“‘No! You will certainly not die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Okay, I give. What on earth does this have to do with joy? Were you asking that as I started reading? I mean, on its face, this passage is about the entrance of sin into the world. There’s nothing particularly joyful about that. So, why are we reading this passage this morning on the second day of our weeklong reflection on this third virtue of Advent? Because it tells us a whole lot about joy. Let’s talk about it.
When God created the world and everything in it, He created it good. It was perfect in every way. Nothing was out of place. Relationships were right. It was all just as He designed it to be. It was a gleaming reflection of His own goodness and glory. Then He made us and it got even better. The refrain throughout the creation song of Genesis 1 is that it was good. When God made you and me He paused and said, “It is very good.” We were the acme of it all. We were the only creatures created in His very image. We were created to be His representatives on earth, stewarding what He made, and enjoying it all to the fullest. Joy pervaded the movement of every molecule.
Then a serpent slithered into the Garden.
Now, I’m not going to give any attention here to the presence of the serpent except to say three things. First, this kind of human-animal interaction, especially when the animal was the embodiment of some spiritual being was not at all unheard of in ancient stories. That a serpent would be the vehicle for this interaction would have been taken as a matter of course by the original audience. In other words, this interaction fit the expectations of its originally intended audience and we shouldn’t cast doubt on it for that reason. Second, whether or not there was a literal talking snake in the Garden of Eden has no bearing on the reality of Jesus’ rising from the dead on the third day and thus is not a legitimate objection to the veracity of the Christian faith. Our faith hinges on the empty tomb, not a talking snake. Third, Jesus accepted the creation story at face value. If He did, I’m going to go with what the guy who predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection believed.
When God put people in the Garden of Eden, we were to be its caretakers. We were to manage things as His representatives, living each day enjoying the fruits–literal and figurative–of a right relationship with Him. The whole of the Garden was ours to enjoy save one single piece of it. We were not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden. Other than that, the rest was ours. And for some amount of time, things were good. How long this lasted, we don’t know and guessing won’t do us any good.
Then a serpent slithered into the Garden.
The serpent didn’t do anything particularly eye-catching at first. It simply slithered up to the woman and asked a question. But this was a question designed to plant the seed of an idea. Did God really say?… The idea was that maybe God wasn’t as good as He had represented Himself to be to them. Oh, the serpent didn’t make that charge directly. But the rest of the question was framed in such a way as to make it look like God was being stingy with them. Did God really say, “You can’t eat from any tree in the garden?” Of course He hadn’t said that, but that was the point. By framing the question this way, the serpent successfully got the woman to shift her focus from gratitude for all that God had given them to resentment at the one thing He hadn’t.
The woman responded like this: “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden.” And maybe I’m just reading into this, but do you hear the lackluster tone of her voice? It’s like she’s realizing for the first time that while they were able to enjoy the fruit from the trees, there was one they couldn’t enjoy because God had said no. Why had God done that anyway? She finished correcting the serpent, but then added just a little something extra to God’s original command: “But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.'”
Now, as a matter of fact, God hadn’t said anything that we know of about not touching it. Perhaps the man had added this extra part when he relayed the command to the woman so she didn’t reach and grab some fruit from it by accident. After all, if you can’t touch it, you certainly can’t eat from it. However this extra bit got added, the additional human fencing around God’s original command created the fertile ground for a bit of resentment and longing to grow once the serpent planted its seed.
For its part, the serpent continued to spin the lie. “No! You will certainly not die. . .In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Once again, we see truth woven subtly into the lie such that it’s a little hard to tell where one bleeds into the other. But once this seed had been planted in the now fertile soil of the woman’s heart and mind, it started to grow. The curiosity and resentment and pride began to build until she finally reached out and took hold of the fruit–violating her own conscience–and ate it–violating God’s command. She quickly shared some with the man who promptly followed suit.
That’s all what happened here, but what does it have to do with joy? Let me see if I can explain it. Playing a bit on the conflation of joy and happiness our culture proclaims to us, we are often led to believe that we will be happiest when we are the most free. What I mean is this: We believe we will be the most content with our lives when we are least governed by the things and people around us. When we are able to do what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want, for as long as we want, as often as we want, we will be happy. That freedom is where the secret to enjoying our lives to the fullest really lies. Now, we’re not told this anywhere outright, but like the serpent’s yarn, it is woven into the very fabric of our culture such that we learn it without even realizing what has been planted in our hearts and minds. The less accountable we are, the more able we are to pursue our heart’s desire without external interference, the more joyful our lives will be.
That’s what was going on in this scene. The woman wanted to be like God. What she forgot in the moment was that she was already the most like God creature in the entire universe. No one and nothing–save the man–was more like God than she already was. The only way she could become more like God than she was would have been to become God Himself. And that’s the rub. She–and the man too, so they didn’t want to be like God so much as they wanted to be God. They wanted to set the terms for what they could and couldn’t eat. They wanted to be able to do what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted, where they wanted, for as long as they wanted, as often as they wanted, and they didn’t want anyone to tell them otherwise. They wanted to be happy and free.
Yet, where did this leave them? Immediately they hid themselves from one another because they became aware–and ashamed–of their nakedness. They went on to hide from God. They were not blessed and joyful by this “freedom” they had achieved. It was a curse. And they became cursed and the whole world with them because of it. Indeed, we’ve seen this exact same scene play out, different only in the details, a billion times since then. This same pattern of lies and fallout has been reenacted again and again in the life of every single person since this first couple all the way down to you and me. And the results are always the same: pain, shame, grief, loss, anger, fear, resentment, hatred, and so on and so forth. This is sin. And there is no joy in it.
The truth that begins to become clear in all of this is here: Joy is not found in unaccountable freedom. Joy is not found in being the captain of our own ships. Joy is not found in living apart from any rules and commands beyond the ones we make for ourselves. That is invariably a pathway to pain and a loss of the very thing for which we are seeking. Instead, joy is found in living comfortably within the boundaries of reality. It is experienced when we allow God to be on His throne and adjust our lives accordingly to His commands. When we live with a spirit of humble submission to the One who created us to delight in Him, we will find the deep-seated contentment that no hard circumstances can touch.
Jesus came bringing with Him good news of great joy for all the people, but only those who are willing to live life His way–to keep His commands–are going to experience it. With all of this, then, you can do two things. The first is to pay attention to the ways and places you are buying into the serpent’s original lie and trying to do life on your own. It may come with the promise of more, but the shipment never arrives and refunds are hard to come by. The second is this: Submit yourself to the ways of Jesus. Let His Spirit shape your desires so you begin to want the things He wants. Adjust your life to the reality of the world as God designed it. Then you will find the joy you are seeking; the joy that just won’t stop. I hope you will.