Saturday, 24 March 2018

A nasty piece of work?

Love does not delight in evil... 1 Corinthians 13:6

Do you ever take pleasure in badness? Come on, be honest, now!

I suspect all of us, from time to time, experience a little shiver - what I think the French call a frisson - of enjoyment when, say, we hear about something nasty happening to someone we don’t like.

Yes? Well, we need to listen to the apostle Paul as he tells his readers in Corinth not to “delight in evil”.

Is he thinking about evil in the sense of wickedness, bad things you do, or in the sense of misfortune, bad things that happen? The immediate answer is the first, wickedness.

A clue as to why he gives this rather negative command may be found earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 5. Apparently there has been a grossly scandalous episode in the church in Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate...” Paul is obviously very shocked. But even worse follows: “And you are proud!” A clear case, it would seem, of “delighting in evil”.

I think, though, that delighting in evil can also apply to misfortune, to plain bad luck - we quite like it, don’t we, when people we regard as bad “get their comeuppance”? Huh, serve ‘em right!

The question arises: why would anybody, Christian or not, be guilty of this unpleasant attitude? I would suggest three possible answers - and I invite each of us to look at ourselves to see what, if anything, fits.

First, some people seem to be - putting it bluntly - rotten through and through. They seem to have no conscience, no sense at all of right and wrong.

In one of Shakespeare’s least known plays, Titus Andronicus, there is a character called Aaron. To describe him as “a nasty piece of work” would be flattering him. At the end of the play, after he has been found out and is facing the prospect of torture and death, he speaks these chilling, appalling words: “If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

Well, I don’t imagine many of us are as sunk in wickedness as Aaron. But (how best to put this?) we, ahem, aren’t quite as nice as we like to make out, are we? If we take an honest look into the murky depths of our hearts we see things which are not exactly pleasant. And one of those things may very well be a tendency to “delight in evil” - to “gloat”, in fact.

Second, delighting in evil helps us to feel better about ourselves, especially if we are by nature a bit low in self-esteem: “Well, of course, I would never act in such a way,” we think. Seeing sin in other people fosters a sense of smugness and self-righteousness in us.

This, of course, can be the special curse of the “religious” man or woman - that we go around with a nose-in-the-air, “holier-than-thou” manner. How many people, I wonder, have been put off turning to Christ because we have given this kind of impression?

Third, and linked to this, delighting in evil enables us to feel deliciously judgmental and censorious. 

Please notice that word “feel”. Of course we wouldn’t give expression to what is going on in our hearts - oh no, we’re far too well trained and “civilised” for that - but the feeling is there all right.

There’s a little remark of Jesus - almost a throwaway remark - in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children...” (Matthew 7:11). Perhaps it’s a remark we ought to take more notice of. If Shakespeare had an acute insight into human nature, how much more Jesus!

But enough of this negative stuff! To finish, let’s notice how that verse of Paul’s ends: “Love doesn’t rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth”. Yes! God’s truth is pure and holy - and it is in that that we should find our joy.

And here is Paul again, this time in Philippians 4:8. To me, reading these beautiful words is like taking a warm, cleansing, refreshing shower: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about these things.” Not about “evil”, whatever sense we take it in.

To which I hope we can all say a loud “Amen”.

The truly Christlike response to evil of any kind is sorrow, sadness, possibly anger. But never, never delight.

Dear Father, help me to see immediately if any hint of smugness, gloating or self-righteousness threatens to poison my soul - and having seen it, to stamp on it with all my heart. Amen.

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