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Fig leaves and thorns [Thawed out Thursday]

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.


5 thoughts on “Fig leaves and thorns [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Paul Blackham

    Thanks so much for this. For the past year I've found myself facing up to this truth more and more. The world is just so riddled with evil and pain, injustice and chaos. Instead of feeling that this is the sheer stark fact of living as a race in war against the Living God, exiled and condemned, we tend to feel that it is a strange, unfair tragedy... that we don't deserve all this, that we should have life on our own terms.

    More and more I think of the dwarves from C S Lewis' Last Battle. Their closed-minded bitterness and cynicism speak more powerfully as time goes by.

    When we think of ourselves as 'Universal Man' - or as Enlightenment Man, on an 'objective' canvas - then we try to think as if we were in a neutral world, thinking with neutral minds. This runs much, much deeper than I ever realise, because over the past 300 years this has permeated everything around us, in the very air and water.

    I think the Enlightenment brought a re-structuring of European thought generally - from specifics to universals. Think of the contrast between John Owen and John Wesley. Both are such amazing Christians, but they live on different sides of the Enlightenment fence. Wesley is a 'global' or universal man, thinking of a truth for all humanity. Think of the way that Wesley relates to the empiricist philosophers of his day, whereas Owen is related to a much older philosophical world. Wesley is 'modern' in a way that could never be said of Owen. Owen was still thinking in that more ancient mode where the universal vision was very much at the edge of his thinking... or perhaps it is more to do with the 'universal' being at the edge of 'feeling' rather than 'thinking'. Wesley traveled around the world, around his global parish - but the Puritans didn't really feel that need.

    Is it possible for us to have the global heart of Wesley while rejecting the Enlightenment 'objectivity' that feels so shocked that we are condemned sinners? Of course, the very last thing we want is to dig up a scholastic zombie as if the missing ingredient is more Aristotle!

    Jesus Himself, of course, is the glorious solution - a great love for everybody He meets but without that 'objectifying' train of Enlightenment thinking. He faces the chaos and suffering without any of the self-pity or bitterness... yet joy and hope pour out of Him. Glory! What a mess we make of our thinking and feeling... and we only realise what a mess we make as we look at His glory and maturity!

  2. Nng

    Hey mate, sorry but I've been looking and re looking but how'd you tell that the Garden was in Eden by looking at Gen 4:18?

  3. Brian Midmore

    How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Money answers everything as Ecclesiastes tells us. Because the rich are seldom frustrated since money opens every door they dont find the kingdom of God. If you are already living in the illusion of Eden who needs salvation. But with God all things are possible.

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