doves and serpents : the experience of evil

A while back I was hearing about a close friend’s reflections on why we experience bad things. They said, “when I go through difficult experiences, God can then use those experiences by allowing me to relate better to others.” Interestingly, the difficult experiences were of their own making. And they were self destructive habits. They chose to be involved in abuse of substance, to disregard their body as holy. Moreover, they intentionally desired to continue experiencing these things, all the while believing they could learn to guide others more effectively. They believed participating in self-destruction (can we just call it sin?) would offer new insight that they could leverage for the good of others. Specifically, this was in the arena of the use of illicit drugs.

Please note that I am intentionally leaving aside the question of how this person was formed. I illustrate with this particular case to bring to mind a lucid conception of how living in the way of Jesus calls us out of our present darkness.

I wanted to contrast that kind of predisposition with the teachings of the Christian tradition, seen clearly in a couple important texts from Scripture. Here is the first. James 1:26-27 [MSG] :: “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” I deeply value the first elements of this chapter-concluding sentence, but it’s the final sub-sentence that drives the point home: “… and guard against corruption from the godless world.” This is a broad statement. The NRSV transliterates the passage slightly differently: “keep [your]self unstained by the world.” Clearly, dabbling in evil to discover new ways of helping people is not proscribed in these passages. Damaging body and mind with drugs, treating others as sex objects, and searing others with harmful words would seem to stain a person. And while God forgives our sin through the work of Jesus, the Son, we are not created to continue in sin.

People should not walk in paths of unrighteousness so that they can relate to others.

There is a case to be made, of course, for God turning into good. Consider the inmate who, having been radically God-changed from a life of murder or larceny, finds unique ways to minister to others who have trod similar paths. Indeed, this is Romans 8:28 [MSG] entering common human reality: “we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” It seems this is what the dear friend from the opening illustration was desiring all along, but misunderstanding at a subtle yet essential level. Amidst bad decisions, there was a sentiment that they had to experience evil. Only then, went the thought process, could God transform their wrongdoing into sage advice for posterity. This is simply not so.

Here is a biblical paradigm that helps one navigate the tricky path of being “of the world” [John 15:19] yet being chosen by God out of the world. Matthew 10:16 [MSG] :: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Be as wise as a serpent, says Jesus.

“Cunning as a snake” is a jarring phrase to hear from Jesus as he commissions his twelve for changing and transforming their world. Numerous theologians seem to come to the conclusion that Jesus is confirming the hard-edged presence that his disciples were to embody in the world. Jesus himself spent time with rough folks such as tax collectors and prostitutes. But he also demands holiness [Lev. 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16]. Being holy does not mean being ignorant. Yet in the same breath, God redeems the wrongs of the sinner’s past. God does this.

This means we can literally participate in the life of God and become united with him while we infiltrate our culture with the love of God that has transformed us. Below we read part of a prayer Jesus himself prays for the church in John 17 [MSG]. Take the time to read the rest of it from any Bible.

I glorified you on earth
By completing down to the last detail
What you assigned me to do.
And now, Father, glorify me with your very own splendor,
The very splendor I had in your presence
Before there was a world.

I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

When we live as we were meant to live – holy and blameless – we change the world and build the kingdom of heaven. We do not have to experience evil, and most of us have probably already seen enough to know how bad things can be. Rather, we live as wise serpents, aware of evil and its effects. But as doves, we as followers of Jesus live changed lives that exemplify the hope of Jesus to a watching world. This is the place where the Holy Spirit continues to empower the church to establish the reign of God in Christ. Yes, Jesus is alive in the world. In us. In other words, living holy, as God created us, makes everything a whole lot better.

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2 thoughts on “doves and serpents : the experience of evil

  1. Interesting, Ben! My mother’s a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. When she was entering the field (bout 30 or 35 years ago) she couldn’t get hired in Western Michigan. People believed that only former addicts could council and help (minister to?) those who are using (or trying to quit). That belief is no longer widely held. The substance abuse field finally understands that one does not have to experience that kind of abuse in order to help others. I hope that Christians can begin to understand this also.

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  2. Thanks for your post, Ben! I would venture to say that none of us need to seek out experiences of evil, sin, or brokenness because inevitably these experiences will come to us. It is indeed a great hope to believe that God can transform these experiences into something helpful for others, but I concur that it is not only in the transformation of pain but also in the living out of goodness that the church witnesses the power of the Spirit to the world.

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