Wise as Serpents: Evil Comes to Eden (Part 2 of a sermon series by Jeff Crippen)
If evil came to Eden, that perfect paradise where everything had been pronounced “very good” by the Lord, why in the world would we not expect it to come among us today in the church? And yet, professing Christians seem to default to a kind of “willful blindness” to that evil, enabling the wicked and furthering the suffering of the oppressed. These are some of the issues we address in this second sermon of Wise as Serpents.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men… (Matthew 10:16-17a)
An appeaser is someone who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. (Winston Churchill)
There is something in each of us, I suppose especially in people who consider themselves to be “good” people, that refuses to see evil for what it is. And it is quite probable that this tendency, which is really a manifestation of self and our sinful flesh in action, is most widespread in Christian churches and organizations. This denial, which Margaret Heffernan calls Willful Blindness, permits evil to thrive among us, to deceive us, and to continue practicing oppression of its victims. In some cases, as Heffernan tells us, willful blindness reaches the level of a crime. Here she quotes from the jury instructions given by a judge in the Enron trial and then adds some explanation:
You may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him. Knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact.
Judge Lake was applying the legal concept of willful blindness: You are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see. In this case, Skilling and Lay could have known, and had the opportunity to know, just how rotten their company was. Their claim not to know was no excuse under the law. Since they could have known, they were responsible.
Willful blindness. It is not excusable. It is willfully committed. Heffernan continues:
We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.
Therefore, when evil comes among us, especially when we are in a place such as the church where we have been taught that evil does not exist (it’s only “out there” in the world), our fear kicks in, our selfishness demands that we hold on to our cherished prejudices, and we reject even plain facts and hard evidence because we want to keep feeling great about ourselves and about our little world.
This is willful blindness. It is willful sin. It is willfully failing to love one another and to obey our Lord’s commandments. And evil loves it so. Listen once more to Heffernan:
There’s a circle here: We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us—or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
In many ways, people who have been raised in Christian homes, have gone to church their whole life, whose very lives have been wrapped up in their church, are the most deceived about evil. It isn’t on their radar. They have no experience with it – at least no experience that they have been aware of, though it has been all around them. And so, when evil is reported or exposed, well, widespread willful blindness and denial kick in. Or rather, the person reporting the evil gets kicked! “How dare you gossip! Don’t ever tell me something like that again!” …
Most Christians have been taught falsehoods about evil and particularly about evil in the local church. This has enabled evil to flourish in the pews, disguised in wool, and for widespread oppression of Christ’s flock to continue and even be assisted by people who are charged with shepherding that flock. The traditions of men have been embraced as God’s Word, while God’s Word has been largely rejected. It is one of the main purposes of this present sermon series to correct this perversion of truth by looking closely at the Holy Scriptures where we are going to find warning after warning about evil creeping in among us in the church.
Evil showed up in Eden in the person of the devil, the serpent.
…. Where did this evil one come from? We don’t know. We do know that he is a creature, a created being, and that God is not the author of evil and had created everything very good. At some point, unknown to us, Satan turned from that goodness into the evil being he is. It is quite probable that the arrogant, high-minded personality described in Ezekiel 28 is Satan, perhaps even a description of the essence of his sin … pride and arrogance claiming to be a god, if not God. … And you have it back in Isaiah 14 as well.
Now, let’s consider two things in light of all of this.
1. Evil came into a perfect paradise.
If pure evil, Satan himself, came into a perfect paradise where there was no evil thing, do you not think that evil will most surely come among us in our churches in this fallen world? Evil came, as it always does, in a deceptive, “subtle” form. In “craftiness.” I don’t think that the serpent in Eden was ugly or fearful in appearance, as we perceive serpents to be today. No, he was incredibly believable. He was smart when it came to evil and temptation and he knew right where to strike and what doubts about God to plant in their minds.
The Bible warn us repeatedly that Satan will surely and definitely continue to come among us in the very same way today in the church. [2 Cor. 11-3-4, 12-15] Yet somehow Christians simply choose to live in denial of this.
Expect it. Look for it dressed in wool, shining as bright as a most eminent, holy person. Where do such people operate? In the church. What is the spirit that empowers them? The spirit of antichrist. Where is the antichrist obviously going to operate? In the church.
2. There is a right way and a wrong way to obtain this knowledge of evil yet remain innocent.
Everything in Eden was “very good.” Under the umbrella of that “good” was included the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the commandment that if Adam disobeyed the command, he would die. That kind of knowledge about evil was good. Perhaps this was even the very reason that tree was in the garden at all? BUT, the knowledge of evil, being wise about evil, needed to come by obeying the Lord, not by DOING evil. The devil spoke a “truth” when he said that Adam and Eve would know good and evil, but he made even that truth into a lie because they ended up “knowing” evil in a very different way than God knows evil – they knew it and they were guilty of it. Wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove in regard to evil I believe means that we are to have the knowledge of evil, as the devil knew of its existence, but unlike the serpent to have no sin in respect to that evil.
The Lord Jesus Christ knew evil in the sense that He was wise as a serpent about it, yet innocent as a dove. Yet you will never, ever find him practicing willful blindness in regard to evil:
… John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires….
Jesus said these things and knew these things, yet without sin. He was never deceived by evil. Being like Christ includes being wise about evil and not being deceived by it, by not enabling it in any way, by speaking for those who are oppressed by it, and even doing hands on battle with it to protect the innocent.
A Christian is never more UNLIKE Christ than when he or she lays heavy loads on victims of evil, telling them
- You must forgive and reconcile
- You must love them no matter what
- You must say nothing negative about them
- Well then, have you considered what YOU did to make them do that to you?
That is the antichrist. That is the spirit of evil.
What should Adam and Eve have done?
When evil came, started talking to them, making those lying claims about God’s motivation? What should they have done? Listened to him? Told themselves, “well, he is one of God’s creatures just like us”?
No; I can tell you what they should have done. They should have killed this serpent, put him out of the garden forever, and thereby obeyed the Lord. They should have immediately recognized that here was a creature craving God’s glory for himself and thereby they should have known he was evil.
Let me ask each of us a question as we end:
Are you wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove in regard to evil? Do you WANT to be wise when it comes to evil? Do you want to see it when it shows up? Do you want to know its wicked tactics? Do you want to rescue its victims?
Or, do you prefer willful blindness? The former are marks of Christ and fruits of His Spirit in us. The last, willful blindness, is the self-serving flesh that we are no longer characterized by.
Audio and PDF of this sermon here.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
A list of the entire series can be found at our Wise as Serpents tab on the top menu.
 Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness (New York: Bloomsbury, 2022) page 1.
 Ibid, page 3.
 Ibid, page 11.