One of my summer pleasures is rereading Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. Because he writes out of years of reflection, years learning the craft of writing with clarity, I am finding that I missed a number of pastoral insights the first time around. Reading it over an unhurried summer is much better than hastily reading it on a plane.
In one of his chapters, “Sister Genevieve,” Peterson recounts a friendship that emerged with the prioress of a Carmelite monastery, a place where fourteen nuns live the contemplative life. She became a help to him during a period he refers to as the badlands. Almost all pastors go through them. Sister Genevieve extended needed soul care, introducing him to such saints as Teresa of Avila. Not that monastery life should be too romanticized. Sister Genevieve once asked, “Eugene, is it difficult to be married?” Peterson noted the difficulty of two people giving up their self centered worlds, to which she replied, “How would you like to be married to thirteen women? Some of these nuns can be real bitches.”
But it was another conversation that really caught my attention. One day they talked about the Lord’s Prayer, and Peterson confessed something that may be true for many of us, that the hardest petition to pray is “Deliver us from evil.” It did not surprise Sister Genevieve at all. Listen to her response: “Oh you Protestants. You are so naïve about evil. You know everything about sin, but nothing about evil—the prevalence of evil, the persistence of evil especially in holy places…you label everything that is wrong with the world as a sin that you can name and then take charge of getting rid of.”
I had hoped Peterson would elaborate, but he moved on. But I am still back pondering her statement. I think she is right—really right. I’m beginning to realize how very little I know about evil. I see it at times and have these occasional encounters. When Heather and I crossed into the eastern side of Germany in 1991, just as the wall was coming down, we felt an unmistakable sense of evil surrounding our souls. This had been a place of darkness and despair under an atheistic system, and evil was allowed to run freer. Two years ago, in Pergamum, one of the locations of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, the city referred to as “Satan’s throne”, I had one of my most horrific nightmares, experiencing something of a heavy force seeking to crush me in the night. Coincidence perhaps, but I don’t think so. Evil is also territorial.
At one point, Jesus gathered His disciples and revealed some kingdom secrets, including this—that the Evil One does this work of planting the weeds of evil in the night. In other words, there is an evil more insidious than we realize, that is anti-creation and anti-life, spoiling, corrupting, and perverting creation. Underneath so much of the mess is an evil that damages lives, ruins marriages, and divides churches. One would not refer to the recent tragedy in Norway as the work of a sinful man, anymore than 9/11. Something deeper is going on—an evil that occasionally shows itself in awful ways. When you talk to Iraqi refugees who have been terrorized into leaving because of their Christian faith, when you read about the awful acts of violence in Hama, the desperate situation in the horn of Africa, or the brutal raping going on in Congo, you know that something very dark is behind it all.
A book many of us should read in these days is NT Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Books like his and Os Guinness’ Unspeakable are critical, clarifying books. The reason we need to come to a deeper understanding is that so many of the problems we are currently facing are dealt with at a superficial level, with little thought to the underlying evil. Behind the current economic meltdown, a number of obvious villains are identified—mortgage brokers seeking to make a quick profit; consumers pursuing loans they had no business going after; and unchecked government spending. All of this has led to deficits to the moon, to cities like Central Falls filing bankruptcy. But few talk about the underlying evil—such as a deep greed—that gets its way into about all of us, that amounts to idolatry (Col 3:5). Were he writing today, Paul would say what he once wrote to the Corinthians—“You are looking at things as they are outwardly” (2 Cor 10:7). There is something much deeper going on that we must take seriously, name, and judge. There is an evil, that though defeated at the Cross (Col 2:15), continues to work in sinister ways, that demands we pray daily—deliver us from evil.