This was a short talk I gave last Sunday morning at a retreat.
“The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” – Irenaeus
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
– John 10:10
Talking about resisting evil might sound a little bit strange in our modern world. We tend to reserve the word evil for really atrocious stuff, like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, ISIS, and so on. We do this partly because we want to separate and distance ourselves from the most obvious and extreme forms of evil so that we’re not responsible, and so though our conscience feels clean – so that we don’t have to acknowledge the evil in our own hearts.
Early on in Church history, one Christian theologian named Augustine defined evil as simply the absence of God, or absence of good. In other words, evil is the absence of the abundant life that Jesus promises. That may sound like a pretty tame definition at first, but it rightly emphasizes that good and evil are not equal but opposite forces. Evil only has the power that we give to it. It’s like a parasite. It doesn’t stand by itself. It has to attach to something.
One of the most common metaphors for good and evil is light and darkness. I find that this is an even more helpful way to illustrate evil, because again, light and darkness don’t work the same way. If you turn on a light in the corner of a room, it can light up almost the whole area. Darkness works differently. I can’t turn on darkness. But I can cast a shadow by turning my back on the light.
See, God’s light shines everywhere, but God gives us the room and the freedom to resist the light by turning inward on ourselves and living in that shadow. Individuals do this, and groups can also do this. And this darkness that we create is the breeding ground for evil. It’s the absence of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of what we might call a demonic spirit.
Just using the Holocaust illustration again – thinking about how this is probably the most radical example of evil we’ve seen in the last 100 years: A group has to circle the wagons, close in on itself, which prevents any outside light, God’s light, from coming in, and then it starts to see itself as the one, true, good, righteous group, and to see all other groups and people, or especially one other group of people – in this case, the Jews – as the enemy, as evil, and as the problem. By locating evil outside of themselves, they, and we, become blind to the evil within.
Beginning in the Gospels, this same evil force gets personified in the figure of Satan, and Jesus himself is tempted by Satan after the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to fast for 40 days. And of course Jesus also resists evil by casting out what are called demons or “unclean spirits” in the Gospels. I will come back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in a moment.
Returning the analogy of light and darkness, Jesus says, I am the light of the world! And then Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that he has come that we might have life to the full, and life abundantly. So this kind of life, full of light and abundance, full of what one author I like calls “aliveness,” is supposed to be central to the Christian faith, and to our experience of following Jesus. Honestly though, a lot of times, it’s not. Many times we don’t experience abundant life, and it may leave us frustrated and confused. Because here’s the deal: nobody accidentally finds abundant life. You’re not just going to stumble into it, or follow your natural inclinations and fully experience it. It takes great intentionality and diligence. More than that, we often think that abundant life means the presence of comfort and the absence of suffering. Just by looking at Jesus own life though, it should be clear to us that abundant life may come with great hardship – joy and peace and contentment, but still hardship.
Another reason we miss out on abundant life, is because we fail to realize and appreciate that this life is a battle, and a war against evil. The difficulty though is understanding how this evil operates. The best illustration of how evil works that I know of is found in the story I mentioned a moment ago in Matthew 4 in which Jesus is tempted by Satan.
A few chapters later in Matthew Jesus says that the path that leads to destruction is wide and many people are on it. This isn’t about hell or afterlife. He’s talking about abundant life, and un-abundant life. Then Jesus says that the path leads to abundant life is narrow and few find it! Again, not because only a small number of people are forgiven or saved, but because only a small percentage of people actually decide to live into this truth.
Getting back to Jesus’ temptation now: You could say Jesus is tempted by the three P’s: (the worship of, or the idolatry of) Pleasure, People, and Power. Or, borrowing from what Thomas Keating says, which I referenced in the previous post, Jesus, like all of us, was confronted with the enticement of:
- Comfort, survival and security (includes pleasure)
- esteem and admiration from others
- Power and control
None of these things is essentially bad, but the temptations Jesus faces are about their abuse – making these things god. I think this helps to demystify, or demythologize evil somewhat. It doesn’t make it any less serious, but it does make it less weird and spooky.
Evil doesn’t approach on its own. It always has a mask on, and the mask will generally fall into one of these three categories. And once we know how evil tends to show itself and confront us, we’re much more likely to be able to resist it.