These are not the outskirts of Eden. **
Yet my defaut mode is to think exactly this. I wake every morning with peace in the land, money in the bank, food in the cupboard. I shower in clean drinking water, go to my rewarding job, drink coffee from the other side of the world. I’ve lost none of my siblings, none of my close friends. In fact all death seems to be sealed off in a sanitised compound, far from my everyday consciousness. I have no major illnesses (that I know of). I blog / text / download / watch the latest banal distraction. I preach with virtually no expectation of opposition and people even thank me for bringing them the gospel.
So this is the garden of Eden right? At least an outer suburb, surely?
I heard Rick McKinley once comment that news footage of atrocities looks very different in the west to other places. In the aftermath of a bombing in Palestine, the crowds are grieving. They know what to do in these situations, they’ve seen it all before. And they cry, they wail, they mourn the dead. In the aftermath of a tragedy in the west what are the expressions of the onlookers? Shock, disbelief, incomprehension. And the whole sense conveyed is ‘How could this happen? These are the outskirts of Eden, right?’
Well, no. We’ve actually been exiled from the Lord’s presence and the very ground beneath our feet trembles under the weight of a divine curse. Thorns and thistles grow up for us. Interesting to note that preposition in Genesis 3:18 – these thorns that mar all our efforts to fill and subdue the earth are not randomly placed in creation. They are intentionally pointed at us. The Lord rigs the whole creation for frustration (Dan Allender’s phrase). Our relationships are bent on violence and destruction. Even, and especially, our life-giving activities (filling and subduing and child-bearing) are shot through with excruciating pain and disappointment and we live under an ominous death-sentence. Dust we are, and to dust we will return.
So that curse is crashing down on my head daily – and on the heads of the people I love. But because I think I’m in a suburb of Eden, here’s how I respond. I retreat from the thorns and I piece together my fig leaves.
Put it another way – I refuse to engage in the painful toil involved in the Lord’s work and instead I invest in whatever I think will make life work. Under the ridiculous delusion that I’m entitled to Eden’s ease, I take pain as a sign that I’m not where I’m meant to be (since I believe I’m meant to be in Eden). So I shield myself from this pain – be it the frustration of admin, the vulnerability of opening up to people, the risks of leading through change. And I seek life in other ways – through my plans, ingenuity and hard graft (my fig leaves). All this assumes that I’m basically in the Garden (at least in the outskirts). I tell myself there’s no reason for me to engage in pain, and every possibility I can make this world work. But this is not Eden and I must not be shocked by the thorns nor retreat from them. Neither should I think that I can press through them to life. Equally I must not cover myself in my own righteousness, nor think that life exists in such efforts.
Dante had the words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” written above the gates of hell. Actually the words above this land east of Eden could say something pretty similar: “Abandon all hope ye who live here – except for Christ.” There is no hope for us, no hope for making life work, no hope for avoiding the curse. There is Christ only. Nothing we put our hope in will work. Not finally. But we engage in His work, in all its pain. We renounce our own coverings and trust in Christ alone. And we wait for the new heavens and the new earth – for that is the home of righteousness.
** btw I’m using ‘Eden’ as a shorthand for ‘the Garden of Eden’ – Paradise. I realise that the Garden was in Eden – a larger area (cf Gen 4:18). So I’m begging a little artistic license here.