The core evil of the original sin was believing the forbidden knowledge of good and evil would yield more satisfaction than God. The core evil of ancient Israel was believing idols would yield more protection and prosperity than God. The core evil in all our sins is believing some broken cistern will give us greater life and joy than God. Which means the fight between good and evil in the human heart is a fountain-fight: Which fountain do we believe will really satisfy us — right now, in this moment of temptation?
What exactly is “evil”? Given that the first manifestation of human evil recorded in Scripture involved a desire for this kind of knowledge, the question itself should inspire some trembling. Only God has the capacity to comprehend and the wisdom to administrate the depths, dimensions, expressions, and purposes of evil.
Yet Scripture makes clear that God wants us to understand what it means for us to commit evil. The whole Bible, from the fall in Eden onward, is one long account of the catastrophic fallout of evil’s infection of the human race and God’s unfolding plan to ultimately overcome that unfathomable evil with an even more unfathomably wonderful good. God can give us the strength to sufficiently comprehend what he wants us to comprehend (Ephesians 3:18). In fact, God wants our “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) so that we might “turn away from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:14).
One of the wonderful things Scripture teaches us is that turning away from evil is not, at its essence, mastering a long list of bad things to stop doing and good things to start doing. Rather, at its essence, God is inviting us to abandon what will ultimately impoverish us and increase our misery, and to choose instead what will ultimately enrich us and increase our joy.
Essence of Evil
One of God’s clearest explanations of this reality comes through the prophet Jeremiah. This man had a very hard calling, spending his forty-year public ministry preaching to stubborn, stony hearts and weeping as God brought his long-forewarned judgment on Israel for centuries of idolatrous rebellion (2 Kings 17:7–14).