Who Do You Blame For The Fall?

…so the reason is first the fall, and then free will… why we live in a broken world…

I bit my tongue. First, because it may have been an unintended slip. Second, because it wasn’t the main point of the conversation and I didn’t want to go off on a tangent. Third, and if I’m honest, most pressing, I prefer to avoid conflict. It’s a bit nonsensical sometimes, like on this occasion, when a minor disagreement or correction would hardly lead to world war three, but there it is – I know I need to work on my assertiveness. But the statement gnawed away at me, and so I’ll take this opportunity discuss some of the thoughts I have on the subject.

The first point, which I hope is uncontroversial, is that free will came first. That’s just simple logic. If we didn’t have free will then more or less sixty four and a half books of the Bible would not have been written, and you would have looked at the title of this post and wondered “what fall?”

But that’s not how the world worked out, and so we’re left to contemplate the cause and effects of the fall. And this is where my problems start, because of statements like the following one, which is from the Wikipedia entry on “original sin” but reflects quite a broad understanding:

Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is a Christian belief of the state of sin in which humanity exists since the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The key phrase is “…stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion…” It’s just too easy for us to unthinkingly blame Adam and/or Eve for the fall, and hence for every aspect of this broken world. Genesis 3:16-19 seems to provide scriptural support for that view. But let’s be honest about this. If it wasn’t Adam and Eve in the Garden, if it was you, or me, or your favourite preacher or worship leader, whoever was there would have fallen. And if we’re overly generous to ourselves and believe that we would have been smart or strong enough to resist the serpent’s first temptation, we would have fallen for the second, or the third…

Because, lest we forget, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And we should also remember that the blaming of Eve for the initial transgression has led to untold (and ridiculous) misogyny in the church and the wider world over the millennia.

No, we should not blame Adam, or Eve, but instead reflect on the fact that this is who we are: fallen, and falling, and as Christians we spend our lives trying to gradually fall less often and less far.

This is what I’ve thought for a long time, but I would always find myself troubled when I thought about Romans 5:12-21, where Adam and sin are juxtaposed with Christ and righteousness. I’ve now found peace in this passage, which I can try to explain to you here, but bear in mind that this – like much of Paul’s writing – is packed with meaning, and I’m only scratching at the surface for the purpose of this post. By the way, I’m looking at the NIV. Translations matter when it comes to examining individual words, but for now, until I become a scholar of Biblical Greek, I’ll trust that the NIV gives a fairly sound representation of Paul’s argument.

In verse 12, we are told “…sin entered the world through one man…” At first I thought this contradicted my understanding, until I focused on the word “through” – not “because of” but “through”. As I said above, sin would have inevitably entered the world, sooner rather than later, unless God had chosen to create robots rather than human beings. But no, by His grace we were given free will, and not only did that throw up options of obedience or disobedience, it also made possible all those other wonderful gifts, like surprise, and joy, and love. And yes, the other things too, but they have their place. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “Lands that know only sunshine and no rain become deserts. Life too is like that.”

As I said, there’s plenty to get our teeth into throughout this passage, but I’ll skip ahead to verse 19, where a potential theological hurdle is expressed very clearly. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

I have convinced myself that because sin only came “through” the disobedience of Adam, we can’t blame him for our own sin, it’s just a consequence of how we were created. But then how do I reconcile this with righteousness coming “through” the obedience of Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that suggest that we can’t praise or thank Jesus for righteousness? If it didn’t come through Him then would it have come anyway as another consequence of creation?

No, because the man that righteousness came “through” was the “fully human” Jesus, but it came “by” the grace of the “fully divine” Jesus. See verse 15, as well as Hebrews 2:14-18 and Colossians 1:15-20.

So who do you blame for the fall? Who should you blame? The devil, in the form of the serpent? Loathe as I am to let him off the hook, he was also permitted to act as he did, just as he was in the book of Job. So if you want to point the finger somewhere, you might look at versus such as John 1:3 and Isaiah 45:7, and point towards God.  In fact, personally, I think the question of who or what to blame is the wrong one. I think the purpose of Genesis 3, one of its purposes at least, is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and remind us of many things: who we are, what freedom means and what are its consequences, Who sustains and covers us, who deceives us. It’s a deep, rich picture of where we belong in God’s universe, and a reminder of Who we belong to – a humbling and beautiful picture.

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It Pays To Give

About eight and a half years ago I was a mess. I was separated, soon to be divorced, and my finances looked desperate. We’d built up a lot of debt during the marriage, and now I found myself owing tens of thousands of pounds on credit cards and personal loans. I looked at all the monthly payments, added those to the money I needed to spend to live, and realised that even though I was on a decent salary the sums just didn’t add up.

After receiving some debt advice and doing difficult calculations, I managed to agree payment arrangements with banks and credit card companies. I found that if I carefully watched my spending from week to week. I was able to get by.

Shortly after I’d made these arrangements I realised that God was speaking to me about money. He didn’t speak audibly, but instead through several different sources: yes, a message in Church, and also through podcasts I listened to, and Christian articles I received in my email. It was like a coordinated attack! I felt convicted in my heart that He wanted me to tithe.

I struggled to accept His instruction, because I couldn’t see where I could possibly find ten percent of my income to give away. But I examined my budget carefully and figured that if I cut all my spending right to the bone then maybe I could just about make it. Moreover, I felt compelled to give because I love Jesus, and this was something I wanted so much to do for Him.

So I prayed, and said to God, “Okay, I hear you, and I’ll do as you ask, but please help me because I’m going to struggle.” I decided to give it a try for six months, I set up a standing order so I was committed to the sacrifice, and then I waited to see what happened.

What happened was that from that day onward the amount of spare money I had at the end of each month just grew and grew. I couldn’t explain why. My salary stayed the same, all my major spending commitments stayed the same, and yet I was able to start saving money for a rainy day and soon I was able to lend money to friends and family. In the years since then I’ve increased my giving. On top of my tithe I make monthly donations to charities, which I add to from time to time as the Spirit leads me.

I had a rocky season when I felt it was wise to reduce my giving for a while, but I didn’t feel guilty about that because I knew God understood, and He knew my heart. Now I’m back to what I would call “full strength” tithing, and I don’t feel proud about that, just grateful and blessed that I’m able to respond to God in this way. I can see the day coming in the not-too-distant future when my debts to financial institutions will finally be cleared. My debt to Christ, for what He did for me on the cross, I can never repay. But God showed me a way to say “Thank You” and I’m so glad that listened to Him.

So I really feel that God has rewarded me for my obedience. I didn’t do it expecting a reward, in fact I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped that things would work out. But when I stepped out in faith, God made amazing things happen. And I’m convinced that He’ll do that for all of us, not just financially, but in every area of our lives if we just learn to put our trust in Him.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Malachi 3:10-12

My Soul Thirsts For God

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Psalm 42, NIVUK

I Recommend Unbelievable?

I know that not everybody has the same enquiring mind as I do. I have a tendency to over-think, and over-analyse, nearly everything if I give myself the chance. When it comes to faith I think there’s a delicate balancing act to perform. On the one hand, absolute certainty (whether that’s religious or atheistic) can lead you down a fundamentalist road that damages both you and those you influence, no matter how pure your intent. And certainty allows no room for spiritual growth and development. Can you ever truly believe you have all the answers? On the other hand, too much doubt will leave you open to being like a wave blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Ephesians 4:14).

Apart from my internal questions about what my faith means and how I should live it, I am fascinated and sometimes disturbed by the reactions to faith that I see in the world. I want to understand why people, who often seem to have access to all the same evidence as me, can interpret it in such different ways. Partly I want to understand so that I’m better able to express my own reasons to believe (1 Peter 3:15), but I also want to learn from them. Because I do believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on this planet if we take the time to do so. Everybody, even your closest relation, has lived a different life to you, and has something unique to teach you from their own life experience. In some cases you may learn something, like a way of thinking, that you completely reject, but even that has value.

This is why I’m so pleased to have recently discovered “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio. That’s the same source as “Be Still And Know” that I’ve written about previously. Unbelievable? is a weekly debate hosted by Justin Brierley and typically involving a discussion between a Christian and a sceptic, although there can be variations on this format. I listen to it as a podcast, but for other methods you can check out the show page here.

I’m not going to pretend that I always find the discussions satisfying – in fact that is very rarely the case! Even in the nearly hour and a half dedicated to each topic it’s obvious that sometimes we are only scratching the surface. And I will often find myself frustrated by unconvincing arguments put forward by both sides of the conversation. Nevertheless, I learn something about other worldviews, and I also learn something about my own, understanding more about the areas where I have surety and those where I am less confident.

No matter what belief you have, if you are interested in the big questions of life, and what it means, I recommend that you have a listen to Unbelievable? It’s guaranteed to provide food for thought.

 

God, Have Mercy

I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable admitting that I have “favourite” passages in the Bible. I know it’s not something I should be uneasy about. Clearly different books, chapters and verses will have stronger resonance during different seasons of my life. And no doubt people who have lived different lives will be drawn to different parts of scripture, or God will speak to them in different ways than He does to me with the same words.

But there are some passages that are universal, and one of my favourites is such an excerpt. It is Luke 18:9-14, known as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. When I say “universal” I really mean it, because not only can any Christian relate to it, but so can anyone of any faith, or of none, so long as they are not so deluded as to think themselves perfect.

I doubt that a day goes by during which I don’t have thoughts that correspond to the Pharisee’s. When I see someone make a foolish driving manoeuvre, or act rudely in a shop, or just express an opinion I disagree with. Sometimes I will literally think myself “better” than the other person, but often I’ll find myself thinking the same thing in that slightly more subtle, but maybe more pernicious way… “At least I am not like that person.”

And then I’ll catch myself, and realise how far I am from the pedestal I briefly put myself on. At this point a non-believer will berate themselves for their superciliousness. So will I, before figuratively beating my breast and pleading “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14

In Memoriam

I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox MP until she died on 16 June 2016, but from her dying day until my own, I’ll never forget her.

There are two reasons why I’ll remember her. One is the brutal nature of her murder at the hands of a xenophobic far-right extremist. The other is her quote from a parliamentary speech, which was repeated often in the aftermath of her death.

…we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

She was far from the first person to express such sentiments, but a special poignancy has been added to her words by the way her life was stolen, and those words have been running through my mind recently, triggering two thoughts that I want to share with you.

First, there is the simple, profound truth of what Jo said. How many of us can say that we’ve never made a negative judgement about someone based on a perceived difference between “us” and “them”? Whether that difference is in their race, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, mental or physical impairment, or anything else – yes there are many differences between us and them, and between you and me. Yet if we looked more deeply into our common humanity, looked with different eyes at the “other”, if we thought about the story of their life, the comedy and the tragedy in their history, the same needs, the same concerns, the same hopes and fears that drive them, and also drive us… if we could only see them as God sees them, we would surely discover love for them. I have some way to go in this area. I know I have my own prejudices. They may be different to yours, but that doesn’t make me any better or worse than you. It’s wrong, and it’s stupid. Prejudice belittles everyone (Galatians 3:28, Leviticus 19:33-34, 1 Samuel 16:7).

At the risk of sounding morbid, my second thought was this: how do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? I think this matters, and I think it should matter to you as well, whether or not you share my faith that death is not the end (John 11:25-26). It’s not a case of earning points toward a happier afterlife. It’s not particularly important for its own sake either – my ego isn’t going to be massaged by the kind words people speak about me when I’m dead. But it matters if the way you’re remembered is a reflection of the way you lived your life. It matters that people remember your kindness rather than your eloquence. It matters that people remember your generosity rather than your wealth. None of us are perfect, and the people who know us best will no doubt have plenty of uncomplimentary stories they could tell about us when we’re no longer around. But what matters is whether they will want to share those stories, or the ones that show us in our best light because they know that in our hearts we wanted to shine our best light in the world (Matthew 5:16).

Jo Cox never saw the sun on 17 June 2016, and tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us (James 4:13-14). I believe God has wonderful things in store for His children in the next life, but that doesn’t make this life any less precious, or any less important, so while we’re living it let’s give the world something beautiful to remember us by.


You might be interested in visiting the website of the Jo Cox Foundation: https://www.jocoxfoundation.org/

 

Under the Sun: Reflections on the Tower of Babel

A discussion about language in the Bible, about translations actually, got me thinking about the tower of Babel. I read it a few times, in a few translations, and I meditated on the story and prayed about the troubling thoughts that came to me. I’ll share those thoughts with you now. I’m sure that none are original. First, here is the account of the tower.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1‭-‬9 NIVUK

My first thought was this:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

We are told that God doesn’t change, but people don’t change either. I wonder why? Why? Why did these people feel the need to make a name for themselves? Why do we still feel that need now? Who were they trying to impress? Why did they think it mattered? Why did they think they would be “scattered over the face of the whole earth?” And why were they afraid of that? Of course, in trying to take control they actually lost it and created the very future they feared.

I think about the human race today. Over the years we are continually gravitating towards cities, and as our cities grow larger our buildings grow taller. Cities around the world are competing with each other for importance, for dominance. Ever taller and more architecturally impressive towers are status symbols for these cities as they attempt to make a name for themselves.

In the past I remember looking at cathedrals and marvelling at their scale and magnificence. Many were built centuries ago, without any of the construction machinery and technology that we take for granted today. And I remember thinking what a wonderful reflection of the glory of God they must have been, and still are today. But now I look at them differently. I wonder about the labour that was used, and how those men were treated. And I wonder whether some of those cathedrals were entirely built for the glory of God, or how much they represented man’s idea of his own glory.

And I thought about language. We have more or less reached the point where we have a global language. People have speculated that one day that language would be Mandarin, or possibly Spanish. That might still happen, but for now the global language is English. Is that a good thing or not?

If God was so concerned about one language that He chose to multiply them, it suggests that our narrowing back down to one is not wise. When I look at the state of society and consider how language has contributed to it, almost weaponized by some, when I think of how often language has spread as a result of imperial domination, I have to wonder. But then I think of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and how a common language can facilitate that. But again, God would make a way even if we didn’t – we just have to consider what He did at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12).

I thought how a common language can help us recognise the other commonalities we share as human beings. But also of the precious connection that language has to culture, and how the extinction of a language might precipitate the extinction of a culture. I could spend hours wondering about the relationship between God and diversity.

Finally I returned to thinking of those builders of the tower, and their motivation – which is also ours. And that brought me back to Ecclesiastes.

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever.

Ecclesiastes 1:2‭-‬4

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labour, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10‭-‬11

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

Now all has been heard;
   here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
   for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
   including every hidden thing,
   whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14