I’ve come to think that this passage states the fundamental logic of Christian life:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those realities above where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Focus your mind upon the realities above, not upon realities moving toward the earth. For you have died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ might become manifest—your life—then you yourselves will also become manifest with him, in glory. You must therefore kill the pieces that move toward the earth: sexual license, impurity, passion, wicked desire, and greed, which is idolatry; because of such things the wrath of God is coming upon the children of disobedience. You yourselves once walked in those ways when you lived in them. But now you yourselves must sever and bury all these things: wrath, anger, wickedness, blasphemy, obscenities from your mouth. Do not lie to one another. Having stripped away the ancient man along with his practices and having assumed the new and restored man to the point of recognition of the creator, according to the Image himself—in this condition there is no Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free person. Rather, here all things are, and in all things is, Christ. (Col. 3:1–11)[1]


The Christian wants to become virtuous rather than vicious not because God’s anger flares up when lowly mortals dare to flout God’s laws. Wrath, as Origen noted long ago about this passage and others (Gal. 5:20), is a “work of the flesh” rather than the spirit.[2] But God is spirit (John 4:24). So the “wrath” referred to in the Colossians passage above, which comes upon the children of disobedience, must mean something very different from what we typically assume. Nor is Christian virtue just a pragmatic thing, as though being a decent person who treats others kindly somehow pays off in the long run. The New Testament isn’t exactly easy on responsible retirement planning and the like (see Matt. 6:34 and James 4:13–17); instead, it appears to promise trials and tribulations (see Matt. 5:11, John 16:33, and 2 Tim. 3:12). Being good is not about placating a censorious and menacing power, god, or man. Something far more terrible and wonderful is at work.

Notice how the apostle bookends the pericope. We’re to focus on things above, he says, because Christ sits among those things, and we “have died” while our “life” lies hidden with Christ in God. So entirely is our life, our true and only life, identified with Christ above that when and where he manifests, “you yourselves” manifest. The spiritual ascent is therefore the manifestation and discovery of ourselves as Christ and Christ as us—our mutual indwelling. Self-knowledge and knowledge of Christ in God are apparently two dimensions of a single spiritual knowing.

Notice too that this ascent to self-knowledge with Christ in God, whose process proves paradoxically to be self-mortification and death, terminates in a descent: “here all things are, and in all things is, Christ” (see 1 Cor. 15:28). The spiritual struggle to expel vice and acquire virtue bears the marks of incarnation, of ineffable union. The mystery of Christ is “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27 VERSION), and your true life, perhaps your truest self, if the term is to have any coherent meaning at all, is hidden with Christ in God. Christian life—its disciplines, beliefs, liturgies, prayers, images—names the path and labor of cooperating with the Spirit’s grace to bring about what the Spirit does most excellently: bring to conception and birth and manifestation the Word of God in all things so that all things might become manifest with and as him. In the end “all things are Christ.” Our ascent is his descent, our labor his birth, his birth the power of our labor. Every soul, says Saint Maximus, must become a “Virgin Mother.”[3]


Much Christian preaching and catechesis concerns right and wrong acts (or omissions). But an act is the result of a more complicated movement. Some notice this; they might speak of habits or dispositions of the soul. Acts, vicious or virtuous alike, are often symptoms of the soul’s basic condition or character. Character is settled disposition through repetition. Sometimes character is developed deliberately over time, sometimes not. Sometimes one consciously intends an act, sometimes not. Perhaps we start interrogating intentions. Why did I do such and such? Why did I react that way? Why did I do nothing?

At this point we tend to offer simplistic responses, or at least I do. I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. I wanted to satisfy some craving. Maybe I’m just selfish in a vague all-about-me sort of way. Or for a virtuous deed, I might say that I wanted to help a friend in need. Although these answers might contain some slivers of truth, they remain two-dimensional and a bit dim in their illumination of motives. They portray me as a faceless connoisseur of comfort, someone hoping to avoid pain and seeking pleasure and sometimes managing to strike a prudent balance between the two. That’s at least what’s going on. But seeing the incarnational logic of these acts opens a far more complex and profound perspective.

I never act unless I desire some determinate end, I never desire to act toward some end unless I have deliberated about how best to get it, and I never deliberate about a desire with the aim of enacting it unless I intend from the outset what I judge best for me. That is crucial: my intentions are always simultaneously indeterminate (insofar as I necessarily intend transcendental objects such as happiness, goodness, beauty) and determinate (insofar as I intend these objects in relation to me, that is, as objects I perceive and thus desire as they appear). Rational intention is just this: the desire to unite in a single act the Good with a particular good. And this dynamic already intimates incarnation. I am called to “focus on those realities above,” and those realities are always appearing to be beheld, desired, and embodied through my very act of desiring—loving—what appears.

I cannot desire anything unless I perceive it, and I cannot perceive anything unless it appears to me as an image (or form or appearance) that could be and yet cannot be without my choice to bring it into being.[4] The image that appears is not a two-dimensional picture. I perceive it by my intellect, after all, and what the intellect perceives is itself intellectual. Or better yet: the image I perceive in my mind’s eye is meaningful. When the intellect truly knows something, it perceives the intelligible structure or logic of the thing—what kind of being it is, how it relates to other kinds of being, its purpose, and so on. Indeed, an image appears at all only as the meaning of what it images. Having perceived an image, I may or may not scrutinize its meaning, but seeing and perceiving that image may stir my desire to bring the image into reality so that if the image becomes realized I might cease desiring it any longer. That movement of desire, successfully executed, makes real what was initially an ideal possibility, an image: I saw myself as a great leader or spouse or listener or thinker, for instance, and I wanted to be what I saw; wanting to be what I saw, I acted to make it so. Every act (or non-act) incarnates some image, true or false, or (most often) a mixture of the two.

Hence, the systematic emphasis on the “thoughts” (logismoi) perceived and generated by the “imaginative faculty” (phantasia) in that great eighteenth-century compendium of Eastern monastic wisdom, the Philokalia.[5] Demons tempt us, says Evagrius Ponticus, by suggesting images derived from sense experience so that our intellect “bears the forms of these objects within itself.” Sometimes these thoughts are sheer illusions, and other times they derive from images of past experiences that have imprinted on our memory. Memory, the mind’s storehouse of a multitude of perceptible forms and images, becomes a ceaseless engine of meaning-making, even in prayer: As Evagrius writes, “While you are praying, the memory brings before you fantasies either of past things, or of recent concerns, or of the face of someone who has irritated you.” It even happens that when confronted with a person whose degree of spiritual knowledge and virtue render him or her impervious to mere sensual temptation, demons will concoct false images of God, luring the sage to imagine the goal attained, thus feeding (false) self-love.[6] In every case—an image of sensual pleasure, an image of past sin, an image of an enemy’s face, an image of a false god—the image presented to the intellect is a judgment about what is true in relation to the intellect itself. Or rather, these images amount to proposed meanings and interpretations of both the imaged and the imaginer; a judgment for or against such images is the intended, desired, and ultimately enacted movement to make them so. I give my life, my action, myself to make real what was first an ideal. Every act is a self-sacrificial attempt to incarnate some image or another.

The question is not whether I will incarnate an image—I can’t help but act from intention and determinate desire, even without serious reflection or deliberation. The question is whether the image is true. If it is not true, then it is false. And if I intend, desire, and act toward a false image, I act in ignorance. If I ask what exactly I’m ignorant of, the answer is slightly overwhelming: anything and everything. Ignorance turns out to be complex and comprehensive, you see, because erring in one’s judgment of an image means that one errs about what is imagined—that is, about what is good (true) or bad (false) in my interpretation of things. But then it’s also an error about the “me” who imagines. I don’t know what is good for me because I don’t know myself. And I don’t know myself because I haven’t yet experienced, and so truly known, what is good for me. How can I know myself and know myself in relation to what is truly good? Recall that passage in Colossians: “Your life is hidden with Christ God.” That means that our life has not yet fully manifested and that its full manifestation is the manifestation of the Image himself who causes God to be recognized in us.

“Evil,” writes Saint Maximus, “is ignorance of the benevolent Cause of beings,” and this ignorance “blinds the human intellect and opens wide the doors of sensation.”[7] My ignorance of the Cause of things means that everything I sense and imagine is beheld apart from—perhaps in contrast to—the Image who alone is their truth. If I don’t seek to discern the truth of whatever image presents itself to me, if I don’t “discriminate,” as the Philokalic tradition has it, between what is right and wrong in my interpretation of myself, my neighbor, the world, and God, then I am totally vulnerable to the passions that arise from an unreflective acceptance and enactment of whatever the image might be, true or false.

An odd implication: I might lend my own being, as it were, to bring into being some illusory image that God never intends to create. “Evil does not exist by nature,” Saint Diadochos says, but “when in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist.” Indeed “we give it existence through our actions.” Or as Saint Maximus puts it, our soul, which ought to become another Theotokos of the Word, instead “becomes the demiurge of evil, which has no substantive existence.”[8] This then becomes another reason to discriminate rather than uncritically accept whatever image appears to us: not everything that appears is for that reason true. Evil appears and becomes real through the individual and collective actions of ignorant, rational beings. Vice is false incarnation, but once it is incarnate, it can be experienced, often quite painfully.

The good news here is that whatever can be experienced can also be analyzed. Both Evagrius and Saint Maximus counsel critical reflection upon the “thought that has wounded you,” especially in “the density of the passion as it is manifested externally to the senses,” with the aim of breaking “apart the combination of the elements producing the passion” and bringing “each one back to its proper principle of origin.” The very fact that sin is a false incarnation means that we can examine and reimagine the thickening process that culminated in the vicious act. Recognizing vice as false incarnation—and taking up the spiritual labor of analyzing the many forms such false incarnation assumes in us—prepares the way for the true incarnation of virtue in us, and “the essence of all the virtues is our Lord Jesus Christ.”[9]


All this became painfully concrete for me about two years ago. Imagine: I’d had my doctorate for a few years, struggled as many do to find a permanent post in higher education, and then decided to move my young family closer to extended family by taking a gig as a high school theology teacher. I stood there before my computer, running a review game I’d made using a website called Kahoot! To prepare my junior class for a unit test in a course called Morality. Clip art, multiple-choice questions, and bubble letters danced across the big screen, accompanied by the most oppressive arcade music you can fathom. In a sudden flash, I was overcome with a sense of utter despondency, as if every lurid detail of this ridiculous game had been designed deliberately to mock me and my every ambition. So, this was it? All those years studying, all those seminar papers, all those conferences, all the trips escorting top scholars to and from the airport, all the grading, all the languages, all the publications, all the hours away from my family writing a dissertation few would read, all the excitement when I came upon a fascinating new insight—all of this culminated in some review game on Kahoot?

It was a rough year. I grew resentful. My nightly glass (or two or three) of wine became the carrot dangling at the end of each day’s stick. There descended upon me a cloud of complex passions: anger at perceived injustice, resentment at the success of others who I believed were less deserving, despair that the system will never change, self-hatred that I cared so much about what I had imagined I never would. Not that my life was particularly miserable—our finances were fine. We were about to have our fourth healthy daughter. I actually liked my students. We were near family. But I came to realize—and, to be honest, even now I struggle to discern exactly how I did; such is God’s grace—that even though there were certainly objective grounds for complaint about my situation, the deeper error or false image at work lay surreptitiously within me.

“In the whole range of evil thoughts,” warns Evagrius, “none is richer in resources than self-esteem” or “self-love” (philautia). For monks, Evagrius’s primary addressees, this demon might summon “in our imagination crowds of admirers who praise the Lord for the works of mercy we have performed.” The demon “makes us picture people talking to one another about how we deserve to be ordained.” And then “our wretched intellect, entangled by these thoughts, attacks anyone who (as it imagines) opposes the idea of our ordination, while on those who support the idea it lavishes gifts and flattery.”[10] Once again, we don’t just act; we act always according to images, images of who we think we are, what we deserve, what everyone else is or should be like in relation to us, and what, ultimately, God should do for us. We act to bring about an entire world of our own imagining. We act to incarnate what we see.

The hardest part has been coming to see myself seeking a false self-image because it has meant seeing myself as false. It’s one thing to struggle with more “external” vices such as gluttony, lust, greed. But when the battle moves inward and concerns the intellect—or better, the self—there begins “a more painful liberation.” For me it was painful to see how petty I am, how haughty, how secretly sure I was of my future success, how much self-worth I derived from a picture of myself as recognizably intelligent. This even affected my desire to read what I loved, a symptom Martin Laird diagnoses with precision: wanting to study stings because “it hurts too much to see our intellectual arrogance so clearly.”[11] And that is why, even granting the unfairness present in my station, my impassioned despair and resentment was itself a grave error of judgment, the embrace and embodiment of a false picture of others, myself, and God—all at once. It was a picture that merited destruction. Thank God it was, since releasing myself from that image opened me to something more true, an Image that had always lurked within me which could now be born.


The spiritual life is the struggle to see true and false images for what they are and then to incarnate the true Image through ourselves in word and work, in cooperation with the grace of the Spirit, we are to give birth to the Word in and as us—to become manifest in Christ’s manifestation. “God is painting a self-portrait in the elements of human nature,” writes Rowan Williams. God’s self-portrait is our true self, and the reverse: we know neither God nor ourselves in isolation. In prayer, in the height of ascent to God, Evagrius writes that the deified intellect “will see its own nature like a sapphire or the color of heaven,” which is the very event wherein the Word “manifests Himself.”[12]

But true incarnation, the perfection of virtue, requires the destruction of false incarnations or vice. So long as I ignorantly identify false images as true (see Rom. 1)—above all false self-images—I illicitly and foolishly sustain these illusions in being by giving my very own life or person or self to them. So I must detach myself from such images in preparation for the reception and actualization of the true Image in me. Detachment or “dispassion” (apatheia) is not an absolute rejection of all sensory images but a refusal to image even material creation in a false way. I must “sever and bury” those false incarnations, “kill the pieces that move toward the earth,” not because the earth is evil but because its truth is “Christ in all things”—including me.

Over the course of his elaborate figurative interpretation of the book of Jonah, Saint Maximus considers an apparent inconsistency in that God orders Nineveh’s unconditional destruction and yet saves Nineveh in the end. Saint Maximus interprets Nineveh to signify fallen humanity, every soul, and the entire world. “We respond,” he says, “that God in truth both destroys and saves the same city: the former, by making it desist from its error; the latter, by bringing about its acquisition of true knowledge—or rather He destroys its error through the revitalization of its faith, and realizes its salvation by the death of that error.”[13]

The spiritual struggle is our cooperation in divine judgment, already underway (see 1 Pet. 4:17), and the destruction of false incarnations is an integral element in the process of salvation (see John 5:24). Origen, following the apostle, perceived this logic of Christian life long ago:

Let us put to death the members that are on earth (see Col. 3:5); and let us bring forth the fruits of the Spirit (see Gal. 5:22 and John 15:8 and 16), so that the Lord may, as it were, walk about in us in a spiritual garden (see Gen. 3:8 and 2 Cor. 6:16), ruling alone over us with His Christ sitting in us at the right hand of the spiritual power we pray to obtain and seated until all His enemies in us become the stool of His feet and every rule and authority and power is destroyed from us. For it is possible that this will come to pass for each one of us and that the last enemy, death, will be destroyed, so that also in our case Christ will say, “O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55 and 26).[14]

We slay the “ancient man” to put on the “new”; we come to recognize the creator in us, the one true Image of all, who wills to become incarnate in all and thus make all true. That, I think, is what we’re after in becoming virtuous, namely the becoming of virtue in and as us: “You yourselves are from God in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God, justice and holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). He has become virtue for us, in us, if we would but let him. That mystery, the pulsating heart of Christian life, is just this: “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27).

[1] This passage and all subsequent Scripture quotations are my translation.

[2] Origen, Hom. in Jer. 11.2.

[3] Maximus, Exp. Orat. Dom. 4.

[4] One might object that this makes the existence of, say, goodness itself dependent on particular intentions and acts of embodying goodness in this or that situation. But the question is whether goodness itself includes my embodiment of it in fact—not as an abstractly conceived essence—or, indeed, whether I contain anything positive or irreducible to goodness itself such that my good or virtuous acts make goodness in actuality more than we conceive it to be in thought. I say yes on both counts. This needn’t mean that goodness or virtue itself depends on my acts in the way my acts depend on goodness itself. It means, rather, that goodness itself always already includes the entire contribution of all good acts in its very content—that is, that goodness itself actually is (for itself) far richer than it seems to be in itself. In christological terms: God’s two modes of activity, created and uncreated, are unconfused and inseparable as modes of the one Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is and is in all things (see Col. 3:11).

[5] I use The Philokalia: The Complete Text, translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, and give the volume and page number for each reference. For a wonderful introduction to this tradition, see Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2021), esp. chapter 1.

[6] Evagrius, On Discrimination 2, 1:38–9; and On Prayer 46, 1:61. Also, see On Prayer 73, 1:64.

[7] Maximus, QThal 1.2.16. For a more detailed treatment of the role of ignorance in evil according to Maximus, see Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), esp. 4.2.1. See too Diadochos, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination 88, 1:287: “When a man stands out of doors in winter at the break of day, facing east, the front of his body is warmed by the sun, while his back is still cold because the sun is not on it. Similarly, the heart of those who are beginning to experience the energy of the Spirit is only partially warmed by God’s grace. The result is that, while their intellect begins to produce spiritual thoughts, the outer parts of the heart continue to produce thoughts after the flesh, since the members of the heart have not yet all become fully conscious of the light of God’s grace shining upon them . . . our intellect fell into a state of duality. . . . While the intellect tries to think continually of what is good, it suddenly recollects what is bad, since from the time of Adam’s disobedience man’s power of thinking has been split into two modes.”

[8] Diadochus, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination 2, 1:253; and Maximus, QThal 1.1.3; cf. Ep 2, PG 1, 397A, where fallen human beings are “the begetters of evil,” chief of which are ignorance, self-love, and tyranny. Note the order: I become ignorant of God and therefore of myself (self-love) and therefore of the true value of all others (tyranny).

[9] Evagrius, On Discrimination 20, 1:49–50 for the wounding thought; Maximus, QThal 16.5; and, finally, Maximus, Amb 7.21. In the very next paragraph, we find Maximus’s famous declaration: “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Amb 7.22).

[10] Evagrius, On Discrimination 13, 1:46–7 and 21, 1:51.

[11] Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 138 and 142.

[12] Williams, Looking East in Winter, 19; and Evagrius, On Discrimination 18, 1:49 and On Prayer 52, 1:61–2.

[13] Maximus, QThal 64.28.

[14] Origen, Or. 25.3.