Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, “I’m finding myself,” or “I’m searching for my true self.” This search for one’s identity seems to begin in the teen years and continues into retirement. I suppose this journey of self-discovery dates back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden where humanity lost sight of who they are in relation to God.
The story, found in the third chapter of Genesis, is not always viewed from the most accurate perspective. The book of Genesis begins with God creating the universe and declaring it “very good.” Then in chapter three, Adam and Eve disobey and are expelled from the garden. While it’s not hard to understand that doing the opposite of what is good can be bad for you, there’s more to the story than the one that many tell of an angry God who doles out punishment commensurate with the crime.
The idea that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden is about an angry God who cannot allow himself to be stained by being in the presence of sin is false. Were it true, we’d have to toss out the Bible, because it tells of a God who first dwelt in the midst of his sinful people Israel, then sent his Son to live among sinners as their friend. Biblical language that speaks of God as being “separate from sinners” is metaphorical, representing the fact that God does not approve of evil. Rather than separating himself from sinners, God sent his Son right into the vortex of our sinful condition.
It is fundamentally wrong to think of God as a cosmic sheriff who, in order to uphold his justice, waits for Adam and Eve to violate his law. But if that’s not the way God is, why did he command Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why did he then bar Adam and Eve from reentering the garden after they disobeyed? We understand only when we rid ourselves of faulty perspectives and read the story from a Christ-centered perspective, understanding that it is part of the larger story of God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation brought about by his Son.
From that viewpoint, we see that Adam and Eve were created with a distinct identity—belonging to God and bearing his image. Humanity was created to live in community with God, in daily communication with him. Adam and Eve were created to be God’s co-regents over the garden. To borrow a modern idiom, “They had it made in the shade.”
But Adam and Eve lost sight of that identity and were deceived into thinking they had to figure things out on their own. They believed the lie that if they did what God warned them not to do—eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—they would actually become like God, deciding what was good and what was evil. They began to wonder what else God was keeping from them. They began to distrust God and instead trust their own judgments. It seemed to them that if they were going to be truly free, like God, they couldn’t depend upon God. He only told them about good and how to experience it—not about evil. They reasoned that they could only be free by getting to know both good and evil through their own experience and by deciding for themselves how to conduct their lives.
The results were, of course, disastrous. As one author noted, Adam and Eve “dissed” themselves. Their thinking became filled with dis-honor, dis-turbance, dis-trust, dis-grace, dis-repute, dis-belief and dis-respect. Not being God, they did not have the capacity to discern the difference between all good and evil. Even worse, they cut themselves off from a trusting relationship with God. As a consequence, all humanity has suffered: “…Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12).
The story continues in Genesis: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:22-24). In disobeying God, Adam and Eve gained some knowledge but lost far more. In particular, they lost the knowledge of who they were in relation to God. They lost their true identity. They now had the task of discerning right from wrong but were not prepared to handle that responsibility. As God had warned, their distrustful disobedience brought its own inherent consequence or penalty—the price for pursuing the knowledge of evil was death.
An important truth that we should not miss in this narrative is that God’s action to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to the garden of Eden was not punishment. Rather, it was protection. Had they returned and eaten from the tree of life, they would have lived forever in their fallen condition. God loved them too much to allow that to happen.
Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey did not surprise God. He foreknew what they would do. And, using a modern expression, he “already had it covered.” The ransom was paid, the lamb was slain “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20, ESV; Revelation 13:8, ESV). God’s plan already included restoration and redemption. There was a prophetic element in what God did to clothe Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the garden: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). This was not the first time animals would be sacrificed to provide a covering for sin. Like Israel’s animal sacrifices, this act pointed to the second Adam who would cover the sins of the whole world.
Clothing Adam and Eve and banning them from the garden were acts of God’s love and grace. He was protecting them—showing them mercy—when they didn’t know they needed it. Sadly, in the darkness of their misunderstanding, they probably left Eden wrongly believing that God was angry with them, punishing them for wrongdoing. This misunderstanding was the result of them not knowing their true identity, not understanding that they were God’s beloved children. As a result, they went on a wrong-headed search for identity—attempting to find it through self-effort, thus putting themselves on a path of self-justification. Notice the blame-shame game that went on between Adam and Eve when God found them and attempted to give them an opportunity to confess. That fruitless search for self-identity continues today as people try to “find themselves.”
Losing all sense of their true identity was bad news for Adam and Eve and for all humanity after them. But there is good news—Jesus came to restore, redeem and reconcile us, by telling us who he is and who we are in him. We no longer have to search for our true identity. It is restored and given to us as a free gift. We are made in the image of God, we have been reconciled to him in his Son Jesus Christ, and we belong to him once again. We now are called to share in God’s own love and life—to live as his beloved children in the presence and power of his Spirit. “I once was lost but now am found,” and I am looking no further.
P.S. I came across an excellent video from Volkswagen recently. I wish every teen and the many adults who text and drive would view it. You’ll find it at http://youtu.be/JHixeIr_6BM.
For another post on the topic of our true identity, see the post at https://update.gci.org/2014/10/our-true-identity-and-significance/.