Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Burning Blade at Our Backs

What began as a fall is beginning to seem more like the triggering of an avalanche. In these past weeks, we've tread methodically through Genesis 3, watching in slow-motion as everything precious comes undone. Hearing the serpent engage the woman with his cunning, we observed a case study in how we could be deceived into doubting the goodness of God's will. Drooling with her over the forbidden fruit, we felt the pull of how desires can be preyed on to tempt us toward sin. And then, as she reached out, plucked, bit, we saw how intellect and will led to the action that constituted sin. But once both had sinned, immediately a whole host of psychological and social consequences began to crop up: guilt and shame, fear, blame, the fracturing of relationships. And so we learned that our decisive failure would frustrate the whole creation's aspirations of rushing into God. Up to these verses, though, we've still been safely sheltered in God's garden of delights. The time has come, though, for that to change. For by our sin, we've forfeited the bliss we once briefly knew as home.

I suppose our first question is, “Why? Why did we have to leave the garden? Why wasn't all this enough as it is?” And by my count, there are five reasons why we had to leave the garden. Reason #1 is punitive: as sinners, we just don't deserve to enjoy all the good things of God's garden any more. “Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD (Jeremiah 5:9). God is Justice, and justice has a problem with sinners reaping a life of bliss. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1). In the end, the solution God's wise justice provides has to be what's written: “The wicked will not dwell in the land” (Proverbs 10:30), “the wicked will be cut off from the land” (Proverbs 2:22). “There is no greater punishment than to be cast out of paradise.”1

If the first reason is punitive, Reason #2 is purgative: we are now unclean through sin, and for the good of the garden, we can't be allowed to stay in the holy place. Remember, Genesis pictures the first sin as involving an unclean beast getting humans to gulp down unkosher food, and so to take all that defilement within ourselves; and as a result, humans have become ritually dirty, potentially staining anything we touch.2 “Can mortal man be... pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). The image of God has been desecrated, his priests have been defiled.3 “We have all become like one who is unclean..., we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6). But “who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false” (Psalm 24:3-4). Once that's not us, we cannot stay.

If the first two reasons are punitive and purgative, Reason #3 is restrictive: it would be bad for the world for us to have access to the Tree of Life. At this point, we've become, the LORD God says to his heavenly host, “like one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). That is, they've attained divine wisdom, divine power. Now, I'm inclined to think God's speaking a bit sarcastically: if there's anything the pitiful cowards having a meltdown in their fig leaves hardly look like, it's sages or mages.4 Still, divine knowledge and divine life – the things represented by the two trees – add up, in the eyes of Israel's neighbors, to what makes something a god.5 If we've stolen the first, can we take the other step? This isn't, as some think, as if God fears us. No matter what, it's nonsense to picture any threat to the Almighty. But this is heavenly horror at our hubris. We couldn't be trusted even with what we'd been given, let alone with godhood!6 Full of ourselves, we'd do limitless damage.7 So we can't be allowed to be like deranged gods roaming the world. We must be humbled by a limit.

On the other hand, it isn't just for the world's sake that we mustn't live forever. It's for ours, too. Reason #4 for us to leave the garden is medicinal: it's for our own good that we not live forever. Think about it. What would the world be like if we had a way to keep ourselves alive indefinitely? Picture Adolf Hitler's fifth millennium in power, with no prospect of an end.8 Or imagine if torturers could keep their victims alive for a thousand years of agony! The truth is, even shy of those dramatic cases, life is hard, and if we're honest, we struggle to tough it out for seventy, eighty, ninety years before we say we want off this crazy ride. If the man and woman “eat while they were clothed with a curse,” they would thereafter “remain in lives of eternal suffering,” as St. Ephrem put it; they'd “live as if buried alive..., tortured eternally by their pains.”9 Not just that, but the more we sin, the more attached we get to sin. If it's hard to break a bad habit now, imagine if you were set in your ways for four thousand years and then tried to quit? To live forever as sinners would literally be hell on earth.

And so the earliest Christians all saw that it was for our own good that humans were sent away from the Tree of Life, “that they might not continue forever as a transgressor, and that the sin that had them surrounded might not be immortal, nor their evil interminable and incurable; so he checked their transgression by interposing death, and he made sin cease by putting an end to it through the disintegration of the flesh.”10 Paul says that “one who has died has been justified from sin” (Romans 6:7) – that is, there's something about dying and suffering that lets us repair our sins. Without it, our sin could never let up or lessen. “God conferred a great benefit on man: he didn't let him remain forever in a state of sin but... cast him out of paradise, so that through his punishment he might expiate his sin in a fixed period of time.”11 Thus, “he who had been harmed in the leisure of the garden might be aided by the toil of the earth” as a penance,12 and at the end of it, “death is healing.”13

Our removal was a punitive, purgative, restrictive, and medicinal measure. But it was also missional. Back in the beginning, Genesis identifies a gap in the creation: “there was no human to work the ground,” as a result of which, the ground couldn't reach its fullest potential (Genesis 2:5). It was partly to solve that problem that God made us two verses later (Genesis 2:7). Now, the human leaves the garden “to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23). In chasing us back to the ground where we began, God is coupling our survival to his service. We won't eat unless we're working, but it's somehow the very work we were made for. We're being sent out, despite our fall, on mission. (The Latin Bible even uses emisit here, from the same root as missio.) As much in exile as at home, we have a purpose for our lives!14

So “the LORD God said, 'Behold, the human has become like one of us, to know good and evil. Now, lest he send out his hand and take also of the Tree of Life and live forever...,' therefore the LORD God sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the human” (Genesis 3:22-24). The remedy for us sending out a hand to take the fruit is for us to be sent out. But we aren't just sent out. We're driven out, pushed out, forcibly evicted from our special home. And that was God's own doing. It says so right there: the LORD God is the one who sent out, drove out, humanity from the garden, for the five good reasons we mentioned. One ancient reader pictured the scene: “The Immortal became angry with them and expelled them from the place of immortals..., and they immediately, going out..., wept with tears and groans.”15

And he placed, to the east of the Garden of Eden, the cherubim and a flame of the sword that whirled, to guard the way of the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24). Genesis is written as if we're already supposed to know what this is talking about. And maybe those old Hebrews did. The countries around Israel all had traditions about spirits with human heads, lion bodies, and eagle wings; we actually have pictures of them even from Israel.16 While the Greeks called them sphinxes, the Assyrians called some of them kurību. In inspiring Scripture, the Holy Spirit used this “poetic imagery,” as “a concession to the nature of our own mind,” to portray one of the sorts of spiritual creatures God made for his heaven.17 Generally, Christians have taken these cherubim, alongside the seraphim and thrones, as the tip-top, cream-of-the-crop angels, the ones who are “God's immediate neighbor..., receiving the primal theophanies” so that they “contemplate the divine splendor in primordial power.”18

But everybody in Israel's neighbor-world knew that kurību had a job to do, and it was to serve as guardians of holy spaces – basically, they were bodyguards for the gods and their temples.19 So they'd be portrayed at temple gateways and in front of holy trees, always in pairs, to mark a boundary between sacred and profane. Genesis up until here has made that our job, to “guard” the garden as its keepers (Genesis 2:15). But now we've lost the job, gotten canned, been replaced by these alien entities from a realm not our own.20 Now the cherubim are put at the eastern gates of the garden-sanctuary, defending it from our trespass.21

With them is an added protective measure – as if the cherubim weren't enough!22 It's probably best translated as “Flame of the Whirling/Thrashing Sword” (Genesis 3:24).23 Some of Israel's neighbors thought that their gods made supernatural weapons that had minds of their own, and they also worshipped a god they called 'Flame of the Arrow,' so Genesis might be borrowing that language to picture a fiery member of the LORD's heavenly army who is now stationed at the garden gate to fiercely intercept and destroy anything that intrudes.24 The point of all this is that the garden is locked down tight. There's no going back, not with the burning blade at our backs!

And so we, humankind, were “thrown out into this world, condemned as though to prison.”25 Made homeless, we confronted a darker and less pleasant world than we knew.26 The world outside is an as-yet-uncultivated land that's neither the haunted desert nor the vivacious garden, but a space in between that'll become what they – we – make of it. It's a wild world out there, no longer the comfortable refuge of the garden.27 It comes with “many dangers, toils, and snares,” as the hymn has it.28 But the good news is that we're sent out neither naked nor in our skimpy fig-leaf girdles. Instead, God himself manufactures a remedy for our intense vulnerability: “the LORD God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

Outside the garden, with access to the Tree of Life cut off, we come to a world where “our deaths are assured, though not immediate.”29 “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and death spread to all humans” (Romans 5:12). Sooner or later, everybody's battery runs out, and God took our charger away. So, “through fear of death,” we all become “subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). But here's the good news: “the human called his wife's name 'Eve' because she was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). In faith, Adam announces God's promise that life will roll on in the face of death, generation after generation.30 It isn't eternal life, but the continued ebb and flow of natural life. Death is here, but death won't keep life down.

Sadder than death, though, this “curse is fundamentally excommunication,” distancing us from our former fellowship with God and his angels.31 The loss of the garden signifies “a motion away from fellowship with God” on our end,32 but also “a divine retreat from humanity” so that God and his angels are less visible now.33 In the garden, the realities we call spiritual would've been as matter-of-fact as fig leaves; to exchange quick pleasantries with Gabriel in the orchard might've been a perfectly typical occurrence. But now God honors the relational distance between us by allowing a perceptual distance – that is, he's increasingly hidden from our view, harder to see. He interacts with us through symbols and messengers to mediate his presence in ways we seldom recognize or understand. Although God is always close by, it's rarer to see his closeness in this darkness.

Between this distance we discern, the difficulties we endure, and the definite demise we face, deep inside we all feel a homesickness we struggle to put a finger on. Even when our thoughts aren't on the garden, our hearts are! And to that end, God doesn't let Adam and Eve get very far. They live their hard lives on the cursed ground in the garden's shadow, provoking them to lives of grief in this world. Why would God do that? Because “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret,” the Bible says (2 Corinthians 7:10). It may not restore them to paradise in this life, but it keeps God's friendship and gives them hope beyond life's exile.34

Fast-forward to Israel camped out in the desert. They built a tabernacle, positioning it with its entrance on the east side. Not only does it have a replica tree as a lampstand (Exodus 25:31-36), but its most sacred furnishing is a box whose lid is flanked by two gold cherubim (Exodus 25:17-22). The box is kept behind a veil decorated with images of the cherubim (Exodus 26:31), and in fact all ten wall curtains of the tabernacle are decorated with cherubim (Exodus 26:1). The whole camp faces in towards it as the heart of their life (Numbers 2:1-31). What they have here, out in the desert, is an artificial Eden. So, Moses says, the “camp must be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:14).

For that reason, anyone who became unclean – from leprosy, discharges, touching corpses, whatever – they were to “send... outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp in the midst of which I dwell,” God said (Numbers 5:2-3). Just as Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, unclean Israelites were banished from the camp which was one body, one land, with the Tabernacle of the LORD.35 The good news is, this expulsion wasn't permanent. Those excluded for uncleanness only dwelled “outside the camp” until they could be clean again (Leviticus 13:46). That called for bathing, rituals of restoration, and time (Leviticus 14:8; Numbers 19:12-19; Deuteronomy 23:11). The way they kept their exclusion so limited was that, once a year, they chased a scapegoat out of the camp, making it a substitute for their own exile from the garden (Leviticus 16:20-22).36

Unlike Adam, who failed to drive out the serpent, Israel is given divine help to – (mostly) – drive out the pagan nations squatting in the land God promised them (Exodus 23:30-31). And this land takes the place of the camp as their new Eden. They had been warned in advance, though, that if they defiled the promised land, they'd be sent away as surely as Adam and Eve were sent away. Sadly, Jeremiah then heard the bad news: “When you came in, you defiled my land. … I will hurl you out of this land … I will thrust you out, and you will perish” (Jeremiah 2:7; 16:13; 27:10). As a national community, they were exiled from the land of promise, from their new garden.37 It was punitive to respond to their sin, purgative to cleanse the land, medicinal to humble them, even missional insofar as they should've proclaimed the LORD among the nations to which they were scattered.

Even before it happened, though, King Solomon had prayed that, should they ever be sent out from their garden, “if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies,” God might have mercy (1 Kings 8:48-50), just as Moses had promised God would (Deuteronomy 30:1-5). So the LORD tells the exiles, “You will call upon me..., you will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart..., and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from... all the places where I have driven you..., and I will bring you back” (Jeremiah 29:12-14). But once back in the land, they now know it's no lasting garden yet (Ezra 9:13-15; Daniel 9:24). Still they're left hoping for a future Savior who “shall open the gates of paradise,” who “shall remove the sword that has threatened since Adam,” who “will grant to the saints to eat of the Tree of Life.”38

Fast-forward again, and there's a man dying on a cross. He turns to one of his neighbors and says words that should wake up the world: “I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)! On the third day, that middle man has risen from the dead. And in the light of Jesus' resurrection, we get a fascinating scene. What happened in the beginning? Two humans in the garden listened to the serpent teach them false knowledge and open their eyes (Genesis 3:1-7), and therefore they were sent to walk the 'way' out of Paradise, away from the food that is life; the 'way' back in was blocked (Genesis 3:22-24). Now, we find two humans walking along a way, when the risen Jesus comes among them and teaches them true knowledge by opening the Scriptures to them (Luke 24:13-17). As they walk on the way of his teaching, their hearts burn within them, almost as if passing by the fiery sword (Luke 24:32), and at their destination, their eyes are suddenly opened when Jesus breaks the bread and gives them the food that is life: his body and his blood (Luke 24:30-31).39

The road to Emmaus became, to those two disciples, the way back into Paradise! And ever since, Christians have faithfully believed that God planted the Church itself as a new Garden of Eden on the earth.40 They saw that “the things of the garden refer to the Church of Christ,”41 where every week in their liturgy the Christians would eat knowledge from Scripture and then, in the second half, eat Life from the altar. And “the grace of the Holy Spirit does not ever cease from decorating and crowning with fresh flowers the Paradise of the Church.”42

But could the tragedy of Adam and Eve be repeated here, too? It's an uncomfortable question for us. Modern America tells us community is too vital, everyone should feel welcome, come as you are, love means radical inclusion. At a denominational level, let me tell you, I've heard boasting about how many decades it's been since anybody's been treated with any kind of disciplinary measures. Maybe the truth is that we've gotten so desperate to see butts in the pews that we've traded away holiness for consumer satisfaction – a devil's bargain.

Paul, though, tells the Thessalonians that if any Christian doesn't live by what he, as an apostle, teaches, “take note of that person and have nothing to do with him” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). And when he hears of a man in the Corinthian church whose very grave sin is tolerated by the rest, Paul thunders with the voice of God: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you! … When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus, and my spirit is present, with the power of Jesus you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:2-5). 

So “someone who has condemned himself to his own destructive fall... is cast out in exile from the fountains of Paradise.”43 Early Christians said that just as Adam “became an outcast of the garden,” so a Christian “who has believed but has not kept the commandments... has become an outcast of the Church,” and so “no longer receives.”44 As St. Augustine observed, Adam had been, “in a way, excommunicated” from Paradise, and in just the same way “nowadays, in this Paradise which is the Church, people are commonly barred from the visible sacraments of the altar by church discipline.”45 But the Church always emphasized that “the aim of excommunication is healing and not death, correction and not destruction.”46 “When we are judged,” St. Paul says, “we are being disciplined by the Lord so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). That implies that if the Church fails to judge, it risks condemning its members to hell. But those who are disciplined, excluded, can be so freely restored to the Paradise of the Church through repentance and reconciliation!47

But let me end by pointing ahead from here, to what the seer saw in a vision: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the Tree of Life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month … No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:1-3). In the end, in the very end, there is a Last Garden waiting. The cherubim finally step aside with joy. The burning blade backs down. The way is open, never to be shut again (Revelation 21:25). And on that open way, Adam and Eve will at last come home, for, as earlier Christians believed, after being driven out, “those first human beings afterward lived righteously, and for that reason we are right to believe that they were set free from final punishment by the blood of the Lord.”48

There may, horrifyingly, be other people who remain outsiders to this Last Garden: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15). Tragically, that is a choice someone could make: to refuse to be set free, to deny themselves entry. For “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable and false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 21:27). Those who prove to have chosen to return to the defilement of deadly sin, those who will to not repent and be cleansed of it in even their final hour, those who finally display no faith toward the Lamb who bade them follow... this Last Garden can never receive such.

Here, though, is the good news, the very, very, very good news: those who endure in faith, those who enter and remain in Paradise here in hopes of Paradise there, will on the last day be saved to the uttermost, confirmed in perfect righteousness: “I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses,” God promised (Ezekiel 36:29). The Last Garden looms ahead, and those who dwell in it have no need for any punishment, they are too pure to need purged, their humility transcends all restrictions, they need no further medicine, and their mission will at last be complete. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and that they may enter [the garden] by the gates” (Revelation 22:14)! With Adam and Eve and all the saints, they shall never, no, never, no, never be driven out from the Eternal Garden of the LORD our Light! Thanks be to God for an undying hope, that our homesickness now shall be answered by an immortal homecoming ahead! Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2024


What a beautiful creation; what a marvelous Creator! Last year, we took our time, as Genesis takes its sweet time, luxuriating in the time and attention and care God lavishes on building up each of the realms and features of his creation: the light, the sky, the sea, the earth, the plants, the creatures of the sea, the creatures of the land and the air. All of these things, as he summons them forth, he pronounces 'good,' calls them suitable for his holy purposes. But that doesn't mean he sees them as perfected. No, for that, he introduces one final kind of creature – his own image, stamped into creation on these dusty primates called human beings. This human creature is made so much like the rest of the creatures, called forth from the same stuff, but also made so much unlike the others, with a spiritual soul and mighty mind and heart able to respond knowingly, willingly, to a God of Love.

And to this human creature, the LORD God entrusts a daring mission. Transplanted into God's garden, they're there to reflect him as the priests and rulers of the earthly creation around them. All these creatures – humans are to gather up their implicit praise and give it voice. All these creatures – humans are to subdue their territory, have dominion over them, keep the peace among them and lead them onward. Humans are to cultivate the garden, keep it flourishing and sacred; and as the humans are fruitful and multiply, they're to make the garden itself fruitful and multiply it, stretching its holy goodness across the land and sea and somehow even to the skies. This is what human life is here for: to make a very good creation perfect, leading the whole creation – the earth, maybe the universe – on a voyage into God, until every created thing fully achieves its destiny in him.

But then we turn the page. And we don't at all do what it is we're here for. In this scene of a serpent whispering doubt and defiance, in this glimpse of human eyes lawlessly enraptured by the forbidden, in this final united act of detaching the created good from the love of its Creator-Goodness, sin has come on the scene – sin, the missing of the mark, the voiding of the purpose, the betrayal of the mission. And in its tow, sin leads a parade of creation's cheapening. Shame is born in us, and guilt, and fear, and defensiveness (Genesis 3:1-10). In our turning away from the God of Love, we humans willingly gave up many of the added gifts God had given us as a garment, gifts like our original righteousness with which we'd walked before our Maker. We stripped off our graciously given glory, heedless what we ripped and tore in this frantic process of denuding ourselves.

And without these, we find our inner and outer self disrupted, tainted, taken over by sin.1 Jesus tells us that “everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34), because, as his apostle Peter adds, “whatever someone has been subdued by, to that he is also enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). And man and woman prove it by how they react to the presence of the God whose images they are, as we heard last Sunday: rather than repent and expose their shame and guilt and fear and defensiveness to the healing storm of God's love, they justify themselves at the expense of each other, of creation, even blaming God for their own wrongs (Genesis 3:11-13).

In response, the LORD God – a God of justice as well as of mercy – is obviously going to respond. The chain of blame, as Genesis tells it, went like this: God spoke to the man (Genesis 3:9-11), who blamed the woman (Genesis 3:12); then he spoke to the woman, and she blamed the snake (Genesis 3:13); and the snake had zero right to speak and nothing to say before the awesome face of the LORD God. So God gives his responses, his judgments, working his way back out from there: first a word of judgment addressed to the snake (Genesis 3:14-15), then a brief word of judgment addressed to the woman (Genesis 3:16), and finally a longer word of judgment addressed to the man, both as a man and as 'the human being' (Genesis 3:17-19).

In these responses God gives, for the very first time in the Bible, a new word appears which is going to haunt us from here on out: 'curse.' In the world Genesis was written in, curses were a familiar part of life, “petitions to the divine world to render judgment and execute harm.”2 And people knew there were no curses more powerful or fast-acting than those uttered by a god; nothing was more distorting, disfiguring, dissolving, destroying.3 Up until now, God has only ever blessed: good, upbuilding, life-giving words. But now Love himself curses.

The Apostle Paul, looking back on what he reads here, has some big observations that take us deeper and higher than the surface, than the letter. Obviously, if human beings, as bearers of God's image, had a responsibility – a sacred calling – to lead creation into a glorious future, then those same human beings becoming 'slaves of sin' would have radical repercussions for that mission.4 Creation's destiny could only come through us, and if we're missing the mark, then the entire creation – the universe, one and all – is missing the mark. Therefore, St. Paul writes, “creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). With us losing the grace to exercise dominion God's way, creation is handed over to a new master: Futility – pointlessness, emptiness, an inability to reach the goal.5 The creation train that had been hurtling toward its heavenly goal has lost steam. Now it's coasting, aimlessly adrift, spinning around in circles.6 Meandering, the creation has fallen back on its merely natural condition, on things that were meant to be only a temporary stage. The entire creation is developmentally delayed.

St. Paul describes it another way, too: “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21). That is, since creation's human caretakers and cultivators are now 'slaves to sin' – or, in St. Peter's words, “slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19) – now creation itself is enslaved to that same power of sin and corruption. Every creature that exists in this natural world is a slave now to corruption, to decay, to decomposition, to falling apart. Now, obviously, the fact of created things being broken down didn't begin at the curse. When the man or woman plucked a fruit off one of the lawful trees in the garden, and they took a bite, the living cells in that fruit would be broken down by their digestive processes – that was the whole point.7 So that's not what's new. What's happened here is that now creation is in slavery to this disorder, decomposition, and dispersal – a march toward corruption and chaos.

And St. Paul's third assessment is that “the whole creation has been groaning” (Romans 8:22). The creation all around us does not feel comfortable and at peace with its situation! It implicitly knows that this isn't all it was made for. Just as there's a God-shaped hole in our hearts, so there's a God-shaped hole in creation's heart. And it protests against the chains that bind it to aimlessness. Creation groans under the burden it carries. Creation is pained by being stuck at a rough-and-raw stage it should have moved past. Creation is frustrated by the curse.

Back in Genesis, the first word of that curse is the curse spoken to the snake. Earlier, we'd read that the snake was “cunning above every beast of the field which the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1). Now, using a word that sounds almost the same, God punningly pronounces the snake cursed above all the livestock and above every beast of the field” (Genesis 3:14). The snake, which once excelled its animal peers in sly cleverness, now excels those same peers in bitter cursedness. And so the curse “implicitly affects all animals.”8 We'll find later that the ground, too, is cursed (Genesis 3:17). Animate and inanimate creation is impacted by the curse; and as a result, there's an estrangement there – human and animal and vegetable and mineral all implicitly resentful and alienated from each other, all hurting and confused by the judgment occasioned by human sin (Isaiah 24:5-6; Hosea 4:3). There's a new animosity, an uncooperativeness. As St. John of Damascus put it, “the creation that had been subject to the ruler appointed by the Creator” – that's us – “rose up in rebellion.”9

Then there are the words God speaks to the woman and to the man, both of which revolve around the same odd Hebrew word, 'itssabon. It's the physical and emotional toll of what's difficult, exhausting, unpleasant.10 It's a sorrow that combines agony and anguish. God gives us something to cry about. And this curse attaches to exactly those functions most essential for human life to go on, in one life or generation to generation.11

What does God say, after all, to the man? That this toll, this agony and anguish, will now attach to what Israel saw as the traditional male role: providing for himself and his family. “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). Earlier, Genesis told us there was a need for humans “to work the ground” (Genesis 2:5). But now what once was just work – a good and joyful thing – has become “weariness,”12 “difficulty,”13 “grinding labor,”14 “toils and sorrows.”15 Work was meant to be enjoyable, rejuvenating, fun; but now the ground resists us with its firmness, demanding large investments of difficult effort – “the sweat of your nose” – to cultivate the creation (Genesis 3:19). This doesn't just apply to manual labor, either. St. Augustine pointed out that this 'sweat' “signified labor in general, from which no human being is exempt, though some work at hard tasks while others work with worrisome cares; to the same labor, there belong also the studies of any who learn.” Some people, he thought, “work harder with their minds than the poor with their bodies.”16 Physical or mental, work is often drudgery, a slog, a daily grind.

And what are we working for? Earlier, in the garden, we're imagined as nourished by fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs that grow wild (Genesis 1:29; 2:16) – a lifestyle sustained by foraging and gathering the abundance of a world bursting with bounty, allowing us to devote most of our strength to mission. But now, without toil, no food: “You shall eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your nose you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:18-19). For some early Christians, this transition into agriculture symbolized our guilt: from standing upright plucking fruit, now we're bowed low to the earth, so “the position of man's body confirmed the guilt of his conscience.”17

Yet “thorns and thistles shall it bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:18). That last word, 'for you,' is the emphasis here: painful plants and proliferating weeds cropping up where we're working. These are the kinds of plants that tend to take over in soil that's been depleted and degraded by human mismanagement.18 And sometimes, that's all we get: “Not only will work be painful and difficult, it sometimes also will come up empty and end in futility.”19 Or, as a prophet put it: “They have sown wheat but reaped thorns; they have tired themselves out but profited nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13). Fear, failure, futility stalk our labors. This is not what we were made for.

If this sort of agony and anguish attaches to what Israel saw as typical man activities, no less did it apply to the unique work of women. Just as humans were to “work and keep the garden” (Genesis 2:15), we were to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). That's pretty important – an incredible blessing, to gestate and nurture new human life made in the image of God! But now, says God, he's going to multiply the woman's “toil and conception; in pain you shall beget children” (Genesis 3:16). The very start of pregnancy – and its uncertainty – will be overshadowed by sorrows. Pregnancy will be an uncomfortable time, one stalked by anxieties. Childbirth itself will be painful, difficult, risky. Ape babies may be easy, but human babies have such massive brains to squeeze out through an unaccommodating pelvis designed for walking upright that our childbirths are incredibly complicated and challenging.20 And then come further hurts and heartbreaks: “the birth of children and their upbringing and sickness and health and good fortune and misfortune.”21

What's more, God points out to the man in the garden that he'd preferred to live out 'one flesh' with his wife over being 'one spirit' with his God (Genesis 3:17); therefore, this one flesh, already divided against itself in their blame game, is going to be further poisoned; instead of willingly following each other's voices, now they'll treat each other like ventriloquist dummies, projecting their own voices onto the other, or as mute audiences to be lectured.22 A “battle of the sexes” begins, as man and woman will “no longer face the world as 'one flesh,'” but instead will present a divided front, busying themselves in misunderstanding and contradicting each other.23

Your desire shall be toward your man,” God tells the woman, “and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). In this, we find the woman not only desiring the man with a positive longing, driven to him for survival and satisfaction, but also craving to domesticate and dominate him; and he, in turn, aims to subjugate her, to exploit her, to put her in her place.24 Each in their own way, they're locked into a competition for control.25 This brings a “dynamic of domination” into what was meant to be equal.26 Now, just as the man taken from the ground is being drawn back to and subjected to the ground, the tendency will be for the woman, pictured as taken from the man, to be drawn back to and subjected to the man.27 And through history, that's exactly what we've seen: the frequent sidelining of women, who have often been ignored, condescended to, horribly mistreated, abused.

The world described in the curses is a world where snakes slither underfoot, where getting pregnancy can be hard and giving birth hurts, where food comes from farming through men's hard work, where men put women down, where things fall apart – in short, the world of ancient Israel.28 Israel may have heard the curse explained in terms they could understand from their own experience, but we can still understand a world of sorrow, of anxiety and heartbreak, of mistakes and misunderstanding, confusion and conflict, power plays and resentments, sweat and fear and overwork, a world where things still fall apart. Work, home, family, society – the lesson is that what we call 'normal life' now is not what God originally wanted for us. It's the curse.

And that curse culminates in dissolution, decomposition – death. Humans will work and sweat and eat “until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken: for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). If you attended an Ash Wednesday service – oh, I hope you did – you probably heard those fateful words with which these curses conclude. Dissolving something back into its source ingredients was one of the most powerful effects a divine curse could have.29 And so it is with us: dust, loosely held together; our feeble soul can't hold on forever. God's intention was, by his grace, to make us imperishable, because God's image ought not break down, “God did not make death.”30 Yet we ourselves “invited death, considered it a friend, pined for it, and made a covenant with it.”31 And so “you decompose into the material you were formed from.”32 That's natural for us, but that doesn't make it right, that doesn't make it God's plan.33

As the bishop St. Cyprian reminds us, “we are all bound and confined by the bond of this sentence until, having paid the debt of death, we leave this world. We must be in sorrow and lamentation all the days of our life, and we must eat our bread with sweat and labor.”34 Isn't that what Lent tells us, too? Lent calls us, jolts us, back to that sorrow and lamentation which comes so unnaturally to a culture obsessed with happiness above all else. In Lent, we're urged to look at the thorns and thistles, at our agony and our anguish; to admit our curse with pained hearts; to humble ourselves before our Maker; to repent in dust and ashes; to toil vigorously against our sins.

In the context of all this, St. Paul offers us hope. He makes clear that when God issued these curses, his words acknowledged creation was on the wrong track and judged it, but he did so with every plan to work with sinful humanity to ultimately usher everything back on the right track through us.35 God “subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). For into this cursed creation, God sent his perfect Son to be the Human whom Adam and Eve failed to be. This Last Adam, by sharing in a cursed creation's sufferings, is steering it to the heavenly goal it was meant for. The Last Adam adopted the appearance of a slave, serving humanity to remake us in a less dusty image (Philippians 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:49). He at last accepted the curse onto himself, for our sake and for all creation, to redeem all things from their curse (Galatians 3:13). He became “obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8), but “it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). God did not, would not, could not allow his Son to become a slave of decay (Acts 2:31). Instead, God gave the Last Adam resurrection and exaltation, “having untied the birth-pangs of death” (Acts 2:24).

And God has promised that the Last Adam will, in the end, demolish Death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). For “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14). We who know the final force of the curse, that from dust we came and so to dust we all return, have a promise that dust and ashes are not our final fate. Even the rabbis added a promise: “You are dust, and to dust you are to return, but from the dust you are to arise again to give an account and a reckoning of all that you have done.”36 And so we are “dissolved only for the time which God has set for each. … As seeds sown in the ground, we do not perish when we are dissolved, but as sown we shall rise again, death having been destroyed by the grace of the Savior.”37 God does not send us a Lent without an Easter in store at the end of it!

And so these very bodies that dissolve to dust will serve as the seeds from which God will grow what we were meant to become; we'll be raised in “incorruption,” in bold defiance of corruption's present subjection of the cursed creation (1 Corinthians 15:42). Creation itself, St. Paul says, shares our wait for “the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:23-24). And when we are revealed in resurrection glory, restored as the priests and rulers of creation we were meant to be, then the whole creation will be set free, liberated in the fullest sense of the word, to become everything creation was meant to be. So yes, “the creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19), “for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pangs of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). Only then will the birth come, the new heavens, the new earth, where all toil and pain, all agony and anguish, all death and decay will have “passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And we will for all eternity lead every creature in one exuberant shout of triumph: “Our God turned the curse into a blessing!” (Nehemiah 13:2). “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Shame and the Blame Game

In these past couple weeks, we've watched as human history derailed from the path to a blissful destiny, only to become a slow-motion trainwreck. Into paradise slithered a serpent, and Genesis laid out for us the dynamics of deception. Plus, our desires have power to lure and entice our wills. Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life – these add up to a love of the world that competes with love for God, making our hearts contested terrain.

Last week, we left off at the exact moment it went truly awry. Corrupted intellect and perverted will gave birth to evil action. The woman reached out to snap a piece of fruit off of the tree that represented our one lawful limit; she ate what she sacrilegiously stole; she then offered some to the man, and in a shocking twist, he imitated her – 'monkey see, monkey do' was his childish impulse – and ate, totally disregarding what their LORD God had said to them. Now the pair of them were partakers together in this unlawfully assailed tree and its dark sacrament of forbidden knowledge.

And with that, a change took place. The serpent had told them both, “In the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5). And, sure enough, “then their eyes were opened” (Genesis 3:7). But it isn't what the serpent led them to believe. Their new knowledge reveals conflict, confusion, chaos. In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle warns that the more precisely we know a particle's momentum, the less precisely we can know its position. What the serpent failed to mention was that this tree makes us 'knowers of good and evil' only at the expense of becoming unknowers full of uncertainty. Humans no longer have the luxury of just taking the world as it is. Their minds are churning, souring, as badness stares back from every bush.1

The grand insight to which their eyes have been opened is this less-than-heartwarming realization: “they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). Why couldn't they see it before? After all, when the LORD God made humanity, in one sense we were more naked than any of our fellow mammals (Genesis 2:25). But in another sense, the psalmist reminds us that the LORD “made us a little lower than heavenly beings, and crowned us with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). Among Israel's neighbors, divine images – whether idols or kings – were portrayed with the god's glory radiating from their heads; that's what a crown was there to symbolize.2 What the psalmist might be saying is that Adam and Eve's heads were “surrounded with a brilliant, dazzling light which was a physical manifestation” of the LORD God's own glory, thus clothing their nakedness with majesty.3

If so, then now this glory has fled away, their light has died, and they see themselves and each other cracked open and leaking purpose. Hence, for the first time, they see themselves reduced to a bare natural condition, like shaved chimps. Shorn of glory, they see themselves in the naked light of day, where they can really scrutinize themselves for the first time. And so begins the first voyage of self-discovery.4 The trouble is, they actually do 'find themselves.' Now they're self-conscious, subjects of their own sustained but uncertain introspection. They have a new capacity to not just feel good about themselves, but also to feel bad about themselves. What before was innocent nakedness is now shameful baldness, born in loss and defeat and failure.

With this newfound power to judge, we have the ability to judge ourselves faulty and feeble and foolish, to feel a divorce driven between our reality and our requirement.5 And so, at some fundamental level, the human is now alienated from himself, swept up by the discovery of an inner warfare of the flesh against the soul (1 Peter 2:11).6 If a human can judge himself, then surely he can judge and be judged by others. Other humans, even those who are 'one flesh' with you, can see you, judge you, diminish you. It used to be that this total transparency toward each other was a gift; but now it feels like a mugging.7 To be so exposed to another's gaze feels like being defined, captured, enslaved – an existential assault.8

It's not just in their heads, either. To be exposed as naked means to be made powerless and poor; to be stripped of identity, status, honor; to be devalued and degraded in the sight of oneself and others.9 So, thanks to this new knowledge, humans are humiliated by the collapse of their once-lofty dignity. Before, in having nothing but God to their name, they had more than the world could hold; now they know they've lost everything.10 They are, in more ways than one, dis-graced.11 With the loss of grace, guilt and shame have now invaded paradise.

What's worse, each human has just proven to the other that he or she is willing to transgress boundaries – so how can he trust her to respect his boundaries, or how can she trust him to respect hers?12 Even to be naked in nature is to contend with sharp rocks, poison ivy, insects, beasts; how much more being vulnerable to people? “Such is the evil that sin is,” it's said, that “not only does it deprive us of grace from above, but it also casts us into deep shame and abjection, strips us of goods already belonging to us, and deprives us of all confidence.”13

Tragically, the ironic opening of their eyes to their shame was the last action they take as “the both of them.” Now, too ashamed to speak, they begin to work separately but in parallel. “And they sewed...” (Genesis 3:7). It would be easy to miss this, but sewing isn't something people do bare-handed. To sew, you need a needle, don't you? Where's that coming from? This calls for “the first human invention” – and not just any invention, but one that pierces, that pokes holes in God's world.14 A fitting metaphor for what they've done to themselves.

And what they sew together, using I-don't-know-what, are fig leaves they find nearby. Fig leaves, can be over nine inches across, usually have five lobes, and have a sandpaper-rough upside but a soft and hairy underside.15 But, vivid green as they are, once the humans yank them from their tree, they're cut off from life and fruitfulness. They're doomed to decay; everything until then is just running out the clock on rot. Also a disturbingly fitting picture for the state the humans have seized for themselves.

So the humans “sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves girdles” (Genesis 3:7). This is the first time in the Bible the word 'make' has somebody other than God for its object.16 The first human act of making is to make a concealment, a way to disguise the naked truth. In a world of shame, we constantly trade in disguises, trying to gussy up our shortcomings as other than what they are.17 To that end, what we made are girdles, belts (2 Samuel 20:8; Isaiah 3:24). Skimpier than a bathing suit even after today's fashions, such a thing as the sum-total of an outfit barely passes as a token gesture toward either modesty or self-protection. Stitching leaves into a jockstrap – oh, how absolutely godlike!18 It closes us off in a way we were never meant to be, yet we treat it as a natural cost of our begrudging coexistence.

What's more, fig leaves sewn together aren't going to last long; and once they shrivel and decay, nakedness will just reassert itself, the problem once more staring us in the face.19 They must realize they'd have to make a new one every few days, meaning their pitiful attempts to disguise their shortcomings are going to keep occupying monumental amounts of their time and energy.20 And we haven't stopped. How much time and energy does the human race waste in fashioning fig leaves for ourselves, over and over again? What about you and me?

Eventually, they hear “the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the wind of the day” (Genesis 3:8). He regularly came to the garden for fellowship with these creatures who bear his image, and ordinarily this would've thrilled their hearts, a cue to run toward the sound of the LORD.21 But this time their hearts don't thrill. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). In the aftermath, God looks like a threat, a danger, perhaps even an enemy. So they react to his presence with dread, fear, aversion. Rather than open themselves to their Lord's stormy care, rather than hurl themselves into this oncoming hurricane of divine love, rather than submit long enough to let God blow away their guilt and shame, they yearn to get away, to save themselves from the risk of salvation! How foolish. Yet how typical of us.

And so, in the last thing the human pair does as a 'they,' they hide. They seek shelter from their Father God in the midst of the garden's trees, the very same trees he planted for their nourishment and delight and blessing.22 What we see here is an ugly-stupid picture of our desperation to make the world not a site of encounter but a shield of avoidance, to flee deeper and deeper into created things for an impossible escape from their Creator – and seeking “the creature rather than the Creator,” Paul reminds us, is the seed of idolatry (Romans 1:25).

Left to our own devices, we each run and run and run, scouring creation for smaller and smaller places to hide, shriveling ourselves to fit our fears, our restless hearts too caught in their own inertia to ever reclaim rest.23 We'll run to tireless artifice, achievements, accolades. We'll run to sports and games, adventures, amusements. We'll run to affairs of the heart and pleasures of the flesh. We'll run to family and friends. We'll run to politics, to philanthropy, even to religion. Whether we hide from God behind stained glass or at the bottom of a bottle makes little difference in the end. “The farther man withdraws from God, the farther still he desires to withdraw.”24 So we'll run when we're out of steam. We'll run beyond our last breath, run till we're nothing. We'll run all the way to hell to hide, if we have to, despite its patent pointlessness: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

And so now, to that end of calling us to give account, the LORD God speaks, his first recorded words since the commandment. Like the serpent, he asks a question, one meant this time not to manipulate but to give voice to “the cry of a broken heart.”25 He's not come to lecture them, yell at them, denounce them. He's filled with deep concern, like a parent rushing to the side of a collapsed child. His questions are an opportunity, an invitation to confess, to repent, to be forgiven.

Question 1: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). “God knew where Adam was, but Adam didn't.”26 In his effort to hide from God, this man has lost track of himself, of his own place, of his own soul. He's sleepwalked his way to a pit without knowing it. As much as he may now know good and evil, he no longer knows himself. His journey of self-discovery has left him further in the weeds and further in the dark. And he is us. The only cure is self-examination: Where are you? In all our pride, do we even know where we are? Or are we in the dark as to our position? Are we close to God, are we creeping to the margins, or have we strayed even to a far country? Do we present ourselves to him in the open, or is there something we're still hiding our sensitive bits behind? And how is it we got here?27

The man should've shouted, “I'm fallen and need rescue, that's where I am! I'm in sin, I'm in shame, I'm in sorrow, and I hope, O God, I'm in the path of your mercy!” Yes, even still, he could've taken the initiative to nakedly present his lostness to the LORD. But he responds as we do: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). It's just nine short words in Hebrew, “the stiff-armed response of a man trying to barricade himself.”28 This nakedness to which he confesses sums up here everything that now makes him unfit for God's presence, unfit for God's garden, unfit for God's world.

I can almost hear the pain in God's voice when the second question comes: “Who told you that you're naked?” (Genesis 3:11). Who made you feel ashamed of yourself? Who dared ruin your innocence? Who robbed you and left you in dirt and blood and woe? Why are you wallowing in this muck that's so beneath you? Who is it, exactly, who opened up for you this gulf that now gapes between us?29 It wasn't God who created the distance, not God who caused the ruin, not God who authored the shame.

Then follows, hot on its heels, the third question: “From the tree that I commanded you not to eat from, have you eaten?!” (Genesis 3:11). The tone is one of absolute heartbreak, as though born from disbelief: “The one and only thing I said no to, the one thing I banned for your own good... seriously, you did that?!” If God were a man, this is the part where he'd rend his garments, don sackcloth and ashes for us, and wail in lamentation over our choosing sin over his perfect love. And this threefold barrage of questions is, make no mistake, the relentless pursuit of God's love for his prodigal sons and daughters.30 So here God pauses, yielding the floor, making space for us so we can share his shock and sorrow over sin. How much swine-slop do we have to slurp down before we spit sin out? Will we come to our senses and run home to our Father, even if only at the last hour? What will we say?

We reply – we have no choice but to give account – and in this scene, every word the humans utter is... 'true.' But true words don't add up here to a whole truth; they're sewn together like the fig leaves, artfully arranged to obscure.31 What ought to happen is full confession, not just of an act, but of an act as sin. We shouldn't minimize our culpability. Rather, we should own and disown: own up to what we've done (Yes, that happened; yes, I caused it; yes, I am the responsible party), and disown it as an act which was wrong (No, it oughtn't have happened; no, I was not in the right; it's something I'd like to have not done). We ought to embrace God's attitude as ours, ought to take up God's point of view. “No one can be justified from sin unless he has first made confession of his sin,” as sin.32 Then, and only then, can healing begin.

That's not what happens. Before conceding that he ate, the man will rationalize why he ate, claiming all the extenuating circumstances and exculpating factors he can imagine. Earlier, he waxed poetic in celebrating his wife: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh!” (Genesis 2:23). Now that same beloved wife is cast off as a burden and an imposition, a cancer in his bone and in his flesh. It's as if he says: “God, it's her fault! She was so alluring and charming and irresistible; she'd already eaten and seemed fine; we're one flesh, acting as one, so once she'd acted for that one flesh, how could I do anything but follow along? I was peer-pressured by the only peer I've got. So yes, I ate – but I ate because she ate, I ate because she gave. And if she hadn't given, I wouldn't have eaten. So don't look at me, God; look at her! I accuse her!”

As if it weren't enough to begin the stupid trend of men shaming and blaming women for their own failures at self-control, he objects doubly to the gifts he's received: not only the woman's gift to him, but God's gift of the woman to him. “The woman whom you gave to be with me – she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Indirectly, the man blames God for the man's own sin.33 It's like he's insinuating: “She gave me the fruit, but you gave her to me – well, didn't you know women are only trouble? You presented her as my helper, so really, in taking what she gave, wasn't I in a way trusting you blindly, trusting that what you gave me would always be a true help? And if that blew up in my face, then whose fault is that really? So yes, I ate – I ate because you gave me a defective helper, who hurt me with her poisoned gift. I'm a victim of the system! So don't look at me, God; go look in a heavenly mirror!”

God could, at this point, tear through the countless holes in the man's story. Instead, generously, God does turn his attention to the woman, giving her the opportunity to confess that her husband refused. But she rationalizes just as much as he did. She doesn't hit back at the husband who just threw her under the bus – that won't work – but she points the finger at the now-silent snake. “This serpent came along with blasphemies, God, and I had only the best of intentions, to defend your good name! But who prepared me to face a criminal mastermind? I was out of my depth, I hadn't a prayer. I was seduced, corrupted, deceived, tricked, tempted. How could I win? My decisions were all downstream from these alien thoughts sown in my mind like tares among the wheat. So I plead an insanity defense. Yes, I ate – I ate because this creature of yours cornered me, blinded me, turned my thinking upside-down. If he hadn't deceived me dizzy, I wouldn't have eaten. The devil made me do it! Don't look at me, God, look at him!”

Both their answers are off-base. But are they really any different than what we constantly do, to God and to others? We, too, evade questions. We, too, make excuses. We, too, pass the buck. We, too, play the blame game. Out of an instinctual awareness of our naked vulnerability, most of us find it a lot more comfortable to try to justify ourselves rather than step into the light with our guilt and shame and weakness. So our pride incessantly “tries to shift its own wrongful act to another” – another person, another cause, another situation, another explanation.34 “The desperate human need for self-justification,” it's been said, “blossomed instantaneously and never has left us, except with divine treatment. Perhaps more than any other perverse human 'need,' this one splinters relationships, often rendering them (absent divine grace) beyond the possibility of repair.”35 And so, rather than admit our shame, we accept separation from ourselves, separation from each other, separation from God.36

What we've had in today's passage is a painfully cutting study of what sin is like from the inside: guilt, shame, fear, avoidance, excuses, accusations – anything but what's good for us. This “new fear and tension,” this turn from mutual cherishing to mutual blaming, this spiteful aversion to God, adds up to this truth: sin yields, every time, a “reduced quality of human life.”37 There's only one cure for that alienation, and one of the studies I read sums it up beautifully: “As the light of God's word reveals our transgressions and we sense greater depths of our shame, we may feel overwhelmed. But your sin does not overwhelm Christ. … The very reasons you think he should depart are the very reasons he tells you to come.”38 Ain't that the truth!

I'll let the Apostle John, then, have the last word: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is Love! And whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:15-16). “Abide in him so that, when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). “By this is love perfected in us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:17-18). Amen.