15 April 2010

Freedom and Its Obligations

If ever there were a free man, Adam was he. And all he and his wife had to do was exercise that freedom to the glory of God. But somewhere along the line, disobedience seemed like a viable option. Scripture isn’t exactly clear how and when sin crept into the minds of that first couple. All we see is Eve suddenly giving a greater value to the tree, its fruit, and wisdom—over against God’s word. This was not a simple grasp at more information, as if mere “knowledge” was lacking in them both. Rather, this was a power-grab at what the potential of greater knowledge might bring—autonomy, or freedom from the Creator’s way. All too ironically, Eve decides this is “good” (Gen. 3:6); now she is the one who, like the Creator in Genesis 1, judges what is good. The only difference (and it’s a big one) is that what God calls good is that which enhances the life of his creation. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, think that what is good is that which serves their new purpose—to make themselves somehow greater than they already are. After all, it was their “right”; and what kind of God would deny them their rights? It is no wonder that millennia later the prophet Malachi said that God grows weary of those scoundrels who say, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” (2:17).

It is just like us to do the same thing when we enter this world. For when we enter this world, we carry with us the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of Adam. Our five senses are captivated with success (usually defined in monetary terms), with gratifying every want, with making ourselves somehow greater than the image bearers we were created to be. It is as if we were the one horse in the race facing backwards at the starting line-up. Upon the crack of the gun—we’re off!—but in the opposite direction.

We love ourselves so very much; after all, we do good all the time (never mind that we are the ones who have decided what is “good”). Narcissism is systemic in these United States, as seen in the way we’ve morphed our economy into a giant ball of self-service—from sex, to envy, to anger, to power—if we want it, we can get it. Advertisers know this, and thus are all-too willing to carefully combine any product with images of personal fulfillment. One might even call the serpent’s conversation with Eve in Genesis 3 the first prime-time commercial.

This thinking, that we somehow deserve better and that we’ve got the right to go get it, goes all the way back to the garden. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good . . . she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6). Now, they were not saying it was their "legal" right to have open eyes or to know, like God, good and evil (see 3:5); rather, they were using their God-given reason to claim an abstract right, which was, in effect, an attempt to debunk his authority and shrug-off their obligation to him.

What the serpent did was infect the minds of Adam and Eve with the notion that they had the right to grasp at the fruit. In fact, the snake did the same thing the tempter attempted to do to Jesus in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:1–11).

To Adam and Eve, the serpent offered something other than the word of God; Jesus would have none of it—except God’s word (vv. 3–4). The serpent dared them to test the Lord God, and they did, knowing full well that he promised death if they ate of the tree. Jesus, on the other hand, would not throw himself wantonly toward death, thereby testing God’s promises (v. 7). The serpent lifted Adam and Eve up to the highest heights when it showed them their supposed “rights.” From that view, they saw a kingdom without constraints, and they saw themselves as autonomous royalty, worthy of worship. To the complete contrary, Jesus rebuked the tempter when he was shown all the kingdoms of the world (and if anyone had the legal right or deed to them, it was he). But he knew what he was there to do: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!” (v. 10). Adam and Eve apparently didn’t want this obligation, since it got in the way of their own personal fulfillment.

Seventeenth-century poet and pamphleteer, John Milton, writer of Paradise Lost, knew what it would take to undo what Adam and Eve had done. Being discontented with the unfinished story of a paradise lost, Milton went on to write the much shorter Paradise Regained. Yet he covered only the temptation of Jesus by Satan, because, from a biblical perspective, it was through Jesus’ overcoming the tempter that the stage was set for “the Son of the Most High” to begin His “glorious work” (Book 4, ll. 633–34). Milton writes that Jesus “hast avenged supplanted Adam, and by vanquishing temptation, has regained lost Paradise” (ll. 607–9). The greater Adam has come and done what only the Messiah could do, namely, found a “fairer Paradise . . . for Adam and his chosen sons” (ll. 613–14). He has given what God always wanted—love, adoration, and obedience. Of course, God wants this from us too. And we are truly able—if and only if we are in the Son, that is, enabled by grace alone through the work of the Holy Spirit to thwart the tempter just as he did. In this way, we experience a freedom unlike Adam’s; and in the end, we are more free, because we have been chained to God through Christ.

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 30.2 (February 2006): 23–24


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