The early church father, Augustine (354-430), mentioned an adolescent prank in a book he called his Confessions. It was a window on the problem of evil that still invites reflection.
In a nutshell he and some of his adolescent companions were hanging out one night. On a whim they stole pears from a local fruit tree. They ate a few—very ordinary pears, he recalled—and then threw the rest to the pigs. Why did he do it? To experience the stir of evil.
He wrote, “I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul and I loved it.” [Confessions, Oxford, 29]
Augustine’s startling honesty offers a life ring to many of us. He saw that he sinned because he “loved it.” We, like him, also love sin: it persists in any spaces that haven’t been given to Christ. We love sin because it thrills us—and we come back to it again and again with heartfelt devotion. Evil enslaves us just as a forbidden sweet captures a child’s fancy or cocaine rules an addict’s behaviors: it rules through our desire. We long for the stir it provides.
The life ring is needed because apart from Christ everyone is enslaved to evil—absolutely everyone. No exceptions. If we miss that truth we remain blind to the grip of sin in our lives and the danger it represents. And if blind to reality we drift more and more quickly to the final waterfall of death. Augustine tells us the truth: beware of what you love other than Christ.
A reasonable reader might think, “Isn’t that an overstatement? Almost all of us, including non-Christians, live good lives, so why this exaggeration?”
It’s an important question and Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, addressed it as the first of his 97 Theses, posted a few weeks before his more famous 95 Theses: “To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere.”
A heretic is a religious leader who claims something to be true that isn’t true: he or she supports falsehoods. The person may be sincere and educated but still wrong. And, as Luther, pressed his case in the 97 Theses, a great heresy is that we can define our own morality—that we have a free will and that God awaits our efforts to become more righteous. The reality, Luther held, is that, “We are not masters of our actions, from beginning to end, but servants” (thesis 37). And we serve either God or his archfoe. There is no neutral middle.
Augustine’s premise, taken from the Bible, is that we were made by God to be responders. The Bible says so again and again. We love God because he first loved us. We continue to love him because he continues to pour his love out in our hearts by the Spirit who lives in all who know Christ. Apart from his life and love we can do nothing to step away from our love of evil. But with the Spirit’s life in us our faith begins to work through love.
The point, however, isn’t that we who know and love Jesus should browbeat people who love evil. As they taste and see what evil offers—nothing but the empty stir of self-love—we offer a love for others. Evil, under its guise of enlightenment, is ultimately dark and black: a malignant nothing.
Our path, by contrast, expresses the fragrance of the “Christ-to-God” relationship that the Spirit spreads to and through those who love the Son. God created all things for good—and the goodness pours through the bonds of his love. The serpent, on the other hand, can do nothing by way of new creation. All he can do is take the goodness out of what God meant for good. He can only exploit and devour.
Our sexuality, for instance, was made for a given husband and wife to enjoy in lifelong devotion. Trust and delight grows in such an exclusive partnership. The bond points to the oneness of our eternal union with Christ.
So, too, our discoveries in natural science reveal a wholeness expressed by a loving Creator who surprises us in both the micro and macro range of his creativity. And our capacity for aesthetics is birthed from the heart of a Triune God who delights to show off his creative beauty.
But the serpent takes the goodness out of each phase of life: sexuality is removed from its proper setting; nature is divinized and objectified and it loses its richest charms; and the aesthetics of light and grace are replaced by efforts to probe darkness, isolation, and nihilism.
What, then, does a Christian do in the face of apostasy and unbelief? We enjoy God. We seek more of his heart; his truth; his goodness. We find places where God’s communion is most active—in a church or fellowship or ministry—where the love of God is spreading and prospering. The experience of God is always active, giving, and sacrificial. It reflects the love of God that reached its crescendo at the cross. And we share the love of the cross with unbelievers as an overflow of compassion and not as a duty.
We were made as responders. Augustine eventually learned the lesson of the pears: evil is a love that degrades; God’s love always builds and fulfills. God made us for himself and true experience—what we long for most—is found in the Son.