Romans 12:9-16

What Is Evil?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

My homeroom teacher in seventh grade was Mrs. Sparks. She was also my English teacher. She was of the old school, a strict disciplinarian. Every morning she’d write a memory verse from the Bible on the blackboard and have us copy it, word for word, into a special section in the back of our Blue Horse notebooks. Next to the Ten Commandments, she was big on the Psalms and Proverbs, especially those that had practical application for seventh grade boys.

She’d pick verses like,

• “One who spares the rod hates his son.” (Proverbs 13:24)

• “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)

• “A fool despises his father’s correction, but he who heeds reproof shows prudence.”

(Proverbs 15:5)

• And one I’ll always remember: “Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14)

I don’t recall if she ever quoted Paul, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find in the back of my notebook this verse from his Letter to the Romans: “Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good.” (Romans 12:9b) You don’t have to be a seventh grader to appreciate the wisdom of that.

The question is what is evil?

The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. In the Dark Ages we find a close connection between evil and ignorance. For example, too much dissonance in music was thought to be the work of the devil. Even today we’re a little suspicious of things we don’t understand. Take the whole science of genetics. Is it morally wrong to clone an animal or seek to alter the human gene structure? Or euthanasia. Is Jack Kevorkian the devil incarnate or a caring physician ahead of his time? These are complex issues, and, too often we’re quick to write them off as evil without ever giving them a second thought.

We’re also quick to demonize those things that run contrary to our core values. Remember the song Harold Hill sang to the folks in Gary, Indiana?

“Oh, ya got trouble,” he said,
“Trouble in River City.
It starts with ‘T’
and that rhymes with ‘P’
and that stands for pool.”

Now, I admit, I’ve been to some pool halls that were dens of iniquity, but I’ve also shot pool in rec. centers and nursing homes. Why, we have a pool table in the youth room of this church!

Is playing pool any more or less evil than, say, playing bridge or tennis or golf? What about going to the horse races or playing the slots? I met a man on my vacation who’d recently retired. I asked him what he enjoyed doing, if he had any hobbies. He said, “Well, I like to gamble.” I was mildly offended. And yet, is it wrong to gamble? It’s your money.

When I was growing up, the Southern Baptists said that dancing was of the devil. Is it, really?

In my early ministry, someone said the greatest evil to plague the church was the mimeograph machine, when we started mass producing bulletins and newsletters and all sorts of printed materials and, in many ways, lost the personal touch.

I saw an article just this week that said PowerPoint is an evil force in the church today. For all I know, they may have said the same thing about the pipe organ years ago.

In his great hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory, Harry Emerson Fosdick writes, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore …”

Well, what evils do you deplore? My own list includes soap operas, credit card debt, the Texas Lottery, talk radio, Howard Stern, rap music and plastic flowers, to name a few. See what I mean? These are personal prejudices, not necessarily evils … well, except for Howard Stern … I’m pretty sure I’m right about him … and maybe plastic flowers, too. The point is we’re quick to demonize those things that run contrary to our core values.

So, what is evil? The Encarta Dictionary defines evil as “that which is morally bad or wrong, or that which causes harm, pain or misery.” That seems overly subjective to me. Webster says evil is “something that brings sorrow, distress or calamity.” Well, that could be just about anything! Is evil like pornography – hard to define, but easy to recognize when you see it?

I like what St. Augustine said. He said evil is the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light. Evil is that which has no redeeming value.

Let’s make it simple and say that evil is anything, anywhere that leads us away from God and out of sorts with each other. In this sense, it’s not always the thing that’s evil, but how we use it, and the effect it has on us and the community in which we live.

In Paul’s day, the church in Corinth was divided over the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed in the worship of idols. Some said you shouldn’t eat meat offered to idols because it was desecrated, that it was profane. Others asked, “Why not?” As far as they were concerned, the meat was edible regardless of where it had come from. Paul said both sides were missing the point. He said,

“…for the Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,
but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit…
All things indeed are clean,
however it is evil for that man who creates a stumbling block by eating…
(so) It is good to not eat meat, drink wine,
nor do anything by which your brother stumbles, is offended, or is made weak.” (Romans 14: 17, 20-21)

So, it’s not always the thing that’s evil, but how you use it, and the effect it has on you and the community in which you live.

Where does evil come from, anyway? To some extent, it comes from the heart. We take the gifts of God’s grace and love, and then we twist them and distort them and use them in all sorts of perverse and evil ways.

Take human sexuality, for example. It’s one of God’s most precious gifts, and in the context of a loving, committed relationship – and in accordance with God’s laws – it can be an expression of immense pleasure and affirmation and joy. But it can be used in ungodly ways – ways that abuse and exploit others, ways that can lead to incest, rape and adultery.

Sexuality is not evil. It’s a gift of God. But it can be expressed in evil ways.

The same can be said of money. Some say money is the root of all evil. That’s not what the Bible says. The Bible says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) Money can be the source of a lot of happiness if you use it faithfully. It can provide the means by which to accomplish great things. It can alleviate pain and hunger and suffering. But it can also lead to a life of greediness and over-consumption.

Money has an addictive quality – the more you have, the more you want. And that leads to a paradox: The more you have, the less pleasure it brings.

But again, it’s not money that’s evil, but how it’s used and the effect it has on you and your relationships with others, whether or not it brings you closer together in the unity of God’s Spirit.

I could list any number of other examples, but you get the point: Evil comes from the heart, as we take the gifts of God’s grace and love and twist them and distort them and misuse them in all sorts of perverse ways and sinful ways. Paul knew this better than most. He said,

“For I don’t know what I am doing.
For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do…
But if what I don’t desire, that I do…
I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present.”
(Romans 7:15-21)

In many ways, evil comes from the heart. But let’s not be naïve – evil also exists in the world today, separate and apart from us, and, if we’re not careful, it has the potential to destroy us.

Consider terrorism, for example. Tell me that’s not evil. Or methamphetamines. Or child pornography. These are only a few of the godless realities rampant in our world today. And did I mention Howard Stern?

In the baptismal vows, we find this question: “Trusting in the gracious mercies of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce all evil and its power in the world?” I included this in the question I asked Todd and Kathy, as they brought Haley to be baptized:

“… and will you, for her sake,

turn from the ways of sin

 and renounce all evil and its power in the world?”

Loving parents have to be on guard every moment to protect their children from the evils of this world, and so do we.

Let me ask straight out: Have you ever felt you were in the presence of evil, that you were surrounded by evil spirits? I felt that way for the first time in 1988. Up to then, I assumed evil was simply a reflection of our sinful nature, that good people could be mean-spirited at times.

And they can. But, as soon I learned, there’s much more to it than that.

I was serving a church in another state. I was engrossed in my work and, at first, didn’t notice the bizarre things going on around me. Then I began to sense an air of deception and deceit. I heard my words twisted and distorted and used against me. I found myself the target of hostility. On more than one occasion I feared for my life. And I wasn’t the only one. Twice, our children were the object of unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.

At Donna’s insistence, we moved back to Texas. Shortly after we moved, the senior pastor was nearly bludgeoned to death in the hallway outside his office by an unknown assailant. I’m not making this up. It was a dangerous place to be.

Since then I’ve come to recognize that there is, indeed, an evil spirit at work in the world.

Call it the devil, if you like. I think of it as the antithesis of the Holy Spirit. Where the Holy Spirit is the source of peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control, this evil spirit is just the opposite. It’s the source of vulgarity and manipulation and division and strife.

As I said earlier, we have to be careful and not confuse evil simply with things we don’t understand or things we don’t like. And we have to be doubly careful not to equate evil with individuals with whom we differ … and, as much as it grieves me to say this, that includes Howard Stern. At the same time, we need to recognize evil for what it is – the absence of God – and we need to be bold enough to name it and renounce it and not let it have the upper hand.

The Good News is we have the power not only to withstand the forces of evil, but to exorcise them and hold them at bay. And that power comes to us in the person and the Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ.

Next time you feel the presence of evil around you, whisper to yourself – or dare to say out loud: “In the name of Jesus Christ I forbid you. Leave me and my loved ones alone.” It’s like shining a light on cockroaches – the demons will scatter in every direction.

Well, I’m not the first to make this discovery. It’s what Martin Luther said years ago. And so, I think it’s only fitting to close with his words:

“And though this world, with devils filled,

 should threaten to undo us,

we will not fear for God hath willed

his truth to triumph through us.

The prince of darkness grim,

we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

 for lo, his doom is sure;

One little word shall fell him.

(A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, vs. 3)

Let us pray: “Our Father in heaven… Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one”  Amen.

Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.