I would like to speak to you about the ultimate essence of evil. And lest you think this is going to be abstract or theoretical, I mean your evil. The evil you do every day. And the evil you hate when others do it. I mean my evil, my daily sin. I want to speak to you about the ultimate essence of evil — real, tangible, globally pervasive evil.
By essence I mean to distinguish between the root of evil and the fruit of evil. What is the inner spring of evil that causes attitudes and actions to flow out of it — out of us — which we call wrong, or bad, or sinful, or wicked, or evil?
And more specifically, my question is: What’s the ultimate essence of evil? And by ultimate I mean that there’s nothing deeper or more original that makes this evil essence evil. We are looking at the ultimate essence of evil when we see the deepest force that makes all evil evil.
Your Name, Your Renown
And let me tell you right up front why I am talking about this. I know where I am. I know and I love what Passion is about and has been about these twenty years. I know the heart of Louie Giglio and his team, and what they pray for and long for and work for in every student generation. “O Lord, your name and your renown are the desire of our hearts” (see Isaiah 26:8).
The all-satisfying majesty of God in Christ, blazing into the world through the passion of your heart for the unrivaled beauty and worth of Jesus above everything.
That’s what Passion is about.
So, I am going to talk about the ultimate essence of evil because, until you know and hate the ultimate essence of evil in your own soul, and in the world, you will inevitably dumb down the majesty of God, and diminish the triumph of Christ, and gut the glory of human life that pleases God. So, for the greatness of the majesty of God, and the fullness of the triumph of Christ, and the beauty of a life that pleases God, we are going to rivet our attention on the ultimate essence of evil.
The Ultimate Essence of Evil
We will focus on three passages of Scripture to define the ultimate essence of evil, and then close with three applications.
Glory Traded Away
Let’s turn first to the shock of the prophet Jeremiah, and read Jeremiah 2:10–13. What does Jeremiah see as the ultimate essence of evil?
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. 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.
God says the universe should be in a state of shock. And the reason for this cosmic dismay is stated first in verse 11: “My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.” They traded their mansion in the Alps for a cardboard shack by the garbage dump. My people have exchanged the wonder of their glory for worthlessness.
The Fountain Forsaken
And then in verse 13 God breaks the cosmic reason for this dismay in verse 11 into two halves and calls them evils.
My people have committed two evils: (1) They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and (2) they have hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
So, the glory that they have traded away in verse 11 is called in verse 13, “Me, the fountain of living waters. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.” This is the first great evil that should cause the entire cosmos to shudder. I’ll put it like this: It is a great evil to lose a taste for God as your fountain of life and joy.
And the second evil in verse 13 is this: “They have hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Not only have they turned away from the fountain of life and joy, but the cisterns they make can’t hold that water anyway. They’re broken. No fountain. No cistern. Therefore, no life, no lasting joy. They’re going to die. The money cistern is broken. The sex cistern is broken. The family cistern is broken. The beauty and brawn cistern is broken. The success cistern is broken. The political cistern is broken. None of them can hold the water of life and lasting happiness. And the fountain that has been forsaken could fill them.
What is the essence of evil in Jeremiah 2:11–13? Putting the two halves of verse 13 together, I would say it like this: the essence of evil is to lose a taste for God and prefer anything more than God, especially when he offers to be for us the never-ending fountain of life and joy. The broken cisterns that we desperately dig in the hopes of storing up some life and pleasure, those are all the fruit, not the root of evil. The root is: My people have no taste for me. They prefer other things. “Be appalled, O heavens, at this.” This is an evil, of whose greatness no one comprehends. Even the shock of the galaxies is not enough.
Back to the Beginning
Let’s test this definition of the essence of evil by going back to the beginning — to the garden of Eden where all human evil began. Have we gotten to the bottom? To the deepest root?
You know the story (Genesis 3:1–6). But listen this time for the essence of evil:
[Satan] said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Every Heart Infected
We know something of the magnitude of the evil that happened here because the apostle Paul said in Romans 5:12,
Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.
The magnitude of this evil is that every human is infected and ruined by this first sin. And all of us come into the world captive to this evil. So, what was the ultimate essence of this first human evil — this all-pervading evil, that every one of us in this room brought with us into the world?
Here is what Satan said (verses 4–5):
You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
What Is God Withholding?
What’s the essence of this temptation? It has several dimensions. But the essence is this: God is withholding something from you that is really exciting. And he’s keeping it from you by threatening you with death if you try to get it. And God is lying. You will not die.
Now, what’s the essence here? You can see the essence in what happens in Eve’s heart (verse 6):
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Listen to those three things happening in the human heart. “This is good food — delicious, nourishing food — and God won’t let me have it!” “This is beautiful; this gives me so much delight just to look at it; and God wants to keep it from me!” “This is really desirable because it will make me wise like God, so I can decide things for myself.”
Delicious, delightful, desirable. Denied. And they ate. We will not be denied what we desire more than God.
What was the essence of this evil? What was the essence of the fall of humanity?
Was it the eating of the forbidden fruit? No. What is eating? Eating is the physical movement of the muscles of the jaw and the tongue and the throat in chewing and swallowing a physical object. That is not the essence of anything! Moving muscles is never the essence of evil or good. Kissing is good. But it is not the essence of love. Swallowing forbidden fruit is bad. But it is not the essence of what happened here.
The moral outrage — the horror — of what happened here was that Adam and Eve desired this fruit more than they desired God. They delighted more in what the fruit could be for them than in what God could be for them. Eating was not the essence of the evil because, before they ate, they had already lost their taste for God. He was no longer their all-supplying life and joy. They preferred something else. That is the ultimate essence of evil.
What About Rebellion?
But someone might ask: Isn’t rebellion against God’s authority a deeper, more primal problem than the heart’s preference for the fruit? Isn’t disobedience the real issue, the deepest essence of evil? No. No. No.
And the reason I stress this is because, as long as you see commandment-keeping as the essence of good, and commandment-breaking as the essence of evil, you will never get to the bottom of why you do what you do, or are what you are. You will never see the greatness of God’s majesty, or the fullness of Christ’s triumph, or the beauty of a life that pleases God if you think the essence of evil is commandment-breaking.
Think of the relationship between obedience to God’s commandments and delight in God’s character. Which one of these is the essence of good? Well, God makes delight in his character a commandment in Psalm 37:4:
Delight yourself in the Lord.
But God doesn’t take neutral things and make them good by turning them into commandments. It is the very nature of God’s infinite worth and beauty that makes delighting in him supremely good. And that’s why it becomes a commandment.
The same is true of evil. Which is a more basic evil: disobeying God’s commandments or desiring something more than God? Well, God makes not desiring something more than him a commandment:
“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Don’t value anything above me. Don’t treasure anything above me. That’s a commandment. God said it. Jesus said it:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
But God doesn’t take neutral things and make them bad by forbidding them. Treasuring, desiring, preferring anything or anyone above God is not evil because it’s forbidden. It’s forbidden because it’s the essence of evil.
Evil Is Already There
So, no. Disobedience — or law-breaking — is not the ultimate essence of evil. Paul put it this way in Romans 3:20:
Through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Commandment-breaking (like Adam and Eve’s) is not the arrival of evil. It’s simply the confirmation that the essence of evil is already there.
Before there was any commandment of any kind anywhere in the universe, it was already evil not to treasure God supremely. The essence of the fall of Adam and Eve was not that they disobeyed a commandment. The essence of the fall was that, beneath that disobedience, they had already lost their taste for God as their all-supplying life and joy. They preferred created pleasures above God as their supreme pleasure. That was the ultimate essence of the fall.
We Have All Fallen Short
Let’s take one more step in confirming that we are on the right track as we search for the ultimate essence of evil. One of the most important statements about evil in the Bible is Romans 3:23. Many of you know this verse:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
What does that mean? Let’s start with the obvious: When Paul describes universal sinfulness in the human heart, he describes it in relation to the glory of God. Sin is a falling short of the glory of God. Sin is not first about your relationship to people, but your relationship to God. To be sure, sin hurts people. But that is not the essence of the evil of sin.
The Evil Exchange
What is? What does falling short of the glory of God mean? Paul has said something very similar already in Romans 1. In Romans 1:21–23 he is describing the universal darkness of the human heart in relation to the glory of God. He says,
Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The darkness of evil in the human heart is seen in the exchange of the glory of God for the glory of the creature. “They exchanged the glory of God for images” (see Romans 6:23). I think that’s what Paul means in Romans 3:23:
They all sinned and fell short of the glory of God.
Preferring the Created
“Fall short of” in the sense that they fall short of what the glory is worth. Their hearts did not prefer the glory of God above the creature. So, they exchanged him. Like a Christmas gift you didn’t want.
So, my conclusion is: The ultimate essence of sin in Romans 1 is the failure to treasure the glory of God above every created reality.
Or, to go back to Jeremiah: The ultimate essence of evil is the failure to find the fountain of living water supremely satisfying.
Or, to go back to the garden of Eden: The ultimate root of disobedience is the loss of taste for God as our all-supplying life and joy and the preference for created pleasures above God.
War Against the Essence of Evil
Now, to bring this home, let’s go back and see why it is that, until you know and hate the ultimate essence of evil in your own heart and in the world, you will inevitably (1) dumb down the majesty of God, and (2) diminish the triumph of Christ, and (3) gut the true glory of human life that pleases God.
Let’s take those one at a time and see if that is true.
The Majesty of God
Until we see the ultimate essence of evil, and hate it in ourselves more than we hate anything, we will inevitably dumb down the majesty of God.
Why did I say that? Because the greatness of God’s majesty is magnified not by hollow efforts to keep his commandments, or perform religious duties like going to church, or reading your Bible, or saying your prayers. Those are all very important.
But here’s the crucial point: God’s supreme, all-satisfying, infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful glory will not be magnified in your soul until your soul is supremely satisfied in him. And my point here is: You will never feel this with the massive weight that it has, until you feel that the ultimate essence of evil is the failure to be satisfied in God above all things.
Only then do we get serious about the radical change — radical, miraculous, supernatural, blood-bought, Spirit-wrought change — that we need to experience in order to treasure God like that. And when that happens, the greatness of the majesty of God will no longer be dumbed down in your life. It will be exalted above everything.
The Triumph of Christ
Second, until we know and hate the ultimate essence of evil in our own soul, and in the world, we will inevitably diminish the triumph of Christ in his death and resurrection. What was this triumph of Christ?
- The forgiveness of sins?
- The absorption and removal of the wrath of God toward his people?
- The imputation of his perfect righteousness to us as sinners?
- The defeat of death and the devil?
- The deliverance from hell and everlasting misery?
- The resurrection of our bodies?
- The healing of every physical and mental disease or disability?
- The entrance into the new heavens and the new earth?
Oh, yes! Yes! This was his triumph.
However, none of these are the ultimate triumph of Christ. All of them lead to something ultimate. And they all come to nothing without this: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). To see God. To know God. To enjoy God. To treasure God above all. To reflect God.
You were made to display the all-satisfying beauty and greatness of God by seeing and savoring and showing him as the supreme treasure of your life.
- This is why your sins are forgiven.
- This is why God’s wrath was appeased.
- This is why his righteousness was imputed.
- This is why death and the devil were defeated.
- This is why you were rescued from hell.
- This is why you will have a new, perfect body in a new world.
The ultimate aim of the triumph of Christ is to bring sinners home to God “in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore” (see Psalm 16:11). And my point is that, until you see and hate the ultimate essence of evil in your own soul — namely, treasuring anything more than God — you will not celebrate the triumph of Christ for the ultimate treasure for which he died: the enjoyment of God himself above all.
The Glory of Human Life
Finally, until we know and hate the ultimate essence of evil in our own soul, and in the world, we will inevitably gut the glory of the human life that pleases God. And I mean gut it of the very thing that gives it glory, which is treasuring God above all things — and showing that by the way we live.
There is enormous pressure on you today to think of the good — the opposite of evil — in ways that have nothing to do with God, nothing to do with Jesus, that strip God, and his Son, and his glory, and a heart that treasures him above all — strips all of that from the very meaning of “good.” And the more you move toward that understanding of human life, the more that so-called “good” becomes the fruit of the ultimate essence of evil.
Not from Faith
Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
Hebrews 11:6 says,
Without faith it is impossible to please God.
This means that the goodness and beauty of human life is the fruit of faith — that is, the fruit of embracing God in Christ as our supreme treasure. Until we see and hate the ultimate essence of evil — treasuring anything above God — we will not see the essence of evil deeds. We will not see the essence of good deeds.
What was the ultimate essence of the evil of the Pharisees? Was it that they devoured widows’ houses (Luke 20:47), or despised sinners (Luke 7:39; 15:1–2), or distorted the law (Mark 7:13), or exploited the poor (Luke 20:47–21:3), or felt no mercy (Matthew 23:23), or neglected justice (Matthew 23:23), or murdered God’s Son (Matthew 21:39)? No. All of that was fruit, not root.
The root — the ultimate essence of all their evils — was that they did not love God; they loved money (Luke 16:14), and they loved the praise of men (Matthew 23:5). They had exchanged the all-satisfying glory of God for the glory of man and the pleasures that money could buy. That was the God-belittling evil of all their evils. And we will not see that until we see and hate the ultimate essence of evil.
The Essence of Good Deeds
And what about the essential beauty and goodness of good deeds? What is the essence of goodness? It is the opposite of the essence of evil. One put Jesus on the cross. The other was purchased by the cross. One is failing to treasure God above all things. The other is enjoying God above all things, preferring him over everything.
The glory of human life is the blood-bought overflow of joy in the all-satisfying beauty of the God of grace.
And my point is: If you don’t see and hate the ultimate essence of evil in your own heart — the treasuring of anything above God in Christ — you will not realize that the severing of good deeds from the root of treasuring God is the loss of glory and the desecration of human life.
Don’t Lose Your Taste for God
So, I end with this. The ultimate essence of evil is the loss of taste for God as our all-satisfying life and joy, and the preference for other things above God himself. That is the ultimate essence of evil.
I am pleading with you, set your face like flint to know and hate this evil in yourself and in the world. And to spend the rest of your life growing in the blood-bought ecstasy of treasuring God in Christ above everything.
If you do, the majesty of God will be magnified in your joy. The triumph of Christ will be fulfilled when that joy in perfected in his presence. And the glory of human life will shine in you, as your joy in God overflows in a thousand truly good deeds.
Read, watch, or listen to John Piper’s message at Passion 2016: