I recently discussed the following quote from C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity with a group of high school students, “Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong… Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”
The resulting conversation was spirited as they wrestled with this idea. What became apparent was their concept of good and evil was pretty black and white – some people are inherently good and others inherently evil. However, this is not the Orthodox view of the world. God did not create evil people, instead he created each of us in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). So how then is there so much evil in the world?
In Lenten Spring Father Thomas Hopko explains, “[…] By rebelling against God ourselves. We listen to the serpent, the spirit of evil, instead of God. We do things in our own way. And we experience evil for ourselves, by our own volition, and bring corruption to our total being: mind, soul heart, and body. To the extent that this wickedness is in us, we pass it on to those who come after us, and they too become infected by evil from their very conception.”
We experience evil voluntarily as we rebel against God’s will and make our own will the authority. And one of the greatest temptations is to justify our actions, to say to ourselves, “What I am doing is good.” However, none of us has any authority to make that call, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is where we go wrong. This is how goodness becomes spoiled. As we continue down this path of separating ourselves from God through sin, we infect and are infected by those around us. The bottom line is that even if we were able to follow the law to perfection we would still be lost because without Christ we are subject to the death and corruption of this world.
So it is no mistake the pre-Lenten period begins with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. As he prayed “I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke 18:11), the Pharisee’s mistake was believing that he had no sin, that he was immune to the corruption of this world. Unable to recognize his own sin he continued to wallow in it and become infected by it. The Publican’s posture is a recognition of the wickedness in the world and our complete separation from God. In complete humility he beats his breast and cries, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
It is unsettling to think that even our most pure thoughts and desires, left to our own devices, can become corrupted and wicked. The Church tries to awaken us to this fact, not that we may despair, but that we may thirst and hunger for communion with the only One who is good, Jesus Christ. When we abide in His goodness, we are filled with His gifts and able to share them with those around us.
“Let us flee the vainglory of the Pharisee, learning instead the true humility of the Publican, so that we may ascend to God and cry to Him: forgive us, Your sinful servants, O Christ our savior: you were born of the virgin and willingly endured the cross for us, raising the dead by Your power as God!”
–From the Triodion for Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee