- Written by Margaret Bernhart
“Frankly, when I study evil, I see so many similarities to myself that it sends chills up my spine.”
These words were the honest reflections of a client struggling to flee years of relational bribe-taking to maintain her credulity and ensure her silence. The cost had been the destruction of her marriage, her own soul, and failing her husband by hiding behind self-protection to avoid his anger. Evil grows in the fertile soil of myopic self-interest.
I’ve always wondered how it is that generally good and decent individuals (all endowed with a proclivity for self-centeredness) could so easily participate in murder. Whether it’s actually pulling the trigger or acting as a passive accomplice who simply looks the other way, mankind’s propensity for evil is evident in the slaughter of six million Jews, in voyeuristic crowds watching the rape of a young woman on a busy sidewalk and in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by military guards. Our capacity for evil is greater than we think.
Jesus says, “You then though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children (Matt.7:11).” Because we are gloriously made in the image of God, we have the capacity for good. We are also marred and for that reason more easily make choices to benefit ourselves than for a higher good. Our predominant commitment to self remains even in the most intimate of relationships. We routinely commit evil.
Scott Peck in The People of The Lie stresses the importance of naming evil. By its very nature evil confuses and deceives and is not what it seems. Unless we dig deep and name it, we will avoid seeing its reality in ourselves and others. Instead, we will categorize our lives as “good and ethical” because we haven’t committed one of the big ten sins like murdering, stealing or committing adultery. However, evil is much more insidious. This silent killer wraps its cold, numbing tentacles around our hearts, distorting our thoughts and obscuring our motives. Jesus addresses this self-deception when he says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3).
Evil breeds arrogance that intensifies self-absorption. The limits of our nature are such that we find it difficult to have any reference point other than ourselves and thus in our egotism we fail to realize we are not at the center of the universe. The type of codependency that gets lost in another’s problems is anything but sacrificial and other-focused. The selfishness of ingratiating acts is a guise for maintaining power and control, avoiding what is most frightening–reciprocal love. By focusing on solving another’s problems codependents avoid naming and addressing the evil in their own hearts. One characteristic of evil is that in its narcissism, it is the last to know it is evil.
The sad truth is that we far more resemble the qualities of evil than we do the attributes of God. However, studying evil and seeing the similarities to our nature can embolden our pursuit of Christ-centered living and other-focused service. Simone Weil said imaginary evil-the kind portrayed in books and movies–“is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Evil is always disguised and it never appears as malignant as it is.
The destructive nature of evil masquerades under the pretense of good. When exposed, an evil person is rarely rattled. But what lies underneath is a contempt that subtly mocks, twists words, and shames. When challenged, they habitually blame-shift and defend their fragile ego and flawless image. Their spin often makes the victim believe they are at fault. One can only feel crazy in the presence of evil. The enjoyment of harm that isolates the victim by making them question their judgment, the trust of others, and God is an essential characteristic of evil.
Evil is parasitic. Its vacuous nature requires the consumption of a host. While good can exist on its own, evil has no existence apart from good. In its lifeless and hollow condition, it can only spoil and mimic. C. S. Lewis describes how those who go to hell are not sent there, but everyday they make choices to where they will end up and they become least human of all. Those who struggle to follow after Christ become more human. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes the former as substanceless ghosts-“man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.” Peck says, “The central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it.”
The self-focus of evil sees others as simply objects for its own gratification. Being keenly astute at reading needs and desires, evil deceives and manipulates to its own advantage. A lack of empathy, the inability to identify with the feelings and thoughts of others, is a central feature. Evil sheds tears with a cold heart-focusing on its own loss (i.e., sad it got caught, but not repentant; weeps for itself at the loss of a loved one). It refuses to suffer over past and present realities. Peck says, “It is the unwillingness to suffer emotional pain that usually lies at the very root of all mental illness. Those who fully experience depression, doubt, confusion, and despair may be infinitely more healthy than those who are generally certain, complacent, and self-satisfied.” Evil is dogmatic, easily satisfied and refuses to desire.
The ultimate personification of evil is the prince of darkness, Satan, himself. He spurned being subject to God and was cast out of heaven. Like Satan, evil is supremely arrogant, seeing itself as superior to all other beings, laws and realities. It is what Peck calls an unsubmitted will . And thus, a lack of conscience is another key characteristic. Evil experiences no guilt at violating others and no shame at how others will perceive them. It is unable to care, serve or sacrifice on behalf of another. Evil’s loyalty rests only with itself. The self-protection of evil sacrifices others at the altar of self.
Since we all have a capacity for evil, what sets us apart is the consistency of sin. Philip Yancey says in his book Rumors of Another World, “Character is how you behave when no one is looking…psychopaths, crooks and thieves do what they do because in their heads ‘no one is looking.'” Ironically, God uses evil and its suffering redemptively. Suffering exposes our hearts and reveals what we fear and where our highest loyalties lie. In the crucible of affliction good and evil ripen. Nobility is “the capacity not to regress in response to degradation, not to become blunted in the face of pain, to tolerate the agonizing and remain intact…perhaps the best measure-of a person’s greatness is the capacity for suffering,” says Peck.
C. S. Lewis often talked about life on earth as living behind enemy lines. Peck reiterates this, “it probably makes more sense to assume that this is a naturally evil world that has somehow been mysteriously ‘contaminated’ by goodness, rather than the other way around. The mystery of goodness is even greater than the mystery of evil.”
What frightens evil the most is the antithesis of decay and death-desire, hope, reciprocal love, pleasure, curiosity, creativity, surprise, mystery, imagination, passion, heroism, integrity, mercy, and spiritual growth-the movement away from mere existence to truly living. Evil despises anything that has to do with vibrancy and being alive. Every moment of our lives is a crossroads, a choice of life or death, who we will serve and what we will become.
“Evil is thwarted to the degree that we directly and boldly face darkness in the world, in others, and most profoundly in ourselves,” says Dan Allender. He goes on to say in his essay in God and the Victim that understanding the nature of evil assists us in understanding the human condition, the battle against evil we are engaged in, and most importantly God. Having greater comprehension of these three arenas causes us to be less startled and detoured by evil’s harm and wooed to the Gospel in spite of and to some degree because of evil.