What exactly is “evil”? Given that the first manifestation of human evil recorded in Scripture involved a desire for this kind of knowledge, the question itself should inspire some trembling. Only God has the capacity to comprehend and the wisdom to administrate the depths, dimensions, expressions, and purposes of evil.
“Apart from God, everything becomes a dry well. Everything here leaks and eventually breaks apart and ends.”
Yet Scripture makes clear that God wants us to understand what it means for us to commit evil. The whole Bible, from the fall in Eden onward, is one long account of the catastrophic fallout of evil’s infection of the human race and God’s unfolding plan to ultimately overcome that unfathomable evil with an even more unfathomably wonderful good. God can give us the strength to sufficiently comprehend what he wants us to comprehend (Ephesians 3:18). In fact, God wants our “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) so that we might “turn away from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:14).
One of the wonderful things Scripture teaches us is that turning away from evil is not, at its essence, mastering a long list of bad things to stop doing and good things to start doing. Rather, at its essence, God is inviting us to abandon what will ultimately impoverish us and increase our misery, and to choose instead what will ultimately enrich us and increase our joy.
Essence of Evil
One of God’s clearest explanations of this reality comes through the prophet Jeremiah. This man had a very hard calling, spending his forty-year public ministry preaching to stubborn, stony hearts and weeping as God brought his long-forewarned judgment on Israel for centuries of idolatrous rebellion (2 Kings 17:7–14). Through Jeremiah, God expressed his profound dismay and grief over how, in spite of all he had done to create, redeem, establish, protect, and provide for them, as well as warn them over and over, his people had abandoned him and sought their protection and prosperity in the false “gods” of the nations around them:
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. (Jeremiah 2:10–11)
Not even the pagan nations, whose gods didn’t even exist, had done what Israel had done. Which led God to exclaim in pained exasperation,
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12–13)
This is a remarkable statement. God lays open the human heart and shows us what evil really looks like. Evil is when the creatures of God, his own image-bearers, forsake him, their very source of life, the source of all that quenches their deepest thirsts, and try to quench those thirsts apart from him. Evil is trying to find life anywhere but in God.
We hear echoes of Eden in the Lord’s words. Like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, Israel’s sin wasn’t merely that they disobeyed God’s commands. Their disobedience exposed a deeper, deadly problem: treachery against God had taken root in the deepest places of their hearts. Sin revealed that they placed their trust, pledged their allegiance, and sought their satisfaction in something or someone other than God. They exchanged God for things that were no gods (Romans 1:23).
And this has always been the core evil of every sin — of all our sins: forsaking the Source of greatest joy (Psalm 16:11), believing we’ll find more joy elsewhere.
Broken-Cistern Builders Meet the Fountain
But God did not leave us to perish beside our broken cisterns. Although we forsook the Source of living water to slake our thirst in empty wells, the Source, rich in mercy, sent the Fountain to bring us living water.
On a hot Samaritan midday, just outside of Sychar, an experienced builder of broken cisterns was on her way to Jacob’s well. In her heart were the ruins of five relational cisterns she had tried so hard to make, each now desolate and bone-dry. If nothing changed, soon there would be a sixth.
When she arrived at the well, she found the Fountain sitting beside it. The Fountain was waiting for her. He had come to save her from all her futile hewing and to give her “living water” that would “become in [her] a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). She was skeptical till he gave her a taste. Then she drank deeply, and for joy went and told all her fellow townsfolk about the Fountain. Many of them drank deeply too.
In the woman at the well, we see ourselves. The cisterns she tried to make may be different than ours, but ours are no less futile and empty. Apart from God, everything becomes a dry well. Nothing in this world can channel or store the water we long for most. Everything here leaks and eventually breaks apart and ends. And choosing such broken cisterns over the Fountain of living water is the essence of human evil, evil that appalls the heavens.
“The Fountain of living water offers us the deepest satisfaction, the sweetest refreshment, and life forever.”
But in Jesus’s encounter with this woman, we see the heart of God for broken-cistern builders. Like ancient Israel, we all are warned that a judgment is coming upon those who prefer arid dirt to God’s living water (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Fountain has come first, though, not to bring judgment, but to seek and save all who will repent of the evil of forsaking God, turn away from their dry wells, and receive the water the Fountain will give them (John 12:47). And it’s not uncommon that we find the Fountain waiting for us beside one of our ruined wells.
Choose the Greatest Joy
The core evil of the original sin was believing the forbidden knowledge of good and evil would yield more satisfaction than God. The core evil of ancient Israel was believing idols would yield more protection and prosperity than God. The core evil in all our sins is believing some broken cistern will give us greater life and joy than God.
Which means the fight between good and evil in the human heart is a fountain-fight: Which fountain do we believe will really satisfy us — right now, in this moment of temptation? The struggle to discern good from evil is a joy-struggle: Which well has the most real and longest-lasting joy in it? Christian Hedonism is a serious and essential enterprise, because everything hangs on choosing the superior joy.
Which is what the Fountain of living water holds out to us. He offers us the deepest satisfaction, the sweetest refreshment, and life forever (John 4:15), and he offers to fully pay the wages of our sin, the appalling evil of our futile broken-cistern hewing (Romans 6:23). And as with the man who found a treasure in a field or the merchant who found the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), what he essentially requires of us is almost unbelievably wonderful: to forsake what will lead us only to misery and despair, and to choose the greatest joy.