As Innocent as a Snake

There is something deep within the human heart, even the regenerate human heart, that enjoys evil. There is something within us that is drawn, almost magnetized at times, toward those things that are improper or even outright vile. At times each of us wants to see, taste, touch, or experience what God forbids. We want to watch things that glorify evil, to participate in what is off-limits, to experience what God says is unfitting.

Become a Patron

One of the responsibilities of every Christian, and especially leaders in Christian churches, is to train ourselves to embrace what is good and reject what is evil. We are responsible to fill our hearts and minds with what is good and to empty them of what is evil. When writing to the church in Rome Paul said, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). He may well have been echoing Jesus who told his disciples to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). At another point Paul told a church, “be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

As we assemble these passages and others like them, the point becomes clear: God calls us to have extensive knowledge of good and minimal knowledge of evil. He calls us to have the judgment to identify what is evil and the innocence that comes from refusing to immerse ourselves in it or even to expose ourselves to it. We are to be wise and knowledgeable, but must learn from Adam and Eve before us that our wisdom and knowledge must inhabit boundaries. We are to acknowledge that where our calling is to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, our tendency is to be as wise as doves and innocent as serpents (as per Kent Hughes).

This emphasis on the protection of innocence and the danger of knowledge is crucial in at least two areas: theology and morality. In both areas we can be tempted to gain knowledge that, in the end, serves only to harm us. In both areas I’ve witnessed devastation.

In the realm of theology, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances develop a fascination with doctrinal edginess, error, or even full-out heresy. They knew the truth as the Bible proclaims it but wanted to add to their knowledge a thorough understanding of error. “I want to make sure I really understand him,” or, “I don’t believe his claims, but I love how he argues his points and builds his case.” And somehow, over time, that error became less and less repulsive, more and more attractive. Eventually, and often to their own surprise, they found themselves drawn to it, convinced by it. I lost one of my closest friends to his well-intentioned readings of Bart Ehrman. He learned to his spiritual destruction what MacArthur insists on: “The more willingly we associate with evil, the more it will drag us down to its level.” It dragged him down. It destroyed him and a million like him.

In the realm of morality, I’ve seen people so immerse themselves in pop culture and entertainment that they come to imitate and resemble the people they admire. They began with a desire to watch things that were just a little less innocent than they were accustomed to and found that, rather than satisfying their appetites, this merely whetted them. They did so from a desire to express Christian freedom or a desire to be culturally informed and relevant. They advanced from film to film, rating to rating, until nothing was too repulsive, nothing was off-limits. The innocence that had once protected them gave way to a knowledge that harmed or even destroyed them. And we who witnessed this descent saw how it changed them, how it harmed them. We wished they understood what Mounce once declared: “God never intended his children to become intimate with evil in order to communicate the gospel to those in its grasp.”

God calls upon each of his children to have extensive knowledge of all that is true and pure and honorable. He calls upon each of his children not to have an extensive knowledge of what is false and filthy and abhorrent. He warns that a deep knowledge of evil may eventually bring with it a desire to enjoy and embrace that evil, and that a deep desire for a deep knowledge of evil may stem from ignoble motives.

As Christians we need to be aware of evil, aware of its existence, its shape and contours, yet without developing an obsession with it. We need to know enough about evil to discern and resist it, yet without stooping to plug our minds full of it. We are to be, in the words of Grotius “too good to deceive, too wise to be deceived.” Our expertise is to be not in what is evil but in what is good. In fact, it is those with the greatest expertise in all that is good and pure and lovely who are best equipped to identify and flee from what is evil and foul and ugly.