How to recognize evil

May 19th, 2015

We live in an age where the language of good vs. evil is not appreciated. Hyper-postmodernity would have us believe that every truth claim is merely an assertion of power, so no truth claim holds value. Bulls---. Here’s how to recognize evil:

Love unites. Evil divides. It’s a simple premise that, if you accept it and begin to look for it, you’ll see everywhere. Churches. Families. Communities. And of course, on to whole nations and regions of the globe.

Love brings things together in ways that are life-affirming. In marriage, two become “one flesh” and join lives, hearts, and wills. Communities form when individuals become neighbors. Countries form when communities come together for the common good.

Evil is the opposite. Evil makes a marriage a contract between two individuals rather than a covenant bond. Evil turns community members into bitter, envious, hateful, and prejudiced rivals competing for scarce resources. Evil turns nation against nation.

As Augustine noted, evil has no force on its own. Evil can only ever be a parasite. It is a privation of the good only possible wherever the good is found.

God (who is love) became united with humanity for our salvation, to unite us to God and to each other. As St. Maximos the Confessor observed (emphasis mine):

“In His love for man God became man so that He might unite human nature to Himself and stop it from acting evilly towards itself, or rather from being at strife and divided against itself, and from having no rest because of the instability of its will and purpose. Nothing sequent to God is more precious for beings endowed with intellect, or rather is more dear to God, than perfect love; for love unites those who have been divided and is able to create a single identity of will and purpose, free from faction, among many or among all; for the property of love is to produce a single will and purpose in those who seek what pertains to it. If by nature the good unifies and holds together what has been separated, evil clearly divides and corrupts what has been unified. For evil is by nature dispersive, unstable, multiform and divisive.”

Evil is the power of entropy, the power to corrupt, to rot, to destroy that which God has joined together in love. Division is the way of the world (it’s no accident that Christians are often enjoined to flee it, after all). It’s hard for people, even with much in common, to be united in the bond of love; pride and experience and competing narratives all get in the way.

But let’s be clear: God’s will, the ultimate Good, is not for division but for loving unity. As God has been revealed to us as a unity of persons who are distinct but still united in will, purpose, and love — a mystery we name Trinity — so God’s will for us, his people, is that we might know that same purely other-regarding love in our lives. A high calling, but one worthy of our best efforts, despite the difficulties and many differences which too easily divide us.

May that effort be found abundantly among us: as wives and husbands, as communities, and particularly as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Body of Christ. As David Watson has suggested, such unity is not primarily institutional but spiritual. In a world bent on incarnating the evils of division along every possible line, let us resist that tide and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to instead live as Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus:

“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:2-6, NRSV)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Source: “First Century Various Texts,” from the "Philokalia: Volume 2" (London: Faber & Faber 1981), 174. If the Philokalia is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend it and this helpful interview with the great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Drew McIntyre blogs at Uniting Grace and co-hosts the WesleyCast.

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