Hidden Evil and the Hidden Kingdom

The Gospel lessons for the last two Sundays form an interesting contrast. On July 23 (Mt 13:24-30 with interpretation in 36-43) we heard that Kingdom of Heaven is like a wheat field in which an enemy has secretly sown tares (a weed that is almost indistinguishable from wheat).

“You want me to clear the weeds so they don’t compete with the wheat?” asks the servant. “No,” says the landowner. “You can’t tell the difference between the two. Wait until harvest and separate them when you can tell the difference.”

On occasion that which we think is evil in our lives turns out to be, if not a virtue in and of itself, at least something that builds virtue within us. More often that which we think is virtuous turns out to be a subtle form of evil. Thrift, for instance, might simply be stinginess that has not yet reached fruition. Kindness is sometimes a mask for manipulation. And so the field (that is, our heart) is the strange mix of good grain and weeds that we must deal with throughout our lives, the weeds never completely being removed until we die.

Too often we assume that this text is describing an event where the evil people get separated from the righteous people. While there is an element of this (the angels will gather all evildoers), there is also something more fundamental going on. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers … Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Why is it that the righteous will be able to shine? Because the cause of sin will be removed from their hearts. It is easy and comfortable (assuming we think of ourselves as being one of the righteous) to draw the line between evil and righteous and then put ourselves on one side and evil people on the other. But this is not quite what the text says. Solzhenitsyn famously said that the line between good and evil cuts straight through the human heart.

We learn here that the judgment is not about getting rid of bad stuff. That is certainly an “effect,” but God’s cause is to make us shine like the sun. The “cause” is purification; the “cause” is to make the gold shiny. The “effect” of this action is the removal of evil. That order may seem inconsequential, but the significance is that the judgment is not that ultimately terrible thing that we too often dread. Like a young child that screams in terror before the bath, the bath turns out to be not quite as horrible as expected, and the effect of being squeaky clean before going to bed is quite wonderful.

I won’t ignore the fact that some people refuse to let go of their evil and as a result get gathered up along with “the causes of sin,” but again, this is not the goal of the judgment, it is a side effect. If we love our sin (and refuse to let go of it) more than we love God, when the sin is removed, we get swept away with the sin because they’re still holding on. So while some people (the “evildoers” in this text) are judged, it is worth noting that this is not actually the point of the judgment.

This coming Sunday’s text (also from Mt. 13) turns the theme of the previous parable on its head. If the former was about the hiddenness of evil within the Kingdom, this text is about the hiddenness of the Kingdom within the world. It is like a tiny seed that grows into a tree, it is like the yeast, which is invisible in the flour, but transforms the flour into soft, fluffy, and desirable bread. It is like a treasure hidden in a field that one must search for to find.

Everything is hidden. And this is not merely rhetorical flourish. It is so central to these parables that we must consider this truth carefully. What we see is the world, the created order, society, and culture. We may be enamored by or disgusted with culture. We may think the earth is pretty indestructible or worry about an apocalypse, in some form, that’s just around the corner. We may see the religions of the world and think that they are the problem or contributing to a solution. But beyond what we see is the Kingdom of Heaven. We too quickly want to conflate the Kingdom of Heaven with “my church” or this environmental organization, or that political philosophy. But the Kingdom and all those things cannot be conflated. The Church should be an expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not identical to it. The Church (in terms of denominations or bishops, or buildings, or confessions) are human structures and the line of the kingdom slices right through them. It requires eyes of faith to see the kingdom within the structures of the world.

And even more hidden than the Kingdom of Heaven is evil. Evil expresses itself in institutions, people, political ideologies, and even the seemingly innocent desires of our hearts. But its root is hidden deep in the human heart. And evil appears so benign that we have “a devil of a time” (to borrow a phrase from Bulgokov’s novel, The Master and Margarita) telling the difference between evil and the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what’s a person to do with all this hiddenness? The answer is twofold. First we must search for the true presence of the Kingdom of Heaven like a person searching for a treasure in a field. Second, it’s a given that as we search we will find evil everywhere we think we find the Kingdom, and vice versa. But don’t be discouraged. God will take care of the evil in due course (both the “evil ones” in society and the evil within your own soul). Don’t let evil distract you. Seek the Kingdom and God’s righteousness and God will reward you richly.

St. Porphyrios said (and I keep this quote on my phone to be reminded of it regularly), “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look toward Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”

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Permissive or Providential Will

Thomas Hopko made a distinction in a podcast way back here that I find very helpful. For a long time I have been uncomfortable with the idea of the permissive will of God. “Permissive” and “God” don’t belong together in the same sentence as far as I’m concerned. Technically it simply means “to permit,” but the force of the word is rather different.  Permissiveness implies activities that are tolerated but outside the norm.

The “permissive will of God” suggests that God is winking at errant human activity. God knows it will all take a bad turn before long, but being “longsuffering,” he does nothing while we head down this eventually disastrous path. The doctrine of permissive will of God may seemingly get God off the hook for being responsible for evil, but in the process reduces God to a debilitated and impoverished caricature of the Almighty. It’s not a picture of God that I am comfortable with.

St. John of Damascus (an 8th century theologian sometimes called “the last of the ancient fathers”) uses different terminology more in accord with the Semitic manner of thinking about God, Hopko explains.  According to John, if we think about God from an ontological or foundational perspective, he does not cause or will any suffering sickness, death or evil. God created all things good and he redeemed and saved all things so that good would ultimately prevail. God saved us from our own evil and from the evildoers. Furthermore, only God could do that ultimately because in order to overcome evil one has to overcome death (which only God can do) because death is the direct cause of evil, sin, and wickedness.

But this foundational understanding of God ought not let God off the hook for evil. He is the Creator, after all, and in a sense, the Creator is responsible for all he creates, even if he designs freedom into the creation. So it is, according to John of Damascus, that God providentially did will a world in which there would be evil. He created the world knowing that all this evil would occur.

This is not to say that God is the cause of evil, but he does orchestrate evil in such a way that good, and more precisely, redemption and salvation, will be the end result. John calls this the Providential will of God (in contrast to the Permissive will of God).

Hopko then reminds his listeners of Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2) where Hannah says that God kills and makes alive; God casts down and raises up. God is manipulating the evils of men in a way that would ultimately be for the salvation and good of those who desire salvation and the good, truth and beauty.  This is why Jeremiah is free to call the evil king Nebuchadnezzar “God’s servant” (Jer. 43:10).  Ontologically or foundationally, Nebuchadnezzar only served himself and he did great evil in the world in the process. But providentially God was able to use Nebuchadnezzar’s self-will to serve the divine ends of truth, redemption, and even beauty.

According to Hopko, John of Damascus adds another warning to Christians in regard to the providential will of God: This is not a doctrine of retribution; God’s people must always search for God’s merciful hand in the midst of calamity. It is an utter necessity that we see the world through the prism of the Cross of Christ. Great evil does not befall us or our enemies because God’s anger is roused against them. Such an idea might seem obvious and Old Testament writers came to that conclusion on occasion because they did not have the fullness of the truth nor the completeness of divine revelation. From the prism of the Cross of Christ, we recognize that great calamity and disaster come from God’s love and his desire to draw all people to himself, no matter what the price.

Metaphysically, foundationally, and ontologically, God created all things good and redeemed and saved all things so that good, the truth, and beauty would ultimately prevail. And the path to this good, truth, and beauty of redemption is human freedom. And freedom is (as some might think) a terrible price to pay for good, truth, and beauty. This is the sorrow, pain and loss of divine Love, which is expressed in God’s providential will, guiding his servants, the well-doers and evil-doers alike, toward his ultimate ends, in spite of our often misplaced and often evil intent along the way.