When, exactly, did it all go so wrong?
Six months ago, I looked out my sliding glass door and saw the condo behind us burning. Thankfully, the adjoining condos didn’t catch fire. However, they shared an attic with the stricken unit, and so the smoke got into all of them.
The residents have been displaced for six months. I wondered if their evacuation wasn’t a bit extreme. After all, it was just smoke. Couldn’t they have opened some windows, maybe spray some Febreeze here and there? But apparently, smoke affects things at levels we don’t even see, and creates chemical reactions in clothing, hardwood floors, furniture, walls, and ceilings. Even if fire doesn’t touch certain materials, smoke can ruin them.
In a similar way, something ruined our world without the “fire” touching its external structure. We still have songbirds, and summer breezes, sunsets, and spring flowers. But on another level, it doesn’t take us long to live here before we begin to feel a subtle destruction.
Consider the number of times life rewarded you, and then a week later, the bottom fell out of the blessing. We do our best to suppress these negative outcomes, but find we can’t control everything. The harder we try, the more we ourselves develop control issues.
We also spend a great deal of time trying to fix our world, but end up only addressing symptoms. Our attempts to eliminate poverty, for instance, or racism, or opioid addictions, are symptomatic of something else. We fight them without actually knowing where they come from.
We’re going to study the Book of Ecclesiastes this year. It describes the world as seemingly random, and deeply flawed–the way the world is, not the way it ought to be, and certainly not the way we want it to be. A long time prior to the Book of Ecclesiastes though, there was a moment when the world passed from the idyllic and perfect, to the ironic and tragic. I want to take you back to that point, when the world first became the world in which we currently live.
Consider the pronouncements God made following the initial sin and disobedience of Adam and Eve. “The Lord God said to the serpent [who was the embodiment of Satan] because you have done this [led these two human beings into temptation and thus into the fall] cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field, on your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).
There’s a lot of struggle going on here—enmity, meaning hostility, the bruising of the head and the bruising of the heel. Nor is this struggle merely between woman and snake. It’s supposed to portray an ongoing spiritual war that will always characterize our world.
The serpent represents the devil, and his offspring, his followers. The seed of the woman, according to the ongoing revelation of Scripture, is Christ, and his believers. The souls of men are the high stakes in this struggle. The devil tries to possess them. Christ works to redeem them. Everyone, whether they are atheist, or Christian, or anything in between, is the result of this struggle.
God then shifted his attention from the serpent to the woman, Eve.
“And to the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain and childbearing. In pain you shall bring forth children.” Pain, and pain multiplied, is foretold here. Childbearing isn’t easy, something I distinctly remember as I walked through it with my wife. Probably nothing is more traumatic for a woman than to bring a child into the world, even if medications mitigate her suffering.
However, the pain of child bearing goes beyond just delivering a baby. It multiplies. That baby is going to grow into a toddler, then an adolescent, a preteen, a teen, and an adult. Each phase of that growth brings with it a certain level of pain that Mom, in particular, internalizes. This is a child-parent struggle where, typically, dads are known to holler, but moms cry.
God continues to say to the woman, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” This implies marital and gender struggles, because the wife will want things the husband won’t agree with. This begins a potential contest, a clawing for mastery, “but he shall rule over you.” You might not feel happy over this outcome, but none of the things in this section of Genesis chapter three are supposed to feel good. They are consequences.
And so God moves to Adam. In verse 17, he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree which I commanded you, You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you. In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
This is the struggle to make a living, whether you are in a field trying to grow potatoes, or sitting at a computer trying to make a deadline. We fight against this difficulty, hoping to amass abundance enough to stave off financial worries.
But even if successful, we all know how quickly abundance can turn into lack. Anxiety takes shape at both ends of the economic ladder. The poor worries about having enough, and the rich worry about keeping what they have.
God continues to speak to Adam, saying that this negative dynamic would go on, “until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What is this, except a struggle for meaning. Death not only is the great equalizer. It is the great nullifier. No matter what you’ve become, or accomplished, death inevitably ends it. As one Christian writer poignantly said, “When the game is over, all the pieces go back in the box.”
Verse 23 says, “Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
And with this final move, perfection was over. That was the day the world broke, and Eden disappeared. God remained available to people, but all the interaction He would have with them from this time forward would occur outside Eden. His interaction with them would occur primarily in a landfill of trouble.
When we go to Genesis 4:1, it says, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” She had borne a little version of Adam, and was obviously thrilled. She was basically saying, I had a baby, and it was painful and traumatic, the most grueling thing I’ve ever been through in my life, but the Lord helped me!
This moment of rejoicing came from the fact that though God had imposed consequences of pain upon childbearing, Eve had sensed Him there, present with her, compassionate, gracious. He hadn’t deserted her, and had gotten her through the delivery. It was a blip of happiness, and one well worth celebrating, for God often helps us in the trying moments of life in this world.
And yet, this child grew up to be the first murderer in the whole world, and who killed his brother, Abel, no less. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Eve felt about all of this, but we can guess. She must have deeply grieved. In this world, infamous days of deep sorrow often follow red-letter-days of joy.
We wonder why it has to be that way, but the simple answer stares us in the face. This isn’t Eden anymore. We are no longer entitled to invulnerability. Today, when God does something to help, or His presence is made known to us, that is an exquisite kindness toward us sinners.
But even before Cain killed his brother, God went and actually talked to the murderer-to-be.
6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Cain was angry at both God and Abel. God warned him to beware of this feeling because it was an invitation, an on-ramp to sin. And, indeed, sin was crouching there, like an animal ready to spring. Its desire was contrary to the man, and would cause him to do things he wouldn’t do when he was in his right mind. God counseled him to rule over that sin and overcome it.
Why didn’t He just jump in there, and miraculously take these angry feelings away? Or, at least, create a boundary between the two boys, so Cain could have time to cool off, so the murder wouldn’t happen? Again, this isn’t Eden anymore. Instead, it is divine kindness for God to intervene in the moral and the spiritual dimension. His speaking alone should be welcomed and treasured.
But Cain didn’t value it.
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.“
After a sin of that magnitude, it would seem God would be done with Cain, and wouldn’t talk to him anymore. But surprisingly, in verse 9, God still approaches him.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Again, because Cain responded to God with blatant lies, and insolence, it would seem that God would consign him to hell and walk away. Yet He still pursued the man in verse 10: “And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
This was God’s attempt to provoke repentance and sorrow in Cain. We’re reminded of Romans Chapter 2, where it says the kindness of God leads to repentance. Instead of repenting, though, Cain departed the presence of the Lord, and went and built a city that eventually grew into the godless culture we all live in today.
And though God remained available, our sin blinded us to the extent we refused to seek him at all. Even then, He came seeking us. God incarnated in the flesh as a man named Jesus Christ, who entered this crazy, upside down world. He felt the pain and disappointments of it, even to the extent of becoming a victim of it by dying on a cross.
At one point recently, the people who lived in those ruined condos behind me returned, but not to move back in. They came to move all their stuff out. They threw a lot of it in the dumpster—things ruined by smoke they didn’t want to mess with. Over three weeks time, they filled up our dumpster three times over. After they left, the demolition squad arrived. They ripped the roof off and tore all the insulation out. After them, the construction crew came, with equipment, lumber, and roof shingles. All it took was one careless act to ruin everything. It has taken a huge professional focus to deal with it.
How messed up is our world because of one disobedient act? God had to die on a cross to deal with it. This message, called the gospel, may have found you in the midst of a painful, personal upset that God apparently is not fixing. He’s not making the world a better place for you.
Don’t fixate on this. Instead, listen to His gracious call to repentance.
Pay attention to what he has done in His Son.