Understanding "The Evil Inclination"
“I’ve got news for you: we are all the same.
I’ve got news for you; are you listening?
I’ve got news for you: we are all to blame,
And when that is understood we can start to live again.”
“How could they do something like that? That is so evil!” I hear it often, because such events are getting more frequent in our society. But the answer is pretty simple, though no one really wants to hear it: Any of us could have “done that” (you name the crime).
I’m not saying that some things aren’t “out of character” for certain people; you wouldn’t have expected so-and-so to ever do that! But why? We should actually be surprised that a lot more people aren’t doing “that” a lot more often.
Contrary to the prevailing philosophies of the last few centuries, reason and education are not all it takes to get people to stop harming those around them and do something beneficial for the world. More information is available than ever before, but most people use their increased knowledge mainly for their own benefit. The world is more educated than ever, but wars keep increasing. Racism is back and “hate crime” is a category only recently invented. Suicide terrorism (maybe the most irrational of all), which hardly existed 50 years ago, is just one of many new forms of mass murder. The last century saw more unnatural, humanly-perpetrated deaths than any other time in history. We hear about corruption in high places every day. It clearly takes much more than information to curb senseless evil.
A Biblical worldview explains it a lot better. Before the Flood of Noah, people lived extremely long lives without many natural disasters. Imagine the technological advancement possible with everyone speaking the same language and longer times to observe geological cycles. You would think they would have fewer wars and accumulate much wisdom. Yet with all of that leisure, combined with the influence of the Nefilim (offspring of rogue angels), our Creator assessed the state of the world as “all the inclinations of humanity’s minds [being] only evil continuously!” (Gen. 6:5) He all but started over.
But again after the Flood, even after He limited our lifetimes and gave us more “busy work” so things could not get that bad again so quickly, YHWH still recognized that “the inclination of humanity’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:1) From these two verses, Jewish tradition culled the phrase Yetzer haRa to describe an “inclination to evil” that exists within everyone who has Adam as his ancestor.
My daughter asked tonight, “Why is the world so messed up?” Well, it’s largely explained by over 7 billion “inclinations to evil” acting against one another, and building on the messed-upness of previous generations as well.
Some caricature it as a devil on one shoulder and an angel—the “good inclination”—on the other. The prevailing view posits that the evil inclination is older and therefore stronger than the conscience that is later taught into us, but it is mainly an issue of which one you listen to. Rashi, a prominent Jewish commentator from the Middle Ages, said that though we have the urge to sin, we also “have the ability to subdue it.” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, P. Ekev 45, Kiddushin 30b.) In YHWH’s own words to Qayin, “If you do well, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:7)
“Possessing an evil inclination is considered neither bad nor abnormal. The problem, however, arises when one makes a willful choice to ‘cross over the line’ and …gratify his evil inclination.” (Wikipedia, s.v. “Yetzer hara”)
But is it really so normal? Some would say the Yetzer haRa is nothing more than the side of us that can be creative and shrewd, to keep us “street-smart”—a survival instinct so we don’t get taken advantage of by others; it’s not really something bad. It’s just a matter of how you use it and why. But that’s really a different thing; Yeshua even recommended gaining a little bit of that kind of “wisdom”. (Luke 16:8) So I don’t think we should call Yaaqov’s devious side the “Yetzer haRa”, because YHWH was the One who chose to have him blessed beyond his brother and who helped him outsmart Lavan! We are even told that YHWH can be devious toward the devious if He has to be. (Psalm 18:25-26) “Elohim is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 Yochanan 1:5), so we cannot call HIS devious side “Ra”. It’s just one more tool in His arsenal and can be used against evil. (Incidentally, Ra is the name of the top god of Egypt that YHWH defeated, per Exodus 12:12; in no way is that the same as or even part of YHWH.)
On the other hand, the Creation account says “good and evil” is not the way it was from the beginning; at that point, when human beings were already on the scene, everything was “very good”. (Gen. 1:31) Not until they heard about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did the idea of evil ever come up.
The reason this forbidden tree has “good” in its name, and is not described as purely evil, is that the core of each thing YHWH created remained good, but when that fruit got into our bloodstream, we became perverted (twisted, crooked, or turned in any direction but straight)—to the point that YHWH no longer recognized us as the same creature He had made. (Adam, “Where are you?”) Nothing was evil until we got our hands on it. We saw the potential to use things in a way for which they were not designed. Once someone misused the differences between men and women, pretty soon that was all people thought of when they saw someone without clothing. We now saw the evil ways this could be used, and soon it began to be thought of as bad in itself. Though the badness was really only in our now-altered minds, it became unsafe to go around unclothed as we had at first, because we were now vulnerable not only to this kind of abuse but also to ridicule when our bodies started sagging and no longer looking like the perfect specimens they used to be. (Those who could keep up the illusion of perfection longer than the rest became idolized as “gods” or “goddesses”—another twisting.)
Israel was actually meant to recapture the viewpoint from before we ate that fruit: things we now often consider to be unmixed evil were actually proven to be good when in the right Hands. But when we tried to usurp those Hands, the things we put our hands to began to be twisted right along with us. As thorns and thistles (themselves perversions of branches, a kind of abortion, as Dr. Arthur Custance so ably showed) took over the landscape, animals, which once had coexisted with a vegetarian diet soon started starving and began turning on other animals as a source for food, and since they are not sinful, but we are, they had to be taking their cue from men who were meant to be their protectors, but who had overstepped their own limits. Thus “the creation itself was subjected to futility”. (Romans 8:20)
But isn’t there goodness to mitigate it? Yes, but children aren’t just born with a blank slate, as every new parent soon finds out. No matter how good a parent may have become, no one has to teach the next generation to rebel; that comes all too naturally.
The doctrine of “total depravity” takes the concept a little too far. We are not all pedophiles or human traffickers, and we have not reached such a critical mass of evil as before the Flood. In Mister Rogers’ terms, “The very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes.” All human beings retain remnants of being made in Elohim’s image, which we must respect and honor. Rabbi Baruch Yehudah of Brooklyn, New York pointed out that even when YHWH had determined that some people no longer had a right to breathe His air and sent His Israelite soldiers out to remove them from the earth, He still required them to pay half a sheqel to cover their souls because they were killing people made in His image, who belonged to Him. (Exodus 30:12-14)
But there is indeed universal depravity; i.e., we are not all maximally affected, but everyone is affected, which is one reason I think there was a physical, genetically-altering aspect to that first act of disobedience. In any case, “all have sinned and fall short of YHWH’s excellence.” (Romans 6:23)
But isn’t that a Christian concept? Paul’s idea? No. There is plenty about it in the Hebrew Scriptures:
"For there is not a righteous man upon earth, who does good, and does not sin." (Eccles./Qoheleth 7:20)
“I was indeed brought forth [already] crooked, and in error when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5; 51:7 in Hebrew)
“The heart is deceitful above all else and incurably wicked; who can figure it out?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
And let’s look at some quotes directly from rabbinic Jewish sources:
In Yalkuth Sh’moni, the rabbis argued over whether the evil nature enters a person at the time of birth or at the time of creation (conception), but either way, they agreed that each person is born with a sinful nature. The sages who replaced the goat offerings at Yom Kippur with chickens still specified that a pregnant woman needed to do a double sacrifice for both herself and the unborn child in her womb (Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh 131:1), so pre-modern sages clearly understood that a child is sinful before it ever actually sins.
In Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s words, “The sin of the first man in the Garden of Eden is the root of all sins.”
“In the sin of the first man you die, as he brought death to the world.” (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah)
These sound almost exactly like, “By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, on the basis of which all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
So this did not originate with the New Testament; it is an ancient Hebrew idea that the Jewish authors of the Renewed Covenant explained in more detail based on what they already knew from the Scriptures and their associated traditions. Though on the surface there are discrepancies, the deeper we dig, the more the two divergent streams prove to come from the same place. It is only modern rabbis, wanting to obscure the extent of our need for Messiah, who have invented the idea that this doctrine is incompatible with the Torah. But by doing so they are forfeiting their access to the only real solution to the problem.
The heart of the matter is explained in the TaNaKh: “YHWH’s hand is not too short to save…but your perversions have made a separation between you and your Elohim.” (Yeshayahu 59:1-2) In other words, the bad situation we find ourselves in is not normal; things are meant to be better, and they could be better if this thing that is obstructing and thwarting YHWH’s intervention was out of the way.
So what does it take to overcome the evil inclination? Is it just a matter of will power? Sometimes it seems that what is needed is more like “Won’t power”, but either way, is this enough to solve the root problem?
The means of subduing it, say the rabbis, is the Torah. And certainly there is a great measure of truth to this. Yeshua himself, when tempted to abuse his proper human desires, answered every time with “It is written” (Mat. 4:4, 6, 7, 10), always from the Torah, and the one who takes advantage of our inclinations could not argue with this. Yeshua was ready with the right ammunition, exemplifying what his ancestor David had also done: “Your Word have I hidden in my heart so that I might not sin against You.” (Psalm 119:11)
But David still did sin—with terrible consequences (see 2 Shmu’el 11-12) because there is more to take into account.
What the Torah Can’t Do
In Judaism, “repentance (and in some cases, affliction) is said to atone for most sins, while the preponderance of good works keeps [one] within the general class of good men.” (Wikipedia) I.e., if the good you do outweighs the bad, you will be okay.
Some people were indeed called “blameless according to the Torah” and both endorsed by others and approved by YHWH for it. (Iyov/Job 1:1; Luke 1:6; Acts 10:2) This does not mean they never made any mistakes, but that when they did, they made restitution in the ways YHWH has prescribed.
“There is a sin that is not unto death.” (1 Yochn. 5:16) Some sins can be remedied. Thefts and accidents can be compensated for, and even lost time remunerated. If a man violates a certain kind of woman, he can correct the situation by marrying her. (Ex. 22:15) That way he leaves no loose ends; once he cleans up his mess, he can no longer be blamed.
But you can never undo a murder. Those with the very best intentions are still capable of the very worst of offenses.
The reason we were told to wear blue tassels on our clothing was expressly to “serve as your reminder, so that you may notice it, and remember all the commandments of YHWH, and carry them out, so that you will not explore after your own heart or your own eyes, after which you [habitually] go astray.” (Numbers 15:39) David let his guard down and “followed his heart”—into disaster. His son Shlomo also spoke of the need of each Israelite to “recognize the plague of his own heart”. (1 Kings 8:38)
Another who described his own past record as “concerning the righteousness that is in the Torah, blameless” (Philippians 3:6), who arguably influenced more non-Jews than anyone else in history to turn to the Elohim of Israel, still, late in life, spoke of his own agonizing struggle to do the right thing:
“We know that the Torah is spiritual; however, I am [still] carnal, having been sold into [slavery to] sin. I don't even understand my own behavior, because I [end up] doing what I do not want to do, but the very thing I hate—that's what I [find myself] doing!” (Romans 7:14-15) He goes on to say, “The desiring to do [what is] beneficial is present with me, but to accomplish it, I find no [power within myself]… I find it to be a law that although I am the one desiring to do right, something destructive is nearer at hand with me—because according to the inward man, I delight in YHWH's Torah, but I see another principle at work in my bodily members—waging war against the principle by which my mind [operates], and taking me captive through the principle of sin that exists within my members. What a miserable man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is given over to [what only brings] death?” (7:18, 21-24)
That doesn’t sound like the good inclination was strong enough to overcome the evil on its own steam. In the final analysis, we are not “all right” even with that “preponderance of good works”—which David certainly had. His record was pretty spotless before this, and YHWH even called him “a man after My own heart”. (1 Shmu’el 13:14) Yet his horrified reaction when he realized what he was capable of was to cry out, “Wash me thoroughly from my perversity and cleanse me from my error! …Create in me a pure heart, O Elohim!” (Psalm 51:2, 10)
And even after building YHWH a magnificent tribute, Shlomo himself later drifted far from Him and let temples to idols be built in Israel as well.
If these giants of faith were still capable of such offenses, how much more are the rest of us?
The Torah gives us our definitions of sin and righteousness, prescribes a lifestyle that keeps all aspects of life and justice in balance, provides deterrents to transgression and points us to the wisest path to take, but it cannot make us choose rightly. In itself it cannot overcome the evil inclination; that requires something more.
A Deeper Need: A New Self
Improvements in our behavior do make life more pleasant for others around us, but on their coattails usually also comes spiritual pride in one form or another. In YHWH’s view, human “ordinances (‘Don’t touch…! Don’t taste…! Don’t handle…!’) … according to the commandments and doctrines of men, have the appearance of wisdom, in will-discipline, repression, and unsparing severity to the body, but are of no value in combatting the flesh…” (Colossians 2:23) “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no help.” (Yochanan 6:63)
What is this “flesh” that he keeps referring to--deeper than the skin, and which remains even when the body is made to submit? Just as in English, in Hebrew “flesh” literally does refer to what lies between the skin and the bone: the muscles, our natural strength, the ability which we ourselves can drum up, and by extension, our own resources. Paul says, “I know that nothing deserving of honor resides innately in me—that is, in my flesh.” (7:18) So it has a negative connotation, which is why it has to be combatted.
Thus the evil inclination is not as normal a thing as the milder view of our sinfulness would have us think. We can’t just exclude Yeshua from the equation and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. (Picture that idiom in your mind and you will see how ludicrous that idea is!) Because evil has become so pervasive in our natural constitutions, this “flesh”, which Romans 6 calls “the old man”, is becoming more and more corrupt the older we get. (Ephesians 4:22)
But even this did not catch YHWH off guard; He let the first couple be tempted rather than leaving that to a later generation, because there was a side of Himself that some would not have been able to experience if they had not felt the weight of the need, so He gave us a different kind of answer: “YHWH has shut everyone in together into noncompliance”, not just so everyone is on the same footing and can’t boast of being better than anyone else (Rom. 3:23), but for a positive purpose: “so that He might have compassion on everyone.” (Romans 11:32)
The prophets spoke of a need for an even deeper solution than a change of behavior--a “new heart” and a “new spirit”. At first YHWH tells us to make this new heart for ourselves by casting away all our transgressions, because He wants us to stay alive long enough to receive the rest of what He has for us. (Ezekiel 18:31) But then He ultimately says that at least part of this process is something He must do for us. There is a rock-hard heart in us that has to be replaced by a soft, organic, more human one. (Ez. 36:26)
In contrast to the “old man”, YHWH said He will put that new spirit in those who make a place for it. This is what Yeshua meant when he said, “Unless a man is re-born, he cannot see the Kingdom.” (Yochanan 3:3) Nothing less will remedy the real root problem—the deficiency that remains in us no matter what extremes we go to in changing our outward behavior. If it is “old”, i.e., our former self, it is not meant to be a permanent part of us, and the whole physical package has to eventually be done away with if we are to fully realize that “new heart”.
Paul explained, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Elohim” (1 Cor. 15:50), because those are the parts of us that have become corrupt, thus making it difficult for even the new spirit that is within us (if we have joined ourselves to Messiah) to carry out its benevolent wishes (Mat. 26:41), as Paul also described in Romans 7. But that is no excuse to give in to it.
“The flesh’s products are plainly recognizable: impurity, unbridled excess, hostility, rivalry, envy, murder, fierce passion”, and the like. (Galatians 5:19) The “fruits of the Spirit”, in contrast, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-24)—and that last one is the quality we are looking for in terms of the ability to curb the evil inclination, isn’t it? Thanks to Yeshua, it is available to us. The spirit can prevail to a surprising extent. Even as our old man wastes away, our “inner man is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16)
We can either encourage or starve the evil urges. “Everyone is tempted when he is lured away by his own desire, and enticed, and when a desire has conceived it gives birth to sin; then sin, when it has matured, brings forth death.” (Yaaqov 1:14-15) So if we nip the wrongful desires in the bud, we can avoid specific sins, one by one—and one at a time is all that we have to do, not because that is enough to make us acceptable to YHWH, but because the overall war has already been won, and we just have to fight each individual battle so that every particular can be brought in line with that victory, as the inhabitants of a conquered land have to be informed who the new ruler is, so that they will not go on carrying out the agenda of the former king, but that of the new one.
A Higher Law
Moment by moment, if you “walk in the spirit, you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16) You choose which reality you want to live according to. The law of gravity is very real, and will not go away, but just as there is another law that can supersede it on any given occasion—the law of aerodynamics, likewise “the law of the spirit of life in Messiah has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the Torah could not do, since it was weak through the flesh, Elohim did, by sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and because of sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:2-3)
The pull of the evil inclination can now be overshadowed by a far deeper desire: love for the One who made us, understands best how we work, and has given us a prototype in our “older brother”, the Messiah. But more than a prototype: It was only because he is the one who was able to push us over the hump How? He had a potential evil inclination—he was tempted—but who was not weighted to that side like we are. He was on the same footing Adam had before he chose wrongly, so Yeshua did not have the poison of the bad fruit in his veins. He had the pure blood to be able to not just cover up but truly pay the full “market price” for all the human errors that resulted from Adam’s. And because it was accepted, and because he passed the test Adam did not, he was promoted to a level on which he could share his spirit with us. That is what YHWH used to kindle that new spirit in us, much like YHWH was able to take some of Moshe’s spirit and share it with others so they, too, could judge wisely. (Num. 11:17) Multiply that by many times more righteous and more wise, and that is how much of Yeshua’s spirit is available to spare. That is how we get the new heart.
YHWH always expected Israel to obey out of gratitude for bringing us out of Egypt. We would never have escaped that bondage without His great acts of deliverance. But now we have something even greater—the deliverance from bondage to our own damaged minds, the world system, the flesh, and the evil one who still rules the rest of this world. Is the gratitude for that not enough motivation to give the better inclination the preference? Not that we have to find it within ourselves; He has given us all the tools we need, and we simply need to choose to set our wings in motion and override the gravity that the inertia of our old habits left us as an inheritance.
Moshe asked YHWH, “Let me know You more so I can know how to please You even better!” Paul went into even more detail, though trying to communicate this “in human terms” to people whose ears are still so clogged by the flesh is a real challenge even to the most eloquent. “I count everything else as a loss…so that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.” (Philippians 3:10). He realized he had not yet apprehended this goal, but kept pressing on. (3:14)
The hunger to know Him as Yeshua aimed to communicate Him can overpower that inner “devil”. “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony and because they did not prefer [to save] their own lives, even to the point of death.” (Rev. 12:11) There is adventure in this battle because it has already been won; we just have to inform the “inhabitants of the land” that there is a new ruler.
We aren’t to lie to one another, for example, “because you have taken off [and put away] the old man with its ways of doing things”. (Colossians 3:9) Not because it will get us condemned anymore (Rom. 8:1), but because it is no longer who we are. Recognizing this change as having already been accomplished in one sense can keep you out of a lot of trouble because it gives us a clearer vision of who we now are, where we are heading, and therefore what sidetracks we don’t need to get involved in along the way.
We can indeed train ourselves to live on a higher plane: “Whatever things are true…think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8) “Set your mind on things above… not on things of the earth.” (Colossians 3:2) That is a joy that is far deeper than mere happiness! “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what Elohim has prepared for those who love Him…but YHWH has revealed them to us by His Spirit.” (1 Cor. 2:9-10)
It will not be complete until “Kingdom come”, and we may only encounter those “upper worlds” in ever so fleeting a way, but we can certainly “taste the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5) even now, and draw on them as our weapons against the enemy within. We can start to bring aspect after aspect of the Kingdom “as it is in heaven” down to the earth even now.
This will not occur all at once; it will usually be gradual like the conquering of the Land (Deut. 7:22), lest evil beasts outnumber us. But as we look in the mirror of the Perfect Law of Liberty (Yaaqov/James 1:22-25) and see who we really are, our conscious self can also be “changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18) This is what motivates us. “Glory” here is a translation that limits our view of what kavod really is. It literally means “weightiness” (nothing to do with being bright or splendid, per se). The Spirit brings us more weight to counter the shallow, yet insistent, “flesh”.
Yes, once we get the cart behind the horse, we can harness this wild beast and make it work for us (and, more importantly, for YHWH) instead of against us. We work with the raw materials we have. Look what YHWH did when presented with the presence of death in the world: He used it to conquer itself! While “touch not the unclean thing” is an integral part of being holy, when brushing up against death is inevitable, we might as well remove its teeth in the process so it has no real power over us anymore.
We do have to choose which voice to listen to. But now the evil voice is the one foreign to us, and the good one resonates with our own hearts, because we have had a “spirit transplant”. Yes, we still technically can live by that old lifestyle, but why would you want to? “What fruit did you have then from the deeds of which you are now ashamed? For the final [installment of the] payback from those things is [nothing but] death!” (Romans 6:21)
“How can we who died to sin continue to live in it? …Our old man was crucified with [Messiah], so that the body could cease to operate as an instrument of sin, and we should therefore no longer be slaves to sin…[So] then recognize yourselves to be dead indeed in regard to sin, but alive for YHWH's sake, in identification with the Messiah (who is our Master, Yeshua). So do not let sin be ‘king’ in regard to your mortal body, [pulling you back] under a [perceived obligation to] listen to its cravings; nor should you yield yourselves to sin as tools of unrighteousness, but rather place yourselves at YHWH’s disposal, as alive yet having died, and yield the members of your bodies to YHWH as instruments of righteousness… Don't you know that you become slaves, obligated to obey whichever master you yield yourselves to—whether it be sin, which results in death, or the obedience that results in righteousness? But thanks be to YHWH that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart a standard of teaching into which you were delivered, and, having been liberated from sin, you were made subject to righteousness.” (Romans 6:2-18)
We all have an “old man”. So, yes, we are all to blame. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “What’s wrong with the world? I am.”
But remember Randy Stonehill’s quote above: “We are all the same, and when that is understood, we can start to live again.” We are all guilty, but there is also a remedy available to all (or all whom we make aware of it). That gives us the freedom to confess the evil that is in our hearts, and with it comes the power to forsake our habits and start fresh—each and every day. We all have the potential to be a “new creation” in which “old things have passed away” and “all things have become new”. (2 Corinthians 5:17) There is nothing more radical than that.
Michael Jackson said the place to start changing the world was with “the man in the mirror”. A wonderful sentiment. If all we have with which to do that is “the flesh”, we will just be spinning our wheels. But more than the flesh is present and is at our disposal, so real change is truly possible.
Within a generation after Yeshua’s resurrection rocked the very foundations of the spirit world, when his followers came to a new place for the first time, those under whose thumb that place had been, fearful of losing their grip, gasped and cried, “Those people who have turned the world upside down have come here too!” (Acts 17:6) They were right to be afraid, if justice needed to be done. But these people, like their master, also loved mercy and walked humbly with their Elohim. (cf. Micah 6:8)
So it was only upside down from their perspective; from YHWH’s, the world was being turned back to right-side up. It’s been upended again, over and over, so an overturn is needed once again. But when we have that vision both of who we are and of what He wants His world to look like (seen in the “mirror” of that Law of Liberty), there is no reason they could not one day soon say the same thing about us.