Bible Note #22: Facing the Evil


Facing the Evil

The year 1944.  The place, Nazi-occupied Poland.  The narrator, Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Jewish psychiatrist from Austria.

Fifteen hundred people had been traveling by train for several days and nights:  there were eighty people in each coach.  All had to lie on top of their luggage, the few remnants of their personal possessions.  The carriages were so full that only the top parts of the windows were free to let in the grey dawn.  Everyone expected the train to head for some munitions factory, in which we would be employed as forced labor.  We did not know whether we were still in Silesia or already in Poland.  The engine’s whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition.  Then the train shunted, obviously nearing a main station.  Suddenly a cry broke from the ranks of the anxious passengers, “There is a sign, Auschwitz!”  Everyone’s heart missed a beat at that moment.  Auschwitz–the very name stood for all that was horrible:  gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres.  Slowly, almost hesitatingly, the train moved on as if it wanted to spare its passengers the dreadful realization as long as possible:  Auschwitz! (p. 6-7).

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Tulip; photo by GAC

Viktor Frankl was a passenger on that train. This excerpt is from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is his reflections on the time he spent in Auschwitz and several other death camps during the Second World War.

It’s a very profound book.  It isn’t just a horror story.  The book is, in fact, full of hope.  It is a wise man’s reflections on the human struggle in the face of hideous and terrifying evil.  You should read this book.

I was particularly interested in the way he describes his feelings and those of his fellow prisoners when the death camp was liberated at the end of the war.  He says, “it would be quite wrong to think we went mad with joy.” (p. 87).  Instead, he says, it was an experience more like “total relaxation”.

Here’s another story.  This one I’ve made up, but it’s true just the same.  James looks down from the bridge railing into the darkness below.  There is fast moving black water down there somewhere, but in the gloom of the night, he can’t really make it out nearly a hundred feet down.  “That’s where I belong,” he tells himself.  Down there, he thinks, there will be no more shame, no more self-loathing.

Denise had thrown him out.  This was the second time she had caught him engaging in a sexually explicit chat on the computer.  This time it was with some young woman from somewhere in Florida.  The first time she had been furious, hurt, and deeply embarrassed.  He had told her at the time that it was the first and only time.  But that wasn’t really true.  He’d been tangled up in on-line pornography and sexual chatting for years.  He’d always told himself that he’d stop, but he’d never been able to do that for long.

After that first time, he and Denise had gone for marital counseling for a while.  And he’d done some more counseling on his own.  But he’d never been entirely honest about his struggle, and in the end, he’d gone back to his old compulsion.  The draw was too powerful.  His resolve too flimsy.

This time when Denise found the evidence of his on-line sex life, she didn’t confront him right away.  She’d had a tech savvy friend show her how to dig down into James’s on-line history.  She found how extensive his on-line sex life was.  All along James had insisted to Denise that his sexual compulsion was a thing of the past.  Now, she otherwise.  She discovered his deceit.

When James got home from work that day, he found Denise in a seething tear-filled rage.  She had sent their two young children to her parents’ house.  She confronted him with her discovery.  He was numb, paralyzed.  She demanded that he give her his keys.  He blankly handed them to her.  She ripped the car key away from the house keys, threw it at him, and told him to get out and not come back.

He’d driven around in a daze for hours until he found himself on the bridge where the dark abyss seemed like the only path of escape, the only way to silence the roaring shame and despair that washed over his life.  Was there no relief from this bondage?  Was there no escape from this torment?

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The Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh; photo by GAC

Here’s another story.  This one I didn’t make up.  It’s even truer.  It’s from Mark 1, starting with verse 21.  It takes place early on in Jesus’ ministry.  He has only just called his first four disciples, and they are traveling around together to the towns along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The story takes place in the synagogue of the town of Capernaum, which is the town where Peter and Andrew, James and John were from.

21And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.  22And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

It wasn’t unusual for visiting teachers, like Jesus, to be invited to address the congregation.  They were a little less formal in their worship services than we are.  And so, Jesus was invited to speak to the people.

An important aspect of Jesus’ teaching was that instead of saying, as the rabbis did, “Moses says such and so” or “Elijah says this and that”, instead of that, Jesus spoke to the people on his own authority, “I say to you this.”  That unsettled the people.  No one has the right to teach the people on his own authority.  I don’t.  I have the right to teach you only what the Scriptures say.  No one has the right to teach on his own authority, “This is what I say,” no one, that is, except God.

23And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Imagine if that were to happen here, especially on a Sunday when we had a guest preacher.  Everyone would immediately tense up.  The leaders would be frantic.  “We’ve got to get that man out of here fast.”  But none of them has a chance to act.

25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

Two stern commands, addressed not really to the man himself but rather to the evil spirit.  Immediately, the evil spirit shrieks, convulses the man, and comes out of him.  A sudden, violent confrontation between Jesus and this evil spirit.  The man lies panting on the floor.  And there is a moment of shocked silence.  The people are dumbfounded and awed.  Not only does this man, Jesus, speaks with authority, but now he confirms his authority by overpower evil spirits right before there eyes.  Suddenly in the midst of their worship service, an event of spiritual violence erupts, and they don’t know what to make of it.  They are stunned.

27And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this?  A new teaching!  With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

Well, what are we to make of this event?  One of the valuable things we can do when we read the gospels is to look to see what sort of man Jesus shows himself to be.  The figure that Jesus cuts here is a very commanding one indeed.  There’s no question about who’s in charge here.  Imagine the silence in the room that follows the demon’s death cry.  This isn’t primarily a story about meekness or sentiment or compassion.  This is a confrontation of power and violence.  Jesus carries out a spiritual assault on this personified knot of abject evil and exterminates it.

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Turkey Vultures; photo by GAC

We need to see this event in its proper context.  This is one of the opening skirmishes in what will be a great confrontation between Jesus and the powers of evil.  Jesus didn’t just come on a mission of self-sacrifice.  He also came on a mission of conquest.  He came to re-conquer God’s creation from the powers of evil.  This is one of the first battles in that great war.

This evil spirit is frightened of Jesus.  He knows that in Jesus he has come suddenly, and I think unexpectedly, face to face with his deadly enemy, his worst nightmare.  And of course, the spirit is right.  He has every reason to be terrified of Jesus.  This is what Jesus has come to do, to confront the evil that infests God’s good creation and to eliminate it.

This is very good news for us.  Jesus has come to conquer the evil that infests each of us.  In those quiet times in the deep of the night, we all know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we all carry an overwhelming burden of guilt and evil on our backs.  Paul writes about his own struggle with that in Romans 7.  He says, “So I find this law at work:  When I want to do good, evil is right there with me….What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:21,24,25).

The apostle Paul himself finds that, as in each of us, so also in him there is this intense battle of good with evil.  His lament is one that we can all relate to.  All too often it is the evil that triumphs in us.  But the good news of the gospel is that because of God’s grace, Jesus Christ has come to fight that battle for us.  In the story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus defeats evil.  So also in each of us, ultimately Christ will give us the victory over the evil that so distorts and diminishes our life.  Paul writes in another place, “Thanks be to God.  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  (1 Corinthians 15:57,58).  Christ does give us the victory.

It’s the evil in us that obstructs our fellowship with God.  As Jesus more and more conquers the evil in us, we are set free for a deeper and deeper communion with our Father in heaven.  If you want that deeper and deeper fellowship with your Father in heaven, then you have to let Jesus overpower and drive out the evil that each of us has invited into our lives.

But not all of the evil that we suffer from comes from within us.  We live in a world thoroughly invaded and permeated by evil.  We live in a world of sin, sickness, suffering, and death.  There is a sort of smog of evil on the land, and we cannot help but suffer from its presence.  Even though my suffering may not be the direct result of any evil of mine, I nonetheless will still suffer from it.  After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God said that the ground will now bring forth thorns and thistle.  Even though I may not have planted those particular thorns and thistles, they can cut me just the same.

This is not always a pleasant or easy world in which to live.  We get sick.  We suffer loss and disappointment.  We face poverty, want, and need.  There is ignorance, oppression, and hatred in the land.  We find ourselves pulled into despair, fear, and doubt.  This is not how God intended the world to be.  It’s not how he made it.  Evil has made the world this way.  And Jesus has come to drive out the evil and its ruinous effects in our lives.

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Song Sparrow; photo by GAC

Jesus has already begun this work of reconquering God’s world.  When he is done, this is what it will look like, from Revelation 21:4,5:  “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who [is] seated on the throne [says], ‘I am making everything new.’”

What a beautiful new world it will be!  And as we’ve seen here in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already begun to drive out the powers of evil.

Jesus is conquering the power and consequences of sin and evil in our lives and in the world at large.  Even when you find yourself in the heat of battle with the oppressive forces of evil, know this:  Jesus is already beside you fighting in your behalf.  “Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Toward the end of his story, Viktor Frankl tells about the experience of being liberated from the oppressive powers of evil.

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp.  Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song.  There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space.  I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky–and then I went down on my knees.  At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world–I had but one sentence in mind–always the same:  “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”  How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall.  But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started.  Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.  (p.90)

Let Jesus do this for you.

© 2018 Gary A. Chorpenning.  All rights reserved.

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