This week I preached on the topic of lesser and greater evils. I touched on the question of how we know whether we’re choosing the lesser of two evils out of necessity, or if there are really more options. As I mention in the sermon, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. And I’m curious what people think: are the circumstances where it’s a good idea to make a conscious decision and say, “I’m going to regularly choose to do this evil thing, because I know that I would do worse things if I didn’t” – or is it always better to continually fight against the tendency to sin at all, and only choose the lesser of two evils in a moment where we’re failing? In other words, should we ever plan to commit the lesser of two evils? I’m not sure. Anyway, here’s the sermon:
THE LESSER EVIL
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
“Moses, because of your hardheartedness, permitted you to send away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)
Does the Lord’s law ever change? It can seem that the obvious answer would be no. The Lord Himself said, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than one little horn of the Law to fall” (Luke 16:17). And yet, in some senses it seems like the law did change. When the Lord came into the world, he abolished sacrifices. He did away with the ceremonially laws of the Jewish faith. And in the passage we read from the Gospels this morning, He did away with the Jewish laws that permitted a husband to divorce his wife for reasons other than her adultery. He did change the law, it seems.
But the law that the Lord abolished at that time was not the true law. It represented the true law, and it contained the true law within it. That’s why Jesus could say that nothing would fall away from the law, that he did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it – even though He seemingly DID do away with the law. He was not adding something new – He was revealing what had been inherent in the law all along. That’s why He said, “From the beginning” it was not so that divorce was permitted – because from the beginning, the original law, was that “a man should leave His father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two should become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
So what was the purpose of the old law? The primary purpose of all the laws of the Jewish faith were to represent spiritual things – as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, all the sacrifices and feasts were a “shadow” of Christ who was going to come (Colossians 2:17). But if they would be fulfilled and changed into spiritual laws at the time of the Lord’s coming, why were the children of Israel not simply given those spiritual laws in the first place? The Lord gave answered that question in his teaching about divorce: “because of the hardness of their hearts.” The Writings tell us that if God had revealed these deeper laws about marriage to the people at that time, they would have completely rejected Him. And so He offered them the lesser of two evils – instead of having them completely reject the truth, which would condemn them to a deeper hell, He permitted them to marry multiple wives, to put away their wives for less important things.
The same thing is true with sacrifices. The Lord has no desire for sacrifice, as he says in Hosea: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” (Hosea 6:6). Among the people of the Most Ancient Church, the earliest worshippers of God, represented by Adam and Eve, the idea of slaughtering an animal as an act of worship would have seemed profane. But the Lord permitted animal sacrifice to prevent a much greater evil: the evil of human sacrifice, which was common in the people around them at the time, and which they fell into whenever they turned away from the Lord. We see this permission of animal sacrifice play out on a smaller scale in the story of Abraham. Now, in the internal sense of this story, the willingness to sacrifice Isaac represents a good thing – a willingness in the Lord to give up all that was merely human within Himself, and to make His rational mind holy. But in the literal sense, it would have been a terrible thing for Abraham to sacrifice his son. And so in place of his son, he was permitted to sacrifice instead a ram.
Again, the Lord permits a lesser evil to avoid a greater one. And the truth is, all around us, all the time, the Lord is permitting lesser evils for the sake of avoiding greater evils. We can sometimes have a tendency to paint all evils with the same brush, to look at an evil and think only about how bad it is, without realizing that there may have been worse alternatives. There is a value in seeing the different degrees within evil, that there are lighter and more serious evils. Today we’re going to talk about three uses in distinguishing between these degrees of evil. First of all, it helps us understand why the Lord permits evil at all. Second of all, it helps us make decisions in seemingly impossible situations, where we feel that all we can choose is the lesser of two evils. And finally, it helps us to refrain from judging the spiritual state of the people around us whom we see committing evil.
The first use in distinguishing between lesser and greater evils is that it helps us understand why the Lord permits what He does permit. With all the evil we see in the world around us, it may seem that the God does nothing to prevent evil. The truth is, He is constantly preventing evil, and leading toward greater and greater good. The book Divine Providence says, “The withdrawal of a wicked person from evil is effected by the Lord in a thousand ways that are most secret” (DP 295). Although the Lord leaves each person in freedom, He works with that freedom and subtly modifies it. For example, he inspires people who desire nothing more than their own power to act in ways that benefit society – from that person’s point of view, they are still acting on a lust for power, but the restraints of society keep that from breaking out, and keep the person in some order. And if He is not able to lift a person into heaven, He at least continually prevents them from plunging themselves into a deeper hell, which is where all of us would go if left to ourselves.
In general, the Lord permits any evil for the sake of His ultimate purpose – the salvation of every person. The Lord permits people to act on their evil because if it were bottled up inside them, and they were forced to act in good, no one could be saved. The lesser evil is to allow people to act on their evil inclinations. Even terrible evils are sometimes allowed so that their true nature can be seen, which is better than them remaining hidden within people’s hearts. The Lord did not will the horrors of the holocaust – but without them, maybe the human race would never have realized the poisonous, murderous intent at the heart of all racism. Perhaps He permitted that atrocity so that evil could be seen clearly for what it was. Perhaps it was a lesser evil than for the human race to continually live in continuous hatred of other races.
In all the workings of His providence, the Lord desires that people may live. The Lord cannot force people to do good, because they would then not be human – they would simply be extensions of the Lord, and not capable of being joined to Him and blessed as separate beings, which is the Lord’s goal in creation. To be truly happy, people must choose good. And so it is a lesser evil to allow people to act in freedom.
Besides keeping people in freedom, the Lord in His providence does all that He can to prevent a person from profaning what is good and true. A person profanes goodness and truth if he for a time acknowledges, loves, and lives by what is good – and then afterwards completely rejects it. This is much more harmful than if a person never accepts the truth in the first place, and for this reason, the Lord never allows a person into any more goodness and truth than they are capable of being kept in to the end of their lives. It was to prevent profanation that the Lord did not give the children of Israel the true commandments on marriage – He knew that their nature was such that they would embrace this at first as Divine, but then afterwards reject the teaching, and reject Him altogether. He gave permission for a lesser evil to prevent a greater one.
The final reason the Lord permits lesser evils is that a person must gradually progress from the evil inclinations that he is born into. If they were removed all at once, the person would in fact fall down dead – because early on in a person’s path of regeneration, most of his motivation comes from selfishness and a love of worldly things. If those motivations were taken away, he would simply have no motivation at all, no life. And so the Lord gradually leads a person from greater evils to lesser evils, and then on from lesser evils to true good. This is why the children of Israel were told that their enemies in the land of Canaan would not all be driven out at once, but little by little (see Exodus 23:30).
And this leads us into the next reason we mentioned for learning about lesser and greater degrees of evil: to help us make decisions in our own lives. Because there are times in our lives when it seems that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils. And this really will be the case sometimes – the Lord cannot rid of us our evils immediately. What matters is that we are moving in the right direction.
One of the fundamental choices we often have to make has to do with our motivations. At the beginning of our regeneration, as just mentioned, most of our motives are selfish. And the fact is, at first we cannot help but think of merit and reward for doing good. We cannot help but think that the good we do comes from ourselves. There’s a story in Genesis about the time when Joseph had become a great leader in Egypt, and his brothers came asking for food, not recognizing them. When Joseph sent them back to their father with food, he had his servants place a silver cup in his youngest brother Benjamin’s bag of grain – and when they returned, he accused Benjamin of stealing it! This can seem like an odd story, but in the internal sense, it is about the fact that at first, we cannot help stealing from the Lord, in the sense of taking credit for things that really belong to Him.
But this means we have a choice: we can either do good which has some sense of merit in it, or we can hang down our hands and wait for the Lord to flow in, and do nothing at all. Both of these choices have evil in them – but the first choice is a lesser evil than the second. Now, this does not mean that we should rest content with the fact that we are doing evil – we should continually strive to truly acknowledge the Lord as the source. But we do not have to feel bad that at first we are still in an evil. What matters is that we are progressing toward goodness. A passage from the book Doctrine of Life, says, “Let people even once in a week, or twice in a month, resist the evils they are inclined to, and they will perceive a change” (Life 97). It is better to catch ourselves even twice in a month doing some particular evil, and to stop ourselves, then to think we have to be perfect and immediately give up on the task as impossible. What matters is our progress.
But how do we know what the lesser evil is? It is not always easy. The only way to truly know is to search the Word, to continually try to understand. The book Conjugial Love, for example, says that a young man at first often does not see the difference between having sex with an unmarried woman and with a married woman – when the truth is that the evil of adultery is a much graver evil than the evil of fornication (see CL 486). Similarly, the same book says, if a young man truly cannot restrain himself from having sex, it is a lesser evil for him to restrict himself to one, than to sleep with many women from a lust for variety, or to fall into the even worse evils of adultery or rape (see CL 459). It is especially in the laws around sexuality that we find teachings on the importance of distinguishing between lesser and greater degrees of evil.
Sometimes there really are cases where we have to choose between a lesser or greater evil. And the determining factor is the goal, or motivation – what are we working towards, what are we progressing towards? If a person truly sees a state of goodness – for example, true marriage love – as the goal, then what matters most is that he is taking steps in that direction. But there are also time, of course, when it seems that we have a choice between two evils, and the reality is, we could choose neither. For example, in treating of those permissions around sexuality, the Writings say, “What has been said, however, is not for those who can restrain the heat of their lust, nor for those who can enter into marriage as soon as they attain to manhood” (CL 459). Those permissions are there for people who truly cannot restrain themselves without harmful effects – and yet it is all too easy to use permissions to lesser evils as an excuse, when we really could reject evil altogether.
There is no easy answer within ourselves to whether we are using the teachings on permission as an excuse, or truly as a lesser evil. In times when we seem to have to make that choice, it is useful to take a step back and pray to the Lord for wisdom to see if there are other choices. We can do simple things like write down all the options we have, trying to see if we’ve missed any. And the Word itself can help us see more options than there seem to be at first. For example, in the case of certain kinds of dysfunctional marriage – for example, if one partner is an alcoholic – it may seem like the only options are to live in that dysfunction, or to divorce. But the Writings say that in these cases, where there has not been adultery, the best option is not necessarily to stay together, and definitely not to get a divorce, but to be separated – to still be technically married, to not start new relationships outside of the marriage, but to live separately from each other, perhaps even with court-ordered limits. That is the better choice in a situation where none of the choices are very good. We need to study the Word to see what truly is a lesser evil – since we often are wrong about which is the greater and lesser evil. And we need to pray to the Lord for help resisting evil, to pray for a sight of the goal, which is goodness – and to pray for the strength to be honest with ourselves.
And this brings us to our final purpose in looking at these different degrees of evil. Within ourselves, we can be honest about whether or not we are truly fighting evil with all our hearts, whether we are giving into an evil because it will prevent a lesser evil, or giving into it simply because we want to. But we cannot make the same judgment when looking at others. When we see others around us doing evil, we ought to judge their actions as evil – the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We ought to do what we can to prevent them, for the sake of the people they may be hurting, and for their own sake. But we cannot judge their hearts, because we do not know their motivation. We do not know if they are choosing the lesser of two evils.
In the book Conjugial Love, Emanuel Swedenborg describes seeing several people living similarly, in ways that could be considered bad – dressing finely, eating well, making off-color jokes. And yet the angels said that for some of the people these were sins, and others were not. For those who had good as their end, motivation, and goal, these actions were not sinful; whereas for those who had evil as their end, these actions were considered sins. The motivation made the difference (Conjugial Love 527).
We cannot make spiritual judgments because we cannot know another person’s motivation. Now, again, we should not use this as an excuse for our own evils – Swedenborg talked to evil spirits who justified their own adultery by saying, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” But it can help us to acknowledge how it could possibly be that someone who is externally in evil could still be looking and moving in the right direction.
Evil and good are diametrically opposed. Good does not decrease until it becomes evil – evil is a twisting of good. And it is important to keep the two separate, to carefully distinguish between good and evil. But it is also important to distinguish between the different degrees of evil. Realizing that there are lesser evils helps us see the mercy in the Lord’s providence, in continually leading to lesser evil. It helps us to make hard decisions, in choosing between two bad alternatives. And it helps us to see others who are in evil as still capable of making progress toward good. And in all this, good is the goal. Heaven is the goal. And a return to the Lord’s original, eternal law, the law of love and wisdom, is the goal. “Moses, because of your hardheartedness, permitted [this] – but from the beginning it was not so.”