Evil as Good and Good as Evil

“Woe to those who say evil is good and good is evil . . .” (Isaiah 5:20)

The response of a person who has their conscience pricked will range from one of irritation to annoyance, impatience, anger, and, depending on the state of the individual’s conscience, fury, confusion, hatred, and despair. The emotional reaction will be worse for an individual whose perception has moved steadily along the road towards a worldview where good is perceived as evil and evil as good. The blunting or silencing of conscience is widely acknowledged as a consequence of a life hardened in sin. While this is the case the individual will experience a painful emotional reaction automatically triggered in the depths of their soul when confronted by a situation, or individual that they perceive threatens their position, or passes judgement on their character. We see this vividly displayed in St. Luke’s Gospel in the episode where Jesus cures the man with the withered hand.

Now on another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and began to teach, and a man was present, and his right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching him to see if he would cure somebody on the Sabbath, hoping to find something to charge him with. But he knew their thoughts; and he said to the man with the withered hand, Get up and stand out in the middle!’ And he came forward and stood there. Then Jesus said to them. I put it to you: is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good, or to do evil; to save life or to destroy it? Then he looked around to them all and said to the man, Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were furious and began to discuss the best way of dealing with Jesus. (Lk 6:6–11)

When we look at this episode with the eyes of faith, we see the merciful love of our Saviour healing the lame and forgotten people of society. He offers them the greatest hope, that the God who heals them, also loves them beyond what they can ever comprehend. Every single person is precious in God’s eyes and has a position in his kingdom which is especially reserved for them. Without the eyes of faith, we see an episode of immense goodness where someone who is crippled is healed again. The person who has performed the healing may or may not be God, but the miracle he has performed is undeniable evidence of his goodness. The emotional reaction of a bystander to this episode may be one which is filled with the awe and wonder. The reaction of the scribes and Pharisees is one where they feel both threatened and judged by Jesus. The emotional reaction of fury seems justifiable in their eyes, as Jesus has performed a miracle on the Sabbath and in breaking the Sabbath displayed a complete disrespect for the Law of the temple. But the obvious goodness and love in this episode cannot be ignored. Surely this would jolt their consciences and wake them up to realise there is something wrong with not only their interpretation of the law but also with themselves? The experience of being furious is an extremely unpleasant one. These are painful emotions and in their eyes the cause of their suffering is Jesus who has undermined their authority, as well as exposed the corruption in their hearts.

This is an episode where the scribes and Pharisees have judged evil as good and good as evil. The emotional reaction they experienced in response to the love and goodness of Jesus is as a result of a corrupted heart that is at one with the devil in his own desires and ambitions. Good has to be got rid of, if it exposes and threatens one’s authority. But also, significantly, while not consciously aware of it they want to rid themselves of these painful emotions. It is the case that if we identify the cause of our personal suffering, we then want to be free from the suffering by eliminating the identified cause. It also follows logically that the greater the suffering, the more determined we will be to free ourselves from it. On the surface this does not seem like a factor contributing to the desire of the scribes and Pharisees to find “the best way of dealing with Jesus” (Lk 6:11).

It is clear from the revelations of God the Father to St. Catherine of Siena that the deepest suffering is in the will of an individual who interiorly is filled with envy, hatred, pride, and lust. The consequence of a perverted will consumed with the selfish desire for power, wealth, and pleasure is a troubled conscience that when threatened experiences the intense suffering arising from feelings of hatred, fury, and despair.

It is the will that causes (the deeper) pain. Those I have described to you, who taste already in this life the pledge of hell, suffer spiritually as well as physically, while my servants taste the pledge of eternal life.1

The Scribes and Pharisees

The temptation with the scribes and Pharisees is to attribute their response to Jesus as being due to their ignorance as a result of their love of the law. But if we look at St. Paul who described his persecution of Christians as being due to ignorance: “Even though I use to be a blasphemer and did all I could to injure and discredit the faith. Mercy, however, was shown me, because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance” (1 Tim 1:13), the words of Jesus to St. Paul were very different to the words he spoke to the scribes and Pharisees; so too was Paul’s response: “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked, and the answer came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do,’” (Acts 9:4–6). St. Paul’s response to the grace he received from our Lord was probably the deepest and greatest conversion in history. His recognition of the love of Christ who he was persecuting filled him with deep repentance, making room in his soul to be filled with every grace and gift imaginable to enable him to be, next to Christ, arguably the greatest evangelizer there has ever been.

When looking at the words of Christ to the scribes and Pharisees, they are very different in tone:

But the Lord said to him, You Pharisees! You clean the outside of cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness. Fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside too? Instead, give alms from what you have and, look, everything will be clean for you. But alas for you Pharisees, because you pay your tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and neglect justice and the love of God! These you should have practised, without neglecting the others. Alas for you Pharisees, because you like to take the seats of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted respectfully in the market squares! Alas for you, because you are like the unmarked tombs that people walk on without knowing it!(Lk 9. 39–44)

Their response to the many miracles that evidence his divinity was one of anger, fury and hatred. There is something fundamentally different going on interiorly in the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus is rebuking. It is important to note that not all the scribes and Pharisees followed this path. While Jesus rebuked them in a group situation, we of course do not know the state of each of their hearts and so it is not my intention to suggest that all the scribes and Pharisees descended into the darkness of evil.

If we love sensual things selfishly apart from God,then we will end up suffering the pains of a troubled conscience, where we will envy those who have more than us, and have anger and hatred towards those who get in our way of satisfying our desire for power, wealth, and pleasure. While the scribes and Pharisees already had positions of power and honour, they feared the loss of this authority through the challenges Jesus presented to them. Their fury towards Jesus and plans to deal with him evidence their hunger for revenge and tragically, as described by St. Catherine they have killed their souls before they have actually acted out their perverse desires. They must have envied Jesus so much as he spoke with an authority they could never have. This envy is a torture that gnaws away at the soul.

How many are the pains of a troubled conscience! How many are the pains of those who hunger for revenge! They gnaw away at themselves constantly, and they have killed themselves even before they kill their enemies: They are themselves the first to die, slain by their own hand with the knife of hatred.2

Covered in Confusion

In St. Luke’s Gospel an incident is described where Jesus’s adversaries are covered in confusion. The description of this reaction follows the “loudest” possible display of goodness and love. The confusion experienced in all likelihood drowns out the ability of the soul to be able to hear God’s voice calling the person to repentance and conversion. The interior confusion arises in the soul because the witness of goodness and love conflicts dramatically with a world perception that is completely at discord with our human nature.

One Sabbath he was teaching in one of the synagogues, and there before him was a woman who for eighteen years had been possessed by a spirit that cripples her; she was bent double and quite unable to stand upright. When Jesus saw her he called her over and said, Woman, you are freed from your disability,’ and he laid his hands on her. And at once she straightened up, and she glorified God. But the president of the synagogue was indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, and he addressed all those present saying, There are six day when work is to be done. Come and be healed on one of those days and not on the Sabbath.’ But the Lord answered him and said, Hypocrites! Is there one of you who does not untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the Sabbath and take it out for watering? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has held bound these eighteen years was it not right to untie this bond on the Sabbath day? When he said this, all his adversaries were covered with confusion, and all the people were overjoyed at all the wonders he worked. (Lk 13:10–17)

The tragedy here is that if we reflect on this Gospel passage, we cannot help but wonder how anybody could respond in any other way than the crowd of people who witnessed the miracle: they were overjoyed at the wonders Jesus worked. The president of the synagogue is described as being indignant which is to feel or show anger and annoyance at a perceived injustice. This emotional reaction clearly evidences the perverted will which judges “good as evil and evil as good.” We could expect that after Jesus has seriously rebuked them and called them hypocrites, that they would feel the fury and hatred described in the previous biblical text. What is described here is something different. What does it mean to be covered with confusion? Looking at this healing wonder of Jesus what is there to be confused about? It is the ultimate display of goodness and love through the healing of someone who has suffered immensely for a very long time.

In the Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross, the great mystical doctor of the Church, sheds light on what this text means. St. John describes how if we give in to our perverse desires then God will allow us to go astray and be blinded by the devil. While the context of this description is related to those who seek the Lord through excessive curiosity by seeking revelations and visions to feed their own pride and glory, it sheds light on what it means to be covered with confusion.

One cannot be liberated from him [the devil] without fleeing from all revelations, visions, and supernatural communications. God is rightly angered with anyone who admits them, for he sees the rashness of exposing oneself to this danger, presumption, curiosity, and pride, to the root and foundation of vainglory, to contempt for the things of God, and to the beginning of the numerous evils into which many fall. God becomes so angry with these individuals that he purposely allows them to go astray, experience delusion, suffer spiritual darkness and abandon the established ways of life, by delivering themselves over to their vanities and fancies. Thus Isaiah proclaims that by way of privation God commingled in their midst that spirit of dissension. Accordingly, God is the cause of that harm; that is the privative cause, which consists in his withdrawing his light and favour to such an extent that they necessarily fall into error.

In this way God permits the devil to blind and delude many who merit this by their sins and audacities. The devil is able and successful to the extent that others believe what he says and consider him a good spirit. So firm is their belief that it is impossible for anyone who tries to persuade them of the diabolic origin. For with God’s permission they have already been affected by the spirit of misunderstanding . . .3

What is significant in this extended text is that the individual, as a result of their sins is led astray by the spirit of dissension and confusion. The consequence of this spirit of misunderstanding is that the individual becomes blind and deluded. St. John of the Cross describes in this context that someone who is infected with this spirit becomes convinced of their spiritual experiences and that they are not of a diabolic origin. Not only are they convinced it is impossible to persuade them otherwise.

In a similar manner, Jesus could not convince the scribes and Pharisees of the state of their souls and so move them towards a real conversion of heart. Jesus seriously rebuked them telling them that their father was the father of lies who is Satan. “You are from your father, the devil, and you prefer to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the start; he was never grounded in the truth; there is no truth in him at all. When he lies he is speaking true to his nature, because he is a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). In repeatedly telling them they were hypocrites he also reflected back to them their hidden lies and secret thoughts: “but you want to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (Jn 8:37). He also explicitly told them the consequences of their lies and hypocrisy, where if they remained unrepentant and did not believe he was God they would die in their sins, or in other words receive eternal damnation. “I have told you already: You will die in your sins. Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (Jn 8:24).

It is significant to remember that God does not leave an individual open to the forces of the evil one, unless they have already rejected the many graces God sends to them to keep them on the right track. God can only do so much. If we reject the graces, he sends to us in the form of troubles, our neighbour reflecting back to us our actions, or the pricking of our conscience then there is not much more God can do to wake us up, and so he deprives us of his help. He therefore is the privative cause and as a consequence of the withdrawal of his light we fall into error and become deluded. As a result of becoming deluded through leading a hypocritical life an individual can end up in the most tragic condition possible for the human race; judging good things as evil and evil as good.

This is the false judgement, venomous with envy and pride, with which they calumniated and unjustly judges my Son’s works when they said, “He does these things by the power of Beelzebub.” (Mt 12:24) These wicked people are set in their way of selfishness, indecency, pride, and avarice, envy that is grounded in their perverse lack of discernment, their impatience and many other sins. Yet they are forever taking scandal at me and my servants, judging virtue to be hypocritical. Because they are rotten to the core and have spoiled their sense of taste, good things seem evil to them and evil (that is, disordered living) seems good.4

The Mystery of the Human Heart

In the Christian tradition evil is defined as the absence of good. Sin is intrinsically evil irrespective of circumstances. The weakness, ignorance, or malice present in the commission of the sin determines the individual’s culpability. The sinner and sin committed almost become one when an attitude of “evil is good, and good is evil” is the predominant mode of operation. As the whole person becomes more and more evil to the core, then God’s protective presence in their lives becomes diminished and eventually extinguished. When someone is completely evil, then the absence of the ultimate good in life, who is God, is a feature of their lives. Whereas for those who have not reached such a depth of depravity, while the committing of sin which is intrinsically evil alienates them from God, he is not absent from their lives. His goodness and loving providence are present in a hidden way forever seeking to draw them away from a life of sin.

The mystery of the human heart can be one that captures our imagination. In the lives of the Saints we discover that to follow Christ is to seek and know the desires and thoughts of our loving God. We only come to know “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6) by making a sincere effort to live Christ’s law of love, through responding to the spontaneous call of the Holy Spirit to love at each opportunity that is presented to us. The science of divine love is ultimately a lived ‘science,’ where the intimate depths of the person is mysteriously shaped and moulded by God’s grace. To truly understand and know God is to know him from our heart; the seat of all our private thoughts, desires and intentions. We can know God from a purely intellectual point of view, but to truly know him is to know him intimately in our hearts through our cooperation with his divine grace.

The mystery of the descent into evil of the human heart where it becomes corrupted and as St. Catherine describes, rotten to the core, is only truly known and understood by lived experience. We can try and understand it intellectually, but ultimately, we are called not to more fully understand it. To know the full reality of the descent into evil is to know it from the heart, and this is only achieved by living a perverse life which follows the devil in all his evil desires.

  1. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 91.
  2. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, 99.
  3. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Washington, DC: ICS Publications Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991; revised ed.), 227–29.
  4. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, 76.
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.

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