Proverbs 3:5-7 and Genesis 3:1-7
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 30, 2018
I may be wrong, but I can’t shake the impression that people listen less than they used to.
If you were to ask me to explain why – and I wish you would! – I would attribute it to three factors: our shrinking attention span, our growing self-preoccupation, and our increasing self-confidence in our opinions. When we don’t feel we need to listen, we don’t. And I suspect this attitude sneaks into our relationship with God!
The Bible, in today’s lesson from Proverbs, warns us about being “wise in our own eyes” and “relying on our own insight”. It urges us to instead depend first and foremost on God’s guidance.
Our ancestors Adam and Eve struggled with keeping that attitude. At first, they made no judgments about right and wrong; they simply accepted by faith what God told them to do and not to do. As they tended the garden of Eden and feasted on its fruit, they – in an innocent and unashamed nakedness – lived happily within God’s generous guidelines. They were free to enjoy every tree of the garden but one: that of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a conversation in which God has no part – in which God is spoken about but never spoken with – the serpent (a crafty character) prods the conversation this way and that, Adam (a passive, albeit complicit, participant) stands by in silent assent, and Eve (the spokesperson for them both) does the debating and deciding.
Sensing some weakness in their faithfulness to the Creator, the serpent probes the woman’s loyalty by seeing if she will go along with his misrepresentation of the Lord’s rule about food consumption, misquoting it just enough to make it look unreasonably restrictive and thus unworthy of adherence. While God had in fact told them they could enjoy the fruit of all the trees but one, the serpent misconstrues the prohibition as a forbidding of the eating of the fruit of any tree. To her credit, Eve sets the record straight on that score, admitting it is only one tree – the one she describes as being “in the middle of the garden”, perhaps because it is in the middle of her thoughts! – that tree whose fruit God put off limits; but then she follows the serpent’s example, and misquotes and misconstrues the prohibition in her own way to make it look unreasonable. She says that God insisted that they refrain from even touching that one tree. The misrepresentation casts doubt on God’s character. What kind of killjoy Creator would put such a delightful tree right in front of them, and then forbid them from even leaning against its trunk to rest under the shade of its lush and lovely green branches? Eve has already started to move away from trusting a God with whom she has a relationship to second-guessing a God whom she has made an object of her critical analysis!
No doubt seeing an opening to exploit in Eve’s playing fast and loose with God’s words and casting God’s goodness into doubt – a dishonesty born of a desire to see God in a bad light and so justify indulging her craving – the serpent then attacks God’s truthfulness. The animal contradicts God’s assertion that eating the fruit will lead to their death. On the contrary, the serpent asserts, God knows it will not kill them. The serpent insinuates that God is lying to them about that because He’s aware that, once they eat it, their “eyes will be opened”, they will gain the knowledge of good and evil God has, and then they will become “like God”. The serpent is crafty enough to appeal to their vanity and their subsequent tendency to welcome the self-flattering delusion that they are God’s equals and can figure things out on their own.
At this point, as the Bible describes things, the eyes of the woman lock on the fruit she wants so badly, and all she can think about is that the tree is “good for food”, “a delight to the eyes” and “to be desired to make one wise”.
At last, Adam and Eve succumb to temptation: They suppress the truth about God they have, presume to know better than God, and eat the prohibited fruit. The result is that their eyes are opened as the serpent had promised, and they do ingest new knowledge. Only to their dismay they discover that, in their prideful aspiration to be “like God”, they over-estimated how much knowledge they can handle. The first knowledge they gain is only the painful knowledge that they now have something ugly to hide, something they project on to their private parts. They suddenly know they are naked; and, in shame and guilt, they sow loincloths out of fig leaves to cover themselves from full view. And later, when they hear the sound of God walking in the garden, they hide their whole selves among the trees in an effort to avoid facing the One with whom they had broken faith and with whom they’d lost their closeness.
In eating the fruit, Adam and Eve did gulp down some genuine, albeit limited, knowledge of good and evil, as much knowledge as their spiritual digestive system could absorb. Thus, even before God confronts them about their horrendous choice, they know they’ve done something terribly wrong and created problems, particularly relational ones, that didn’t exist before.
The messiness of human existence that we have been living with ever since is born of the wayward desire in all of us to prefer self-reliance to God-reliance and, out of a vainglory, to play pretend, becoming “wise in our own eyes”. We then depend on our own insight, and then feel no need to listen to what God has to say.
Experience, however, can knock such nonsense out of us. I have often felt confident about my ideas about what should or should not happen – only to be proven very wrong. At one time, I was dead set on marrying the wrong girl. At another, I was sure that my giving up on my doctoral dissertation was a terrible turn of events when it turned out it to be one of the most wonderful blessings of my life – one that humbled my heart, pressed me closer to God, and ended up bringing forth a far better dissertation. These days I often make plans that make perfect sense to me – call that person, start up that initiative, order my day this way – only to have my plans thwarted, and then to find out that God had something better in mind.
All these experiences have made me realize that I am not as smart as I think I am and that I have but a modest capacity for figuring out what should and should not happen. I have learned that to acknowledge my expansive ignorance helps me to acknowledge God in all my ways and to rest on His grace and guidance; that to become “unwise in my own eyes” helps me to become a man of faith who trusts not in his specious insight, but in the real article of God’s goodness; that to own up to the fact that half the time I don’t know what’s best helps me to listen attentively and carefully to the God who always knows and does what is best.
May we all quit repeating Adam and Eve’s mistake of being wise in our own eyes. May we instead trust in the Lord with all our heart, rely on His insight, and listen for it. Let us pray.