithful are always expected to be discussing God’s word, learning it, and teaching it.
The text also speaks of admonishing. The English word contains the notion of warning. But the Greek word νουθετοῦντες (nouthetountes) literally means “to place the mind” (from noús (mind) and títhēmi (to place)). The Greek word contains the idea of appealing to the mind by supplying doctrinal and spiritual content that exerts positive pressure on someone’s logic or reasoning. Thus perhaps “urging” is another way one could translate the Greek.
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 be relegated to Sunday school or the pulpit. Parents and elders in the home should immerse themselves in God’s teaching so as to be able to teach it, urge it, and deeply plant it in the hearts and minds of other family members, especially children.
Psalms, hymns, and inspired songs are often a way to put the word more deeply into our minds. Music can often reach the depths of the soul in ways that the spoken word alone cannot. As a preacher who has a great choir, I am deeply aware of this. On a given Sunday, it is often the choir that “brings the message home” with impact.
XII. Doing it all in the name of the Lord Jesus – The expression “In the name of Jesus” is more than merely a way to end a prayer or a slogan. Doing something in the name of Jesus means doing it in accordance with His will. If I were to say to my congregation, “In the name of the Bishop, I hereby declare that Friday is not a holy day of obligation,” I’d better have checked that out with the Bishop to make sure that is what he 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, the study of His Church’s teaching, and through prayer.
If every family member would do this, innumerable arguments and power struggles would be avoided, because all would be 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, for us as individuals and for our family life.