I wonder how many of us really believe in the existence of evil. We believe in God. We believe that God loves us. We believe that God wants us to live forever. But do we believe also that the enemy of God is active in our world? I wonder.
Many people around the world know the reality of evil. People whose lives have been uprooted by the wars surrounding the Islamic State know about evil. People whose lives are left in tatters by poverty and abuse know about evil. Those of us who are relatively comfortable hear these stories on the news, or read about them in a letter sent to us, and we shudder, but our lives remain relatively comfortable. It’s harder for us to wrap our minds around the reality that our world is, as C.S. Lewis put it, “occupied territory”.
A World of Evil
Here is how Lewis describes it in Mere Christianity.
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. … Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.
Consider a very different voice. Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Traveled) wrote a book called The People of the Lie. Peck was a psychiatrist, trained in Western psychology and counselling to accept people non-judgmentally. He wrote The People of the Lie as an effort to reflect on evil as a reality that his training had not equipped him to understand. Encounters with his patients persuaded him that some people are emotionally bruised and need help to heal. But there were other patients who resisted healing, and were so self-centred that the only category that made sense to Peck to describe them was “controlled by evil”.
Peck is cautious in his description, working towards a psychology of evil, but is persuaded that we must name evil and face it. The essence of this evil is to lie—not big lies that are easily seen through, but a web or tissue of little lies that effectively hide the truth of oneself, even from the person who tells the lies.
Listen to another voice, this time from an Episcopalian priest from the USA named Fleming Rutledge, who was interviewed for the March edition of Christianity Today. Here is a part of the interview:
I believe, along with others, that the problem of evil is the central conundrum of Christian theology. Philip Yancey calls it “the question that will not go away.” We have just lived through a century of genocide. We have entered a new century of terrorism. And to act as though simply talking about resurrection is adequate to the horrors of our time is irresponsible. And it is untrue to what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. I believe that the Crucifixion specifically discloses what God has done and will do about radical evil.
She continues, reflecting on the brutality of the cross:
Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the worst of the worst. It was so bad that good Roman citizens didn’t discuss it in public …. Why this method and not another? Because it corresponds to the depth of depravity caused by human rebellion against God. It shows how bad things really are with us. No wonder we don’t want to look at it. Yet again, the African American church has never been afraid to look at it. It gives them hope. It gives them strength. It gives them comfort.
It is not just the news headlines, then, that lead us to fear for our world. Careful reflective voices from a variety of backgrounds speak of the evil that lies within the human psyche. This is an important point. There is an unstated assumption in North America about much of life. We assume that people are essentially good and that our underlying instinct is to do what is right. But the reality of human evil in our world suggests a different truth: That people are essentially twisted and deformed inside, and our underlying instinct is to do what is wrong.
Peck describes this twisted bent in us as “negative narcissism”: That is, the streak within a person that makes that person bad is a complete and destructive focus on himself or herself. When human beings put themselves at the centre of their moral reasoning, they put themselves on the path to becoming evil. The evil is small at first, but it grows and grows until it consumes the whole person.
Healing the Evil Within
Notice how the psychiatrist, Scott Peck, responds to human evil. Here’s what he says:
The methodology of our assault—scientific and otherwise—on evil must be love. This is so simple-sounding that one is compelled to wonder why it is not a more obvious truth. The fact is, that simple-sounding though it may be, the methodology of love is so difficult in practice that we shy away from its usage. At first glance it even appears impossible. How far is it possible to love people who are evil? Yet that is precisely what I am saying we must do. … We must start from an a priori position of love for them.
Let me return to the dilemma I faced in dealing with Charlene [one of his clients]. She insisted that I love her unconditionally, as if she were an infant without stain. But she was not an infant. And I could not find it in my heart to affirm her in her evil as she so desperately wanted. Is it not evil itself to love evil?
The resolution of this dilemma is a paradox. The path of love is a dynamic balance of opposites, a painful creative tension of uncertainties, a difficult tightrope between extreme but easier courses of action. … We must somehow be both tolerant and intolerant, accepting and demanding, strict and flexible. An almost godlike compassion is required.
Do you begin to see? If we wish to heal the evil in our world, or at least to see it healed, we must learn to love with God’s love. In Jesus, God is willing to receive into the very self of God all of our rebellion and nastiness and ugliness—so ugly and nasty that it looks like a man nailed to a cross where he hangs until he dies.
When we give up our rebellion and in tears and sorrow turn back to God, then God’s love takes us and remakes us from the inside out, fully re-created in God’s image. And we, in our turn, begin to love the people around us with God’s love.
A brief side note here. We might think that the response to evil, the lies of our lives, is simply the light of truth. Indeed it is. As Jesus says, he is the way, the truth, and the life. Healing comes from God’s truth about ourselves. But it takes love to shine the light of truth steadily into the darkness of deceit until the evil is fully destroyed. That is one of the lessons that comes out of Peck’s book, The People of the Lie. Love is the action of bringing truth to bear in the relationship.
So finally we come to the texts. Hear them briefly.
After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, he told them to serve each other in the same way. Then he gave words that Paul calls “the law of Christ”: 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The action at this stage in the gospel is moving towards the cross. In the next scene Peter says he will never leave Jesus, and Jesus says, “But you will deny me.”
Even when we have experienced God’s love and transformation, becoming truly God-centred is hard. Like Peter, we will fail.
The action of Acts 10 and 11 is a pivotal moment in the life of the first church. They had grasped the central importance of loving each other. The summaries of chapters two and four show a body of believers who cared for each other so fully that they met everyone’s needs as they became known.
The way that Luke repeats the narrative in chapters 10 and 11 shows how important the event was. In Acts 10, Peter has his vision of God’s action cleansing the Gentiles as well as the Jews. His report in Acts 11 makes it clear that he gets it: He realizes that “love each other as I have loved you” includes loving Gentile followers of Jesus as well. But learning to really love the other is harder than responding to a vision one time. In Galatians 1 Paul talks about how Peter turned his back on Gentile believers when Jewish believers criticized him. It took the further council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to continue the change in his life.
Both of these passages make it clear that God’s love is at work, and that God’s love changed Peter radically. But the process of change takes time, and there are many false steps, many failures on the way. We meet God in some experience or other. We embrace the hurting marginalized people around us. We commit ourselves to live more simply and to work on behalf of those most in need. Perhaps you responded to the writing of Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical).
But then it gets too hard. Another article in the March Christianity Today describes it like this: “The stories of those driven to change veer wildly all over the map. There are countless long-term disciples, missionaries, lawyers, artists, and community activists. But there are also more than a few people who have burned out in spectacular ways, succumbed to disillusionment or bitterness, or simply faded into a life lived for oneself.” When it gets hard, we hear the passage from Revelation 21:1-6
21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
As Lewis said, we live in occupied territory, and we must take the reality of evil in our world seriously. But God’s love is deeper than human failure and rebellion. God’s love wins, and God’s love working in us brings eternal joy to us in the end.
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.
Amen and amen.
Grace Bible Church
24 April 2016
Texts Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35