Nothing effects our ability to approach and draw nearer to God quite like our image of God. The way we conceive of our God – as hostile or loving, on our team or the giant task master in the sky, as judge or defender – our personal experience and understanding of God effects our whole life. It determines our happiness, our sense of purpose, and our ability to love others.
Studies show that in a very real and concrete way, we become the God we know. If we know a merciful and loving God, we mirror those traits. If we know a warrior God, we become war-like. If we know a stern, judgmental God, we become judgmental. If our God is petty and over-scrupulous, so we too become petty and over-scrupulous. (Limms)
Fr. John Powell in his book The Christian Vision tells the story of a man who comes home drunk one night only to observe a thirty-five foot snake on his lawn. He becomes so afraid that he gets a hoe from the garage and frantically chops it up. The next morning he discovers, to his immense humiliation, that he has chopped his garden hose into pieces. This story highlights how the beginning of behavior is perception. If you see a hose as a snake, then – to you – it is a snake. Perception, whether true or not, matters.
For many of us, our first image of God was painted for us in our childhood when we heard the story of Adam and Eve and how God punished them for their failure to follow certain rules on how to behave. We have been taught that their disobedience caused a fracture in the relationship between God and humanity. On the surface, it’s a not-so-subtle tale about about what rules we need to follow in order for our relationship with God to be peaceful one. (Bolz-Weber)
However, most theologians tell us that this is a rather shallow understanding of the origin story of humanity and the complex reality of sin. They suggest that we need to broaden our vision of sin is as anything and everything that alienates us from God or one another – anything that diminishes our capacity for a relationship – anything that separates or isolates us. So what is it that seperates Adam and Eve from God in the garden – and continues to keep humankind distant from God?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to us “If you make my word your home you will be my disciples, you will learn the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32)
Now we Americans (Westerners) usually conceive of truth as something intellectual; a measurable set of beliefs or facts to which we give assent. But the Hebrew understanding in our scriptures is much more nuanced and profound. Truth is a much richer concept than simply “telling the truth,” or having an intellectual factoid.
Fr. Peter VanBreeman in his classic book As Bread that is Broken tells us that the word EMETH Is a Hebrew word which until recently was considered synonymous with the Latin word for TRUTH (Veritas) but it is better translated as FIDELITY. So the verse “You will know the TRUTH and the TRUTH will set you free” is really better translated as “You shall know God’s fidelity and God’s fidelity will set you free.” It’s not objective knowledge about what is right and wrong and how well we behave but rather truth is telling us something about God’s nature and essence. What saves us is our confidence in the truth about the reliability and lavishness of God’s love. “Knowing the “truth” is knowing and trusting in God’s merciful way.
For the Hebrew people TRUTH is a word related to the very foundation and overall meaning of life. The Jewish person’s life, his or her whole existence is rooted in this EMETH (and, of course Jesus and all his first disciples were Jewish).
So the real damage to the relationship between Adam and Eve and God wasn’t so much about breaking the rules as much as it was in allowing themselves to believe lies about God and about themselves. Where Adam and Eve went wrong was they were no sooner created in love than they were tempted to mistrust that love. The serpent doesn’t so much spark a greedy desire to be like God but rather suggests to Adam and Eve that God may not be trustworthy. The serpent tells them that God hasn’t told them the truth about the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that it’s really good to eat they won’t die but rather their eyes will be opened in a ways they can’t even imagine. So they begin to wonder if what else God is keeping frrom them. They think “Huh, maybe God is not reliable…and if God is not reliable then we had better become self-reliant.”
Richard Gaillardetz says that nakedness in this text isn’t about Adam and Eve being doe-eyed, lily white and innocent, but rather rather nakedness is a powerful metaphor for vulnerability. Adam and Eve were completely open to God and one another in the garden. Transparent. Trusting. True to their design. So when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit – it’s like taking one giant step back from this intimacy and trust. The fig leaf, or our clothing, is our mask, our barrier, our way of packaging and presenting ourselves that somehow hides or shields the real “us.” A metaphor for all that keeps us separate and hidden.
With the exception of the young hard bodies among us, we all know that being naked before another (with all the glaring effects of gravity, scars and stretch marks) is the pinnacle of vulnerability, right? To be naked is to be seen for who I really am; to be seen without disguise.
You can almost hear Grandpa Obie sitting around the campfire when his young grandson asks “So, where did humans come from? And why do we suffer?” And Grandpa Obadiah responds, “Weeellll, let me tell you a little story. There was this man named Adam (The Hebrew word for Adam can be translated as man, earth, or soil) and a gal named Eve (which means life, or “to live”) and he tells his little grandson about how Eve was tricked by the serpent (an ancient symbol of evil power and chaos, as well as a symbol of fertility) and convinced Adam to ‘eat of the forbidden fruit’ she offered him…” and so on and and so forth. The beauty of this origin story is that it works on so many levels – simple enough to share with a child but also containing very deep and somewhat salty adult truths about human nature.
So sin is always something that tempts us to hide or betray our truest identity. Being holy simply means being who we are; being who we were created to be. When Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert, the aim is to get Jesus to mistrust God’s care. The evil one says “You’ve been here for 40 days (which in first century parlance simply meant ‘a long time’) with no food. After all this time do you really think that God is going to provide for you? You better change that stone to bread because I think you have misplaced your trust. Why would God leave you hungry like this?” The significance here is that unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus does not fold to temptation. He grabs onto his identity with both hands (confirmed at his baptism as God’s beloved son) and holds on for dear life. Jesus stakes his life and his whole ministry on the foundational truth of God’s fidelity and trustworthiness.
Rev. Nancy Dilliplane points out a great connection with these biblical narratives and Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful book A Wrinkle in Time where the heroine Meg has gone a long journey alone to rescue her little brother who is being held captive by the powers of darkness on a distant planet. The dark force is doing its best to imprison her too, by playing on her insecurities; tempting her to mistrust that she is loved. Tempting her to believe that her friends and family have lied to her.
The darkness tries to convince Meg that Mrs. Whatsit – one of a Trinity of spiritual beings who has enlisted Meg in the fight against the darkness – has lied to her as well. The darkness whispers to her “Mrs. Whatsit hates you…” and suddenly Meg remembers just one trustworthy fact: Mrs. Whatsit loves her. She may not be sure of much else in this world, but she knows this and it is something that she can hold onto (and it shows the darkness for the liar that it is). And so Meg screams against the consuming darkness “Mrs. Whatsit loves me!” and it is Meg’s faith and trust in this love that enables her to break free and to rescue her little brother as well.
Jesus is doing the same exact same thing in the desert. In the face of the devil’s insistent temptation to mistrust God’s love, Jesus gives of defiant “NO! I belong to God and God is trustworthy.” So much in our lives lie to us about who we are and tell us that we are not lovable; that we are not enough. Jesus here provides a clear example of protest and trust in God’s fidelity for us to follow.
Adam, Eve and Jesus weren’t simply tempted to do something that God forbid. They were tempted to forget who they were. And whose they were.
Paul Tillich defines faith as the courage to accept acceptance, but we can’t draw near to a God we don’t trust. The deepest truth of our life is the fidelity of God. Even when we find ourselves in dark times, God never abandons us. Jesus said if we courageously hold tight to this truth of God’s love and faithfulness, it is the key to everything. It is THE truth that will set us free.