We began our Lenten journey last Wednesday. Ashes were placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality – of the brevity of human life, and also of our need for penitence – the urgency with which we are to repent of our sin and live as grace-fully as possible in the days left to us. A favorite benediction of mine comes from the liturgy of the Episcopal Church: “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and the blessing of God will be with us.” Lent is our blessed opportunity to strengthen and deepen our efforts to get life right, both our journey of faith with God, and the daily walk we make with our fellow travelers.
On this first Sunday in Lent, it is the custom of most churches to reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ journey as the newly proclaimed Beloved Son of God. Immediately after his baptism, he goes to the wilderness to prepare himself for his ministry. He is tempted there by the devil, who recognizes Jesus as the one who has the power to bring about the ultimate victory of God – life beyond life – the triumph of love over hate, good over evil, the vanquishing of the devil’s plans to be ruler of this world, salvation. And so the devil tries mightily to throw Jesus off track – off the path of his journey. He tempts him sorely by appealing to his love for all humanity – proposing deals that will mean the end of hunger and poverty, unbelief, unjust rule – all the things that have compromised and ended billions of lives throughout time, and that still do so today. But Jesus cannot achieve the shalom of God on the devil’s terms. The choices placed before him on their surface are lovely, but they mask evil.
Evil is on my mind as I journey deeper into Lent this year. Jesus encountered evil as he traveled in the wilderness, evil of the profoundest kind, that which uses what is good about a person to effect what is bad, that which perverts what is strong about a person to serve what is weak, that which seeks to bring power or fortune to oneself at the heartless expense of others, and whose purpose is to defeat God. We live with evil – of course we do. We may not feel the devil – the Satan – walking next to us, whispering seductive ideas into our ears. We may not feel that improper choices by us will defeat God Almighty – we believe that the power of God is infinitely greater than that of our sin, and yet we know evil very well. This Lent I am reflecting on Christ’s encounter with evil. Not only did that encounter not leave Christ compromised in any way, it only made him stronger. How, I wonder, can our own unavoidable encounters with evil only make us stronger?
I’ve been referring to evil as something that we endure, but it is also something that we do . We don’t wake up in the morning, rub our hands together, and say, “I am going to head out there and be mean today!” We are, rather, brothers and sisters to the Apostle Paul, who told the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (7:19). Yes! Our intentions are only positive, but then it happens – we sneak in a comment about someone that we know will devastate the hearer. Envy, greed - the sins we work so hard against, and think we have under control, sneak up from some vile place in us and zap – we’ve done an evil thing purposefully . Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote that we don’t choose evil, we mistake it for happiness. How true – we are certain that we never would choose to do anything evil; we’re not that kind of people. But we want certain things so badly that we tell ourselves that the happiness they would bring is only a blessing, even a God-given one. Later on, it becomes clear to us that cheating on a partner was only evil, much as we once delighted in the joy and thrill of a new relationship, thinking of it as a gift . In hindsight, taking money from work is evil. It’s not an entitlement. It’s not fairness, even if the money brought genuine happiness to ourselves or those unsuspecting ones we love most. In hindsight, compromising the reputation of a colleague with whom we think we’re in competition is only wrong. How often do we not choose to do evil but mistake it for happiness, or the fair way forward.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The greatest of evils and worst of crimes is poverty.” I do believe there is such a thing as structural evil – not all people do – that the structures put in place by human societies can be the cause of evil or sin. Poverty persists, say many, because of human unwillingness to restructure the allocation mechanisms of money and wealth. Discrimination in many forms is embedded into many social structures which simply need to be reshaped and redefined so that the equal dignity of all people is always the result. Sometimes, as with poverty, the evil that we do is not so much a sin of commission but a sin of omission – we continue to let it happen, we do nothing. We make our peace with evil in our midst and declare ourselves to be practical . It was Gandhi who said that non-cooperation with evil is a sacred duty.
Ethicists and theologians sometimes distinguish between “natural” evils and “moral” ones. The natural ones are those that simply happen to all humanity – the devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, for example. The “moral” ones are the ones with human intention behind them – stealing, killing. The “Black Death” that killed up to a third of the European population was a natural evil; the Holocaust in Europe in the Second World War was a moral one. Humans set out to do it. Often, we think of evil as being a product of human malice, not just anything that is bad, painful, even life-threatening. But speak to anyone who has lost someone they dearly love to a “natural” evil and you will find that they don’t care about such distinctions. The death of their beloved is an example of evil, through and through, and it can be a serious blow to faith.
As I reflect on what the devil, the embodiment of evil, was doing in tempting Jesus, I see that Satan was trying to get Christ to turn away from his trust in God. The evil one sought to make Christ doubt that God could be trusted, that the ministry set before Jesus would be worth the suffering and difficulties, that God was a being to be followed and worshipped, that God might not be the source of salvation, that God was not all-powerful, all loving, and especially that the plan of God for the salvation of humanity could be effectively fast-forwarded by the devil’s fine suggestions. Jesus’ encounter with evil only made him stronger because he did maintain his trust in God throughout. Presented with temptations, with power, with sure-fire plans and an argument for “common sense”, Christ held firm in his trust in God. He quotes back to the evil one the biblical texts that testify so strongly to God’s power, presence, and infinite might. This, I think, is the foundation for each of us as we navigate our own struggles with evil. If we can maintain our trust in the God who is always there, we will make our way through our own wildernesses only deepened in faith, emboldened to run with courage the race that God has set before us .
Our continuing trust in God is our foundation for resisting evil, and thanks be to God. But when evil comes, and it always does, what more does our faith compel us to do? Jesus made it his opportunity to effect only more goodness, even salvation. Dr. King said, “Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil, He overcame evil with good.” Jesus actually took his encounters with indescribable evil - in the wilderness, on the cross – as mandates to do good. He made of them the opportunity to practice goodness. He worked goodness out of it. He turned evil upside down and put it on its head – was evil supposed to thwart goodness? Jesus made sure it only enabled it. Was evil supposed to show that God is weak? Jesus showed through his encounters with evil that God is the strongest force in the universe, bar none.
Thinking of it this way – that our experiences of evil are our opportunity to bring goodness out of suffering or barbarism – has helped me greatly. I think I understand better Aquinas when he says, “Take away all evil and much good would go with it. God’s care is to bring good out of evils which happen, not to abolish them.” I must join the great majority of humanity in wishing that God really would simply abolish evil, and do it now . But St. Thomas prompts me to wonder what the evil I experience may have to teach me. Jesus, I believe, was truer to God’s purpose for him in having endured the temptations of the ruler of evil. What holy truths are there for me to learn, in what ways might I grow, because of my encounters with evil? How might you grow? How have you? What have your experiences taught you ? God uses evil, Aquinas says, God has a holy purpose in it. To lose evil from the world would erase much of the goodness we know. When we feel we are suffocating in the clutches of evil, I hope that I and that you can retain the presence of spirit to look everywhere in our suffering for God’s redemptive purposes in it.
It was through the profoundest evil, Calvary’s cross, that God effected our eternal redemption, our salvation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It was Christ who taught us to say, as we will later in this hour, “and deliver us from evil.” Christ is the deliverer from evil, he who endured it, too. The cross is Christianity’s great answer to the fact of evil – it says that there is no evil so profound as to be stronger than God; there is no evil that is strong enough to be the End; there is no evil so powerful that it can’t be turned in Goodness by God, not even the cross. Skeptics say that the cross is evil, and that those of us who wear crosses around our necks are really deluded about it. Christians respond that the cross is evil, and that it is the very portal of God’s salvation. The cross transcends all the evil we humans can muster and fling at one another. God’s power over all evil is infinitely strong, because God’s love for us is infinite .
I hope that you will remain untouched by evil this Lent and always, while I pray that, when evil should come, your trust will be in God, and your faith in the power and love of God to vanquish evil in due time and transform it into good, so that, like Christ, your every encounter with evil will only make you stronger.
The Living Pulpit, “Evil”, vol. 1, no. 4, 1992.