Evil is one of the most important topics addressed by religion. Although it’s not pleasant to talk about, it’s very important that we do, because evil is a pervasive part of our world. So if we aspire to live a good life, we need to learn how to recognize evil and resist it.
In our previous two sermons, we talked about the reality of evil and the mechanism of evil — what evil is, and how it works. To summarize the main points, evil is the rebellion against God’s plan of harmony among all beings, by seeking excessive individual advantage and subjugating or destroying others. Evil gains power over our minds, our lives and society by deceiving us about the meaning of life, distracting us from our true spiritual purpose, getting us addicted to fruitless drama and conflict, and corrupting our good intentions with the idea that the ends justify the means, even if that means doing evil in the hope that it will ultimately lead to a more virtuous or ideal outcome.
In this, the third and final part of our series on evil, we’ll talk about how to overcome it. What does overcoming evil really mean? In a world filled with evil, how can we heal from its damaging influence and break free of the misguided attitudes and addictive behaviors that give evil its seemingly relentless power?
There’s a saying that “evil never sleeps.” The exhausting relentlessness of evil is because evil is addictive. People under the influence of evil are always seeking their next hit on the crack pipe, so to speak — and in most cases, they don’t even realize that the way they’re thinking and living is giving rise to a great deal of suffering. They are in the grip of a powerful delusion.
The cunningly deceptive and addictive nature of evil is well illustrated by the Ring of Power in the epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. According to the story, all the power of evil was concentrated into one ring, which everyone in the world craved to possess. When the ring was on your finger, you would feel incredibly powerful, but in reality you had become a slave of Sauron, the Satan-like being who created the ring and truly controlled it.
Even Frodo Baggins, an extraordinarily pure-hearted character who was the greatest hero of the story, was constantly tempted by the ring, which he had agreed to carry to Mt. Doom, the only place where it could be destroyed. At the end of his mission, standing at the precipice over the volcanic fires where the ring could be unmade, Frodo hesitated and found himself unable to cast it into the fire, so overpowering was the craving of evil — even for someone who was trying his utmost to do good.
Overcoming evil, therefore, is in large part a process of overcoming an addiction. In the real world, the addiction begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of life — the big lie that we are merely physical beings with only one chance to gain whatever enjoyment we can from this world, and that since everyone just dies and that’s it, it doesn’t really matter whether you live according to a higher moral conscience or whether you use and abuse other people like a predatory animal.
If the big lie of materialism is wrong, then being addicted to worldly competition and conflict in a relentless quest for personal advantage could be a very costly addiction indeed — costing you the wellbeing of your eternal soul.
Introspection, honesty and integrity are therefore an essential starting point for any soul seeking to overcome evil. We need to look deep within ourselves and ask, “What do I really believe? Do I truly have faith that there’s a spiritual world beyond this one — a world that is my eternal home — and that I’m here on earth to test my commitment to live with moral integrity according to God’s plan? If I believe this, do my habitual thoughts and actions match this faith-based commitment?”
If we can answer yes to these questions, one alluring thing we have to give up is the idea that life on earth can ever be purged of the powerful temptations of evil. Many people ask, “Why does God allow evil to exist? Why doesn’t God do something to prevent this world from being filled with so much wickedness and suffering?” There is a good reason. The reason is that God intends this world to be a place where people are tested. If this world were a place of perfect goodness and harmony like heaven, our souls could not be put to the test, and we would not grow up into eternal spiritual maturity in the image and likeness of God. Our character develops through the trials, the challenges we must face in a very imperfect world — a world filled with the constant conflict between good and evil — a world in which we are free to choose.
Realism and tolerance are therefore important values to hold. Everything under the sun, both the good and the bad, has a purpose in God’s plan. In the words of a famous passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes [3:1-8],
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
This is not to say that God wants war, mourning, or any of the other negative things that are a natural part of life in this world. But God wants us to accept that they are part of our present reality, because of the gift of human freedom. And God wants us to learn how to live with integrity in the face of such evil — choosing the good, resisting the wicked, and refusing to give up our hopeful and loving spirit even when evil seems to have the upper hand.
To heal from the effects of evil requires us to develop a strong enough character to maintain our true spiritual self and manifest it — to shine the divine light that is within us — even when we feel that we are surrounded by darkness. And in so doing, we begin to break free from this evil-afflicted world.
If we cling to the notion that evil can, or should, ever be forcibly destroyed by taking away people’s freedom to choose, we are going against God’s plan and it will lead to misery rather than healing. Yes, we should try to make the world a better place. But we should try to do this by living in a good way ourselves and encouraging others to do the same. We do not carry the burden of saving the world on our shoulders. Jesus Christ already took up that burden, and by ascending the cross, gave all humanity the power to overcome evil by choosing to follow his example.
Indeed, Jesus’s tremendous act of sacrifice was of cosmic significance, because he modeled for us the very story of our salvation. As an archetype of the human being who is tempted by sin but overcomes it — which is God’s will and intention for the ultimate destiny of all God’s children — Jesus reveals to us the open door that allows us to exit from our enslavement to evil. That door, metaphorically speaking, is the cross — and not only the cross of Christ, but the cross that must be endured by all of us, if we wish to pass the test of this world.
Jesus says that anyone who wants to be his disciple must “take up their cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23]. But didn’t Jesus only have to be crucified once? What does it mean to take up your cross daily? What it means is to choose to do what is right, each and every day of your life, knowing that this will often cause you to suffer because this fallen world so often punishes those who are doing good.
The more we choose to resist the evil that is all around us and live according to a higher standard, the more resistance we will face from the people and systems that have accommodated themselves to evil. This cross we must bear can take many forms, ranging from the subtly hurtful to the extremely painful. When we try to live according to our moral conscience, we may be ignored, mocked, and excluded from social and career opportunities because we don’t fit in. And at many times, in many parts of the world, the penalty may be worse than that, even up to the point of death at the hands of an evil authoritarian government.
Earlier in this service, we heard the story of Emil Kapaun, who maintained his moral integrity and acted with a remarkable spirit of loving-kindness, even when he was brutally mistreated as a prisoner of war. In the previous service, we heard the story of Chiune Sugihara, who sacrificed his government career, defying a heartless policy and using his position to help Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust. Both of these heroic lives are examples of taking up one’s cross.
But you don’t have to be a saint or do something really dramatic to follow the calling of choosing the good and resisting evil. For most people, it’s just a day-to-day challenge of being one’s best self under less-than-ideal circumstances, even if we’re blessed to be living in a relatively free and morally decent country. Although this may not be as exciting as standing up to the greater evil of a dictatorship or some other terribly cruel and unjust situation or regime, most of us should be thankful that we don’t have to face such extreme tests of character. It’s challenging enough to live with integrity in a reasonably decent but flawed society.
No matter our specific circumstances, to heal and break free from the influence of evil, we must learn to stop wanting what is bad for us — kicking the addiction to selfish material gain, excessive anger, judgment and conflict, and the desire for domination over others. We need to retrain ourselves to think according to spiritual principles rather than the ways of this world. This means living according to our beliefs without seeking to force others to conform to what we believe to be good and true — respecting the freedom of each and every soul, and seeking only to be a positive influence according to our well-meaning but inherently limited understanding.
“Be kind,” as the saying goes, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Be kind to yourself as well — do your best, as you are able, but extend the same forbearance and compassion to your own soul as you do to the souls of others. This world is a place of learning and growth, and our God is a God of love and encouragement, not harsh condemnation. Some students in the school of earth advance more quickly or slowly than others, and that is okay. There is plenty of time in eternity for God to give us all the tests and challenges we need to bring us to perfection.
Taking this attitude of hope, of confidence and trust in the benevolence of God’s plan, despite the temporary difficulties and afflictions we face, can empower us to rise above the evil of this world. Yes, we must take up our cross daily. Yes, we are called to make a valiant effort, and sometimes it’s not easy. But when we stumble, we don’t need to be afraid. We just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again to do what is right. And we respect others whose path is somewhat different than our own, but who are sincerely trying to follow what they believe is right — for any of us could be mistaken in the details of our walk with God. And in the end, even according to the prayer of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
This is the Christian vision — a vision of the healing of souls and the ultimate redemption of all the world. We do not bring this about through materialistic means, nor by imposing what we believe to be the true religion by worldly power. Those terrible errors have been tried and failed many times before. No, the restoration of all things shall be brought about by God, on a timeline that stretches out into eternity, according to the mysteries of a divine plan that is more awe-inspiringly beautiful than we can imagine.
In the meantime, we muddle through our lives, hopefully doing the best that we can and growing closer to the truth and to God in the process. If we are living rightly, we are striving to be peacemakers, to be healers, and to love all the amazing diversity and creative potential in this world, despite its tragic imperfections. We are working to bring out the best in ourselves and each other, and resisting the temptation to succumb to desires that harm and destroy us.
We must wrestle with this every day, for that is our calling as human beings. Thankfully, God has given us the example of one human being who truly did overcome evil to the utmost degree: the person of Jesus Christ. As we enter into the season of Advent, let us remember that he came into this world as a helpless babe, born of flesh and tempted by sin, like anyone else. But as the Bible declares, “He who descended” to earth “is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” [Eph. 4:10]. He came here “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” [vss. 12-13].
That is our calling and our destiny. In the fullness of time, we will overcome evil, even as Jesus did, shining brightly as lights in the darkness.
Watch on video (starting at 8:06):