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Some tentative thoughts about good, evil and living life

Events and memorial observations of late got me thinking some about good, evil and why we are who we are and do what we do. Horrific events like those at Virginia Tech (or Columbine or Oklahoma City or Beslan or Nickel Mines—the list is too painfully long) not only beg deep-rooted questions about suffering and evil, but also what leads people to such a dark place. Why do they do it? How do they get to that place?

Lately, many worthy ideas are being batted around on the airwaves and in cyberspace—from gun-related issues to the destructive power of depression (and that incredible essay is making an appearance again). Many of these issues desperately need discussion, examination and debate, and I’m glad to see them on the table.

But, in the end, these issues—as important as they are—don’t answer my more troubling ruminations. They don’t go deep enough. Perhaps events like these—at least for me—get at a more basic truth about reality, our world and the lives we lead within it. I’m finding there’s a much more subterranean place I need to go for the reasons not only why others do what they do but why I am who I am and do what I do (both the good and not-so-good).

And perhaps it has to do with the spirit.

Dallas Willard points out that each and every one of us—from birth onward—is being formed in our spirit, one way or the other. “We live from the heart,” says Willard in Renovation of the Heart:

The part of us that drives and organizes our life is not the physical. This remains true even if we deny it. You have a spirit within you and it has been formed. It has taken on a specific character. I have a spirit and it has been formed. This is true of everyone.

The human spirit is an inescapable, fundamental aspect of every human being; and it takes on whichever character it has from the experiences and the choices that we have lived through or made in our past. That is what it means for it be “formed.”

Our life and how we find the world now and in the future is, almost totally, a simple result of what we have become in the depths of our being—in our spirit, will, or heart. From there we see our world and interpret reality. From there we make our choices, break forth into action, try to change our world. We live from our depths—most of which we do not understand.
Willard goes onto to say that both individual and collective disasters—famine, war, epidemics, individual violence, etc.—mostly follow human choices:

And whether or not they do in a particular case, the situations in which we find ourselves are never as important as our responses to them, which come from our “spiritual” side. A carefully cultivated heart will, assisted by the grace of God, foresee, forestall, or transform most of the painful situation before which others stand like helpless children saying “Why?”

. . . Accordingly, the greatest need you and I have—the greatest need of collective humanity is renovation of our heart. That spiritual place within us from which outlook, choices, and actions come has been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed.
To follow this idea, in some ways (though not a perfect image) it’s like life is made up of a series of constant forks in our paths: One path is cooperation and walking with God in this transformation towards the way we are designed and meant to be—a way ruled by love. The other way is cooperation with “a world away from God”—a choice, outlook or action formed by our own desires, pride, fear, pain, anger, etc. And as Paul reminds us (and as David recently and rightly reminded me), there is a hungry and devouring dark angel with minions prowling along our way, using whatever means necessary to beckon, deceive or push us down the path away from God. To borrow some on David’s thoughts, every fork we take in cooperation with God is a loss of territory for Satan—and that’s gotta enrage him.

Making too many choices down the wrong fork seems to make it harder to see what’s what. These are paths, to borrow Paul’s language, that don’t “treat God like God” (Romans 1 Message). Sometimes, perhaps God is rejected because we just want what we want. Sometimes, perhaps the God we worship or reject is a distortion of who God really is. Whatever the reason, paths walked away from who-God-says-he-is eventually, as Paul puts it, lead to confusion so that there is “neither sense nor direction left in life” (Romans 1 Message). It is a way that seems to begin benignly enough but ends in “rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing,” a life of “envy, wanton killing, bickering and cheating” (Romans 1 Message). It is a way that keeps “inventing new ways of wrecking lives” (Romans 1 Message). Our hearts becomes harder. Our spirits becomes colder. It is a way of darkness—one that can swallow us whole and leave us a husk of what God longs for us to embrace.

But as we choose the paths of walking and cooperation with God, our vision becomes more accurate, our hearts becomes more like Jesus and our spirits breathe deeper and wider and abundantly. What happens when we live God’s way? Paul says, “He brings gifts into our lives much the same way fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (Galatians 5 Message). Quite simply, we become love as God is love.

Walking with God doesn’t make life easier; often it bucks and swims against the tides of culture around us. And it doesn’t mean the path we walk is smoother; often it’s the narrower and harder path, if only because it is all about denying ourselves and learning to follow Jesus. But (a true wonder) we don’t live it on our own. This narrow way is an easy yoke. As we walk with Jesus, we discover within us a Spirit with more strength, endurance and joy than we dreamed. We find that life really does work the way Jesus says it does—and the life he promises becomes that cool, crisp living water he says it is. We become vessels of peace, joy and love in the midst of world filled with death, violence and hatred.

I'll be the very first to admit that I make a heck of a lot of wrong turns. But here’s another real wonder I'm discovering: we don’t have to backtrack along all those wrong paths in order to get to the paths of walking with God. We simply choose the path of walking with God in front of us at the moment. We simply chose now. It might take a while to feel or see the effects of these choices, but they are there. And as we walk with Jesus, those wrong turns we tended to take more often become less often. Why? Because when we walk with God, he is transforming us. That’s just the way it is. That’s reality.

People don’t wake up one day and decide to kill scores of others—or (on a less horrific scale) make an unethical decision at work, have an extra-marital affair, lie on their income tax, or step on another for their own gain. These actions are a result of a lot of other influences and choices made along the way. But likewise, our actions and decisions to walk with Jesus and love others isn’t one, solitary decision but a minute-by-minute, fork-by-fork series of choices made along the way.

I think, at the most basic level, events like those at Virginia Tech take hold of me so because they remind me of this truth of formation. They remind me of the intention with which I must live my life. And they fill me with a great desperation to bring the Light and Life I’m experiencing to the world—to work with God in Kingdom-coming. And most of the time that is accomplished simply by being in the room with whomever I encounter. By simply paying attention to people. By simply walking with Jesus with a hunger and thirst of a disciple. By simply loving God and loving others as I go.

And, in the end, perhaps that’s just a bit of what it means to overcome evil with good.