Last week, the six week season of Lent began. It is a time of year when over the centuries people have taken time to hit the pause button and spend time to think about Jesus, turn their lives back to Him, and to invest energy in confronting those things that get in the way of a relationship with God.
It is the time of year to focus on where we would be without a Savior, and our shared need for forgiveness for things we have done and for things we did not do but perhaps should have. It is a time of year to explore feelings of guilt we may have and how to work through them. It is a time of year to seek reconciliation when possible if such reconciliation would neither be toxic nor destructive. And it is the time of year to think about our own mortality and what death would mean without Easter.
But it is also the season to take a very tough subject seriously. A season to get into something that makes most of us feel uncomfortable, to say the least. That topic, evil. It is important to point out that every year, the readings for the first Sunday in Lent are about Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
If we don’t take evil seriously, our very lives and our future in just about every domain is threatened. Like not cleaning out a wound even though it hurts to do so, ignoring evil can lead to some pretty bad stuff and consequences that make an infected wound look like a cake walk.
CS Lewis once said something like, “There are two opposite but equally dangerous mistakes people make. Some people perseverate on evil and focus on it so much that they can’t stop thinking about it or attributing everything bad that happens to it. Other people do something equally damaging. They ignore evil or simply don’t want to deal with it.”
I know first hand, in my own life, that some of what has befallen me and those I love comes directly from evil. On the other hand, some of what we have endured is simply due to the frailties of life or the consequences of free will.
While I can’t possibly say everything there is to say about evil in a short article, I’d like to point out some ways in which evil messes with us and some things to keep in mind when dealing with it.
The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us that regardless of how good we are. No matter how much our lives are about love of other people and of God. Despite integrity, morality, ethics, and a long list of good works. Even if we are extremely active in church and pray and read the Bible.
Just as the devil went after Jesus who had all these qualities and many more, the devil will go after us. Goodness and wholeness by itself doesn’t mean evil doesn’t want to get us. In fact, just the opposite.
I have shared with our board and our staff over the years that the more we get it right, the more we move toward Jesus, the more effective we become in reaching people, the more evil itself will go after us to try and get us, derail us, and destroy what God is doing through us.
And the closer any of us gets to Jesus and the more faithful we become, the more we become a target for the Wiley one. Evil’s intention is to get each of us off track with God, to lead us away from God, and ultimately to move us to a place where we conclude there is no God.
Secondly, the story of Jesus’ temptation tells us that evil tends to go after our most vulnerable spots.
In the midst of our strengths, and gifts, and strong points, every one of us has weak spots. Every one of us have places where needs aren’t or haven’t been met. Every one of us carries a sense of emptiness, or hurt, or lack of fulfillment when it comes to certain things or areas in our lives. Every one of us is made out of flesh and blood with physical and emotional needs. All of us have issues of some sort.
And it is precisely to such places that evil likes to reside and hang around, waiting for the right opportunity to put a thought in our minds or a craving into our bodies. Frequently evil does so in ways that are profoundly subtle.
C.S. Lewis writes, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Third the story of the temptation of Jesus tell us that while evil goes after our vulnerable spots, evil can also pursue us when we are feeling strong, all together, or like we have it made.
Jesus was led into temptation in the midst of one of the most amazing experiences of His life, His baptism. It was a pinnacle peak moment when it became clear who Jesus really was. And I believe it is clear that we can be vulnerable to evil at our peak and pinnacle moments as well.
Fourth, the story of Jesus’ temptation illustrates how evil causes people of faith to use scripture in a way that ends up serving evil, not God.
How many churches used to use scripture to justify the evil institution of slavery? How many women have suffered abuse at the hands of a husband who quotes scripture and says, “Wives be subject to your husbands?”
How many children are beaten in the name of God based on the taken out of context spare the rod verse. How many small groups of people have come together and said, “When two or three are gathered, God is among us, so what we are doing is holy and righteous and right?”
How often on the news do we hear Christians quoting scripture with red faces and messages of hate? How often do we hear some Christian leaders proclaim on behalf of God who is going to hell and who is not?
The scary truth is that evil sometimes uses the word of God itself to get people and to lead people away from God who is love.
I have just shared some of the ways in which evils attempts to pull us into darkness. Evil goes after us when we are getting it right and getting closer to Jesus. Evil pursues us in our weak spots and places in our lives in which we are vulnerable. Evil seeks us out when we are strong and successful or experiencing a peak or pinnacle in life. And Evil twists and distorts our use of scripture.
While all of this is unsettling and there are in fact lots of other strategies evil uses, there are some basic things we can do to be on guard and to keep in mind. I’d like to close by briefly mentioning just a few.
First be careful with who or what you are following. For each of us there is something we follow the most. The list of choices is limitless and may include God, money, a relationship, a job, a place, a way of living, a belief system, a pattern of thinking, or even old wounds. The key is to be clear on what or whom we are following and to be intentional about it. Evil wants us to follow evil and there are lots of paths to do just that.
Secondly, be attentive to what or whose voice you listen and pay attention to. Each of us is bombarded by voices. Some come from outside of ourselves. Some come from within. God’s voice is consistent with love. God is love so therefore we should be very wary about paying attention to non-loving voices. God’s voice is also in alignment with scripture, with what is known as the fruit of the Spirit which are things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
Third, realize that anger, while human and sometimes justified, and ok, is a real danger zone and provides for fertile ground for evil. A great example of this is in the Book of Genesis and the story of when Cain kills his brother Abel. It is Cain’s anger that causes him to murder his brother.
In fact right before Cain does the killing, God warns Cain by saying in essence, “Cain, when you are filled with so much anger, a demon is crouching at your door to get you and your anger is something that will open up the door to that demon.”
Forth, being part of Christian community, going to church, and spending time with believers who are grounded is not only essential to our faith and walk with God, but a critical defense against evil subtly entering into our lives.
Fifth and perhaps obvious, is that if we want to defend ourselves against evil we need to pray and pray and pray and to know scripture. The more we know the story, the clearer we become on how evil works and how to defend against it in our lives. Ask God for protection from evil, just as Jesus taught us to do in the Lord’s prayer.
And finally, remember earlier I said that in the end God, not evil wins. Don’t shudder or live in fear or angst. Instead trust God and trust that God is in control always.
It is my prayer that each of us will take this tough subject sincerely. That we will remain vigilant in our own lives and work on cleaning out the evil that sometimes infects us all. Pay attention to evil. Be attentive. Take it seriously. And take comfort in knowing that through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, God dealt with evil.