Faith, and What’s Important

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 NIV

When I was a child, I believed in G-d with a very real,  but innocent and naive, faith.   As I grew older, this faith was challenged, and frankly, it did not hold up very well.  One of the problems was my curious nature.

I was always asking questions, and my favorite was, “Why?”  Whenever I asked, “Why?”, and did not get a satisfactory answer, I would have trouble moving past whatever it was I was questioning until I did get an answer.  Over time I became the type of person that would dig and dig for answers to questions that were important to me, and just about all of them were, until I got a satisfactory answer, and I could then move on.

This trait led to a crisis of cynicism at a fairly young age, one that I still experience to some degree to this day.  At a point early on I began asking questions like “Why are we here?”, and “What is the point of everything?”, and I did not get any satisfactory answers to them.

As time went on, and still not getting the answers my obsessive nature demanded, I started questioning my faith.  The more I questioned my faith, the more cynical I became, the more cynical I became, the more I questioned my faith.  I entered a downward spiral, spiritually and emotionally, that seemed to have no end.

Eventually, after considerable fruitless searching and despair I decided that I needed to move on with my life.  Why I decided to move on I will explain below, but I began making decisions, and acting as though what I did had some meaning and purpose, even though in my heart I carried a great sense of futility.   My life went on like this for quite a few years.

Just about everyone has asked themselves similar questions, and have arrived at their own answers, or not.  But, whether one finds an answer or not, this search for meaning, and the results of this search, as filtered through our individual personality types, upbringing, and beliefs, are what drives and motivates us to think and do much of what we think and do.  The answers, or lack thereof, define us.

While the details of the answers that people arrive at to these questions are as varied and different as the people themselves, I believe that the answers fall into a number of broad categories.  There are those who will come to the conclusion that there is no ultimate purpose; those who come to believe that there is a purpose, but just don’t know what that purpose is; and those who attempt to define their own purpose.  There is a fourth category, which I’m saving, for the time being.

Those who fall into the first category, that there is no ultimate purpose, tend to become nihilistic and self-indulgent.  They lack any real belief in anything, and live only to “experience”.  One could say that experience is their purpose.  Existentialists fall into this category, and this was the direction I was heading except for one thing: this answer was simply unacceptable to me.

Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, or maybe it was because I saw purpose in everything around me, except myself, but I just could not accept the idea that there was no purpose except to simply exist for a time and then just slip off into oblivion.  True, the purpose of the things around me were man-centric, and it was man’s purpose I was questioning, but the simple fact that I could even conceive of the thing,  purpose, told me that it existed.

This led me to the idea that there was purpose, I just didn’t know what it was.  This also led me to my decision to live my life as if it had purpose, while continuing to search for that purpose.  The  fact that I was going to live my life anyway, whether I found an answer or not, and that in order to do so I needed food, shelter, companionship, all those things that make up a life, was also highly motivational in my decision to move on.

This leads us to the third option, which is to simply make up a purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe.  One could say that this is what I did, making my purpose to be discovering my purpose, but that would not be correct, since I did not believe that the universe was otherwise meaningless.

The person who adopts the third option accepts the fact the universe is meaningless and without purpose, but are still dissatisfied with the answer, and so provide their own meaning by doing such things as adopting causes, devoting themselves to particular subjects, or particular people or groups, or even simply to themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that everyone who takes up a cause believes life is meaningless, and are simply inventing their own purpose.  On the contrary, I would say that most probably believe that, in fact, the activity or cause they are engaged in, is their purpose.  Since those in category two often, in their search for meaning, engage in similar behaviors as those in category three, it is worth dwelling on this a little more with an example of what is a true category three person.

I once read something about Karl Marx, how, while he was pursuing his socialist utopia, his family lived in abject poverty.  A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Marx had seven children with his wife, but only three lived to adulthood, due at least in part to the extreme poverty they lived in.  One might assume that this is what motivated Marx to write as he did, that he saw the poverty around him, the unfairness of it all, and decided he was going to change things.  The problem with this theory is that Marx himself was the product of a well-to-do middle class upbringing, and his own family’s poverty was not the inspiration for his single-minded pursuit of socialism, but was actually caused by it!

And what of Marx’s legacy?  Surely the deprivation that he and his family endured was somehow worth it, right?  Surely, he left the world a better place, more just, more humane, right?  Well, not exactly.  It is said that when Stalin collectivized the Ukraine, up to 7.5  million people starved to death.  In Communist China, in the late fifties and early sixties, tens of millions of chinese starved to death, as a direct result of the Communist government’s policies.

It is fitting to observe that if Marx had simply minded the wisdom of Solomon, quoted above in Ecclesiastes, the world, and his family, would have been much better off.  Of course, that he was an atheist, made this extremely unlikely.

One thing to note here is the difference between someone devoted to a cause out of love, passion, and a calling; and someone devoted to simply achieving meaning for their own otherwise meaningless existence.  People dedicated out of love, while often extremely self-sacrificing, do not force sacrifice for their cause on others.  They may ask for it, but they never force it.  People motivated by their fear of nothingness and anonymity, while sometimes willing to make their own sacrifices, often are willing to inflict pain and suffering on large numbers of people, for the achievement of their goals.

 This brings us to the fourth category, and that is the answer that provides the true meaning and purpose of our existence.  Different people will come to different conclusions as to what that is.  My conclusions are best illustrated by the story about Jesus, when he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment”?  It is worth relating the entire story, from Mark.

“And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?  And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.  And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:  And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.”  (Mark 12:28-34 KJV)

It should be noted that Jesus was quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, the books of Deuteronomy (6:4-5, known to Jews as the Sh’ma Yisrael, or simply Sh’ma ) and Leviticus (19:18) when he answered.

 The meaning and purpose of our lives then, is to love.  Love G-d, love each other.  I am not talking about love as a noun, as a feeling, but love as a verb, as action.  Love as positive, creative action.  We have been created in the image and likeness of G-d, and we are told that “G-d is Love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16).  Aren’t we then meant for love?

Of course, when you truly love someone, there is work involved.  We want to please the object of our love, and have that love returned to us.  How often have the words “I love you, I will do anything for you” been uttered, in one form or another?  Countless.  But, what would those words mean without action behind them? Men and women, for example, in a loving relationship, work hard for one another and their children.  Why?  Because that is what love is and that is what love does.  The words, without action behind them, without sacrifice and the willingness to do so, are completely devoid of meaning.

So, what is important?  Well, love is important, but more than that, loving relationships are important.  Love requires relationships to be fully expressed, and many say that this is why G-d created us, in His image and likeness.  It was so that He could share His boundless love with more beings like Himself.  I would go so far as to say that love is not really possible without relationships to express that love, and that therefore, it is our relationships that ultimately give meaning and purpose to our lives.

First, our relationship to G-d is most important, because He is the source of all love, without whom love of others is not possible.  Whatever love we have, we get from Him.  Our life’s meaning and purpose is derived from Him and defined by Him, by our loving relationship with Him.

Second, our relationship with others is important.  Why?  Because, we return G-d’s love for us to Him by serving others.  We serve Him by serving others, because, let’s face it, what does G-d really need?  He’s G-d!  This service takes many forms, and differs depending on the one with whom we have the relationship.

We serve our spouse differently than we serve our children, and differently than we serve our employer.  We serve our friends differently than we serve the homeless stranger on the street begging for money.  But all of these relationships should have one thing in common, and that is love.  Love should be the motivating force for everything we think, say, and do.  Are we there yet?  Well, I can only speak for myself, and the answer is no, I’m not there yet and I have a long way to go.

At this point you might be wondering “Well, where does faith come in?”.  After all, the title of the post is “Faith, and What’s Important”.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul goes into a lengthy discourse on love.  I am not going to repeat it here, but it is very well-known in the Christian faiths, and if you haven’t read it, it is well worth the time.  Paul ends these passages with the famous line “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

I believe that Paul ordered “faith, hope, and love” in the sequence he did, because he was implying that the former required the latter, so that without faith, one could have no hope, and without hope, one could have no love.  While love is greater than hope, and hope is greater than faith, neither one of them could exist without faith.

This is illustrated by my own example.  If I didn’t have the simple faith that there had to be more to life, I would not have had the hope to move on, without the hope to move on, I would not have been able to find the love to establish the constructive relationships I needed to move on, and do the hard work necessary to maintain those relationships.

This idea of our meaning and purpose being an extension of our loving relationships with G-d and with others was illustrated to me in a profound way with the passing of my mother.  She was a person who loved life, loved a party, and loved  G-d and her family and was completely devoted to them.

I could go on at length about the trials in her life, the good times, and the bad, and how she responded to these things, but I think it is sufficient to say that all I knew of her was love, and the sacrifices she made for her husband, her children, and others, out of that love.

The meaning and purpose of her life became evident at her funeral service, in those who arrived to show their respects.  My family was wondering who would show up, after all, she was 90 years old.  I mentioned that she had a very active life well into her senior years, and had touched many people, but even I was a little surprised at some of those who were there.

The immediate and extended family were there, of course.  And there were others whom she had known in recent years, this was to be expected.  But there were others, such as the former co-worker, who hadn’t seen my mother since she retired over twenty-five years prior.  There was the friend who had gotten out of touch because of her own health issues, who just “had to come”, being pushed in a wheelchair.

There was the childhood friend of my brother and I, neither of us had seen in forty years, who remembered how welcoming my mother was to all of our friends when we were children.  And there was the son of one of my mothers childhood friends, who herself had recently passed, who came to express his sympathy, on behalf of himself and his family.  There were numerous others, family and friends, all whose lives had been touched for the better by knowing Mom.

My mother had few possessions, when she passed, and little money.  Her memories had long faded.  She hadn’t championed any great causes, unless you count being a lifelong Democrat, of which she was very proud.  But what she did leave behind was the lives she had impacted, the loving relationships she had established.  It didn’t matter that many of these people hadn’t been seen in years, relationships grounded in love do not require constant contact to be maintained; once established, they last forever.

In the end, our lives are defined and given meaning by others and our relationships with them, first with G-d, and then with all those we encounter on our journey.  When all else is gone, there remains only love, and there is nothing else.  This, then, is the meaning and purpose of or lives, to be loved and to love. (from Moulin Rouge)

The Era of Big Government

“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.”  Genesis 11:4 NIV

Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis.  It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago.  The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel.  The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.

The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against G-d and in direct disobedience to His command.

G-d’s response was to confuse the language of the builders, which in turn led to the eventual dispersion of man across the earth (Genesis 11:7-8), as G-d had originally commanded. Interesting, how G-d’s will is always fulfilled, despite man’s best attempts to thwart it, but that  is the subject of another post.

Unfortunately, the era of Big Government was not over with the failure of it’s first major project. From the early empires of Egypt and the Middle East, to Alexander and the Caesars, from Charlemagne to the Caliphate, to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, history is littered with the ruins of failed Big Governments and their projects, along with the corpses of their countless millions of victims.

Big Government comes in many forms. In ancient Babylon, all one had to do was worship a golden statue of the king, or be thrown into a furnace.  In Rome under the Caesars, complete loyalty to the emperor was required, and any sign of disloyalty, such as being a Christian, would get you hung on a cross or made part of the days entertainment in the arena.

In more recent times, a lack of commitment to the International Proletariat in the Soviet state would earn you time in the Gulag, or worse, make you “disappear”.  And of course, in Germany under Hitler, not conforming to Aryan purity got you a trip to the “showers”.

Alternatively, here in the US, and elswhere, there are Big Government programs that provide for retirement, medical care, and food for the poor, among others.  These programs are generally looked upon favorably.

Whether they are viewed as good or evil, though, there are some common attributes of Big Government programs, and given these attributes, we need to ask what is their impact on individuals? Not necesarily the political or economic impact, but the spiritual impact?  Do these programs promote spiritual growth and maturity, or impede it, or are they neutral in this respect?

Let’s first take a look at some of the common elements of Big Government and its programs: 

1. Participation is mandatory.  Whether the goal is ruling the world, or feeding the poor, Big Government programs require full participation.  If you allow one person to dissent, the whole scheme eventually unravels.  This is problematic for those who disagree with the goal, or the methods of achieving it.  Punishment for non-participation, or worse, outright resistance, can range from social ostracism, to imprisonment,  to execution.  Even the most benign Big Governments resort to extreme measures to ensure compliance with its programs.

2. Fear is the primary unifying factor.  It is hard enough to get even small groups of people to agree to a particular course of action, let alone large, diverse nations.  In addition to penalties described above, cooperation with Big Government programs is achieved by identifying some threat, real or imagined, and then managing the resulting public response to the desired result.  The threat could be military, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply not being able to pay for health care, as in the Affordable Care Act, but Big Government programs require some fear generating mechanism to gain support.  The leaders of the Tower of Babel project used man’s individual vulnerability as its fear generating mechanism.

3. Individual responsibility and action is futile.  Big Governments play down the effectiveness of the individual and individual action, unless it is directed toward the stated goal of the group.  Providing for one’s own retirement, or medical care, cannot be done effectively, therefore Big Government must do it.  People cannot be expected to provide lunch for their children, therefore Big Government must do it.  Families should not be responsible for the care of their elderly, so of course Big Government is there to help out.

4.  Targeted problems are exacerbated rather than solved.    It is telling that the first Big Government project at Babel resulted in the very thing the people were trying to avoid, being scattered across the Earth.  This is typical of Big Government projects.  Programs to make education more affordable in the end drive up the cost of education, programs to make health care more affordable end up making it more costly, wars of conquest lead to the eventual destruction of the would be conqueror.  The list goes on and on.  Never does a Big Government program actually solve the problem it was created to solve.  This leads us directly to our next common element.

5.  Big Government programs are self-perpetuating.  There are several reasons for this.  As indicated above, these programs tend to make the problem worse, requiring new and improved Big Government programs to correct the problems caused or worsened by the previous “solutions”.  Also, Big Government programs require Big Government bureaucracies to administer them.  Certainly it is not in the interest of the bureaucracy to actually solve the problem, as this would make the bureaucracy obsolete.  Finally, and most importantly, the very existence of these programs creates a need for them, because of the dependency they create.

6. Freedom and liberty are always diminished.  Big Government programs always require some sacrifice of time or property by some for the “benefit” of all. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  Of course, Big Government determines what one’s abilities are, and hence one’s contributions, and also what one’s needs are, and hence one’s rewards.  However, this requires a form of tyranny, either “soft” or “hard”, to enforce.  Individuals cannot be trusted to voluntarily make these decisions for themdselves, because they may not conform to the common good, as defined by Big Government; and the free market, which is simply the combined decisions of millions, can be trusted even less than the individual.

7. All other possible solutions are precluded.  Big Government programs stifle innovation and creativity, because of their very nature. We can all point to programs that have done a lot of good, but at what price?   Have they done any harm as well? Is there a better way of doing it?  The problem is, we’ll never know, once a Big Government solution is implemented.  In fact, other possible solutions represent a threat that must be eliminated at all costs.  Proponents of other solutions are considered to be unreasonable and uncooperative, they are misguided, maybe even insane.  They require treatment, or re-education; and if that doesn’t work, well, see item 1 above.

Now that we have enumerated some of the characteristics of Big Government, it is useful to review several legends concerning the Tower of Babel project, because, along with the Genesis story, they illustrate many of these characteristics.  Both of these legends concern an individual named Nimrod.

Nimrod, in Genesis, is not associated with the Tower of Babel story.  However, he is mentioned in Genesis 10:8-12 as being a mighty warrior and a “mighty hunter before the Lord”.  He was also a king who founded the cities of Babylon (Babel), Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.  He then moved to Assyria and built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calneh and Resen.

The Nimrod legends, on the other hand, do associate Nimrod with the building of the tower, but in completely different ways. In the one legend, related by the Jewish historian  Josephus, Nimrod was the king of Babel and desired to consolidate his power over the people with the building of the tower. An interesting comment by Josephus, concerning this Nimrod is “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny-seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of G-d, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his own power” (Ant. I: iv: 2).  As an added incentive, he told the people that they would build the tower high enough that if G-d decided to flood the Earth again, they could escape the waters by climbing to the top of the tower. 

It is important to note that in this story, Nimrod wanted to turn the people’s dependence on G-d to a dependence on Nimrod!  Isn’t this what Big Government and its programs are ultimately all about; dependence, power, and control?  The fact that Josephus wrote this almost 2000 years ago is more evidence that the Era of Big Government, and awareness of its impact, has been around for a very long time.

In the second legend, as told by Ephrem the Syrian, Nimrod was actually a righteous individual who opposed the building of the tower, and a Jewish tradition further relates that Nimrod fled Babel to Assyria because of his opposition to the builders. This would seem to agree at least in part with the book of Genesis’ information on Nimrod, that he went to Assyria and founded cities there.

So what are we to make of these opposing stories?  And more importantly, can we learn anything about Big Government from them?  Most definitely, yes!

Let’s first take a look at the Genesis story of the tower.  As stated earlier, Nimrod is not mentioned at all.  In fact, Genesis does not provide any information about the leader(s), except that it appears they were a group, not an individual.  In the verse just prior to the one quoted at the top of this post, it says, “They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).  The “they” and “each other” being referenced here are the people who had “migrated from the east” (Genesis 11:2).  It seems that a group, and a fairly large one at that, led the people.  If there was a single ringleader, the Bible is silent about him.

Given the two opposing stories, what did actually happen in the land of Shinar, so many years ago?  We can’t really know for certain, beyond what scripture relates, but perhaps Nimrod was in fact a righteous man, and the primary leader, or king, of the group that initially founded Babel.  Further, perhaps there was a group of leaders (a city council?) that proposed the building of the tower, for the purpose of controlling the people and keeping them together, and dependent on them, instead of on G-d.  When people are in a large group, it is much easier to control them and create the illusion that they can live without G-d, than if they are living independently in small groups.

As a righteous man, Nimrod could not go along with this rebellion against G-d, and not being able to dissuade the people from their folly, he left Shinar for Assyria, and founded several cities there.  Sometime later, G-d confused the language of the builders, and spread them out across the globe anyway.

So how did the first story arise, that made Nimrod the primary culprit? Well, this leads to an eighth common element of Big Government, and that is that the architects of Big Government and their projects are never to blame when the project fails.  It is always someone else’s fault.  In this case, Nimrod, no longer around, was made responsibile for the undertaking, and therefore responsible for G-d’s displeasure, and the scattering of the people.

This is just one very speculative explanation of what may have happened, and I’m sure you could come up with your own.  What I believe we can safely conclude from scripture is that the building of the tower was a group action and a group decision.  Maybe Babel was the first democracy and the building of the tower the first example of “democratic” action?  There was no single leader, at least none is specified in the bible story, but perhaps a number of community organizers led the effort.  Seems like resonable conclusions given the Genesis account.

The greatest danger of Big Government and its various programs is the loss of liberty, independence, and individual identity that they foster in those that depend on them.  Even those that are initially forced against their will to participate are in great danger of succumbing to the illusion of peace, safety, and prosperity that they offer.  So what can an individual do?

The Babel story itself provides the answer. Man is a naturally dependent creature.  Even the smartest, strongest, and swiftest among us are woefully weak and helpless in the face of the forces, natural and otherwise, that are arrayed against us.  Our temptation is to band together in large groups, seek safety in numbers, and build great cities, nations and empires.  We think that by doing this, our numbers and our reputation, our “name”, will protect us.  This is a dangerous illusion, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

We have a choice to make, a decision: be dependent on G-d, or be dependent on man.  If we choose dependence on man, it is clear we are choosing slavery.  If we choose dependence on G-d, we can participate in these programs, if we choose to, without becoming dependent on them.  That is the freedom that comes from being dependent on G-d.

Now when I say “if we choose to”, we must consider that these programs are mandatory.  If we choose not to participate, there are penalties, fines, imprisonment or worse.  So, unless these programs are so completely offensive to us that we believe we are committing a moral wrong, it is in our best interest to participate.  The point is, with dependence on G-d, we do have a choice; with dependence on man, we don’t.

So, we can choose dependence on man and slavery, or dependence on G-d and freedom.  It is a simple decision, really, clear cut and well-defined.  I know what mine is, what’s yours?

Slavery and Deception

You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.”  Genesis 3:4 NIV

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve.  G-d created a perfect world, a paradise.  He created a man and a woman, placed them in this perfect world, and put them in charge.  G-d told them that they could eat of any tree in the garden, including the Tree of Life, but they could not eat of one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Along came the serpent, who we find out later was already at odds with G-d, and he deceived the woman Eve into eating the fruit from the forbidden tree.  She then offered it to Adam, who had apparently witnessed the interchange between Eve and the serpent, and he ate of it also.  And so began, according to Genesis, the entirety of the human experience: alienated from their creator, enslaved by the serpent, and awaiting the “seed of the woman” to crush the serpent’s head and redeem them (Genesis 3:15).

Whether you believe that the book, of Genesis was written by Moses, by some unknown group of scribes, or by G-d, through Moses, its assessment of the human predicament is right on, and it has many lessons to teach.  One of those lessons is about deception and in fact, the story is a case study in deception and seduction.

The first thing to observe is that the deceiver always has a goal, an objective.  What was the serpent’s objective?  Although it is not explicitly stated, it would seem that the serpent’s objective was to separate man from G-d, but why would he want to do this?

It is commonly believed that the serpent was jealous of man and the position that man held and would hold.  Man was created by G-d, in G-d’s own image and likeness.  In addition, man was given charge of the Earth and everything in it (Genesis 1:27, 28).  Another factor may be the Tree of Life, of which it is understood that if man ate of it, he would become immortal.  Perhaps the serpent knew this and desired to prevent it.

Finally, man had a special relationship with G-d.  G-d would walk with the man and the woman in the garden, conversing with and teaching them.  Regardless of the reason, though, it seems pretty clear that the serpent desired to break up man’s relationship with G-d, and by doing so usurp G-d’s position in that relationship.

The conversation between Eve and the serpent seems to begin innocently enough, with the serpent saying “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).  However, by asking this question, the serpent was able to bring Eve’s attention to the one thing G-d had forbidden.

Of course, G-d had not said that the man and woman could not eat from any tree, only the one tree.  Eve was quick to point this out when she responded “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

Notice how Eve embellished G-d’s command with the addition of “and you must not touch it”.  Many interpret this to mean that the serpent’s deception was already working in Eve, and it may also indicate that Eve had previously thought about the tree.

Maybe Eve thought that by adding the extra prohibition, it would help her obey G-d, after all, if she didn’t touch it she couldn’t eat it, right?   If so, this strategy may have backfired, by making it harder, not easier, to keep G-d’s original commandment.  After all, if Eve touched it and did not die, then why not eat it?

What it does show though, is that Eve was at least interested in the forbidden fruit at this point, or she would not have added the additional command. 

The serpent responded with the bold face lie “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), directly contradicting G-d.  He further explained that G-d was actually the jealous one, not wanting man to “be like G-d”, knowing good from evil.  There is a twofold irony here; first, man was already like G-d in may respects, having been created in G-d’s image and likeness, and second, had man eaten from the Tree of Life, he would have become even more like G-d, having everlasting life (Genesis 3:22).

By now, Eve is completely taken in by the serpent, and is looking at the fruit of the tree as not only a source of good food, but also a source of wisdom and pleasure (Genesis 3:6).  She tasted the fruit and gave some to Adam, who had been watching and listening.  He readily ate the fruit also, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Before going further with the main theme, it is worth mentioning that over the years, more than a few have accorded the woman the blame for The Fall, as it is known, but even a superficial reading shows that this is not the case, for many reasons.

First, the command had been given to Adam, before Eve had been created (Genesis 2:15).  Now, it is clear that Eve knew of the prohibition, but this is still a mitigating fact.  In addition, the serpent directed his deception directly at Eve, and only indirectly at Adam.  Adam was there and made no attempt to stop the serpent, or stop Eve from being deceived.  In my opinion, the woman comes out of this much better than the man.

That the woman comes off much better is demonstrated later, when G-d finally catches up with them.  The woman blames the serpent, but the man blames the woman!  Neither one of them was willing to take responsibility for what they had done, but at least the woman had some reason to blame the serpent, but what reason did the man have to blame the woman?  Sorry guys, but it looks pretty bad for the man here!

Having said that, what can we learn about deception from the story?  First, as stated previously, the deceiver has a purpose for his deception, a goal.  I think we can also say that the deceiver must be subtle, at least at first, only slightly distorting the truth, but then will resort to the boldest of lies when the time is right.  The deceiver must also know something about the deceived that leaves them vulnerable to deception.

Ok, but what about the deceived?  What I mean is, if Adam and Eve were both deceived, why should they bear any responsibility at all for disobeying G-d?  They were deceived, right?

Unfortunately for our first mom and dad, and for the rest of us, it is not quite that simple.  The question that begs to be asked is, why was the serpent able to deceive them?  After all, it was just one simple rule, and they could eat from any other tree, including the Tree of Life.  What was so hard about that?

And man had a good, loving relationship with G-d.  Had G-d given man any reason to mistrust Him?  He placed man in paradise, gave him lordship over an entire planet, walked and talked with him in the garden.  G-d had done nothing but love and bless the man and the woman.

The reason the man and the woman were responsible for their disobedience, even though they had been deceived, lies in the nature of disobedience and in the nature of deception.

Disobedience requires a lack of trust.  Clearly, Adam and Eve both had been thinking about the forbidden tree.  This is demonstrated by Eve’s embellishment of G-d’s command and Adam’s inaction when Eve was being tempted.  Perhaps they had discussed the tree beforehand.  Perhaps they had considered the same issues that the serpent brought up and had wondered themselves why G-d had forbidden the fruit of that tree.  This isn’t stated in the text, but it is not unreasonable to think this based on what is stated.

But G-d had already told them why they should not eat from that tree, it was because they would die.  Many people seem to think that this was primarily a punishment, but I don’t think so.  I believe it was  just a consequence of eating the fruit.  G-d was simply saying to them look, don’t eat from that tree, it will kill you.  Certainly there are fruits and vegetables today which are poisonous and  if eaten in sufficient quantity can result in death, and this was one of them.  Had they trusted G-d, they would have gone to him with their concerns, but instead chose disobedience.

This brings us to a very important point about deception, which is that people who are unwilling to be deceived will not be deceived.  Adam and Eve wanted to eat of that fruit, and all it took was the subtle and crafty serpent to tell them they would not die, and they went for it.  They had a choice, they could believe G-d or the serpent, and they believed the serpent, because he told them what they wanted to hear.

I am reminded of the Fleetwood Mac song in which some of the lyrics go “tell me lies tell me sweet little lies”.  Unfortunately, this is all too true.  We often want to be deceived because we think that it provides us with an excuse for doing things that we know we should not.  It does not, as the story relates.

Finally, deception always results in slavery.  From the false advertiser who induces us to spend our money on a product that does not live up to its billing, to the unscrupulous lender who deceives us into buying a house that we cannot afford, to the politician who promises us the world on a string if we only vote for him, they are slave masters all.  They prey upon our weakness and thereby have us do their bidding.

In the end, though, the real enslavement is not to the deceiver, it is to ourselves, and the weakness within us that leaves us vulnerable to deception.  Whether it is greed, or lust, or pride, or envy, whatever it is that causes us to allow ourselves to be deceived, that is the thing which ultimately enslaves us.  When we indulge that weaknesss, it only strengthens its hold on us, when we refuse to indulge it, we will be taking the first steps to emancipation.

Emancipation cannot take place though, without an unshakable commitment to the truth.  If you read my previous blog, “Freedom and Truth”, you know that the truth will set you free.  Perhaps now you are starting to see how that is so.

Freedom and Truth

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 NIV

The post-modern world says that at best, the truth exists but is unknowable, and at worst, it does not exist at all.  On the other hand, Jesus said that knowing the truth will set you free.  They both can’t be right.

Before we go to that question, though, we need to ask what is meant here by freedom.  Is it physical freedom, such as freedom to move about, freedom of association, of speech, of worship?  Is it intellectual freedom, the freedom to explore unhindered the various ideas and philosophies of this world?  Or maybe Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom, not freedom of worship,  which is the freedom to practice a particular religion, or go to a favored place of worship, but the freedom to be loving, giving, kind, hopeful, faithful, unafraid, without guilt, and content?

Given the context and the application of Jesus words by his disciples, I think it is safe to say that Jesus was speaking of spiritual freedom; he was saying that by knowing the truth and, one assumes, believing it, one will be set free from spiritual deception and the spiritual bondage that goes with it.  But, while I believe spiritual freedom was Jesus’ primary intent here, I am sure that Jesus was well aware that after spiritual emancipation comes emancipation in all other areas.  After all, didn’t Jesus also say “Seek the Kingdom of God, and you will get everything else along with it”?

This truth has been demonstrated throughout history.  The nation of Israel physically came out of Egypt, but they were still in spiritual bondage and because of this they could not enter the promised land.  After forty years of wandering, the original faithless generation died off, a new generation, strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, emerged to take possession of the land that G-d had promised.  There they lived for hundreds of years in relative freedom, peace and prosperity.

America as well had a similar beginning.  Various small groups of Christians, often a persecuted minority, left their native lands, and strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, endured great hazards to settle a new land.  Based on that faith, and the philosophy and moral principles that came with it, a nation emerged that would become the most free and most prosperous in history.

History has also demonstrated that as nations, and individuals, lose that spiritual freedom, they also lose the physical freedoms that come along with it.

After Israel entered the promised land, they lived as a loose confederation of tribes, with no central authority, except G-d and the laws he had given them.  Over time though, several hundred years, the people left the original faith, and as they did so, chaos began to reign.  Ominously, the history book of this period, the Book of Judges, ends with the line “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

The situation deteriorated to the point that in the first Book of Samuel, the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king.  Samuel protested that a king would conscript their sons, collect taxes, and otherwise diminish their freedoms, but the people insisted.  Samuel consulted the Lord and the Lord told him to give them their king, that it wasn’t him, Samuel, that the people were rejecting, that it was the Lord.

Parallels can also be drawn here to America, which started as a loose confederation of states, and now has empowered government at all levels, particularly at the central , federal level, at the expense of individual’s and state’s freedoms.  Few people know that a popular battle cry of the Revolutionary War was “We have no king but King Jesus”.  Much like Israel, at it’s founding, America’s king was G-d, and much like Israel, over time the people began demanding another “king”.

So far so good, but we still have a problem.  The modern world tells us that, for all intents and purposes, there is no truth, while the wisdom of the ages says that the truth will set you free.  What to do?

Well, let’s take a look at the concept of truth.  What is truth?  Some of the definitions in Merriam-Webster are “the real state of things”, “the body of real events or facts”, and “agreement with fact or reality”.  So truth is reality, right? So if reality exists, then truth exists, right?  I am unconvinced by my own argument here, but I do believe that truth exists.  Why?

Because, on a practical level, without truth, we simply could not function.  Imagine a situation in which you buy a pound of beef, put it on your scale at home, and it only registers a half a pound.  You go back to the store, they put it on their scale, and it registers a pound.  You contact the local Bureau of Weights and Measures, they bring out their scale, and lo and behold, your scale is correct, and the store owes you another half pound of beef.  The store is also fined and is required to get an accurate scale.

What does this have to do with truth and reality?  Everything, actually.  We have the truth of the money having an accepted value at the time of purchase, we have the truth of the beef having a certain value at the time of purchase, and we have the truth of the amount a pound is equal too.  Now you might say that the value of the money changes over time, and the value of the beef changes over time, so they can’t be truths because the truth is unchangeable.  Well, who says?  They are all a part of reality and reality changes, so the truth can change as well.  We might call these transient truths, but they are truths none the less.

But what about the pound?  Does that change?  Well in theory, it could, but as a practical matter, the purpose of the Bureau of Weights and Measures is to see to it that it doesn’t change, so the answer is no, the amount equal to a pound does not change.  This could be termed a permanent truth, the kind I think we’re all looking for, but there still is a sense of dissatisfaction.  Why?

Well, you say, it’s because you are talking about “practical” truths, and we want to talk about moral and spiritual truths, the kind of truths that set you free.  My answer to that is, they are the same thing, because it should be apparent that there can be no truth of any kind without a standard.  In the case of the value of the money and the beef, the market, which is changeable, provides the standard, and in the case of the pound, the Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is not changeable provides the standard,

So what is the standard for moral and spiritual truths?  This seems obvious to me, the standard is not a what but a who, it is G-d.  The creator of all things is the creator of all truth.  Of course, it is no wonder that the post-modern world denies truth, it is because the post-modern world denies G-d.  Without G-d there is no truth; without truth, there is no hope.

We still haven’t addressed the problem of knowing the truth.  How can one know the truth, especially in a world seemingly so full of lies?  Here again a practical example might help.  A parent tells a young child, don’t put your hand in the flame or it will burn you.  When the parent is not looking, the child tentatively places his hand near the flame, feels the heat, and immediately learns the truth.  The simple answer is we learn the truth primarily through trial and error, in other words, experience.

But that isn’t really enough, because pure trial and error can be very dangerous, and few would survive for long.  The key then, is that we must have a guide, just as the parent served as a guide to the child in the example above, so we must have a guide, maybe more than one.  There are many possible guides, including scripture, religions, philosophies, other people, even G-d Himself.  I am not going to tell you who or what to choose as your guide, but you can probably make a good guess as to who and what are my guides.

I will say though, choose your guides wisely, make sure they have stood the test of time.  What has been the fate of others who have followed those guides?  Has the guide ever been wrong and what were the consequences?  Make sure it is a guide you can put your faith in.

I believe that the journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly requires a firm commitment to the truth.  Truth is reality, what is.  A commitment to the truth provides you with the ability to explore all possibilities, strengthens your faith, and allows you to grow.  Deny the truth and you will be a slave to whatever lies you believe, but know the truth and it will indeed set you free.