“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist” (Verbal in the movie The Usual Suspects)
Here is a clip from the brilliant movie The Usual Suspects just to get us thinking about the nature of the devil.
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When we think about the devil we often picture a comic character in tights. If not then perhaps a medieval sadist or something from a horror movie. These images are not what evil is, they certainly are not the images of Satan in scripture. There are only a few physical images of evil in the Bible. In the Old Testament evil is symbolised by a sea monster and in the new by a dragon. Both images are used in poetry or symbolic writing. When we think about the cartoon images of Satan they seem so ridiculous that we dismiss them. This like Verbal comments in the Usual Suspects, is that trick to convince the world that evil does not exist. Something that even watching the news for 30 seconds or living in the world for one day would prove to be utterly delusional.
Evil is not very obvious in its nature, it is subtle and difficult to picture. The image of the devil is a way to help us understand the nature and action of evil. Goodness also is difficult to picture often we will come up with a picture of a cartoon angel with wings and halo. This too is equally ridiculous, but does that mean that there is no such thing as good. After all if goodness exists then evil must too.
I think that the traditional medieval image of the devil is so laden with baggage it has become almost useless. Also pre-set into our culture is the image of the devil in horror movies. Again this image is so far removed from the reality of evil, that it is very unhelpful.
The work of modern psychology has given us some help within this area. I have been struck recently by two works that give a far better image of evil. Dr. Steve Peters, the consultant psychiatrist for the British cycling team and Zimbardo a psychologist from Stanford. Dr Peters in his book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’ gives us a far better image to work with. His image of the inner chimp who battles against the inner human in far closer to the Christian idea of Satan than any South Park cartoon or horror movie. The other work we will use is ‘The Lucifer Effect’ a book by Zimbardo who pioneered research into evil in the famous, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ conducted in 1971. Both works spoke of truths regarding evil that have been known in the bible and practiced in the Christian church for centuries.
The analysis of evil by Zimbardo hit a real cord with me. It expressed similar ideas about the mechanisms of evil as the Church has. Dr Peters image of two voices within our own minds set in conflict is very much in the spirit of what St Paul spoke of 2000 years earlier But perhaps most interestingly of all the solutions put forward by both Peters and Zimbardo are very similar to those practiced within Christian thought and meditation. Links to both these works are found in the resources section.
What is evil?
Evil is the opposite of goodness. God is Trinity where three love each other so much they become one. Evil can be thought of as a force like magnetism, you can’t see it but you can see its effects. Goodness too act like this, we can’t see it but we can see its effects or the fruits of goodness. The fruits of goodness are love, where we live for the other not for ourselves, unity, where we love each other because they are different and joy, where we live a joyful life. (Joy is not happiness, but that feeling deep within when we are secure in love). Evil’s fruits are selfishness, where we put our own desires first, uniformity, where we want everyone to be like us and despair.
How does evil work?
Zimbardo in the Lucifer effect says that evil acts incrementally. Little acts of evil occur and we begin the slippery slope towards destruction. This mechanism has been shown in his experiments and within history. If in 1930 the Nazis said lets kill all the Jews in death camps people would have been horrified and the holocaust would never have happened. But as we known in 1930 the Nazis said that the Jews were a privileged group, part of a global conspiracy, which had to be removed from public life. Then they said that the Jews were a disease that had to be eradicated. Finally after years of incremental steps the horror was fully realised. (can anyone think of people today who say similar things?)
Peters in the Chimp Paradox talks of the inner Chimp and Inner Human, St Paul talks of the Spirit and the Flesh. These are images that we are all familiar with two voices within us. A conversation that we have within ourselves all the time. This visualisation will help us listen to each of these voices more closely, recognise them and then choose the joyful response. If we are able to hear the voice of goodness and evil clearly then we will stop going down the dark path towards destruction. We stop the process in its early stages, because the further down the dark path you go, the harder it is to get off it.
Evil’s greatest trick is convince you it doesn’t exist. Evil is subtle where we end up falling into traps and hurting ourselves and other without even intending it. Peters in his Chimp Paradox talks of the automatic part of our brain as a computer. Things that we do without thinking. Humans are creatures of habit, most of the time we do things without thinking, because if we thought about everything we wouldn’t do very much. But we can train our computers to automatically respond with goodness not evil. Peters said this in 2012, St Benedict said this in the sixth century. I trained for the priesthood in a monastery. We trained our minds in a similar way. This visualisation will help you begin to recognise these voices within you and train your computer to listen to the good one.
Meet your inner angel and troll
My greatest fear is failure. I was the kid who always wanted to be top of the class. I’m the kid who hates coming second. Even now if we are on holidays I want to win the dad’s race. That is sad I know.
Why? because within me is that little mocking voice that says to me, ‘If you don’t beat him you’re no good’
Your voice may say things like; ‘no-one will like you if … You must eat all of that … You are fat and disgusting … You will never do anything worth while so don’t even try. You must have that new phone/ shoes/ car / job now if you don’t you are rubbish. Stop showing off nobody cares, What makes you think you can do that, you’ll never do it. etc.
If you stop and think, you have heard these things or something similar. A negative crushing, mocking voice that brings you down and into yourself. A voice that makes you want to curl up into the corner. The Character Grima Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings illustrates this perfectly. This is the voice of your Troll. (Also it is the voice used in the adverts on TV)
Your Troll is clever and will play on your own hurts and disappointment, making you lose perspective and forget reality. In some ways these thoughts are not evil within themselves, they are designed to keep us from harm, to protect us. But our Troll uses this good human instinct and twists it out of perspective. Your Troll is a real downer, it wants to keep you imprisoned in negativity often without even realising you are.
Your Troll doesn’t like change, it responds in a visceral way to different ideas. Your Troll is closed minded and makes a lot of noise. You may have heard you Troll already as you read this article. An aggressive type Troll will say, ‘This is total bollocks nobody believes in any of this anymore, stop reading it now!’ A more slick and slippery Troll will say, ‘Are you really that stupid to believe any of this, you’re sensible rational, don’t think about this and don’t forget people will laugh at you if they knew what you were reading’.
Your Troll and my Troll will play on your insecurities and use them to keep you in a negative place and locked in negative cycles of behaviour. Each of us is different so each Troll sounds different. You can’t hide from the Troll because he is in your own mind, but does that mean that you will always have to act as he tells you? That’s a big fat no!
The Troll will drag you down, but your Angel will fill you with joy. Deep inside we have that capacity for joy beyond words, our Angel calls to us from within, giving us the opportunity for joy as we share our lives with others. The Angel doesn’t really have a voice, most of the time at least. The Angel calls to us in a way beyond words. Because I don’t listen to my Angel enough he usually says, ‘You’re being very daft again, come on forget all that it doesn’t matter lets just get on with it’.
In order to help us recognise our Troll and Angel it is good if we can picture them in our minds. The Angel the voice that calls us into unity and joy. The Troll that drags us down by whispering, shouting or needling at our weak points.
Christianity is all about being set free from this negative cycle. So for this Visualisation I want you to spend some time thinking and listening to both your Troll and your Angel. Your Angel and Troll are not literal, they are symbols that we use to help us understand our behaviour. Dr Steve Peters doesn’t literally think there is a chimp in your head jumping up and down, it is a symbol. So in response to the questions don’t think literally, your Troll or Angel can be human, animal, plant, mythological it doesn’t matter. These are your symbols that help you understand yourself and God.
Ask yourself these questions.
What does my Troll sound like?
What does my Troll look like?
What are the types of things my Troll says?
What does my Angel sound like?
What does my Angel look like?
What are the types of things my Angel says?
Write down an answer to each question be as descriptive as possible. Even draw a picture if it helps.
If you feel comfortable enough let us know your answers in the comments below
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