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I’ve long seen books by M. Scott Peck at used book stores, and seen references to his work over the years, and often thought I should read something by him. His books were best sellers and remain in print. I found a like-new copy of People of the Lie, The Hope for the healing of Human Evil (1983) at a thrift store and this is his book that most interested me. A review on the back says: “So compelling in its exploration of the human psyche, it’s as hard to put down as a thriller….Such a force of energy, intensity, and straightforwardness.”

Yes! This book was hard to put down. I have not read through a book so quickly in a long time. It contains much thought provoking content that leaves you thinking, which would typically make a book a slow read, yet somehow you just can’t stop reading it! I think this is due to the good blend of insightful and explanatory content, along with real-life practicality, and fascinating and disturbing case studies from his work as a psychiatrist (details changed for reasons of privacy). You don’t get bogged down.

In case you are not aware Peck is both a Christian and a psychiatrist, two things that can be seen as at odds with each other, yet he demonstrates that Christianity has valid insight into human nature that needs to be taken into consideration.

Where is the line between mental illness and sin/evil? As a psychiatrist he saw certain patients that seemed more than just mentally ill, but evil. All human beings are sinful but where is the line between being sinful and evil? If you are like me, you have wondered about group evil, that is, how a group of people can commit terrible crimes. How did everyone get so pulled into it? Chapter 6 on group evil explains how very easy it is for this to happen, and it is also a bit chilling to realize that we too could end up being pulled into a group evil situation. But I think that better awareness of how this happens as explained in chapter 6, as well as general insight from the entire book, can help prevent us from being pulled into such evil. There is even a chapter on…exorcism, and Peck participated in a couple. In case you now halted, thinking this is quackery, Peck approaches this in a balanced and cautious way. He does not think possession is common, but rare, and much that can be blamed on the demonic can be explained by traditional psychiatric dynamics. Yet Peck takes the spiritual and demonic realm seriously.

So what is that line between sin and evil? This is addressed throughout the book. Peck draws a distinction between evil and ordinary sin. “It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” (page 69) Remember that Satan is known for his subtlety, and is also called the father of lies.

Evil arises in our refusal to acknowledge our own sins. Evil people are deceiving themselves, and others. There is layer upon layer of self-deception. They are people of the lie – note that is the title of the book. Lying is both a cause and manifestation of evil. Evil people are masters of disguise. Any goodness is a level of pretense, and it is all about keeping up appearances. The cases he highlights from his years as a psychiatrist demonstrate these points.

I appreciated the insight of Peck when he notes: “One of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.”
Peck clarifies “I do not mean to imply that the evil are anything other than a small minority among the religious or that religious motives of most people are in any way spurious. I mean only that evil people tend to gravitate towards piety for the disguise and concealment it offers them.” (pages 76-77)

Peck states “Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow” (page 74). Where there is fear/avoidance of self-examination or self-criticism, it can stunt our spiritual growth and create a fertile environment for evil to develop. Evil people are hiding from themselves. Peck notes that evil people will usually not submit to psychotherapy because they hate the light-shedding process of therapy. To benefit from therapy you must acknowledge your need of it. As Jesus said in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Above I quoted Peck when he notes that “the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” Yes. That is a theme of my own book, and I think a very important point that can sadly be hard for some people to grasp. Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit” and Peck expounds upon this. If we doubt the benefits of a sense of our spiritual poverty, he suggests we remember the Pharisees. They did not feel poor in spirit, and thought they had their spiritual act together.

“Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination. Unpleasant though it may be, the sense of personal sin is precisely that which keeps our sin from getting out of hand…It is a very great blessing because it is the one and only effective safeguard against our own proclivity for evil. Saint Therese of Lisieux put it so nicely in her gentle way: ‘If you are willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.'” (page 72)

I should begin to bring this wordy review to a close! This book is about both psychiatry and Christianity, and I’ve brought out more of the Christian insights. Psychiatry avoids talk of sin or evil, as that is religion, but there is a place for moral judgments and admitting that science has limits. As Peck says “How do we heal that which we don’t even dare study?”

I’ll end with this excerpt, followed by a brief thought of conclusion.

“The problem of evil…can hardly be separated from the problem of goodness. Were there no goodness in the world, we would not even be considering the problem of evil. It is a strange thing. Dozens of times I have been asked by patients or acquaintances ‘Dr. Peck, why is there evil in the world?’ Yet no one has ever asked me in all these years: ‘Why is there good in the world?’ It is as if we automatically assume this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil. In terms of what we know of science, however, it is actually easier to explain evil. That things decay is quite explainable in accord with the natural law of physics…That children generally lie and steal and cheat is routinely observable. The fact that sometimes they grow up to become truly honest adults is what seems the more remarkable. Laziness is more rule than diligence. If we seriously think about it, it probably makes more sense to assume this is a naturally evil world that has somehow mysteriously been ‘contaminated’ by goodness than the other way around.” (page 41)

Remember that God made a good world, and then it fell into sin, but God had a plan through Jesus Christ. We await the final redemption, when Christ returns, and there will be a New Heaven and New Earth – a good world once again. I think it is an echo of eternity in our hearts that we sense that something has gone wrong in this world and we long for Eden. There is a place for psychiatry and psychotherapy but we need it within a biblical view of this world, as that is where our ultimate hope and healing is to be found.

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