What went wrong? That question comes up with terrorism and crime; it’s what we ask when a seemingly obedient child raised in church drifts away as an adult; or when a couple that seemed to have started so close and loving break up in divorce; or when a formerly vibrant church declines or a pastor falls into immorality or heresy. What went wrong?
The problem, some say, is society: that we have good individuals but they are corrupted by bad systems. Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous theologian of the mid twentieth century, wrote a book whose title tells it all: Moral Man and Immoral Society. Of course, the problem with that is that it doesn’t explain how a gathering of good individuals come together to form a bad society. Probably the most common explanation for the origins of human evil has to do with economics. People commit crimes and are “anti-social”, to use the euphemism, because of poverty. If they only had more money and if world-wide there was only a more equitable distribution of wealth, then people would be happier, crime and terrorism would come to an end. Ted Turner, the broadcast mogul, said that poverty was the root cause of terrorism. One insightful commentator wondered, then, how much more of Turner’s billions that Osama bin Laden, the multi-millionaire, would have to have had before he became a good boy. Sigmund Freud famously blamed most human problems on repressed desires, particularly sexual desires. But we see in Genesis 2 that there were no repressed desires before the Fall, that God made us to have a fulfillment of desires and to be happy – as long as we are submissive to God. In other words, repression is not the cause of our problems but the result of them. There are many other attempts to explain why people do bad things. But the one thing those explanations have in common is that they are all hopelessly optimistic about human nature. They believe that the problems are superficial. They don’t get at what really went wrong with us. What went wrong? S-I-N. But even when we say that we often under-estimate the problem because we’re too superficial in our view of sin. We often think of sins as just a list of things we’re not supposed to do and if we’re successful about avoiding the things on that list, then we’ve avoided sin. But sin is far more than just some external actions that we can not do with enough self-control. In Genesis 2-3, it’s a matter of not eating one fruit. How simple can it be? Sins we might, most of the time, avoid. But sin is now wrapped around our heart. Sin is (1) unbelief; sin is (2) willfulness and sin is (3) self love (really lack of love). First, “that ancient serpent” asks the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Satan is amplifying God’s prohibition to make God seem stingy, that God is not good, that He is keeping something enjoyable and beneficial from people. He is snidely implying something slanderous about God. So when we are tempted today we are offered the suggestion that God is a killjoy, that He isn’t good for us. We are told that this thing we want – whatever it is – is better than obeying God. The temptation says the sin is better for us than submitting to God. When we choose to cheat in school or indulge in pornography or slander someone or lose our temper or just selfishly put ourselves first, then we are saying that those things have more of what we want than does faithfulness to God’s Word. We are believing that God, by giving us His law, is trying to keep something from us, that His will is to deprive us of something good for us. When we sin, we say God isn’t good enough. And this leads us to the thrust of the original temptation that became the original sin. Satan first says God’s threat of death is a lie: “you won’t die.” He impugns God’s motives: “God knows that when you eat your eyes will be opened.” And he offers an alternative promise in place of God’s Word: “you will be like God.” God had said that if they ate of the fruit, they would die. Satan says they won’t. These are the rival claims, the competing Words. What Adam and Eve do next depends completely on who they will believe. The chief temptation, then, is to listen to and obey another word, contrary to what God has spoken. So unbelief in God’s Word is the source of all sins. God had given the command and the warning. They sinned because they believed something else. It was so with Adam and Eve and it is so with us today. We have a Word we are to believe in. First, that Word is the proclamation of the Gospel. We either believe the Gospel and say God is true, or we disbelieve the Gospel and say God is a liar. If we are externally moral people, faithful to our spouse, a good neighbor, never cheating on our taxes or speaking ill of others, and yet we do not believe in – completely trust in – the Word of God, then we still have that essence of sin in our hearts. What went wrong? Unbelief did. And so did willfulness. Sin is willfulness. Wouldn’t you expect the first sin to be something horrendous, like murdering your brother? But it isn’t. It’s just eating the wrong fruit. God said, “Don’t eat.” But they ate and so sinned. But why did they eat? Because they wanted to. Sin is . . . whatever we want; whatever we want that is not what God wants. It is that willfulness, that attitude that says “I will do what I will do” that is the longing behind sin, that is its power. That attitude is very respectable in our culture. We look up to the “self-made” man. We like Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way”. What went wrong? Self-love did. Some might say that we have to love ourselves to love others. Maybe that’s true, if we understand that for it to be love, we have to love God first and others as ourselves. To me, “love” by definition is about others; so “self-love” is not to really love at all. Sin is loving oneself above all, above your neighbor and above God. You see, our choices, whether they be sins or obedience, issue from that which we love. If we love God, we’ll choose obedience. If we love ourselves, we’ll choose our will, our way.
Notice that Eve saw the fruit was good for food – it would taste good, it would be a treat – it was a delight to the eyes – it looked good – and it was desirable to make one wise; it had the power to give her something she wanted. The question is, did she love the Lord God more than the one who would get all these benefits; love God more than herself? When she ate, she proclaimed who she was going to love first. Imagine that you are coming home and you get a call on your cell phone from home: please stop by the store and buy some milk. “We need milk.” When you get home, you have all kinds of groceries but no milk. Your spouse asks you, “What happened? Did you forget the milk?” “No, I just didn’t feel like it.” Then there will be an argument, loud complaints. It doesn’t matter what the request was. What matters is that you had it in your power to do it but you didn’t because you didn’t love enough. We might think that that’s easy enough to avoid: just buy the milk! But what if you get the call – “please get milk” – and you think, I don’t feel like getting milk . . . but if I don’t, there will be an argument, there might be tears, I’ll get shouted at; my evening will be ruined, so I’ll get the milk. Has that person avoided sin? No. He may appear to have done what is right – bought the milk – he might have avoided doing the thing on the list that we say is a sin – not getting milk when asked – but he didn’t do it because he (or she) loved his spouse but only because he loved himself. We can do what we’re asked but still sin. Here Adam and Eve sin not only because they did what they were not supposed to do, but because they didn’t love God. They didn’t love Him enough to do what He said. They showed how much their relationship with God meant to them: it meant less than a tasty fruit. Loving ourselves – even at the expense of others – is at the heart of sin. Raising small children, it’s quite obvious that there are certain things you don’t have to teach them. Sharing, being considerate of others, being respectful, are things they have to be taught over and over again. But it’s amazing how naturally children, all of us really, take to selfishness, self-assertiveness, how we naturally can live as if the world revolved around us. But we must see that human sin isn’t just about violating other people. We violate other people because, first, we’ve tried to take the place of God. We love ourselves first when we are supposed to be loving God that way. It’s that ‘”pride of life”, that grasping for God’s place in the center of the universe. While we are doing that, trying to make ourselves into a god by doing what we will do, we compete other people who are also sinners grasping to be at the center. But the root of the problem is our lack of love of God; our treatment of others is just one fruit of the problem. What went wrong was not just something external, something easily fixed with the right techniques. Our very hearts went wrong. If even our first parents, with the best background and economic status one could hope for, could commit the original sin, what hope is there for us? People fly planes into sky-scrapers, set up Nazi death camps, kill over a hundred thousand Chinese at the Rape of Nanjing, or, worst of all, nail the only sinless Man to a cross, because people are evil. We are so evil, our only hope rests on that Man on the cross.
John B. Carpenter, M.Div., Ph.D., is a student of the Puritans who currently pastors a church plant in the USA; he has lived and worked in Singapore for over five years. www.covenantcaswell.org.