November 3, 2019
Do the ‘Bad Guys’ Win?
Most of us assume that we are good people. Yet all of us might have an imaginary angel on one shoulder whispering “Don’t do it!” and a devil on the other shoulder saying, “Do it!” A tug and pull of good vs. evil faces us every day. One of my favorite angel and devil jokes is: Did you know I have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? But it’s not so bad. I am deaf in one ear.
In today’s social environment, we may wonder more about morality and evil. What is evil? Webster defines evil as: morally bad or wrong, wicked, harmful or injurious. Zacchaeus qualified as evil because he cooperated with the occupying roman government and even extorted extra fees when he collected taxes. Webster also notes that evil can mean unlucky or disastrous, implying that the cause might be unidentified.
According to Webster’s definitions, ‘evil’ is at work in our lives and in the world. What makes evil confusing is that some people define “evil” in relative terms: Evil is a changing, sliding scale. Some see evil in absolute terms: Evil is the exact opposite of good. Some Christians even say that evil and good are equal forces in competition to control the world.
What is evil? What is the source of evil? Trying to get an understanding of evil, I did a Bible study of Satan/the devil/ Beelzebub. I was surprised that these personified descriptions of evil are rare. The Bible seems to use personified evil as a metaphor to help depict evil. Jesus tells Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus wanted Peter to stop believing and saying things that were not in line with the mission of Jesus. Comparing Peter to the metaphor of Satan made that point clear. Giving evil a metaphorical persona helps to understand evil because everyone has had experiences of mean or violent people. But what about OUR inclinations towards evil? ‘The devil made me do it!’ shifts blame away from us.
We often deflect blame away from ourselves. A pastor was miffed when he found a $400 credit card bill for a new dress. “How could you do this?” the pastor cried. “You know our budget is tight!” His wife replied, “I know, but the devil himself was shopping with me. He convinced me the dress looked so good that I had to buy it!” The pastor countered, “In such moments, my love, you have to yell out loud, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” “I did that,” his wife explained, “But Satan said, ‘The dress even looks good from back here.’”
If the devil or Satan is a person-like metaphor, where does evil originate? Is the source of evil absence of good? If God is pure goodness, then all that God created is, in some ultimate sense, good. So, evil can be understood as the lack of good. According to Genesis, God saw all that God had made, and it was very good [Genesis 1:31] It follows logically, then, that “evil” emerges when goodness is vacated.
Consider these parallels: Like dark is absence of light, dark is not a particle or wave. The human mind becomes depressed when the chemical Serotonin is absent. The absence of friends or meaningful relationships creates loneliness. Like darkness, depression and loneliness, evil can emerge when a fundamental necessity is missing. When these vacuums or negative spaces are acknowledged, then goodness can fill the void. Discomfort, hurt or feeling lost helps us find such empty places.
All of us have experienced some kind of lost-ness. We are lost when nothing familiar tells us where we are. We feel “lost” when we cannot find anything or anyone safe or familiar. I ‘lost’ my 2-year old daughter in a large clothing store. I was scared. Thankfully, my “lost” daughter was playfully hiding from her brothers. She did not feel lost because she knew where she was. I also remember my fear when a friend and I got ‘lost’ trying to identify mushroom species in the huge cemetery in Syracuse. Darkness and cold were enveloping us. We felt lost and afraid! Our panic dissolved when we found a gate of the cemetery. Most often, being ‘lost’ is the consequence of our own actions. Even unconscious moving away from what is safe and beloved can cause us to be lost and vulnerable.
Moving away from faith can create empty-feeling void. We feel lost when we lose our faith foundation that provides security and meaning. In Christian terms, we feel lost when we lose our faith and trust in God. Faith and trust in God keeps us centered and secure. Many mainline church congregations feel lost these days because they have lost the old familiar thriving congregation of youth lock-ins, Christmas pageants and vibrant Bible study groups. Re-claiming trust in God dissolves our feelings of loss and anxiety.
Evil can flare up whenever God is perceived to be absent. The corrupt tax collector, Zacchaeus likely felt that something significant was missing in his life, despite his monetary wealth. Zacchaeus chose to cheat taxpayers and tried to ignore a nagging sense of what is right.
His conscience probably needled him to climb a tree in order to find out if Jesus could help him fill the emptiness he felt. He probably realized that corruption was destroying him. Jesus had a reputation for demonstrating goodness and hope. Most people who sought out Jesus probably felt that something was missing in their life. Zacchaeus was willing to humiliate himself in order to learn more.
Jesus did not rebuff Zacchaeus, despite his corrupt ways. Jesus invited him to turn his life around. As a result of his relationship with Jesus, Zacchaeus made a dramatic commitment to change. He even promised to give back FOUR times the amounts he had extorted.
This seems like the kind of promise that people make when they are desperate. I’ve always wondered how he could promise to give back 4xs what he had taken. Like many new Christians, his zeal probably exceeded realistic expectations. Maybe he did pay back 4xs what he had pilfered. Zacchaeus converted from hurtful evil doing to prodigal repentance.
In what ways are we ignoring good and ignoring God so that we can practice self-destructive selfishness? Jesus invited himself to have dinner with Zacchaeus. Jesus offers to be with us and guide us, too. Has anyone’s goodness ever inspired you to want to be good? Jesus continually offers to inspire us to embrace God’s goodness and love.
God has not, and will not, cause evil to happen. It is against God’s nature. God might punish-- in love so that lessons can be learned. Many of us are bothered by stories in the Old Testament that depict God’s punishing wrath. I am convinced that this depiction of God is like Jesus’ exaggerations in his parable, and not to be taken literally. I am convinced that the stories of God’s punishments are intended to make people feel uneasy and to teach lessons that listeners tend to resist.
God often gets blamed for things. Yet most Presbyterians believe that God is good. If gangs harm each other, it is the ABSENCE of goodness in their lives. People join gangs because they feel the absence of security and love. If a child is born with fetal alcohol syndrome because of the mother’s lifestyle choices, it is not God’s fault, but caused by the mother who turned to alcohol because she felt a void in her life. A devastating accident or hardship may have been caused by any number of factors. Sometimes, awful things happen without any moral cause. These difficult challenges are not God’s punishment.
“Free will” is a basically good thing that allows us to choose harmony and relationship with God. Free will can be for good or bad, and the consequences of our actions are our responsibility. Yet free will also allows us to spurn relationship with God. Trust in God’s guidance points people to goodness and love.Christians trust that God is never absent. Yet sometimes, even believers ignore God’s presence or feel so hurt that God feels absent. God seems absent to those who generally trust God, but have turned away from Him. Little Kevin in the classic Home Alone movie, discovered that his family was nowhere to be found, so Kevin concluded, “I made my family disappear!” Practical choices to ignore family, friends, or opportunities can have a lasting impact. Practical or spiritual choices often have long-term consequences (as when a Christian decides to accomplish something without God’s help or guidance). Do we seek support, guidance and connection with God? Or, do we rely on our own abilities and resources?
Jesus offered to be with Zacchaeus. Jesus often demonstrated that no one needs to be perfect in order to get God’s attention. Because God loves us, God is with us always. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” [Revelation 3.20] When we pray, “Hear our prayer Lord” we do not imply the God has put our plea on hold like commercial help lines. When we sing Kum Ba Ya, Lord (come by here, Lord) we are not implying that God is paying attention elsewhere. We are reminding ourselves to be consciously aware of God’s presence. The Psalm pleads to God, “Let your steadfast love come to me…” [Ps 119.41] God’s love is always available. Sometimes we close ourselves off from receiving that love.Most Christians disconnect and re-connect with God every day.
Jesus promised, “Surely I am with you always, even until the very end of the age” [Matthew 28:20] Jesus also promised that, whenever we stray away from “good” (by turning away from God), that God perseveres to find that which is lost. [See Luke 15:11-32] When we lose track of what is Good in any area of our life, God fervently wants to connect with us. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” [Luke 19:10] Zacchaeus was a bad guy. After encountering Jesus, he found a new life. If we tune in to God’s presence and guidance, God and good can prevail over any lostness or evil. Amen.