Every now and then, I have an experience that causes me to reconsider an element of my faith that had previously gone unexamined. This happened most recently while listening to an episode from the research professor and prolific writer Brené Brown’s podcast “Unlocking Us” in which she interviews Franciscan Friar Fr. Richard Rohr.
Over the course of their warm and wise conversation, Brown mentions to Rohr that sometimes she changes up the words in prayers to help them make more sense to her. She gives the example of saying “deliver us from fear and shame,” instead of “deliver us from evil,” while praying the Lord’s Prayer.
My epiphany from this disclosure wasn’t that we should rewrite the Lord’s Prayer. I mean, who am I to argue with Jesus when suggesting ways to pray?! My insight, rather, was that evil is a much broader and more abstract category of thought and action than I had considered before and that I might do well to make it more personally relatable to my life situation.
When I used to recite or hear the words, “Deliver us from evil,” the image that came to mind was, I’m embarrassed to admit, a personified Satan. It’s a mystery to me as to why because I don’t believe that evil exists as a little red devil running around with a pitchfork any more than I believe that God exists as an old, bearded, white man in the sky (this is to say: I don’t believe it at all).
The limitations of my mental picture — which were pointed out to me as I considered Brown’s replacing evil with “fear and shame” — told me that I need to put some more thought into what exactly evil looks like in my life.
A good place to start when trying to get a grip on evil is with sin, because for me, at least, sin isn’t quite so abstract a concept. For a long time I’ve thought of sin as the actions, thoughts, and words that we engage in that distance us from God and others. When I consider, say, the seven deadly sins or what breaking the Ten Commandments looks like in action, I see a turning away from our creator and our cohabitants in creation. We sin when we deny the inherent worth and dignity of people created in the image of God through racism, sexism, and classism. We turn our back on God when we value money and power more than we value God, perhaps in the form of working on the Sabbath instead of nourishing our souls through prayer and rest.
If sin is the action, word, or thought — be they individual or collective — then evil is the force behind those more tangible ways of being in the world. To use Brown’s examples, evil is the fear that leads us to greedily hoard our money for all of our anticipated future needs instead of sharing it with people who have present need. Evil is the shame that sparks a sense of inadequacy, leading us to cut down others to feel more acceptable to ourselves.
Considering my own life, I see judgment as one of the most insipid manifestations of evil, prohibiting my connection to God and my neighbors. I am quick to notice the imperfections of others, to deem individuals whose imperfections I have a hard time understanding wrong and inferior, and then to fail to listen and love because of my judgment. In my failure to love, a spark of anger burns within me and my judgmental thoughts often drown out creative and life-giving ones. I hold people’s imperfections against them in a way that hurts not only them but me as well. This judgmental nature, as it cuts down others and dampens the spirit of God within me, is evil.
With a more personally relatable understanding of evil, my prayer to be delivered from it takes on a new level of meaning. Instead of praying to be delivered from a satanic creature somewhat akin to the imaginary monster under my childhood bed — a prayer that means basically nothing to me — I’m praying that the grip that judgment (and fear, shame, resentment, bitterness, and jealousy, for that matter) holds on my heart be loosened. I’m praying that God lifts the burden of arrogance from my mind and grants me the grace to view others with the infinite love and compassion through which God views them. I’m asking God to help me relinquish the mindsets and behaviors that create a gulf between me and my fellow humans. None of these ways of being, thinking and speaking are life-giving; they are the evils from which I pray to be delivered.