Transforming Sin into Grace

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Our Tuesday Bible Study has moved slowly but surely through the letters of Paul, the prophetic writings, and now the gospel of John.  And we spent a whole year on Genesis and Exodus. One Tuesday at the Bible study, the story of Adam and Eve was the theme.  After listening to the story, Max Money cleared his throat and asked, “What about the women?”

The story of Adam and Eve has been one of the biblical legends used to diminish women, challenge their maturity, and even describe them as agents of sin, temptations for men who just can’t help themselves.   Sadly, these attitudes are still at work in our culture, and even court rooms when women must prove their propriety after being harassed or assaulted by males!

Accordingly, both the Genesis story and the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness deserve the label, “handle with care.”

Whether or not there was an actual Adam and Eve, the legend of those spiritual ancestors is about responsibility and irresponsibility and the possibility starting over after you’ve thrown paradise away.

As the story goes, Adam and Eve make a choice – both of them, not just Eve – to go beyond the boundaries God has set for them, and  to seek something beyond their ability to understand or control.  They want to be godlike, in control of reality, able to do whatever they want, and yet they are mere mortals, created out the dust of the earth.

They lose the innocence of the garden. But, despite the consequences of disobeying God’s edict, eating the fruit is what makes us human, knowing good and evil.

Adam and Eve’s story is that of every child growing up, leaving garden of innocence, and entering the world of moral complexity, whether it’s in defying your parents, telling an obvious lie, or experimenting with behaviors beyond your maturity level. Once you know good and evil, you can no longer go to back to the garden. Life becomes complicated, we become ambivalent, and double minded, whether we are politicians extracting a favor from a foreign power, scientists experimenting with nuclear fission, business persons choosing between making a profit and laying off workers, or simply telling a white lie to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

Adam and Eve transgress their boundaries.  But, when God challenges them, both fail to take responsibility.  Weak-willed Adam says, “the woman made me do it,” and equally irresponsible Eve asserts, “the snake made me do it!”

Sounds like our children and grandchildren when we catch them in a lie or when they’ve broken a piece of pottery or a coffee mug, having been warned several times not to throw the ball in the house.

The original goodness of life is complicated by our decision-making – no biologically inherited original sin here, rather the impact of sin is social: from now on we will have to work, struggle, recognize our mortality, and still be creative and responsible. We can choose against life or for creation.

Our decision-making processes are ambiguous – our best intentions can have unintended consequences and we need to recognize this and take responsibility for them.  Yet, despite their turning from God, Adam and Eve do something amazing.  They are banned forever from the garden, but they create civilization, they move forward as parents of this wonderful and challenging human adventure.

We also need to take a deeper look at Jesus’ temptations.  Jesus goes on retreat after receiving a prophesy and mystical experience. He hears the words of God, “you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  He receives God’s authority and power, but what will he do with his power? How will he share God’s way with wayward humankind?

Now, we have all experienced some version of Jesus’ temptations. Jesus is tempted by good things: after all, who doesn’t want a good meal, safety, and power to make those around us do the right thing. This is the American way – who doesn’t want Lifelock, ADT, Dominoes, Doritos, a good filet mignon, and the finest wine?  Who doesn’t want to do good  and make the world behave right for a change, and in so doing, become like a god?  And, yet, apart from God, these good things can destroy us and others.  Good things end up harming us when we make them our gods and goals, and not the One True God.

Jesus’ temptations are not about self-denial, but about making important choices  without consulting with God’s vision. It’s about our vocation as people who can choose the future.  It’s about good things that stand in the way of the Truly Good Thing.

We are Adam and Eve, and we are Jesus in the wilderness, and we need to recognize that we can choose life or death, health or illness, and God or self-interest.  These passages tell us some important truths.

  • First, know your limits – whether you are a president or a parent or grandparent or friend. Remember you are a mortal and fallible. Don’t presume that you can go beyond what is good for you or others and not face the consequences.
  • Second, Take responsibility for your actions. As Harvey Cox says, “don’t leave it to the snake.” Act wisely and when something goes wrong or you make the wrong choice, confess your mistake to God and those you hurt.  Don’t  blame the devil or social conditioning or the politics of our nation, when you are the one who made the decision.
  • Third, ask for guidance in moving forward from mistakes. Mistakes can be blessings when we place them in God’s care, move forward responsibly, and commit to creating a new world.
  • Finally, remember that God is God and you aren’t. Love God, and follow your deepest desire, as Augustine says.  Love God and listen to God’s guidance, whether it is related to your finances, job, lifestyle, and relationships.

Yes, we will be tempted to turn from the Good Thing in search of good things. Yes, we will make mistakes or do the right thing and it blows up in our face.  But our sins can become vehicles of grace.  Our mistakes can become opportunities for growth when we claim our responsibility and then move forward prayerfully, listening to God’s guidance.

You can’t go back to the Garden.  But, you can go forward toward a world of wonders, creativity, innovation, and love, trusting that in all things, even our sins, God is working for good and will use the mistakes we make as pathways toward adventure, healing, and love.