The Fascination of Wickedness

180px-PorphyriosFor the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good (Wisdom 4:12)

Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm. We need to have goodness and love in our soul and to transmit these things.

We need to be careful not to harbor any resentment against those who harm us, but rather to pray for them with love. Whatever any of our fellow men does, we should never think evil of him. We need always to have thoughts of love and always to think good of others. Look at St. Stephen the first martyr. He prayed, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). We need to do the same.

The Elder Porphyrios

During the feast of St. Anne this past weekend,  the Scriptural passage from Wisdom was among the readings. It became something of a meditation for me throughout the services (and the subject of two sermons). Its implicit admonition is echoed in the small passage from the Elder Porphyrios (Wounded by Love). There is a great deal of power in our thoughts, prayers and actions. We live in a culture that has an inheritance of critical thought. It is a great boon when applied in certain areas (science and the like), but it can also become a habit of the heart. It has become a commonplace for people to lament the disappearance of civil discourse.

The spiritual difficulty comes, I would suggest, in “speaking the truth in love.” The analysis of evil or even mere incompetence is almost a parlor game – everyone is invited to play. However, to speak the truth about wickedness while at the same time harboring no resentment or willing no retribution or evil in return is the mark of a truly mature spiritual life (and exceedingly rare). I often suspect that this is one of the things behind the Scriptural admonition, “let not many of you become teachers, since we will bear the greater condemnation” (James 3:1). It is difficult to instruct and not to condemn.

It occurs to me that in the course of our daily lives we often concentrate on judging ourselves. We struggle not to sin (and with little success) with far greater energy than we struggle to do good (which we would find easier). Simple acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, mercy and the like have a transforming power for both those who do such things and for those who receive such acts. In my own life, two of the kindest acts I have ever received were from Christians whom I considered to be “adversaries” (the attitude of my heart brought ‘coals of fire’ on my head). We cannot know whom God may appoint to show us mercy – but we should be ever at the ready to be used in such a way.

The state of our heart before God is perhaps the most important element in our spiritual life. For ‘God resists the proud,’ but ‘gives more grace to the humble.’ We cannot live well in this world without speaking the truth. Neither can we live except in love. I think the best path to take towards this maturity is to direct our efforts ever more towards the simple acts of mercy which God has prepared for us.

The Jewish philosopher, Philo, offered this admonition: Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





21 responses to “The Fascination of Wickedness”

  1. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you so much. This is a very helpful perspective for me, especially your comments here:

    “It occurs to me that in the course of our daily lives we often concentrate on judging ourselves. We struggle not to sin (and with little success) with far greater energy than we struggle to do good (which we would find easier). Simple acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, mercy and the like have a transforming power for both those who do such things and for those who receive such acts.”

    I’m finding this to be so true and it is very powerful. My computer is about to close me down (I have it on a timer), but I know I will come back to this post and meditate on it more deeply.

  2. Francesca Avatar

    It occurs to me that in the course of our daily lives we often concentrate on judging ourselves. We struggle not to sin (and with little success) with far greater energy than we struggle to do good (which we would find easier). Simple acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, mercy and the like have a transforming power for both those who do such things and for those who receive such acts.

    Very helpful thought for the day.

  3. Thomas Hermansson Avatar

    “It occurs to me that in the course of our daily lives we often concentrate on judging ourselves.”

    This reminds me of something I just read in “Screwtape Letters”, chapter (or letter) 14. I don’t have the text in english, but the point is this: when a christian becomes humble, he will after a moment discover this, and think “oh my, I’m humble!” – and feel proud over this. Discovering that he just became proud over being humble, he will judge himself and repent, but then get proud again, seing that he discovered that he was proud. Etc.

    It is a horrible spiral. I have never really seen the fathers saying anything concerning this. What advice would they give against this?

    Now I realise that Lewis actually writes about judging oneself (which he says can be done in a right and in a wrong way) in the same chapter, but it was the above that I was reminded of when reading your text.

  4. David Avatar

    How can we learn to make better angels’ food cake by spending our time studying devil’s food? As it were.

  5. Bruce Avatar

    One of the simple ideas I try to keep frontal lobe is:

    What we magnify grows

    When I find ways to ‘magnify the Lord’ and those qualities you describe as doing good (kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, mercy)….these qualites grow as does His Presence in my life. I begin to realize I don’t have to possess these qualites, I just need a faith that believes He has them and has an unceasing desire to give them away to us all….and the fuel can be as simple as magnifying Him and what He is.

  6. […] “The Fascination of Wickedness” 2009 July 27 by Jason Zahariades As always, Fr Stephen’s recent post is filled with accessible spiritual insight. Really good stuff. It’s a wonderful reminder of […]

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think the simple word of the fathers would be to pay attention to God and not to oneself. A story from the desert fathers:

    An elder took his disciple to a grave and told him to offer praise to the man in the grave. Then he told him to offer insults. “Which one did he like the most?” The disciple said, “It made no difference.” The elder said, “You should be like the grave.” (a loose rendition from memory)

  8. Sea of Sin Avatar


    The Fathers speak of our sanctification process as a synergetic process, indeed as a partnership with God. In other words, it is not merely up to us and our ability to change ourselves. But rather it is God Himself who changes us by His presence and communion. This is the Good News! Christ took on our humanity so that we may share in His deity.

    He has delivered humanity from that “horrible spiral”!

  9. Karen Avatar

    Thomas, St. John of the Ladder also addresses this. Check out especially his chapter in “The Ladder” on Vainglory. I’m sure his observations will resonate with your experiences, too, plus he suggests various antidotes in line with what has been suggested by Fr. Stephen and others above. (May God help us all to take to heart what we’re learning!) I have quoted him before, but I will do so again: in a homily, the Bishop of my former parish defined biblical repentance as not looking down in shame at our own condition, nor looking back in sorrow at our past sins, but instead looking forward up and into the face of Christ.

  10. ochlophobist Avatar

    I notice that the KJV has it:

    For the bewitching of naughtiness doth obscure things that are honest; and the wandering of concupiscence doth undermine the simple mind.

    It seems that the point of the passage is that what is attractive or fascinating or bewitching concerning wickedness, naughtiness, and/or concupiscence has a quality that undermines honesty, goodness, simplicity, etc.

    I think that there is a certain pathology in our age to be fascinated with the repugnance of evil. It seems that half of all movies and TV shows express this today – sick, detailed, crime dramas and the like.

    I also think that THE parlor game of our age is critique. But for all of our critique, I think that one of the reasons that we, as a culture, are so pathologically fascinated with the most repugnant images of evil is that we seem to hate actual confrontation in virtually all forms. Americans cannot stand to be in emotionally uncomfortable situations with others. This would seem to lead to an unhealthy brooding.

    I had a friend (Mark, memory eternal!) who was a Welshman and an Oxford grad. When he came to study in the states, he noted how little earnest and serious debate took place in his college classrooms. There was a lot of posturing about issues, and folks falling into groups of shared affinity, and a whole lot of psychologicalized emoting, but very little in the way of actual engagement of ideas. There was no confrontation, in the positive sense of the word. We Americans are a “why can’t we all just get along” sort of people.

    This is my question – one can easily read the passage from Elder Porphyrios and “proof-text” it, as it were, into an argument for radical non-confrontation. For to confront someone who does not want to be confronted, one sometimes has to use methods which are not soft, not entirely passive, not entirely deferential. Does right confrontation always mean a lack of indignation, as the elder suggests? If we were to proof-text in the other direction (not that I would want to do this) I am sure we could find passage after passage of the rhetoric of saints and the descriptions of actions of saints that appear indignant. The frequent occurrence among even persons of sanctity does not mean that these actions are right, but it would seem to beg the question regarding whether or not they are always inappropriate.

    St. Paul outlined the parameters of godly humility better than anyone, I suppose, but he also told men who spread falsehood to go castrate themselves. Christ was silent before Pilate but brandished a whip and overturned tables in the Temple.

    I think it is almost certainly a dangerous thing to enjoy telling people to castrate themselves, or to enjoy using a whip on folks, but I also wonder if it is not also dangerous to enjoy a high degree of passivity in cases when more direct confrontation would seem called for.

    The Orthodox blogger Christopher Orr (of Orrologion) and I have this ongoing friendly debate – I think that St. Nicholas, when he punched Arius, did something that was right and holy in that act. Christopher thinks that that particular act was an instance of sinful passion. I happen to believe that a person can punch dispassionately, and that sometimes the best way to love an Arius is to punch him. Of course, the use of such examples could easily lead to casuistry…

    I’m sure, in the end, I usually get it wrong on the application front. I can’t recall ever having thrown a dispassionate punch in my childhood. But I do recall when my junior high wrestling coach taught me to wrestle more or less dispassionately, which greatly aided my wrestling.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    I absolutely agree that non-confrontation has as much danger as confrontation. To speak the truth in love is a commandment. But to be aware of the struggle with the passions that is inherent in confrontation is simply a word of wisdom. I recall an abbot who told stories of those who came to his monastery in the early 70’s – seeking quiet – “because they were so angry about peace.” With the role that confrontation rightly plays in our lives – we do well to remember that it is God who finally corrects and establishes righteousness (I should say this with fear and trembling). Lest I be trapped in despair or drawn into the temptation that a good outcome depends on my efforts. I am responsible (each of us) to be obedient.

    In the story of St. Nicholas and Arius at the Nicene Council: St. Nicholas did indeed violate the canons in striking Arius and was rightly deposed by his fellow bishops. That the Theotokos interceded and instructed that he be reinstated is the mercy of God (which is greater than the canons). But the Theotokos did not instruct that the canons be changed – it is still a canonical offense to strike a priest (let the strikers beware).

    May God keep us all in these days of our temptation.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    By the way, the passage in Porphyrios goes on to deal with the “evil eye” (baskania) in a very insightful way. It is something found in Scripture and in the book of Needs, but often not discussed. I have read one book on the subject and found it of interest. It is essentially about jealousy and envy – but also about the spiritual and even physical damage these passions can cause. Porphyrios renders the passage in Wisdom thus: “For the bewitching eye of wickedness obscures what is good.” Interesting.

  13. David Avatar

    I will never accept righteous indignation in myself. I do not believe I can express it without sinning. For those that can, I leave that to their greater gift.

    I seem to remember thinking about mutiny stories that such criminals should be convicted even if they were “correct.” Even if they saved the world, what they did should never be justified. They should know going into it that part of their duty will be to receive the punishment that such an act entails.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    The old English Great Litany prayed to be delivered from “privy conspiracies” – a proper concern and a wonderfully quaint phrase.

  15. ochlophobist Avatar

    I remember reading a passage in, of all places, Walter Wink years ago where he makes the argument that Christians should, at times, engage in civil disobedience, but because they accept that God has ordained the state with temporal authority, they should gladly accept the punishments they suffer for that disobedience. There can be, it would seem, an element of passion bearer in it. One accepts the punishment, after doing that action which most honored God and neighbor.

    I am inclined to view the issue with St. Nicholas in that manner. He should have been deposed, in order to prevent anarchy within the Church. At the same time, the act of the Council Fathers deposing him creates this iconic image – they depose St. Nicholas for an infraction of a disciplinary canon, while they had been listening, enthralled, to Arius eloquently wax on concerning his grave errors. I don’t know.

    Interesting on the evil eye. It makes sense that the passage would be interpreted in that fashion. I began reading about the evil eye a bit after reading Alexander Papadiamandis’ short stories, a couple of which mention the evil eye. It is fascinating to me that the Church does not reject the notion that there is a spiritual power behind the evil eye – a determinism one can be subject to if in certain states of weakness, but, the determinism is not binding on those who are firmly within the bosom of the Church. There is something to fear outside of the protection of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but nothing to fear if in their company.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    On protection from such evil things, the Elder Porphyrios says: “[When someone] is a man of God and makes confession and receives Holy Communion and wears a cross, nothing does him any harm. Even if all the demons were to fall on him, they would achieve nothing.”

    Your thoughts on Nicholas make sense to me. Having just passed the feast of Sts. Boris and Gleb – the concept of “passion-bearer” seems most apropos.

    Many critics of the Russian Royal Family (for instance) fail to take into account the peace and equanimity with which he and his family withstood their imprisonment and endured their fate. Those who undervalue such clearly fail to appreciate how difficult inner peace is to maintain under extreme circumstance (or just in our daily routine).

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    The Book of Needs (Trebnik in Russian) is the priest’s book that has the “necessary” services, such as house blessings, exorcisms, funerals, pretty much everything that is not the regular daily services or liturgy. There is the “lesser book of needs” that is only a small selection, and the complete Great Book of Needs that, in English, is 4 volumes.

    In the West, both Roman Catholics and Anglo Catholics have similar books. Quite practical, but usually only familiar to priests. I think the Anglican version is called the Priest’s Service Book.

  18. Darlene Avatar

    “We cannot know whom God may appoint to show us mercy – but we should be ever at the ready to be used in such a way.” and “I think the best path to take toward this maturity is to direct our efforts ever more towards the simple acts of mercy which God has prepared for us.”

    Amen! These words of wisdom are apropos for me especially this day. While praying with my husband this morning I asked the Lord to extend His mercy and grace toward me that I might in turn extend His mercy and grace toward others. Since Christ sees fit to shed His mercy and grace upon us without measure and more than we will ever know, then we, who are His creatures, must do the same to our neighbor.

    David, I understand what you mean about righteous indignation. Many Christians will defend speaking the truth in a matter claiming they are righteously indignant, when such actions are really being motivated by self-righteousness or even worse, hatred or predjudice. I have fallen into this trap myself. Oh that I should have kept my mouth closed rather than cause more damage with my tongue. St. James has much to say to us about the power of the tongue and the destruction it can cause. I would prefer to err on the side of kindness and compassion with my neighbor than harshness and severity. Such a lesson is often learned from being on the receiving end of the latter.


  19. Darlene Avatar


    You said, “I absolutely agree that non-confrontation has as much danger as confrontation.”

    The wise Solomon said in his proverbs (26:4 & 5), “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” It would seem that the wisdom which comes from above would instruct us as to which one is appropriate for each individual circumstance. Oh, that we may always be open to that wisdom which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.”

    Btw, what is the “book of Needs?” Never heard of it. I’m learning so much from your blog. May you continue in this ministry for many years!

    In His Love,


  20. Carrington Avatar

    I am greatly moved by this article. I have printed it for my friends who do not have access to internet. I want them to be blessed as well even though they are neither Catholis nor Orthodox.

    Father, be blessed.

    In Christ


  21. Mary Avatar

    I love this book! We are so quick to judge and curse in the church! How I pray we can all learn to bless others and show mercy all the time! I have wondered if so many of the “bad physical things” we see happening around us are the result of cursing. I think blessing and cursing have an unbelievable power and effect. Lord, have mercy on us! This really shows our interconnectedness (especially in The Church). I also loved the chapter in this book on Spiritual Struggle. I love his focus on turning to Christ. The chapter on Prayer is amazing as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast