The word of the day is “simple.” In this world, some things are obviously wicked. But the unrighteousness of other things is not so easily identified. Evil comes wrapped in attractive packages and desirable wrappings. Vices are mixed with virtues, and goodness is mingled with immorality.
In our reading of Romans 16:17-24, St Paul concludes his letter with a warning about divisions caused by troublemakers. He charges that they use “smooth words and flattering speech to deceive the simple” (Romans 16:18.) Thus, St. Paul cautions that his readers should be “wise in what is good and simple concerning evil” (Romans 16:19).
“Simple” Fails to Get at the Meaning
Today we will learn how to separate the good from the bad in the mixture of our desires and aims. In this way, we will achieve purity of heart and action. The New King James Version of the Orthodox Study Bible uses the same word, “simple” in both Romans 16:18 and 16:19. That translation fails to convey the sense of what Paul is saying. The Greek term for “simple” refers to what is “innocent” and “harmless” (Strong’s #185, 11). We might say that the troublemakers try to deceive the gullible or naïve.
Moreover, when St. Paul says we should be wise in what is good but “simple” concerning evil, he certainly does not mean that his readers should be naïve or gullible about wickedness. The Orthodox Study Bible notes that the Greek word for “simple” means “innocent” or “pure” (OSB footnote on Romans 16:19).
The Root of “Simple” Means “Unmixed”
However, at its root, the Greek word means literally “unmixed” (Strong’s #185, 11). Thus, St. Paul is saying that in thinking and acting, we should not mix evil with good. Rather, we should be pure in our motives, attitudes, thoughts, and behavior. That is why St. Paul says that his readers should watch out for and avoid those who cause divisions among them (Romans 16:17). They should stay away from them lest they infect the goodness of his readers with evil, and they pollute their obedience to Christ with a spirit of disobedience.
The Book of James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). To keep oneself “unblemished” and “without spot” from the world is difficult in any age, but especially our own. Thankfully for most of us, pure evil does not assault us directly as it did to St. Anthony and other saints. No, it usually comes mixed with some appeal, even benefit. It takes wisdom to discern that what seems to be attractive is the temptation to evil.
Distilling the Essence of a Desire
How then can we discern the good from the evil when it is often so cleverly disguised? We can get a clue from the distillation, the fundamental method of chemistry. Distillation is the process of separating the different components of a liquid mixture utilizing their different boiling points. For example, saltwater is heated until steam can be collected. The steam is then cooled to become freshwater.
We can use this idea to separate what is good from what is evil. When a desire arises, we can press the issue and ask ourselves, “If we get what we want, what will be the result?” Will we be better persons or worse? Will God be glorified or not? Will others benefit or not? If we set aside the attraction of a desire and ask what its outcome will be in itself, we can distill its essence and determine whether it is good or evil.
Testing for What the Lord Hates and What He Loves
For example, the sage of Proverbs writes, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate (OSB Proverbs 8:13). If we set aside the craving of our desire, we might find fulfilling our longing would make us more prideful and arrogant. It would lead to bad conduct and dirty speech. Therefore, though what we want is appealing, it would be evil.
On the other hand, the Psalmist says that the Lord “loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (OSB Psalm 33:5). In this case, we might ask, will what I want be right in God’s eyes? Will it be just? And will it foster goodness? If so, then though it might be difficult, what we desire would be good.
The result of this practice would be that we indeed “become wise in what is good and simple concerning evil” that is, discerning of what is unmixed in regard to what is righteous and unrighteous (OSB vs. 19).