According to the author of Ephesians we are in a battle against what is described variously as “the wiles of the devil” or “the rulers, the authorities of this present darkness” and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” and “the flaming arrows of the evil one”.
He also talks about some forthcoming “evil day” at which point I’m afraid I have switched off and I’m gazing out the window, so far removed is it from my experience. I simply don’t see my life and faith as a battle against evil spirits.
As a culture we have long since stopped attributing everything wrong or bad that happens to us to deliberate malevolence by some objective embodiment of evil commonly termed the “devil” or evil spirits. In fact when we hear of the child murders and violent exorcisms that still happen in London today in communities of West African descent our reaction is mostly one of horror and disbelief that this kind of thing, these kind of beliefs can still hold sway in some cultures. There was a call just last week to criminalise labelling a child as possessed by evil spirits as child abuse.
But just because our view of the world and the way we interpret it may have changed out of all recognition it doesn’t change the fact that we are still beset by trials and tribulations, by fears, temptations, and we all have the potential to do things that we are not proud of.
The way to plot a course through all of this, in accordance with what Ephesians says is to cultivate virtuous patterns of thought and behaviour which will protect you (using the biblical language) or using a more modern idiom will empower you to resist the wrong path, give you character to stand for what is right or from being easily manipulated to participate in evil acts.
An Israeli journalist who got close to Adolf Eichmann at his trial expecting some incarnate devil radiating evil termed the now famous phrase “the banality of evil” when what was actually encountered was a petty bureaucrat. We, each of us, have within us the potential for good or evil, so if we want to foster the good because evil is destructive and counter productive both to our own well being and the well being of our society, if we want to empower ourselves to be able to resist taking the wrong and sometimes easier path we still need the virtues that Ephesians lists..
Truthfulness, righteousness, peace, trust, and all of them in accordance with the divine will and character so in practising these values and virtues we are close to God. Using biblical language they are a gift from God
One of the most frightening things about what we still term “evil” such as the Holocaust for example, is that the vast majority of people involved were just so ordinary, so mundane. They didn’t have horns and a tail – they were just like us. The truly frightening thing is that they are no different, but their value system and the virtues they prized became warped. I encountered the same thing when I worked for a very short time as a prison chaplain. The first murderer I met was a frightened young man crying in his cell contemplating spending the rest of his life behind bars.
But why should we cultivate these values in our life - what good does it do us to be or possess all those things? Because it pleases God? Excellent but human beings are pretty mercenary....is there anything else?
Well the unarguable truth appears to be that people who foster and live more virtuous lives are actually more content, better adjusted, more fulfilled. Virtue appears to be its own reward. In short they are happier.
Happiness isn’t a very theological term and is seldom used. Religious people, theologians, priests, ministers are much more likely to ask whether you are saved, whether you believe the right things, attend services, and pray. They seldom, in my experience of church life ever ask anyone if they are happy. Happiness is deemed irrelevant at best but actually human beings strive for little else. We want what makes us happy, or at least what we think is going to make us happy.
Our society values material possessions above all else – that is where true happiness lies. Everything is advertised and sold on the underlying premise that the new car, the bigger house, the new kitchen, the new dress, the new ipad is going to finally make us happy and we are continually surprised when it doesn’t. This avarice extends beyond pure “things” to thrill seeking, drugs and drink as ways of making ourselves happier. They keep us entertained fleetingly and then we go back to our default position.
In surveys of lottery winners, after the first flush of extreme happiness, after a while they normally just return to the same psychological state they had before they won the money. They have more things, but not more happiness.
Cultivating virtues, building character is not a fashionable thing to do.
But if we return to Ephesian’s list and the wider concept that certain things will help protect you and build you up and make you a happier human being (and is of God) while other things are destructive and ultimately leave you feeling unhappy and embittered, then we have a rationale for encouraging virtues and the virtuous life that people can readily accept.
Why should I lead a virtuous life? Because that is what God appears to want is good but If part of the reason is that my personal happiness and the greater well being of society depends on it, we are closer to something that might resonate in my opinion. Being honest and truthful, doing the right thing when there is no advantage for us, trusting that we are held and ultimately secure, feeling connected to God and the world, all have their root in Love and our creed is surely that God is Love.
The main virtues according to Paul are faith hope and love – the greatest of them being love. The fruit of the spirit again according to Paul are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
If we cultivate those we are cultivating God in our life and protecting ourselves by promoting happiness and well being against all that leads to unhappiness and a society bent on self destruction.
As I have written recently, this is not the whole of the story. True happiness comes not just from “within”, these things have to be nurtured alongside solid relationships, friendships, and in my own opinion a very strong special and close relationship with another person – Love made flesh – for completeness. Happiness lies not just from within or just from without, but from between the two.