“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Evil (Gk. poneros, hurtful behavior to self or others).
The Evil that Men Do
The news channel reported the tragic story. Todd Bridges, star of the show television sitcom Different Strokes (1978-1985), was arrested and held without bail. He was charged with being a menace to society after having shot a man five times and then tried to slash his throat. A book on the market begins with these words, “What time was it? Three AM? Four AM? It did not matter. Time had stopped. His mother was dead. His brother was hysterical. His father had blood all over his shirt.”
From that moment in September 1984, 19-year-old Roby Marshall and his brothers, Chris and John, lived in a nightmare that seemed to have no end. First came the shock of their mother’s murder. Maria Marshall was shot in a deserted highway picnic area where her husband had pulled over to check a flat tire.
As horrible as that night had been worst horrors awaited the Marshall boys. Rob Marshall confessed to his sons that he was deeply in love with one of their neighbors, who would be moving in, and that he had forged their mother’s signature on a second mortgage to cover his massive debts. He also told them that he had taken out a $1.5 million life insurance policy on their mother and that in the eyes of the police that would make him a suspect.
The scene now shifts. In the southern California community of Wilmington there is an area described in news reports as a “1950s prototype of the close-knit all-American neighborhood.” Some families lived there for 20 to 30 years, and now overlap through children who have grown up together and intermarried. On the evening of January 14, 1983, the community gathered to celebrate a baptism. Shortly after midnight the party was attacked with guns and knives by members of a street gang from South Los Angeles, a few miles away. Within seconds, dead and dying young men were scattered across the streets, sidewalks, and lawns.
Wounded men, women, and children twisted in agony, their bodies and lives forever damaged. Sometime later a young woman from the community looked back on the horror filled scene in bewilderment. Why? That’s what everybody wants to know. Why did something like this happen? The sad statistics of man’s inhumanity to man is astonishing. Within a lifetime these things have happened. Six hundred thousand men, women, and children starved to death in the Nazi siege of Leningrad during WW II (1941-19445). Untold millions died as Estonia, China, and Cambodia underwent forced collectivization.
On August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, and multitudes of people were melted outright, or turned slowly into dying, ugly, deformed monstrosities.
In the U.S. of America, 50,000 little children disappear every year, most never to be heard from again, perhaps to be sexually abused and killed or enslaved. We now have 600,000 young people under the age of 16 who earn their living as prostitutes. In the U.S. a black market for children is reported to exist where a white male child has a going price of $30,000, with other types going for less.
Battering and abuse within families passes itself on from generation to generation seeming to grow more widespread as the social structures grows more and more fragmented and inhumane. And the victims find less and less in their surroundings to sustain and redirect them. In our society virtue is scorned and evil is glorified. One of the most popular TV shows is Dallas. Another is Miami Vice. MTV runs the bizarre and mindless noise of rock music 24 hours a day. And yet for all of this we still seemed surprised at evil. “We ask each other, why?”
Dallas Willard makes some very penetrating insights into evil in his book, The Spirit of the Discipline. I am indebted to him for the way he can crystallize the issue of evil.
The first thing Dallas Willard addresses is our constant surprise at the expression of evil. “Why should we ask why?” “What is it about our lives that always leaves us astonished and wondering at the evils people do?”
Four elements can be observed.
First, there is the well-known psychological mechanism of denial. If we as individuals, and as a society, simply ignore a problem, maybe it will go away. It never does of course.
Second, there is the fact that on most occasions, most people do treat others well. These are exceptions, but most of us make it through a day without much conflict.
A third element is that of nationalization. We suspect, or assume that the “normal” person is intermittently good, and unless pressured would not hurt others, or wish them harm.
However, the real reason we are surprised is because deep down we simply wish to continue living as we now live and continue being the kinds of people we are. If the truth were stated we do not want to change. Even though we can recognize that change would be better, we do not want our little world to be different. It is essential to understand this last concept because it helps to explain why “decent” individuals, like you and me, will harm others or allow harm to come to others when the conditions are right. That readiness to hurt others, comes into play whenever it will help us realize our goals of security, ego gratification, or satisfaction of bodily desire.
A Christian woman said she did not understand why her friends of so many years were not speaking to her. She is surprised, but she also need not be. The point is simple. She is merely supporting an unpopular issue. Would you like to see how easy it is to bring out the “evil” side of the heart? Simply call someone to repent, to change their lifestyle and conform to the image of Christ.
Even among religious people you will find readymade excuses as to why the Christian life is too demanding, too idealistic, and therefore can be ignored for practical purposes. Jesus Christ was crucified in part because He made too many people uncomfortable. He threatened their little world of righteousness and exposed the evil in their self-righteous hearts. Do not misunderstand.
“The level of this deadly readiness” to do evil in all of its forms is variable from individual to individual, but it is very high in almost everyone. It is no mere abstract possibility but a genuine tendency, constantly at work. It does not take much to get most people to lie for example. The early church had a problem in this area which is why Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:25 “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of another.”
Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. Promise after promise is made and not kept.
Sometimes the intention is good, but a lot of times words of commitment are made without the least intention of being honored (on time or if at all. Of course, others are supposed to understand. People get away with that type of behavior because to call them into account is very, very painful and most people simply do not want to go through the emotional outburst that is certain to come. The Christian is to speak the truth in love. Ephesians 4:15 “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”
Again, it does not take much to get most people to take what does not belong to them and it is shameful how little it takes to get people to think how nice it would be if certain others were dead. This basic “readiness” for various kinds of wrong doing in our attitudes and in our actions will constantly be provoked into activity by threatening circumstances. And when we act, others around us will, of course, react.
And then we will react to them, and so forth, until we and others are stunned into silence by the spiraling disasters of broken relationships. What individuals are ready to do, what sits in them ready to burst forth, goes far to explain why people do the terrible things they do. People are set to do them. There is a real presence of evil scarcely beneath the surface of every human action and transaction.
But this still does not go far enough. The magnitude of evil in human deeds is also a result of the institutional structures or common practices that emerge at the social level in politics, art, business, journalism, education, the family life, government service, sexual and family relations, sports and entertainment. Consider the following. This is our system.
“A woman who earns half a million dollars per year on Wall Street is “more acceptable” to her colleagues if she uses cocaine, so she surrenders to this force, this practice in the world around her, as it plays upon her desires (James 1:14). Another woman is able to get parts in dramatic productions and advance in her career as an actress by being appropriately “available” to men who make decisions. A contractor can meet his budget by skimping on materials and bribing an “understanding” inspector. A worker in a plant is excluded from training in advanced techniques because he is an American Indian.
A professor is influenced in his grading by the need to have many students, or he manufactures data in order to get grants, produce publications, and gain advancements over his colleagues. A young black woman cannot train well enough to get a scholarship to a university because her high school is not supported financially.
A minister shades his example and teaching to the inclinations of his “more important” hearers to gain their support and advance his career.”
Al Martin, the former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, New Jersey, speaks of pastors being bought with a smile or frown.
Every single day in countless ways, the system of the world is pressuring people into its mold. Some of us want a way out. Some people want to be different. How is evil to be combated in self and in others?
There are two basic ways to combat evil.
First, a person must agree with the teaching of the Word of God that the heart is desperately wicked. The heart is deceitful above all things. All the denial, wishful thinking, good deeds, and self-protection will not change the fact. God has spoken. When this is honestly faced as a matter of actual truth and not a theological concept, there is freedom to have an honest distrust of self. In this honesty, God can be called upon to help. There is also freedom to confess sin as Isaiah and Peter and David did. James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another.”
The second way to combat evil is to speak the truth. Speaking the truth in love is not easy and yet, somewhere along the road to righteousness, the church of Jesus Christ must become a little bit more honest with itself, and with the world. There is an undercurrent of evil that is ready to spill over from time to time if we are not careful.
The poison in the pot can be clearly identified. One item is lack of self-discipline. Another item is willfulness, your will against God. Another item is broken promises and un-kept commitments. Another morsel in the pot is distrust. Another is resentment. Another is name calling.
Sin in the soul is obvious. The Holy Spirit must do His own work of conviction. We must do our work of confessing specific attitudes and actions as sin, we must do our work of repenting or changing the way we think and treat each other. We must do our work of seeking God to forgive and to transform us so that we will be different.
For better or for worse, the Word of God is set before you. You can either become defensive and deny there is any real problem, or God can do a wonderful work of grace in our midst. The evil that men do is real. After today, do not ask why. Rather ask, “Lord, show me my evil that I may confess it, forsake it, and guard my heart against it.”
It is characteristic of a Christian to do this. It is a characteristic of a Christian to have an honest, insightful understanding of the human heart and of the evil that men do. What is the condition of your heart today? Have you ever cried out with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips?” Have you ever, like Peter, fell down at the feet of Jesus and confessed, “I am a sinful man O Lord.” Has the horrors of sin ever captured your soul to the point that you groan in agony with Paul and say, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Until the heart is dealt with there is not salvation, and no progress in sanctification. The evil that men do, the evil that self does will continue to surprise and be justified. The Christian is different. The Christian says, “I know that evil lurks in my heart. I know I have to be on guard. I will pray to Jesus to cleanse me and control me.”