Our pastor’s sermon this week, as I imagine for many pastors, was regarding the Virginia Tech massacre. A one-sentence summary I’d use to describe it (that doesn’t do it justice) is “The problem with evil in the world is that it exists and is active, and this is a wake-up call to the church.” I want to touch on these two points, and riff off the post from Mark at Stones Cry Out. (UPDATE: Audio for the message can be downloaded here.)

What I read Mark as saying is that society wasn’t asking the right questions about what really is affecting our youth. There are surface issues that, I believe, are just symptoms, not the causes, Mark touched on; video games, movies, meds, etc. But in his post was an assumption he makes that I don’t think society accepts, at least not like it used to. And without that assumption, even his list of real issues can’t be addressed until this one is.

Chuck Colson, in a recent Breakpoint podcast, noted that in at least one society, we can’t even agree on this base assumption.

I witnessed an extreme example of this therapeutic thinking during a visit to a Norwegian prison years ago. Throughout the tour, officials bragged about employing the most humane and progressive treatment methods anywhere in the world. I met several doctors in white coats.

That prompted me to ask how many of the inmates, who were all there for serious crimes, were mentally ill. The warden replied, “Oh, all of them.” I must have looked surprised, because she said, “Well, of course, anyone who commits a crime this serious is obviously mentally unbalanced.”

Stated differently, there is no such thing as sin and evil, and the only reason why people might commit serious crimes is that they are mentally ill. Thus, the best-and perhaps, only-response to crime is behavior modification and all of those other up-to-date psychological techniques.

The assumption I refer to is the existence of evil, and of man’s predisposition to it. I know how some folks avoid church because they don’t want to hear that, but without understanding the very nature of our being, how can we ever hope to properly deal with it. Here’s how Jesus put it in Mark chapter 7.

He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “

Jesus tells us that evil is primarily a spiritual issue, not primarily a psychological one. This is not to say that there are no psychological results of evil-there certainly are–and this does not absolve society, video game makers or Hollywood writers of their role in creating an environment where we marinate in and, in many cases, uphold that which is evil.

While we in American generally allow this idea to have some effect on our thinking, it has been less so during this generation. Colson notes that we’re not that much different from Norway, and we, like them and anyone else, have one real way out.

While the Norwegian approach would strike most Americans as very naïve, the difference between them and us is one of degree not kind. We also blame crime on external factors, like mental illness, culture, dysfunctional childhood, and the like.

We are uncomfortable attributing events like this to human evil, much less to a kind of evil that seeks to undo God’s creation-what Christians call the demonic.

Yet without this idea, events like this massacre can never be understood. We might learn that the killer was “mentally unbalanced” or on anti-depressants. But, absent evidence that he was clinically delusional, this knowledge will not explain why he walked onto a college campus, locked people in a lecture hall, and killed them

Events like this not only horrify us-they unsettle us. We think of sin and the demonic as not-so-quaint relics from a superstitious age. And even more destructive, random events like this remind us how little we know about ourselves and what we are capable of, as well. But failing to call evil evil misleads us about the world we live in and our need for God’s grace, the only real answer and hope for any of us.

We cannot save the house until we save the foundation, and only God, the Master Builder, who drew up the blueprints, knows what can be done.

The families and friends of the victims of the VT shootings, and even the family and friends of the shooter, deserve the most love and grace we can give them. Our desire to help them, grieve with them, and comfort them must come from the heart. But going forward, if we ever hope to rescue our society from further events such as this, we must remember what else Jesus said comes from the heart. It is the hearts of people that need God. The psychological, emotional and physiological will follow, but not until the hearts are changed. That’s the church’s mission; to bring the God that can change the heart to society.

(One thing I would want to note, lest an incorrect assumption be made; I don’t dismiss out of hand the science of psychology; not by any means. I believe it has an important contribution to make in understanding the human mind and how it can be helped. But, using my earlier analogy, modifying the house without understanding the foundation may, in some cases, give us relief from problems without dealing with the underlying flaws, keeping us from seeking the One who can truly help.)

Our pastor asked and answered the burning question: “How long will events like this continue to happen? As long as the church lets them.” The “salt of the earth” must not hunker down in its salt shaker. As it was used in the first century, it must be rubbed, not on, but into the meat before it rots any further.

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