Want to Overcome Evil?


St. John of Damascus gives the Orthodox definition of evil:

For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness,

just as darkness also is absence of light.

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 735-36)

So, if you want to overcome evil, do good for you will bring goodness to any situation.  Goodness will no longer be absent.  Evil will be overcome.  If you find yourself in the face of evil, do the good so that goodness will be a presence.  Then one will not be far from God.


[I do realize there is an oversimplification here.  Terrorists, violent criminals, abusers of all kinds will not be changed in any one second or one instance by a brush with goodness and might even mock the goodness before trying to destroy the good.  So one does have to have the wisdom to know when it is time to flee or fight or as Kenny Rogers sings it: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away And know when to run.”  But there are many occasions in life where we could make things better by doing a good thing, making goodness present, choosing the next right thing, lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  And especially spiritually, we can come to realize our fear of Satan is misplaced for Satan is ultimately an absence, not a presence.  Doing the good is enough to prevent Satan from entering our hearts or minds, for the goodness is real in a way that Satan is not.]

Overcoming Evil

So many of the sayings and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers are based on the teachings offered us in the New Testament.  In the desert fathers we find this:

“Malice will never drive our malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice.”  (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 43)

In the New Testament we find this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)


Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

Natural Goodness

The Elder always said that evil does not exist in this world. Everything was created by God and he saw that everything is “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Evil exists when we make wrong use of the things God granted to us for our benefit.

It is not bad for someone to have money, but it is bad to be avaricious. Drugs are not an evil thing, when used to relieve the pain of people who suffer. They are bad when used for a different purpose. A knife is a useful utensil, when we used it to cut bread. However, when it is used to hit someone, it becomes a deadly weapon. In this case, it is not the knife which is evil, but the inner disposition of the murderer.

Therefore, we must use everything in the right way, the natural way, not abuse them and go against nature.

Since we are weak by nature, when we are inclined to give in to a passion, we should try to avoid anything that makes us feel vulnerable. We should also be aware that the reason we avoid the causes of our passions is not because they are evil themselves; but rather, because our ill inner disposition does not permit us to use them correctly.

Since we cannot benefit from them, it is better to avoid them, so they do not harm us. At the same time, we should glorify God for His gifts, and blame ourselves for abusing them and this provoking the evil.

(Priestmonk Christodoulos, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, pp. 112-113)

The God We Teach?

George Washington apotheosisI’m not very in-tuned with pop culture somewhat made possible because I rarely ever watch TV and I avoid commercial radio.  That is one reason I so rarely comment in the blog on pop culture or even the news for that matter.  I was listening in my car to the local public radio station, WYSO, and head the following song, the lyrics of which intrigued me.  I am not offering the song as an example of current culture nor as the best of what is out there.  In my blogs I write about what I read and hear and think about.  Obviously along the way I encounter ideas with which I disagree or which represent a perspective quite different than my own.  But they sometimes capture my attention.

The lyrics below from Randy Newman’s “God Song” interested me because they struck me as being a caricature how crazy some claims of believers sound to the non-believer.  The song has God  amused, amazed, dismayed and distraught at what believers  are willing to believe.  Is this the God we teach?

God’s Song

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

“Man means nothing he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
or the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where i’ll be
that’s why i love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why i love mankind”

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said “Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please please let us be?”

And the Lord said
And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities–how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why i love mankind
You really need me
That’s why i love mankind”

It may be that humanity is so pathetic and hopeless that it needs a god who abuses it.  But then we often use god to justify the evils we inflict on one another.  Many have killed and murdered in the name of god or convinced others to do so.

We turn god into an excuse for our evils.  We make god into an enslaved maid who must clean up our endless messes.  Our efforts to be systematic and logical about the divine mystery results in our justifying every pain and sorrow in the world and blaming this god for evil all in the name of logic.  To satisfy our own ideas, we create the god who cynically and tyrannically inflicts misery and in turn we theologically justify our own evilness.  Some how we make sense out of the world by creating wrathful and vicious demon who condemns all to hell on earth and then hereafter to an eternity of suffering.

For some reason the God who is love does not win our hearts and loyalty nor our desire to imitate Him.

We should however remember the Prophet Moses, that most humble friend of God (Exodus 33:11), always caught between the people who rejected his leadership and the God who demands that he leads.   Yet, Moses stood before the Lord, between God’s wrath and the people deserving punishment.  Moses says to God who is angry because of Israel’s sins and threatening destruction for all of Israel:

“But now, if You will forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of thy book which You have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

Never was Moses more like God than when he stood offering His life in exchange for the rebellious people.  Moses never wanted to be the leader of these people, but he fulfilled the role of leader in perfect love.  Moses wanted no salvation apart from the people who rejected him and rejected God!  As God fully reveals Himself in the New Testament, so Moses desires not the death of sinners, but life.  He lives not to judge and condemn sinners but to save them from destruction.

Moses faced this God whom he could not fully understand and demanded that God stay faithful to His love.

We see again in Christ the God who gives His life in love for the world.

There are so many things about God which are puzzling and mystery and we are called to be Moses and Christ and stand in love for God and our fellow humans to unite all.  This too is crazy, but it is far removed from the religion Randy Newman presents in “God’s Song.”

The craziness which Newman criticizes really is related to the supposed wisdom of those men who confronted Job in his suffering.  These men claimed a wisdom which always justifies God no matter what.  God condemns their wisdom and says they have not spoken correctly about Him (Job 42:7).  Our efforts to justify all that happens on God’s earth by distorting the will and nature of God to satisfy our logic are in the end rejected by God Himself.

To live according to God’s love is to take up the cross not the sword, to achieve greatness through humility and service, to love even one’s enemies, to lose one’s life in order to save it, to find riches through poverty.

In Matins (in the New Skete Prayerbook), we pray:

“Remember Lord: Your mercy is eternal.”

Moses reminded God of this truth, whether or not He needed that reminder. We too can be like Moses in attitude and prayer.  In doing so we will truly be like Christ, who is God.

Personal Conscience

As has been mentioned several times in my blogs, the heart in biblical thinking is the very place where the battle between good and evil is waged.   It is in the heart that we wage the struggle of our conscience.

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  (Genesis 6:5)

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.'”  (Genesis 8:21)

Baylor University theology Professor Ralph C. Wood writes:

“The dictates of his heart reveals that prudence is a virtual synonym for conscience. The heart is the locus of desire, and the chest has been understood as the traditional stronghold of conscience – no less than the place of its worst violations. ‘The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart’ (Ps. 19:8). ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ (Jer. 17:9). The heart must be transfigured by prudence and wisdom in order for the desires to be redirected toward the Good. Only when the conscience is properly formed can we instinctively discern the truth and act swiftly upon it.” (The Gospel According to Tolkien, pg. 79)

Our Lord Jesus Himself taught:

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  (Matthew 15:19)

The Internet, Internationalism and the Internal Self

There is a truth that people often ignore when they embrace some utopian idealism:  People will be people.  We can imagine, depending on our beliefs and ideology, that a world in which everyone is a Christian might ideally be a world in which there is no more sin.  However, as long as we are still in this world of the fall, people will be people, and that means sinners will be in the church and among the clergy.  The recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman church expose the fact that people will be people.  In the general population there are sexual predators and pedophiles.  And guess what?  They make their way into the church.

People might then imagine, well, that is only in the Catholic Church but not in other church bodies.  However, I read statistics from companies which insure religious organizations which show across denominational lines pedophiles exist.  The Roman Church makes the news more because it is a huge organization.  Sexual misconduct occurs in clergy of all kinds of denominations.  But among small denominations the appearance is of individual cases and they seem more rare;  nevertheless, they too add up to serious numbers of problems.   People will be people.

Atheists blame “faithists” for causing all the problems of the world, forgetting the truth that people will be people.  You don’t need religion to hate, be prejudiced, to murder or rape.  People will be people.  Whatever exists in the general population will exist in religion, in atheistic society, in clerical ranks, and among ideologues of every stripe.  Atheism will not escape fanatics or the mentally ill because it is supposedly based in pure reason.   People will be people, and will cause people problems.

If people problems persist despite philosophical, religious or ideological differences, we might try to convince (delude?) ourselves that technology will make a difference and change the world.  But people will be people.

As Ethan Zuckerman in “A Small World After All?” (THE WILSON QUARTERLY Spring 2012) notes:

“In 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, ‘The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.’ Two years later a ridiculous war began, ultimately killing nine million Europeans.”

Zuckerman goes on to comment on the belief that the Internet is going to change the world:

“While it’s easy to be dismissive of today’s Marconis—the pundits, experts, and enthusiasts who saw a rise in Internet connection leading to a rise in international understanding—that’s too simple and too cynical a response. Increased digital connection does not automatically lead to increased understanding. At the same time, there’s never been a tool as powerful as the Internet for building new ties (and maintaining existing ones) across distant borders.”

Yes, the Internet is a powerful new tool, but because people will be people, they will continue to behave as people.  Violence will not disappear from the earth if Islam and all other religions disappear.  The Internet can be used to promote violence as well as democracy or cooperation.  People will continue to be people even into the future just as they were in the past.  Some people will be hungry for power and wealth, the narcissistic personality disorder will continue to appear in the population.   People will sin, make bad choices, inflict suffering on others.  Maybe it is in our genes, Jesus said it is in our hearts (Mark 7:21-23).

Religion at its best calls people to some self denial and self restraint and self control.  It calls us to reign in on our “people will be people” tendency.  And yet, and yes, it has been used to call people to violence.  Christ called people to self martyrdom, not to kill anyone else.  Some Muslims do note that Islam calls people to an internal spiritual warfare more than to any jihad against the world.  Atheism and technology will not change people more than theism and theology.   Ideologues and abusers will continue to be part of the human population.  We can however continue to point out this truth, and we can consciously try to resist those violent and destructive tendencies which come from our human hearts.

“People will be people” is not a phrase enshrining determinism or defeatism, but rather taking a hard, realistic, factual and truthful look at the human condition.  Orthodox Christianity acknowledges the truth and calls all of its members to some forms of asceticism, abstinence, self denial and self control.  Jesus said we have to take up the cross and follow Him.  It is a call for us to exercise our free wills and to aspire to something greater than our genes appear to be willing to allow us to attain.  It is a call to self will and to self emptying (kenosis) and to self sacrificial love for the other.    We are not going to legislate ourselves to perfect behavior, nor genetically engineer the perfect human being, nor defeat evil by technology driven weapons of mass destruction.   The process starts in each human heart by an act of will, when we respond to that invitation to change ourselves and to be like Christ.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”    (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)

The Relationship between Fact and Print

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!   (Isaiah 5:20)

A few weeks ago in February a case was brought before the Supreme Court concerning a man who publicly claimed to be US Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, when in fact he hadn’t received such an honor.  There is a law that says making such claims is a crime, and that law was challenged in court.  The case as discussed before the Supreme Court seemed to have the Justices leaning in the direction of upholding the law – if false claims are ignored, it devalues such medals and military heroism.   But in the discussion of the case it became clear that far less certain is whether the Court could tolerate laws that make it illegal for politicians to tell lies, say for example during a campaign.  Here the discussion seemed to lean in the direction of “buyer beware.”   The thought so it seems to me is that in the public market place politicians have complete free speech rights which includes certain forms of lying about themselves or about their opponents.  It is up to the populace or fact checking agencies to police the politician’s claims or comments and to verify or vilify them.  Congress, according to the 1st Amendment, shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.  Lying is a form of freedom of speech, and apparently is to be protected.  Freedom like free will has such alogical implications.

So the poor voters are left with coming up with their own remedies to protect themselves from cynicism when politicians speak especially during campaigns.  Ohio, my home state, was currently bombarded by campaign ads for the Republican candidates in the recent primary.  Apparently though complete disclosure about how much is spent on campaign ads does not have to be disclosed.  So it is estimated that Mitt Romney alone spent $12 million on campaign ads in Ohio.  Radio stations found this to be a very enriching time.   Freedom of speech is profitable for some.  I’m proud to note that I never heard even one of these ads – I don’t normally attune to commercial radio or television so I was spared this invasive, toxic species of advertising.  My attitude toward campaign advertising is the same as certain candidates  toward OPEC countries: let them drown in their oil.  I also have the same expectation regarding the actual effect of my boycotting commercial radio will have on campaign spending as the the notion that America can produce enough oil to cut off our dependency on foreign oil: virtually none.   Americans as insatiable consumers are as addicted to foreign oil as they are to negative campaign ads.  No president is going to be able to cause such a production in US oil as to eliminate the need for foreign oil.  Promising some low dollar-per-gallon gasoline price tag is  a guarantee no president has the power to fulfill, especially not one who believes in a free market.  But I digress.

What I really wanted to mention is a most fascinating  piece I heard on National Public Radio.  The piece by Travis Larchuk is called “‘Lifespan’: What are the Limits of Literary License?”     The story is about an article author John D’Agata wrote about a teen suicide in which he took an incredible number of “embellishments” to make a basically true story more dramatic.  He argued that he was not a journalist reporting a story and so could use literary license to alter the story.     D’Agata’s original manuscript was 15 pages, but fact checker Jim Fingal needed 100 pages to record the many factual inaccuracies in D’Agata’s  article.    The article was published and caused a literary stir due to its many inaccuracies.     D’Agata and Fingal then collaborated  to write a book, The Lifespan of a Fact, to describe the story of that original article and to talk about the nature of fact and truth.  I don’t want have to issue a spoiler alert, so I will encourage you to either read the piece or listen to it: “‘Lifespan’: What are the Limits of Literary License?” .   In the end as Larchuk discovers even a book written as a history investigating the literary license may not be what it appears.

And just for the sake of keeping the story straight, the printed version of the story doesn’t have all the details/facts that the audio version does.

The Source of Social Evil and the Good of Society

Humans throughout history have tried to comprehend why evil and social chaos occur.   I found it interesting to compare the thought of the Jewish work The Wisdom of Solomon (scholars place the writing 100 -10BC)  with the Hindu writing the Bhagavad Gita (which scholars place ca 200BC – 200AD).   They are thus roughly contemporary writings though from different parts of the world and with different religious assumptions.

The Bhagavad Gita offers at one point an explanation of what is the cause of evil and the disintegration of society.   It blames the intermixture of castes – intermarrying of men and women of different castes which thus leads to the total destruction of family and society.  It is a vicious cycle dragging families and society to hell.

“When the family is destroyed, the ancient laws of family duly cease; when law ceases, lawlessness overwhelms family; when lawlessness overwhelms the women of the family, they become corrupted; when women are corrupted, the intermixture of castes is the inevitable result.  Intermixture of castes drags down to hell both those who destroy the family and the family itself; the spirits of the ancestors fall, deprived of their offerings of rice and water.  Such is the evils of those who destroy the family: because of the intermixture of castes…”  (Bhagavad Gita)

Wisdom, Justice, Vice, Crime and Corruption, Slander, Deception, Despotic Power

The Wisdom of Solomon on the other hand blames the ruination of society on idolatry: the worship of false gods.

“Everything is mixed together: Blood and murder, theft and treachery, depravity, unfaithfulness, tumult, perjury,  confusion over what is good, ingratitude, corruption of family, breakup of marriages, disorder, adultery, and debauchery.  For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil.”   (Wisdom of Solomon 14:25-27)

The chaos that results in both works is similarly portrayed – the breakdown of family life which leads to all manners of evil.  Both would say the problem is a breakdown in traditional religious values which results in total social dysfunction and destruction.

Roman Philosopher Cicero (10b-43BC) writing in a similar time period wrote, “In all probability, disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.”  Once piety towards the gods disappeared he said, “life soon become a welter of disorder and confusion.”

We could also compare these teachings with another that comes from about the same time:  the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   Jesus taught:

Christ the Wisdom of God

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  (Mark 7:21-23)

Christ places the source of evil as the human heart – not in society, nor in Satan, but in each human being.

If we had no other texts from the these religions to consider but what is mentioned above we might conclude that in Hinduism the antidote to evil is the adherence to traditional cultural norms:  it is adhering to traditional cultural values which will preserve society from evil.    In the Jewish text, there is also a call to faithfulness to tradition with a clear notion that false religion must be cast out in order to maintain the purity of society and its goodness.  In Christ, while there certainly is an appeal to Jewish tradition in terms of what is considered sinful and thus detrimental, He places the purification of society in the heart of each person.  It is through personal repentance of sins that evil is defeated.