Seeing Christ in the Dark: Contemplating Evil in Its Context

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

--Romans 8:28-29

 Hierapolis, photographer Burak Kinacilar

Hierapolis, photographer Burak Kinacilar

I have had a lot of time to reflect on evil over the years and from an early age. What comes to mind for me are the years of violence and abuse with all the personal and systemic helplessness that came with being a child, as well as periodic encounters with people over the years whether it involved bullying, sexism, gossip or other forms of control. 

Of course, everyone's experience is different, and yet most of us are drawn to ask some version of "How we can live in such an evil world if a good God exists?" My goal here is to offer some brief theological and personal reflections on how to put evil in its proper context as a Christian and to see evil in the world not as necessary for good, but understanding that even in its ability to negate and twist, there is an occasion for us all to live out our vocation to become like Christ. That is, to become the person of the resurrection. This means contemplatively and prayerfully walking through evil in the world rather than ignoring it, pretending it is tame or simply trying to banish it from one's mind in order to delude oneself with happy thoughts. I will also consider practically the ethics of how we should perceive and treat those who do evil things in our daily lives. 

In The Moment

In the moment when something violent is happening or perhaps one is merely threatened socially (which can be devastating), often a flight or fight response kicks in. You either freeze or try and fight it off in some way. There is, of course, much that can be said about calling the police or protecting yourself via other channels (and I encourage you not to be their "sacrificial lamb"), but when it comes to the formation aspect of it, it helps to begin by being mindful of God's presence and knowing that all ultimate authority belongs to God who sees the other person's wrong doing. This is important as often these lines can become blurred depending on the abusive person, your own inclination to find fault with yourself or a societal tendency to blame the victim (ex: she was dressed that way that is why she was raped or you should have been more careful walking home alone at night). The evil is outside not inside and it is important not to internalize their creepy or violent behavior.

Also, being mindful of Christ's presence in those moments is in my experience more a matter of years of formation than manifesting in a moment of recollection. If you practice remembering God in all that you do, you may very well remember him in the moment when your body is flooded with that fight or flight response. For some, it has even helped them collect themselves and deal with the situation in the moment, for others it is a matter of being comforted. I watched one documentary where a woman who was abducted who ended up plotting and fighting against the man who said he would rape and kill her remembered to simply ask God for help. In a moment of extreme danger, she knew God was not only present but that he might help her. Yet we all know that God does not always intervene and it can be hurtful to have horrible things happen with no help in sight. For another woman who was nearly beaten to death by her husband, it helped her stay conscious for long enough to be rescued. But not everyone is rescued and how to escape danger is not the reason for this post. Rather, it is about understanding your world as it truly is: both under the dominion of evil but also belonging to the ever present God who holds all the universe together and sustains it.

When it is difficult to pray because your anxiety is so high and your head is swimming, it is helpful knowing that God knows where you are and is present with you. A simple "help" sometimes suffices. God is not a God that requires many words and I think sometimes we feel pressured by others to practice our articulation skills at the wrong time. I believe that what God loves is a person whose heart is directed towards and open to him no matter what is happening to them, good or bad. An open heart will also constantly be asking and searching for what God desires from them in the situation: A kind word when harassed? A reassertion of one's own God-given value? Resisting them at every turn? A prayer for oneself and one's enemy? Silence? Reframing from striking back? Maybe only baby steps...

How to act concretely: my advice is also not to feel like you have to make yourself chipper or act happy unless you need to in order to survive. It also does not mean giving in to them or enabling their sin further. When you have something done to you, remember THEY are the sinner. You can take this as an opportunity for character formation, but perspective is important so that you as their victim are not burdened with making sure you are nice. It does mean, however, 1) showing the respect due to another also loved by God, 2) showing basic kindness (does not mean being their friend or playing their game). 3) This also may involve protecting yourself when you need to and cutting losses when you need. Recognize that sometimes the ultimate loss is in doing the evil (being turned away from God) not in concrete loss. And, You are not called to be "nice" but to represent Christ. Jesus did not look the other way regarding sin, but he did look on others with love. If you can make baby steps in these things in difficult times then you grow that much more for the future.

Inhabiting God's World

A big part of how one responds in the moment or the aftermath is seeing that we inhabit God's world. We all inhabit sacred space, even if God is not fully manifest in the moment. Our hope is ultimately in God's future and believing what we do in the here and now matters in an eschatological sense even when we do not always see God in the moment. For example, Job's suffering had significance beyond his life under the sun and even though the adversary set up situations to test him, he remained true to God. Yes, God corrected him by adding to his understanding what he did not know about God, but yes God also vindicated him and recognized Job as his own. Show yourself to belong to God in your daily life.

We are able to see Jesus in our fear and understand the evil that is threatening us with an additional context. It is not a denial of reality, but seeing more in it. It is understanding that one is clothed with Christ and engaged in a battle that is not against flesh and blood (i.e. it's not all about the person doing the evil), but instead looking ahead toward the telos (end goal) of our faith: glorification as we are transformed into the image of Christ, even through fire. There is power in seeing more in your evil context than your adversary is able to.

We can also see ourselves being called out to Jesus who is walking on the waves and even though perhaps afraid, step out and walk towards him marveling that we can step out on the water because he works in us and marveling that our inner person cannot be touched by the danger around us. Again though, this is not a denial of reality. The waves are dangerous and you could drown. However, God is more powerful than the waves and so ultimately you are kept with Christ.

With regards to people who do evil things (aka the waves), I often find some well-wishers are inclined to give bad advice and ask us to try and take their perspective (FYI sociopaths have very interesting rationalizations for why so and so had it coming), or to assume the best. That is, do not whitewash their faults. See the ill intentions, distortions or ignorance for what they are as much as humanly possible. If someone is showing signs of instability or ill intentions, take notes quietly, but do not judge them and don't jump to conclusions about their character until you know enough (leave it to God to decide if they are redeemable or will not be). Further, if they do something to you physically or otherwise, protect yourself. Love does not delude. If you only love someone because you have convinced yourself you should excuse their behavior or that it really is not so bad, then you love a figment. It is better to go in with your eyes open morally and practically. Basically, do not bow to evil people--stand up like Mordecai and do not become a Haman in the process.

Allow God to enter into that space in your mind that can otherwise be turned to bitterness and think: one day thy kingdom come thy will be done. Take this moment to dedicate yourself anew to God's promises and recall the transient nature of this life. At times when you are feeling hopeless remember, this is just a moment, a breath and that everything that is not of God in your self and others will be burned away and what is pure will be left. Even if true destruction is happening (psychological or physical), let it also be a time of personal purification and transformation. If your reputation has been damaged, remember Christ is your inheritance, he sees all and will make everything known one day. In John 11:25 Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life and the one who believes in him will live, even if they die. I think you can apply this mentality to the reality of having to live with the aftermath of evil as well. Your body may be twisted and you may suffer psychological damage, but that need not be all you are left with.

The Aftermath

Then there is that lovely aftermath. The initial event has happened and now you are left with its effects, or maybe it is still happening? I had to live with PTSD and damage to my body for quite some time all while constantly being told to stand up straight by the person that more than likely injured my back in the first place! Something that has helped me in the past (and present!) is to take spiritual and mental resources with me and insert them in those dark places in my mind. For example, when I would be in the middle of a PTSD attack it would be like I was there. I would see the attacker's angry face, feel their hand around my neck or gripping my arm or neck tightly, slamming me against the wall or smacking me in the face. I would also see the walls of the area I would hide in sometimes to get away from them. There would also be the familiar terror in the moment and feeling emotionally everything I felt then: the anxiety, the threat, the dread, and hope of not being found. As an adult (I didn't get any help until college), it helped when I started imaging something else into the moment that perhaps physically was not there, but on another level was. For me there was a painting I did while worshipping and praying to God: it is a crucifixion scene, but with vibrant colors and directionally uplifting towards God. I had named it "Resurrection." I would image that painting into that mental space integrating God's narrative of future hope into the situation. It helped me to walk through the trauma and not be caught in repeating cycles of a one-sided ugly reality. Today I remember what happened to me clearly but they are memories and not ever present realities. If you are recovering from trauma or trying to process a bad day it might help you to find your own way of recognizing God in the moment, perhaps with a personal symbolic object of your own whether real or invented.

If you are facing hostility or exclusion at work or church (overt or covert) for your beliefs, gender/ethnicity, random targeting, someone's insecurity or desire to get ahead...etc know that in the gospels you are one of the people Jesus sat and ate with and called a child of Abraham (everyone else called them sinners). Further, the evil you are experiencing is not senseless. It is not senseless because there is another layer of reality that gives the evil a meaning it does not and cannot otherwise have on its own.

Evil is not necessary for good or glorification (even if hardship is). We were not meant for an evil warped world. At the same time, we can see God at work in us and through us when times are at their worst. Sometimes it means just being open to God's call and works when in the middle of the storm and being willing to step out of the boat keeping your eyes fixed on Christ so that you do not see the waves that are trying to kill you. It is also realizing that even with evil in the world this is but a moment in time, a breath, compared to what is ahead. Evil is part of a forward at the beginning of a book with God's beginning, chapter 1 yet to unfold. We are all part of God's story and the story of one another. We are inexplicably connected and placed in positions to be sources of strength, encouragement and untold goodness to those around us. Sadly, we do not always live out our calling and do these great things. Those that more than fail to do these things have lost something in God's economy.

Evil has meaning as part of God's narrative of love and it has meaning when it is commandeered for God's purposes, not on its own. It is in Corrie ten Boom forgiving her Nazi captor and in her resisting the evil system by hiding Jews or running church services for the other Jews and Christians in the concentration camp. It is in the person who sees value in the person trying to actively harm them and equally in the one who resists the person assigning them a place below what God intended by turning them in, going to the police or otherwise exposing them. If imaging Christ is our vocation and goal in life, then all else is not erased or rationalized (maybe God allowed my baby daughter to die a horrific death to teach me a lesson/maybe evil is a blessing in disguise), but it is reframed. Its context or backdrop, God's world, is revealed in negation and it cannot escape. God fills our world with himself and we can either follow his way or oppose him in his presence. Yet, in the most hopeless circumstances with the power of the Spirit working in us, we can be shaped towards our vocation of love in Christ, the sign that we belong to God, our inheritance and hope for the future.

What follows is not the purpose of this post, but it is the ever real possibility available to us because we inhabit God's world and because we are being formed into the image of Christ:

Since evil is reframed in the reality of Christ and we have power in his resurrection life that affects the here and now, we can certainly love, forgive and pray for those who hurt us! These are not always immediate. Too often in the Christian community, we attack those who are being crushed or are recovering from trauma with an added moral requirement of forgiveness. Sadly, empathy, compassion, and safety (mental health included!) come after a knee jerk reaction to ask if they have forgiven X person! It says that we value the aggressor over the person hurt by them. Jesus opposed the powerful and sat with and healed the suffering.

When one is ready (it may be sooner rather than later depending on the level of trauma and/or sanctification), forgive and pray for your adversary. Pray for their healing and the renewing of their heart and mind alongside your prayers for vindication and salvation. Be kind where it will not put you in harm's way (though there are those extraordinary circumstances where you will put yourself in harm's way for the Gospel) and do not seek revenge. Tactically, we are at a disadvantage here in not responding in kind (fewer maneuver options), but ultimately we gain more by refraining and instead, praying. Yet, DO oppose their evil behavior boldly as a representative of Christ. DO expose them if able if they will not leave you or another alone. DO be smart and calculate your own losses. You are dearly loved by God. Selfishness is in choosing yourself at the expense or harm of others, NOT in defending yourself from their evil. If someone slights you, turn the other cheek, if they actively hunt and exploit you and you can get out of it, follow Paul's sentiment towards slaves in 1 Corinthians 7 and get your freedom if you are able!

The Bible does not answer our questions for why the wicked prosper, but it does pose the question and it does tell us how to both mourn and be hopeful as well as live within this question. And best of all, it does tell us that the first chapter is only one more page over from the forward.