Friday, September 17, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Four)

In Part Three, we considered Jesus' discourse in Mark 7 about defilement originating within us. Of the evils He wants us to overcome, external ones actually appear far down the list, for we, being the weak of the world, have little control over them. However, if we change what is inside, which we can control, our own external actions have a far better chance of being righteous. Vanquish the sins at their point of origin, and our deeds will be clean before God.

Far from perfect and peaceful, then, our Christian lives are a running battle to overthrow the accumulated remnants of evil from our pre-conversion lives, as well as what sins we retain and commit from that time forward. As Paul phrases it in his discussion of baptism in Romans 6, "the old man" with all of his sins is "crucified with Christ," doing away with the body of sin that had accumulated over a lifetime of rebellion against God. Coming up from the water, we are raised to an entirely new life—we are a "new man," who is now challenged to increase in righteousness day by day (Romans 6:11-14), even "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).

Despite experiencing God's forgiveness and being set on the right path, the evil nature that has grown within us for many years is not removed. It is not even fundamentally changed. It is still there, influencing our every decision, conscious or unconscious. This means that the fight between human nature and God's nature rages on (see Galatians 5:16-17). Many newly baptized church members are distressed about how soon they sin after baptism, and the reason is because God does not take away our evil nature. We must still engage it and overcome it.

What happens at baptism and the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit is that we are forgiven of all the evil we practiced before accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, and God gives us a measure of His Spirit to help us to transform into Christ's image. However, the poor habits, the bad attitudes, the wrong ideas, and all the ingrained behaviors that have built up over the years remain. The evils that we harbored and nurtured all the while we lived without the true knowledge of God linger on, and it becomes our Christian duty to put them down every day.

Many of us know Jeremiah 17:9 by heart, since it is a basic reality of the human condition. Nevertheless, do we really believe what God says here? God is speaking in this passage, giving an evaluation of mankind. In verses 5-6, He relates that curses come upon those who trust in men, and in verses 7-8, He reveals that blessings accrue to those who trust in Him. Verse 9, though, is not focused on the blessed or the cursed but on everyone, humanity as a whole. It reads, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"

God means this! Do we believe it? From a human perspective, what He says cuts to the quick anyone with a hint of pride. No one thinks of himself as thoroughly evil; in fact, most of us believe we are pretty good. We grew up among other Christians. We think we did a fair job of keeping the commandments. We try to get along with almost everyone. Yet, God's words bring us up short. Are we fooling ourselves? Are we really making a sincere effort to live God's way? Are the things that we do merely a show? Do we act as we do to make people like us? Are we in reality only conforming to peer-pressure? Do we do what we do for the right reasons? What condition are our hearts really in? God answers, "You can't know it. It is most desperately wicked and deceptive."

Further, whom does it deceive the most? Us! Upon acknowledging this revelation from God about ourselves, we have to ask, "Have my motives ever been good for doing anything?" Perhaps, since human nature is one of good and evil. However, God's answer in verse 10 is that only He really knows our real character—and thank God for that! We would despair to see ourselves as we really are, although part of the Christian life is endeavoring to realize just how corrupt our hearts actually are.

Recall the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is a perfect example of "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." He fools himself into thinking that, between himself and the publican, he is the good, upright one. He stands before the Temple, lifting his eyes toward heaven, taking a pious position as close as he can to the altar, thanking God that he was so much better than the wretched publican. Yet, Jesus informs us that the publican, not the Pharisee, "went down to his house justified rather than the other" (verse 14). The Pharisee may have been righteous in his own eyes, but not in God's.

The publican—a lying, cheating tax collector—was humble enough to realize that his heart was, indeed, desperately wicked. He probably did not know the depths of the evil that he could do, but he knew that he was a sinner and not worthy of approaching God. He understood that, next to God, he was dirt and less than dirt. He merely beseeches God to show him mercy. The one who earned Jesus' respect is the person who recognized the evil within himself!

In Jeremiah 17:9, God pulls no punches. The human heart—the seat of man's intellect, his emotions, his attitudes, his inclinations—is dishonest and evil. Most of us take evil far too lightly, especially the evil that is within us. We do not like to think of ourselves as evil. We always like to think that we are the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Everybody else has the problem. We tend to be quite quick to point the finger at others, all the while maintaining our own, lily-white innocence.

Such is the attitude that leads to sins like self-righteousness, pride, and sloth in overcoming and growing. This kind of self-justification can eventually manifest itself in poneros, active rebellion against God. If we reach the point where we think that we have nothing more to change or repent of, our growth will slow and soon stop altogether. Before long, our trajectory will be headed away from God because such an attitude is the exact opposite of what He is looking for in His children.

Our example of the Christian life is, of course, none other than Jesus Christ. We are Christians, His followers. To be a Christian is to live the life of Christ. Did He take evil lightly? A quick scan of the Gospel accounts will show that He encountered evil on a regular basis. He did not shrink from it, nor did He minimize it. He called it what it was and set His divine power against it, for that is the reason He came as a human being to this earth: to pay the price to conquer sin and Satan once and for all.

We have been called to follow His example of concentrating our power against the forces of evil, but our target is inward, staving off temptation, battling persistent sin, and clearing the field to produce good fruit in our lives. We will see more on this in Part Five.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Three)

Part Two began to explore the subject of carnality. When we are first born, our nature is essentially neutral, not having been affected one way or the other by outside influences. At birth, then, we are a tabula rasa, a blank slate. However, because we are clothed in flesh, with all of its needs and desires, we have a tendency toward evil, toward self-satisfaction and sheer selfishness. We humans generally do not want our flesh to be denied what we feel are necessary things—and what we believe is "necessary" varies with the individual.

By the time that we begin to think rationally and logically, we already have at least one foot on the evil side because human nature has begun to pull us in that direction. For all intents and purposes, a young child is helpless, so his parents or other caregivers find themselves constantly meeting his needs from food to hygiene to entertainment as soon as he cries. As children, then, we learn to fulfill the desires of our flesh. Thus, the apostle Paul teaches in
Romans 7:14 that carnal human beings tend to sell out to evil.

Matthew 7:11, part of the Sermon on the Mount, we receive a smack between the eyes, so to speak, from our Savior. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus says, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" We might feel slightly better about being called "evil" by our Lord if He had used the general Greek word for "bad," kakos, here, but sadly, He did not. Of course, He uses poneros, suggesting active, rebellious evil, as in the kind Satan does. Jesus does not pull His punches but matter-of-factly informs us that we are fundamentally wicked and depraved. The evil He spies in us is morally corrupt and in opposition to God.

Christ uses our evil nature as an example to contrast the goodness of God, who always gives good things. We are shown to be on one end of the moral spectrum as being evil—comparable to Satan, who is the quintessence of evil. At the far other end is God, who is transcendently and eternally good. Jesus concludes that between these two extremes there is little, if any, commonality—except that every once in a while, despite being evil, we condescend to do something good for our children.

Jesus' statement dovetails with what happened in the Garden of Eden. God instructed Adam and Eve not to take of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (
Genesis 2:16-17), which represented the full range of moral choice. We know that our first parents indeed took and ate of that forbidden tree, and ever since, with the exception of Jesus Christ, each individual among mankind has repeated the same process. In doing so, we have given ourselves permission to experience life through trial and error and then decide what is good and evil. Rather than teach us wisdom, as the serpent promised (Genesis 3:5-6), this course of action has fixed us on the debit side of the ledger—under the curse of sin—because our nature tends toward doing evil. As Paul declares in Romans 3:10, 23, "'There is none righteous, no, not one;' . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

This is not very encouraging, is it? Yet, these are the plain words of Scripture. Despite repenting and learning the truth, we Christians are a mixed bag, having a nature with a tendency towards evil and rebellion against God, but also divinely called (
John 6:44), given the Holy Spirit, and presented with the challenge to move from the evil side to the good side. In addition, though God has forgiven our past sins, we still carry with us a great deal of baggage from sinful things that we have done along the way. To complete His challenge to transform from evil to good, we are charged by God to overcome these difficult obstacles.

How aware are we of the evil within? Do we acknowledge, as Paul does, that evil is still present within us? Years ago, the cartoon character Pogo said in a comic strip, "We have found the enemy, and the enemy is us." How true that is spiritually. It is primarily the evil in us that we must recognize, face, and overcome if we are to grow in the image of Jesus Christ.

Without doubt, there is evil in the world. The world is composed of sinful people just like us—worse, they are unconverted, never having been offered the opportunity to be redeemed from the enslavement of sin. In this way, the evils that exist in the world, being so raw and blatant, are obvious and avoidable. It is quite easy to hear the news of a murder and see it as evil, and most of us are not the murdering type, so we find it easy to avoid this form of wickedness. In the end, the evils of the world are far down the list of our concerns because we lack the wisdom and power to change them. Ultimately—and realistically—we cannot do anything about them, except perhaps to be an example of goodness in a sin-blighted world. Our best play is to keep these evils from touching or tempting us and to overcome those that remain in us.

In the same vein, we cannot change Satan and the evils he inspires. Our Savior has already defeated him, and his doom is sealed. True, he still has power to influence us to disobey God, so we are called as soldiers to "resist him, steadfast in the faith" (
I Peter 5:9). But we fight Satan, not by frontal assault, but by indomitably defending our ground (Ephesians 6:10-13), and we accomplish this by avoiding temptation, doing good as we are able, and overcoming the evils within. It comes back to recognizing and fighting internal sin.

What is our spiritual duty? Notice what Jesus says in
Mark 7:14-16:
When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"
What is Jesus trying to tell us? "Work on yourself!" He advises. The evils that we have to recognize, face down, and obliterate are inside. They are the defiling sins that spring from our "deceitful . . . and desperately wicked" heart (Jeremiah 17:9). If we really want to clean up society and deny Satan victory over us, our job is to root out the evils within.

Jesus explains what His teaching means in a private discussion with His disciples:

What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man. (Mark 7:20-23)
That the sins that defile us are generated from inside is a point He wants us to acknowledge, for He mentions this fact three times in seven verses. The evils that we have been called to fight and subdue are what we conceive, nurture, and express from within—the evils that we see when we look in the mirror. Do we have ears to hear our Savior?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Two)

It is amazing to realize how blunt God is in His Word; as the saying goes, He is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He did not go to college to get a degree in public relations, nor does He believe in spin. He never sugarcoats the truth in fear of causing someone's feelings to be hurt because He knows that, if something truly needs to be said, it is worth saying truthfully. As Numbers 23:19 affirms, "God is not a man, that He should lie"—even a "little white lie" that to which many people often resort to spare another a bit of emotional distress.

In terms of evil, God does not spare anyone. We normally use the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible to determine how many times a certain word is used in Scripture. It renders various Hebrew and Greek words into "evil" and its forms 639 times. God's Word speaks about evil a great deal! Obviously, it is a major subject in His Book.

However, that is not the end of the matter. The foregoing tally was only for the word "evil," but we know that other words mean the same thing. Take "wicked," for example, with its variants such as "wickedness," "wickedly," and so forth. They appear an additional 494 times in the KJV. Now we are approaching 1,100 words in the Bible that concern evil. We can also add the words "cursed" and "accursed," which are found 94 times. Our count is nearing 1,200 biblical occurrences on the subject of evil. Notice that we did not include any of the occurrences of such words as "sin," "iniquity," "trespass,"
"transgression," and the like. Plus, we failed to consider words that describe specific sins like "hate," "covet," "steal," "kill,"
"lust," "lie," etc.

God's Word mentions evil quite a bit, so it is not something that we should shrug off like a minor nuisance. If God treats evil as very real and present with us, then we need to take notice.

The Old Testament primarily uses one word for "evil," the Hebrew word ra' (Strong's #7451, closely associated with ra'a', #7489),which, according to Vine's Dictionary of Old Testament Words, means "bad; evil; wicked; sore [severe]." Ra' connotes the opposite of "good" in thoughts, words, or deeds (see Deuteronomy 30:15; Micah 3:2). Further, what is ra' is wrong in regard to God's intent, as well as its effect on men. Something that is ra', then, is a thing that God considers to be evil, and when it touches people—or people commit it—evil results. For example, Jeremiah 24:2 speaks of "bad figs," rotten and noisome, which ultimately stand for bad people and the evil acts they commit.

This word often describes, not just evil deeds, but also inner attitudes, that is, what we think and feel inside—in our hearts—toward God and other men. Some of the kings of Israel and Judah "did evil in the sight of the LORD." It was their inner attitudes of pride, lust, revenge, and other evils that manifested in acts of rebellion against God during their reigns. Biblical history is full of their idolatries, child sacrifice, wars, adulteries, and other evils. Their inner attitudes—evils—toward God or man brought disaster and dishonor upon themselves, others, and their nations.In addition, ra' can also describe moral deficiencies—a lack of good character traits—that harm the self or others. Clearly, it is a very broad term, covering anything that is bad or ends badly.

The New Testament uses two main words for "evil": kakos and poneros. Kakos (Strong's #2556) covers things that are bad, base, or wicked in character, making it the Greek equivalent of ra'. Poneros (Strong's #4190) describes things that are evil in their influence or affect. Thus, kakos is the general word for "bad," "evil," or "wicked," but poneros concentrates on how evil works.

To put it simply, poneros denotes evil that causes labor, pain, sorrow, and further evil. In the end, it essentially means "active rebellion"—and in the Bible, that equates to rebellion against God! It is a more heinous form of evil than what kakos implies. In poneros we see evil in action.

A phrase in the Greek Bible, ho poneros, helps to bolster this idea of active evil. Ho is an article, equivalent to English "the." Therefore, ho poneros means "the wicked [one]." We have no trouble identifying who "the wicked one" is: Satan the Devil. This connection should give us a good idea of the extent and activity of the evil covered by poneros—the kind of evil Satan does.

Perhaps a better definition of kakos, rather than the general "bad," is "ungodliness" or "sinfulness." Notice the apostle Paul's use of kakos in Romans 7:19-21, where it is twice translated as "evil": "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good."

Realize that Paul is writing this to church members in Rome sometime in the mid-AD 50s, and this war between his desire to do good and the evil that he finds himself practicing is still taking place within him. How long had he been a converted son of God by this time? Historians place the calling of the apostle on the road to Damascus in the early mid-30s, perhaps as early as AD 33-34. Thus, by this time, he had likely been converted for about twenty years—and he was still intensely and uncomfortably aware of the struggle against the "law of sin" occurring in him. This battle was being fought internally, he says in verse 18, in his flesh, and in verse 23, in his members.

He is telling us, "I don't want to do evil! It is my will not to do it, but too often I find myself caving in to it." In his mind, he knew he should not do these things, but he would do it anyway because of the evil that remained in his flesh. Even after a long period of conversion, there is an evil "law," as Paul calls it—we could also call it a principle, an attitude, a mindset, a tendency, an inclination—that is still present within us. It is almost like our worse nature (as opposed to our "better nature")—a kind of "devil on your shoulder." Worse still, it is in us!

Earlier, in Romans 7:14, Paul had given another insight into this evil in us: "For we know that [God's] law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin." He is again speaking of this tendency toward evil because of the flesh that clothes us, which he names "carnality." Our carnality is what sells us into slavery to sin. One of the great responsibilities that falls to us upon our redemption through the liberating blood of Jesus Christ is to cease being slaves of sin and, instead, become slaves of righteousness (see Romans 6:15-23).

However, it is a terrible struggle—an all-out war—because, with our minds, we have already thrown off the shackles of sin, but our bodies, still receiving orders from the human nature that remains with us, are always trying to return us to those shackles. The battle goes back and forth—sometimes our spiritual mind triumphs, and other times, we let our flesh prevail. Unfortunately, this conflict will rage until we die, but we can thank God that He covers these frequent—yet, we hope, diminishing—lapses. We will look into this more thoroughly next time.