Many of the world’s great philosophies deny that evil is present in every human. The Bible never does.
“All have sinned,” lands the verdict. Alexander Solzhenitsyn knew this well. He experienced firsthand the brutal repression of Russia’s communist government. That included eight years of forced labor in a Siberian prison. Yet somehow he saw that the very evil that had so profoundly wronged him was rooted not only in the people and systems that had wronged him and millions of others. It had roots in his own heart as well. He famously confessed, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
If we know ourselves well, we know this to be true. The ways we seek advantage for ourselves, even to another’s loss. The ways we see others hurting but do nothing. The ways we subtract value from a human soul due only to their race or wealth or any other external marker. The ways we gnaw upon resentment. The ways we trample on people and hardly notice.
Let me make that more personal. I do these things. I can trample on people and hardly notice. I can gnaw upon resentment. I subtract value from souls due only to external markers. I allow comfortable indifference and self-justification and a nest of other vipers to slither unconfronted in my thoughts. I grow indignant when I perceive an injustice against myself, yet the next moment easily dismiss the claims of injustice voiced by others. All these and a hundred other things are the presence of evil not merely in our world, but in me.
When it comes to visible acts of racism, the trail is much the same. Brutal acts and bent systems always spring from sins of the heart. This is not to say that every American overflows with subtle hatred, as much current commentary seems to imply. Rather, for most of us, at least, sin creeps in the subtle devaluation of neighbor that, when all is said and done, ultimately concludes, “It does not really matter if they suffer or die, because their life does not matter as much as mine.” Sin creeps in the subtle devaluation of neighbor that ultimately concludes, “It does not really matter if they suffer or die, because their life does not matter as much as mine.”
Sin creeps in the subtle devaluation of neighbor that ultimately concludes, “It does not really matter if they suffer or die, because their life does not matter as much as mine.”
That is whispered, without words, daily in most hearts. Of civil wars in Africa. Of orphans in Asia. Of the unborn in Europe. Of Dalits in India. Of foster youth. Of the poor and destitute in every corner of the globe. And yes, very often, of people of color here in the United States. Certainly, we cannot respond to even a fraction of the pain in this world. But when our heart feels toward the one person we pass on the street, “She matters less,” we see roots of the same evil that crushes entire people groups.
Jesus’ brother James addressed this directly. He describes a church scenario. A man strides in bearing all the symbols of worldly success and value. A woman slips in as well, a scarecrow hung with ragged clothes, smelling of the street. We welcome the man with gleaming smile and seat him near the pastor. The woman gets an awkward nod and a seat near the door.
James describes this response with the same word that Jesus used to describe Satan as “the evil one.” “Have you not become judges with evil thoughts,” asks James? We have. I have. I do. And in the scales of our minds we conclude, her soul weighs less. We would never express that, of course, even to ourselves. But the truth is, we have hardly seen her. In the scales of our minds we conclude, her soul weighs less.
In the scales of our minds we conclude, her soul weighs less.
When we see this, even a glimpse, the Bible calls us to repent – to name and to turn from our sin. Both the obvious and the subtle. Both “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” As with lament, our repentance is first before God. Then we repent before people, too – those whom we have wronged and others whom we need to help hold us accountable.
Yes, God has promised forgiveness and new life. But repentance comes first.
This repentance carries one more vital gift as well. It readies our hearts for action. Without repentance, even the most noble labor for justice swiftly becomes self-righteous and smug. It peers down in judgement upon all who do not see what we see or do what we do. The work of justice can advance with humility only when begun with a repentant heart. It is marked by grace, not only for those who do not yet see what we see, but even for the adversaries we must confront.
Without repentance, even the most noble labor for justice swiftly becomes self-righteous and smug.
I’ll never forget hearing John Perkins share the torturous treatment he received as a young man at the hands of police in a jail in the deep south. Horrific.
Yet somehow, even before he recovered from his wounds, he came to this conclusion: “I saw it there in me. I had that same hatred for those cruel men in my heart that they had in theirs. If I had me a grenade in the room with those men, I’d a’ pulled the pin on all of us.”
Beyond what any human could ask of another, Perkins committed to turning from darkness in his own heart before he could seek the transformation of others. In a choice Perkins describes as “more God than me,” he did just that. And for the past 60 years, he has been a transforming presence in virtually every life he has touch, including mine — offering time and again an unflinching prophetic challenge paired with breath-taking grace, even for his enemies.
To read: Psalm 51:1-12, James 2:1-4 & 8-13
To explain: Share how the Bible teaches that evil is not just “out there,” but also inside each of us. Remind how the Bible calls us to admit our sin and repent by turning away from it.
To discuss: In what ways are sins that you see in the worst of people and institutions subtly expressed in your own heart and life? How have you been calloused to others’ pain? Where have you withheld good that you could have given?
To do: Either join in a prayer of shared confession or quietly confess your sins to God. Later, at a time of your choosing, share your confession with another person as well.
For further exploration: Justice and the Inner Life Podcast interview with Dr. John Perkins