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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Evil Often Comes in Opposites

Do a quick survey of books and sermons in the last few decades, and you will quickly notice a fascination with the word "radical." To prove my own susceptibility to trends, I picked up David Platt's Radical from Mardel today. I'm sure I will enjoy it, but I have to confess some resistance on my part toward "radical" anything. I suspect we like this word because it speaks to our current mood of being lulled to sleep by our times. We feel a sense that the world has offered us a lullaby, and Christianity must wake from it. I certainly agree. If this is what we mean, I am already on the radical bandwagon. Down with the establishment! Where is my placard?! Unfortunately, I fear at the same time that the language of radicalism has infected the intramural disputes within Christian fellowship in much the same way it has infected American politics. We tend to view our world as a simple dualism, this versus that. Good versus evil. In that view of things, Christians are drawn away from the "enemy" and gravitate toward the most radical and unconventional opposite in order to make their loyalty clear. What if this is subtly dangerous? What if evil is real but far more clever than we suppose? Philosophers at least as far back as Aristotle conceived of virtue as "a mean state between two vices, one of excess and one of defect" (Nic. Eth. 1107a). Evil exists in many forms, but goodness in merely one. "Goodness is simple, badness manifold" (Nic. Eth. 1106b). The battle for morality and truth is not merely light against dark, but rather light against dark and dark and dark and dark again. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggins asking Gandalf about whether there was an easier road, perhaps one that did not pass through the dark forest of Mirkwood. "There is," Gandalf sarcastically replied, "if you care to go two hundred miles or so out of your way north, and twice that south. But you wouldn't get a safe path even then. There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go." Modernity has gained the blessing of easy travel and well-marked roads, but we have lost the sense of what it means to travel the wild wilderness roads. The heroic trek only remains in our stories. If we knew more of wayfinding and trailblazing, perhaps we would better understand the nature of good and evil. In the Bible, we often encounter the language of a path or a way. In the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets confessed that the way they sought could not be found within merely human knowledge and experience. "I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps" (Jeremiah 10:23). Torah illuminated a path through the moral wilderness (Psalm 16:11; 119:105). Accordingly, leaders were warned not to leave the path "to the right hand or to the left" (Joshua 1:7). In the New Testament, Christ claims that he himself is "the way, and the truth, and the life," an exclusive path out of darkness and to the Father (John 14:6). False roads were many, broad, and wide (Matthew 7:13). Early Christians adopted this view when they called themselves followers of "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). We’ve lost the basic definition of a path. If I seek to identify a path through a wilderness, it is insufficient simply to put up a fence or to draw a line. Sure, that points me in the correct direction, but it does not of itself create a path. Your mathematician friends will tell you that with just one boundary, a region remains unbounded and in that sense, ill-defined. A path by definition consists of two boundaries. A path with only one boundary is just a line in a field. With two boundaries, I can say, "Danger to the left and right; safety comes by walking here." A path permits a certain amount of leeway and a certain amount of exclusion. When we go for walks, my little sons will bounce wildly from one border to the other. It drives me a bit mad, but as long as they remain on the path, I know they are safe. Likewise, Christian orthodoxy allows charity within the boundaries, just as it warns of danger outside the lines. I was not at all surprised to find "pathway" sentiment at work in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Through his chapters, Lewis persistently articulates the Christian worldview in "neither this nor that" language. In its clearest form, he expresses this perspective in his chapter titled, "Two Notes." He offers a rebuttal to both radical individualism and complete human uniformity and then concludes: "I feel a strong desire to tell you - and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me - which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs - pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) My advice, then, to my Christian brethren is to be a little leery of all things "radical." I appreciate that the Christian life will appear radical when set against the thoroughgoing darkness of this world. However, the way of God is often not found in either of the two human options we are given, but in one divinely crafted path through perilous evil. Christianity is neither the progressive left nor the conservative right. The church of our Lord is neither an amoral commune full of cheap grace nor a legalistic sect without any grace at all. There is no short road through Mirkwood, nor even a safe one, but there is a road. Wherever and whenever we identify error or evil, we are wise to turn our eyes in the opposite direction as well. Watch for its partner, the opposite extreme. If one evil is excess, watch for the perverse twin evil of insufficiency. If one evil abuses law, watch for the other evil to abuse freedom. If one evil oppresses "us," beware of the pull to oppress "them."

Keep to the path. Our Lord walks ahead.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.

1 Comment

Dec 07, 2018

A very well written post Ben, thank you for sharing these insights. The idea of two extremes both being vices is quite thought provoking. If we read and listen to only tidbits of these "radical" messages it seems quite easy to fall into the trap of legalism. That being said, I think what David Platt and similar style pastors (Francis Chan comes to mind) are getting at is that the lifestyle Jesus calls us to live in response to his sacrificial love is radically different from what today's average "Christian" life looks like. Of course we must never forget that it is grace and grace alone that brings us into a place of peace with God, but we also should…

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