What is the Source of Evil?

Daily Readings: Ezra 3-4, Hosea 6, Acts 23-24

What is the source of evil in the world? What does the Bible give as answer this very real question? We have had a variety of discussions at the Bible Education Center recently about this topic. World news certainly gives us all reason to contemplate such a question. This is a pertinent exploration even for people who already think they have the answers figured out. God’s word is good at demolishing preconceived ideas when we really dig into it and let Him speak for Himself.

So, what does the Bible call the most evil and deceitful thing in existence? Drum roll please……the human heart! The Bible describes it as “more deceitful than anything else”, desperately wicked” or “desperately sick”. (Jeremiah 17:9) Is that the answer you would have proposed? If not, I would encourage you to think about the big picture of what the Bible is teaching. It is a multitude of stories and life examples (beginning with Adam and culminating with Jesus’ sacrifice) to tell us that our enemy is sin at work in our own hearts individually and collectively in the world. Plain and simple. Sin is the outgrowth of human desire and lust gone amuck. (1 John 3:15-17, James 1:13-16) It’s wages are inevitable, inescapable, inexorable death. (Romans 6:23) And Jesus came to destroy the power of death through conquering sin (the false accuser) once and for all – and on behalf of all who would come to God through him. (Hebrews 2:14-15) Sin was his enemy and Jesus’ purpose in coming was that he “appeared to take away sins.” 1 John 3:5

The Bible begins teaching us about the source of evil right from the world’s first murderer, Cain – whose sin was that he did not love his brother. (cp.1 John 3:11-12) God speaks plainly to him way back there in the years following Creation about this ongoing struggle in the human spirit. Cain epitomized the struggle so clearly:

If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.

That word “crouching” connotes imagery like a dangerous animal lying nearby. I picture a crouching hungry lion, or coiled poisonous snake malevolently poised outside the door and ready to pounce if we open it. cp. Genesis 49:9 Sin is always characterized as ready to capture us like prey, in the Bible. It wants to master us, to conquer us, to enslave us. God says here that sin desires us – but God counsels us, like Cain, that we must master it.

If all of this is true, then, to understand our own propensity to sin – and to attempt to restrain it – is at the core of who we should be as those who claim to follow Jesus. In our deepest hearts (our “spirits” in Bible terms) is where sin is either embraced (deceived), or is repelled (resisted). That is the essence of who we are from God’s perspective. And understanding this reality is vitally important.

The definition of the Hebrew word for spirit (see Strong’s #7307, “ruach”), I believe, is the crux of this discussion:

spirit: the seat or organ of mental acts, a seat

especially of the moral character

This is the spirit that is in each of us. It is the inner core of self that encompasses our thoughts as they influence our actions – hence our moral character. The Bible over and over teaches us that these thoughts tend to be drawn away from God and toward selfishness and self-centeredness – ever since the day Adam and Eve chose to disobey God. When left uncontrolled, human nature degenerates into evil and violence – like the days of Noah. (Genesis 6:5, 13) Even the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history corroborate this fact. We have an inherited, inbuilt propensity to drift from the truth and light that God represents. We do not need (nor does the Bible teach) some external, tempting being/creature that leads us astray. It’s all right there inside us. As Jesus says in Matthew 15:19:

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”

Sin is crouching right there within our own deceitful hearts/spirits.

Now the reason I am talking about this today is that the spirit of people is mentioned in both our Ezra and Hosea passages recently. We have here some excellent illustrations of the way human hearts can vacillate in a variety of ways depending on our choices. As I said earlier, the Bible gives us story after story of human hearts turning toward or away from God. They are there to teach us about ourselves, and to remind/warn us how important our day-to-day decisions become.

The story of Cyrus the Persian king is quite compelling. Here he is, the leader of a pagan nation, and in “the first year” of his reign he had his “spirit stirred up” by God Himself. Ezra 1:1 Now, I do not believe that he had either a weak moment, or an instant lightning bolt-zapping conversion one day. But rather, that, over time, he had been led closer and closer to belief in the Jewish God (perhaps by association with the Prophet Daniel?) His conviction grew to such an extent that one day he issued the proclamation to release the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.

This return to the land had been prophesied many years before by the prophet Isaiah 44:24-28. Perhaps Cyrus even saw his own name written in the prophecy by Isaiah’s hand so many years before? Whatever the details, his spirit was stirred in such a remarkable way that he allowed over 42,000 citizens pack up and leave his national economy and return to their land! That is an extraordinary gesture for any world leader and would not have been taken lightly. Not only that, but He also augmented the funds for the construction of their temple to their God. Astonishing! So this is the account of a potentially evil heart turning away from known pathways and deliberately becoming an instrument in changing the course of history toward what is right and good. When you read his proclamation, it sounds like his life may have been permanently turned away from idolatry and toward the Jewish God.

The other folks whose spirits are stirred in our readings are found in the book of Hosea. Here we have the people of Israel during the period of the Kings. They are described in chapters 4 & 5 as having “a spirit of harlotry within them”. This is the poetic way God describes their embracing the lifestyle of sin/idolatry. Tragically, this “harlotry, wine and new wine” have “taken away their understanding.” ch 4:11 They are a people that are clearly condemned because “they do not know the LORD.” ch. 5:4 This spirit of harlotry “has led them astray, and they have played the harlot, departing from their God.” v.12

Now it is not some external spirit that has caused this waywardness of the nation, is it? It is rather their slow enticement by the things of the flesh represented in the idolatry of the practices of the surrounding nations. This is what has corroded their faith, their thoughts, their moral character. They have made compromises to pursue things that look good, that feel good, that feed their pride – and now they are being roundly condemned by their symbolic Husband – the Lord God. The idea of a harlot is one of the many fitting and common scriptural parable/illustrations of the enticement and allurement of sin. And poor, wonderful Hosea acts out a lliving parable of harlotry’s terrible damage in his very real, very painful life.

So, I thought it fitting to be reminded of how fickle our spirits are – especially if we are without the anchor of God’s moral character to guide us. However, that fact is the whole purpose of the love God demonstrates in the Bible. In myriad ways He is always calling us back from that crouching lion of sin. We can be powerful pagan kings that become sensitized to the reality of God and change the lives of many for the good – including our own. On the other hand, we can be people blessed with the very oracles of God delivered by angels, and yet turn aside to the offerings of the world in its endless variety of seductive packages. Our judgment comes in the characterization of our lives over the long haul. Like Adam or Cain, it’s always been our choice, our free will. The Bible is given to us as witness to our own propensities and the accompanying consequences of our choices – both good and bad.

Like so many Bible chapters/books that begin on the note of judgment, Hosea 6:1-3 includes very hope-filled, encouraging advice. There is hope even for those who seem to be lost in the hopelessness of their harlotry:

Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us…., That we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; And He will come to us like the rain, Like the spring rain watering the earth.

King David also shares similar advice. He, a man – all too familiar with his own propensity to sin – cries out from his heart:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me!

Psalm 51:10

A steadfast spirit – that’s what we need to continually and prayerfully maintain in seeking to combat crouching evil. A steadfast spirit – led by thoughts that develop a moral character that is stirred by the Spirit of our LORD as revealed through His word. His spirit in us helps our spirits/hearts to choose the good, to act the good, to love the enemies. If this concept was embraced more by an increasingly hopeless and violent world, we would be better at addressing evil and darkness.

May we like the Lord Jesus Christ, choose to do well and have countenances lifted up to Our Father in Heaven. May we daily strive to follow the advice to repent from our sins and choose blessing by the true God of the Universe. May we be encouraged in our spirits by great people of faith like Ezra and Hosea – people who persevered through thick and thin.