Several years ago a “Christian” couple came to me for marriage counseling after a very troublesome fight. Like previous fights, this one involved screaming, name calling, negative references to extended family members, and swearing. In response to his wife’s comment about his mother, the husband had pinned his wife against the wall while screaming in her face. The wife responded by asking her husband to leave their home.
During one of our sessions, the wife openly and responsibly talked to her husband about her feelings regarding their relationship and specifically their most recent fight. She said she realized very clearly that she had played a significant part in the fight by being cruel and saying hurtful things. She said she felt sad on the one hand, but scared on the other. While she wanted him to come home, she was afraid that more fighting would destroy their relationship, and she didn’t want that to happen. The husband responded with a hostile attack. Angrily he told her that asking him to leave had been an irresponsible action that had irreversibly ruined his life.
After witnessing this verbal assault, I told the husband that while I could see that he was in a great deal of pain and very upset about being asked to leave his home, his reaction to his wife was very hurtful. I also said that we could learn some useful information about their relationship and their patterns of interacting by exploring what had just happened. In response, the husband sarcastically informed me that he was only expressing his feelings because I had encouraged him to do so. Talking to his wife about his feelings was important, I said, but there was a significant difference between expressing his feelings responsibly and being hurtful. He sat up, leaned forward, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you think my response was hurtful or that I am responsible for my wife’s pain, then you and I have a major problem.”
The husband’s angry threat was his attempt to force me to relinquish my observation that he had been in any way hurtful toward his wife. He treated me in the same manner he had his wife. When hurt by her words, he became verbally and physically abusive. After listening to her confession, he became emotionally and verbally abusive. And when I commented on his inappropriate and hurtful behavior, he became angry and threatening.
The Christian community generally has two groups of people in mind when it uses the words ‘sin’ and ‘evil’. Using the analogy of shooting at a bull’s-eye, Christians mostly define ‘sin’ as “missing the mark”: the bull’s-eye represents moral perfection, and we sin when we fail to hit it. Most Christians understand sin, then, as failure to be perfect; and since we all are regularly imperfect, we all belong in the category ‘sinner’. We reserve the word ‘evil’ for those people who have “crossed the line,” those who have violated the social standards most of us live by: serial killers, molesters, murderers, and those (like the husband) who engage in physical violence or verbal abuse. The Bible, however, defines evil differently than we do. It uses ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ to describe us all.
In the fight that brought the couple to marriage counseling, the behavior of both missed the mark. Both made hurtful and insulting comments. Both clearly failed to be perfect. However, the man’s response to his wife and to me demonstrated a pattern even more problematic than his verbal and physical abuse: Instead of being willing to honestly and truthfully observe himself and his behavior, he deflected the focus to others. Talking about their fight, he focused on his wife’s request that he leave. Responding to her in the counseling session, he focused on how much she had hurt him. And, finally, he blamed and threatened me when I commented on his inappropriate and hurtful behavior. He did this rather than acknowledge and take responsibility for his violent words and his actions.
In his book People of the Lie, Dr. Scott Peck, a popular author and psychiatrist writes: “The central defect of those who are evil is not the sin itself, but rather their refusal to acknowledge it.” Peck describes evil as “a consistent lack of any real motivation toward goodness while unceasingly dedicated to preserving a self-image of perfection in the midst of sacrificing the well being of others.” Peck adds, “…while those who are evil seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the ‘people of the lie’. Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. Those who are evil cannot tolerate the pain of self-reproach.”
The evil in the husband’s response was his unwillingness to honestly acknowledge his hurtful behavior. Instead, he strongly resisted letting go of his distorted view of himself and his behavior. He genuinely believed he was a victim rather than a contributor to the problems in the relationship: his wife’s decision to ask him to leave in order to prevent further damage to the relationship ruined his life; her confession in the counseling session hurt him because it exposed his behavior; my intervention was a personal attack rather than a helpful step in the process of understanding his behavior. His refusal to acknowledge his hurtful behavior was evil because it rejected the truth regarding the character of his conduct. His blaming was also evil, because it asserted the lie that his wife and I were responsible for his behavior.
The husband was evil because he rejected reality, exchanging the truth for a lie that made him feel better. But if he “crossed the line” in doing evil, we have crossed it with him. The Bible says you and I have the same problem embracing reality, and rejecting the reality God has created is evil. When we will not acknowledge the truth—about God, about what God says is good, about ourselves—we are guilty of evil.
The Bible dramatically reveals humanity’s problem with recognizing reality when it describes the interaction between Eve and the serpent and then Adam and Eve’s response to the consequences of their sin. When the serpent asked Eve about God’s commandment concerning the trees in the garden, he asked with a definite slant. God’s commandment to Adam and Eve focused on all of the trees from which they could eat: “From any tree of the of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…” (Genesis 2:16-17). In contrast, the serpent focused his question to Eve on the one restriction God had given: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). The serpent reframed God’s commandment, and by doing so he presented a distorted view of reality.
The serpent distorted reality again when he discussed with Eve the consequences of violating God’s commandment. God had said, “…in the day that you eat from [the tree] you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The serpent told Eve, “You surely shall not die.…[but] you will be like God…” (Genesis 3:4-5). The serpent told Eve that she and Adam would be in a position to determine for themselves what is right and what is wrong; they would be in a position to make their choices independently of God. The serpent argued that the decision to disobey God would be good and wise, while to obey Him would be foolish.
Eve listened to the serpent, and within her heart and mind the tree from which God had commanded them not to eat changed. She saw it from a different perspective, from one that did not conform to reality. Before listening to the serpent, she saw the tree as forbidden, with negative consequences for violating God’s commandment. Afterwards, she perceived the tree as being good for food, with positive consequences for eating.
What Adam and Eve did by choosing to eat from the tree was sin. Their behavior missed the mark. It was also evil, because their choice reflected their decision to reject reality: God and His right to determine their moral boundaries. The serpent’s different perspective on the tree, his distortion of reality, gave Adam and Eve a rationalization they could use to justify their disobedience. They wanted to be independent of God, and through the serpent they found the opportunity.
After they disobeyed God, Adam and Eve’s actions revealed their refusal to accept what was true. They sewed fig leaves together in an attempt to cover themselves and hide from the reality of their guilt. When God confronted them, Adam attempted to deflect the responsibility for his actions to Eve. Eve followed suit by blaming the serpent. Adam and Eve sought to put the responsibility for their actions on someone other than themselves. By blaming each other, they failed to acknowledge the reality of their disobedience. Their blaming was evil because it asserted the lie that someone else was responsible for their behavior.
As a consequence of disobeying, Adam and Eve experienced the death about which God had warned them, the death which the apostle Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans. Paul says that the wrath of God is operating in our lives. God is angry with us because we all have suppressed (“held back” or “restrained”) the truth about God: who He is and what our relationship with Him as creatures requires of us. “Suppressing the truth” succinctly describes what Adam and Eve did in response to God’s commandment and in dealing with the consequences of their choices. And it describes what the husband did in our counseling session.
Paul goes on to say that God’s wrath is active in our experience, because God has given us over to the custody of our own impurity. The Greek word translated “gave them over” is the same word used to describe what Judas did when he turned Jesus over to the custody of the priests and Roman cohort. The word is frequently used in the context of handing someone over to the custody of another. On the level of our desires and our thoughts, God has made us prisoners of our own evil. We cannot see reality as God has created it; we reject what God says is good. We have minds that think wrong and hearts that want the wrong things. We don’t simply choose to do evil things occasionally or when we think about it. Evil controls, shapes, colors, and influences everything we think and want.
The gospel proclaims that God and only God can rescue us from our sin and evil. We rejected God, and He has responded to our evil by giving us over to its custody. We all have the same problem with reality that the husband in the counseling session had. But God, as our Father, is in the process of saving us by transforming our minds and hearts so that, by His grace, we will want goodness and will recognize our sin when it happens. Given the blinding nature of evil, we need His grace to become mature and wiser people. By His grace we will see reality and will acknowledge our sin rather than hide from it.