Q: During his sermon a couple weeks back, Pastor Sinnott (Associate to the Bishop of the New England Lutheran Synod) said that there is no such thing as evil, only “disordered love.” What did he mean by that?
A: We’re getting very theological this week! Thank you for your question. I believe Pastor Sinnott was quoting St. Augustine. This way of describing evil or sin hits at a fundamental theological challenge: why would an all-loving and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? If God created everything, does that mean God created evil as well? To deal with this problem, Augustine argued that there was no such thing as inherent evil, but rather, what appears as evil in our world is simply people misdirecting their love, or loving the wrong things.
Since we’re in stewardship season, I’ll use the example of money. We very often misquote 1st Timothy 6:10 as “money is the root of all evil.” But actually, the passage reads, “The Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Think about all the good that can be done with money. All of the benefit we receive as a society when the wealthy practice generous philanthropy. At the same time, when we love money, that can lead to greed, selfishness, and earning more money at any cost. In this case, God has given us everything we have (including our money)—if we love our neighbor as ourselves, that will mean using our money in a loving way. But if we love ourselves and our money above all else, the result may be what we call “evil.”
I really like this idea from Augustine: “God has given us things to use and people to love—we sin when we use people and love things.” Central to the Doctrine of Original Sin is that our inner compass for what is good and loving has been thrown out of whack. That is why we love the wrong things, thinking they are good. The Church’s practices of prayer, receiving Holy Communion, and reading Scripture can help us to reorient ourselves towards God’s goodness. When we love what God intends us to love, not only will our world more closely reflect God’s good creation, we ourselves will know the joy of living life the way that God intends.