Self-Deception Can Use A Good For Evil

Self-Deception Can Use A Good For Evil February 13, 2017

Avarice by Louis Le Breton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Avarice by Louis Le Breton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Self-deception lies behind much, if not all, of the evil we do. There is always some good which we use to justify our sin. We find some excuse which we use to justify our actions not only to ourselves, but to those who question us for the sins which they see coming from us. We might know that the ends do not justify the means, and we might state it, but we then find every excuse to ignore the implications of our means by displacing all such concern with the apparent good which we claim we obtain from what we do.  In this fashion, we hollow out the good, hiding the destruction of the good which is happening within that good by focusing only on the appearance of the good which we do. It is as if we think putting up blue screen and creating a nice image on that screen is equivalent of making it real, which of course, it is not. The simulacra of the good cannot last, and when it caves in from all the hollowing out of its being, the destruction which comes in its wakes demonstrates the great evil which lay at its foundation.

Even with the best of us, the root sins of greed, hate, and willful ignorance bury themselves deep into our psyche, affecting our actions, so that their evil taint hinders us as they filter through all the good which we would like to do. In this way, though we can see some positive good in what we do, we still find spread and tied with that good, parasites eating away at it, leaving room for sin to fester and grow, breeding with themselves more evils, more sins, more infections of the mind. At last, if they are not treated with grace and wrestled against by ourselves, they will turn even the good foundations over to sin and we will find the good we intended to be ineffective as we end up causing more pain and sorrow through our malformed will. We must be careful. If we do not explore what went wrong and correct ourselves, we will end up instead turning fully away from the good, and then it will be a long and difficult process for us to find our way back to the path which we left behind.

The Glutton by Georg Emanuel Opiz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Glutton by Georg Emanuel Opiz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Evagrius, that great ascetic theorist who helped influence and direct the development of monastic spirituality, was able to see how the root sins, as well as many other thoughts and attitudes, were able to infect our way of way of life, making sure our labor for what is good ends up being ineffective.[1] Sometimes it is simple things which get in the way. Gluttony is more than over-eating, but giving in to the passions which thrive around eating, going to excess for their satisfaction. Eating a little amount of extremely expensive food for the sake of the pleasure of the expense and the supposedly higher quality tastes can be such a waste, and it is that waste which drives gluttony more for many of us than a desire for vast quantities of food.  It is over-consumption at a cost for others which turns gluttony into a major sin, for it ends up justifying inordinate inequality (injustice) for the sake of personal pleasure (and therefore, a rejection of the basic charitable desire we should have for others).[2] It is in this light, when Evagrius examined the sin of avarice, he demonstrated a keen understanding of how it can be behind actions which appear to be done in charity. We can find all kinds of ways to justify our own accumulation of goods, with charity itself, being one of them. For the love of money can find itself as encouraging us to gain a great amount of control over economic resources, telling us we are doing it for the love of others, but in reality we do it for our own personal desires, be it the actual love of money, or some secondary vice such as vainglory which comes out of our apparent good:

It appears to me that the demon of avarice is the most varied and ingenious in deceit. Often constrained by the most severe renunciation, he immediately pretends to be the administrator and the friend of the poor; he generally receives guests who are not yet there; he sends assistance to others who are in need; he visits the city’s prisons and he buys those who are being sold; he associates himself with wealthy women and indicates to them who should be treated well; and those who have acquired an ample purse he advises to renounce it. And deceiving the soul little by little in this way, he encompasses it with the thoughts of avarice and hands it over to the demon of vainglory. [3]

The love for money, and its desire for accumulation, can be seen not only in the accumulation for our own personal luxury (though that is certainly a common form of avarice), but also seen in any inordinate desire for money and its control, even if it is done in the name of some good (such as a charity). If the intention is to have control over money because we love the what control over so much resources feels like, then avarice still has a place in our soul.

Charity can help counteract avarice if we are willing to follow through with the implications of charity as self-giving, but usually, behind much charity is the pursuit of glory and this is something few even try to weed out of their psyche, showing how much so-called charity is itself just a cover for avarice. This is why Jesus, when talking about alms, said, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:3-4 RSV). If we seek money for our own vainglory or pride, to feel good about ourselves while ignoring the consequence of how that money is accumulated and the injustice often made behind its accumulation, what we give in not true charity (because justice is denied in the heart) but a simulacra put in its place which will never be able to provide the proper fruit of charity to those in need (because of the promotion of an injustice system keeps them in need), nor to the giver of the alms (because they give for the wrong reasons and intention). Sadly, many desire to accumulate more money for some vainglorious giving of others, thinking that if the intention is to give it out, they are justified in wanting a system which gives them more money, even if it causes more people to be put in positions of need. Their denial of justice, which is a perquisite for true charity, shows how avarice has used charity for the dark justification of its opposite, and it is this, we find, many who are rich justify their actions for accumulating way more riches for themselves.

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3 RSV). The root passion of pride, founded upon the falsely-constructed mental image of the self, the ego, is difficult to override; it is near impossible if we do not see its work contaminating the good which we do. The ego seeks to justify itself by the apparent good it makes us do, reifying its hold over us with the resultant pride. Anything which counters this pride the ego encourages us to hate, turning us further away from the person we are meant to be, made in the image and likeness of the God who is love. This does not mean we are without hope. Even with those corrupted by great sin, the good seed, covered in the filth and mire of evil thoughts, still holds the potential to bloom, counteracting the harmful perfume of evil in our consciousness.  Thus, no matter how tainted the good which we do is, some good remains.  Truly, that good, even though it is tainted, can be the foundation for greater good, if we reflect upon it and see what of it is good and what it is which we do that is not so good, and try to dissociate the one from the other. We must purify ourselves, and take the seeds of bad thoughts and deeds and put them to the fire of truth of God’s love, so to speak. What is left can be built up by the grace of God and made whole once again. This, certainly, is not an easy process. It is not going to happen in an instant. But with the grace of God, all things are possible.


[1] Evagrius, though an Origenist whose cosmological speculations received rebuke, was to have tremendous impact on monasticism as his more practical works were often copied and given the name of Nilus to them.  Many, if not most, readers did not know him to be their source and so were used for spiritual direction as their their theories were found to be not only useful but also true to the experiences of those who followed them. He exploration of sin and the various kinds of deadly sins, which he put down as eight root sins, would eventually be picked up in the Western tradition and used to create the systematic presentation of the seven deadly sin.

[2] This is also why many saints point out that the giving of alms is more important than abstinence during fasts; for it is easy to undercut the spirit of the fast while following the letter of the law, eating luxurious food which meet the requirements of the fast while ignoring the self-control and increase in charity such fasting is supposed to establish.

[3][3] Evagrius, “Thoughts” in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 167.


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