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Old Testament Stories from the Back Side
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1995 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Second Sin
GENESIS 3:1-13: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."
I keep worrying about the second sin. Philosophers wonder about the first sin, and the average person doesn't usually keep count; but I worry about the second sin.
Part of my worry comes from the feeling that I'm the only one concerned about the second sin. And of course it is so subtle. That's why so few are thinking about it, which naturally makes my burden all the greater.
But before we go farther, let's review the circumstances of the first sin, since this is where the whole issue begins. You remember the story. Adam and Eve were living in an utterly perfect setting, in a place so ideal that they called it Eden—paradise. It seemed they had everything their hearts could desire. The only thing forbidden to them was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
One day a spectacular visitor, the serpent, struck up a conversation with Eve. We don't know why he ignored Adam, who was with her (Genesis 3:6), and spoke to her, nor why she carried the whole weight of the conversation. The serpent raised in Eve's mind a question about the goodness of God: Why would God refuse her and Adam the privilege of anything in the Garden, especially something that obviously must be the most desirable thing there? And then, an accusation: God refuses you this particular fruit because God knows you will become equal to the Divine if you eat it.
So Eve was convinced, and she ate. And being generous by nature, she shared the fruit with her husband, and he ate. And that was the first sin.
Of course that story doesn't satisfy us; it only quickens our curiosity. What, exactly, was that first sin? Some have suggested that it was the discovery of sex, because Adam and Eve became conscious of their nakedness and made themselves garments of fig leaves. But that explanation misses the point, even if it succeeds in making the story more exciting. The issue was the human desire to be equal with God.
The Bible, in its profound wisdom, portrays the first sin in entirely symbolic language. If it had described the sin as the violation of a specific commandment, we humans would ever after have thought that act to be the worst sin and probably the only one to worry about; and I expect we then would have been unconcerned about all the others. But the writer of Genesis simply gives us a picture: The first sin is the eating of the forbidden fruit. It is the basic act of disobedience and disbelief. As such it is the essence of our human problem.
This first sin is highly significant because it's the first. But the second sin may, in fact, be more important—because we'll never recover from the first sin so long as we're guilty of the second. The scriptures and human experience both testify that God has provided a remedy for the first sin, no matter what it is. But the second sin can make God's remedy ineffective. That's why it worries me so. One might even say that the second sin is the unpardonable sin. And yet, you don't hear anything about the second sin, do you?
Let's go back to the Bible story to see how it all happened. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they became ashamed of their nakedness; but far more important, they became uneasy about God. So when God came walking in the Garden soon thereafter, Adam and Eve tried to hide. They must have realized that it is impossible to hide from God, but sin makes us humans do irrational things; sin is never very smart, you know, not even when it dresses itself in sophistication. "Why are you hiding?" God asked. And Adam, who had been quite silent in the conversations with the serpent, replied, "I heard you coming and didn't want you to see me naked. So I hid."
Now God pressed the matter. "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten fruit from the tree about which I warned you?"
Adam answered, "Yes, but it was the woman you gave me who brought me some, and I ate it." And Eve, not to be left bearing sole responsibility, chimed in, "The serpent tricked me."
Now there you have the second sin. It is even more dangerous than the first, because it prevents our recovering from the first. It is the sin of excuses—the unwillingness to admit that we are wrong and the refusal to see ourselves for what we are. Whatever our original sin may be, whether it is lying, adultery, cheating, ill temper, gluttony, drunkenness, gossip, or murder, there is always hope for us. But when we become guilty of the second sin, the sin of excusing ourselves and of being unwilling to face ourselves, we close the door against God and hope.
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a second-century rabbi, said, "Like an architect, the Holy One modeled the world, and it would not stand, until He created repentance." The world does, indeed, stand or fall with our readiness to repent. This is true of nations, of institutions, of individuals. If a nation takes a wrong road and repents, she can recover; but if she insists on justifying her policies, she will disintegrate. It may be a slow process, but it is a sure one. The prophets called it the judgment of God, but it is written into the very nature of the universe. Either we face ourselves and repent, or our world falls.
The same rule applies to institutions. When investigative reporters revealed that a national charitable organization was paying exorbitant salaries to a few top officers and that money was being used recklessly, the organization could either tough it out or admit it had erred. It chose to confess its sins, and it survived. I doubt that the public would have continued its support if that organization had done anything less than make an abject apology to the nation. But the key word is not "abject"; it is repentance.
Fiorello La Guardia, whose name has been taken by both an airport and a musical, was the flamboyant but effective mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. He was an institution! But he made mistakes and acknowledged them. He noted that he didn't make many and said, "But when I do, it's a beaut!" His voters laughed with him, because he knew enough to acknowledge when he was wrong.
Mistakes don't destroy us, nor will the eternal mistakes called sins; what destroys is our inability to face ourselves and confess that we've been wrong. If a ballplayer can't catch the ball, there's still hope if he will say to his coach, "I must be doing something wrong." But there's almost no hope for the person who insists on excusing his errors: the sun got in my eyes; the grass was wet; I thought Jim was going to catch it. So it is in the world of learning. Those who make the most of the educational enterprise are not necessarily those with a high I.Q. The secret is to be teachable; and to be teachable you must be willing to admit that you don't know—and that's a form of repentance: repenting of ignorance. As long as we excuse our failure to learn, we frustrate the learning process.
But baseball and even learning are relatively inconsequential compared with the issues of the soul, our very being. The personalities of the Bible might easily be divided into those who were willing to learn—that is, to repent—and those who were not. Those two categories could also be classified as the victorious and the tragic. Moses and Balaam both erred, but Moses repented his way to greatness while Balaam died a fool. Saul and David were both sinners, dramatically flawed, but Saul exited in tragedy while David was declared a person after God's own heart.
Some of history's most magnificent human beings have been marked by major sins, mistakes, and befuddlements, yet they have come to greatness because of their capacity for acknowledging their failures. They are great, in some instances, not in spite of their sins but because of them. Character grows out of the soil of our lives like a tender plant. If we repent of our sins, repentance breaks the soil of life so that the plant gets a new and stronger start. But if we excuse or ignore our failures, the soil of life hardens until the plant of character simply cannot survive.
I have suggested that the second sin may be what is often called "the unpardonable sin." The unpardonable sin is defined as the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28, 29), a blaspheming of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is the persuasive agent in our lives, the power which convicts us of sin. When we excuse ourselves and refuse to recognize our sins, we harden ourselves against the Spirits work of persuasion. That very act of resisting and hardening is a sin against the Spirit—a blaspheming, so to speak, of the Spirits work. If this rejection continues long enough, we come to a place where we no longer hear or sense the Spirits pleading. How could we be more lost than to be in a state where we are no longer disturbed about being wrong? We come to such a place by the continuing process of self-excusing.
What experts we are in hiding from the knowledge of what we are! Adam and Eve set the pattern for us, and we've been refining it ever since. When God asked Adam if he had eaten from the forbidden tree, he had the opportunity to step forward and confess what he had done. Instead he answered, "Yes, but the woman ..." What a courageous soul he was: brave, ready to shoulder responsibility! "It was the woman."
And the woman, I regret to say, did no better. Several differences exist between the sexes, but sin isn't one of them. Male and female, we have a common facility for excusing ourselves. While it is often noted that the woman committed the first sin, it must also be said that the man led the way on the second. And in both cases, the other was all too prompt to follow. So when Eve saw the blame heading toward her, she quickly said, "The serpent tricked me." One remembers comedian Flip Wilson whose character Geraldine would excuse all her failures with, "The devil made me do it." When we see Geraldine, we have a sad-funny caricature of us all.
But I'm not done with Adam. His excuse doesn't stop with shifting the burden of blame to Eve. He complains to God, "It was the woman you gave me." In other words, "It's your fault, God, for so generously providing me with this lovely creature who leads me astray—this one of whom I said so recently that she was bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It's your fault for giving her to me."
We've been talking to God that way ever since. "It's the temperament you gave me. I can't help myself." "It's in my genes." "It's my lack of talent. If only God had given me more talent." An American actress once explained the tragedies of her troubled life by her beauty: She had become beautiful when she was too young to handle such a responsibility. Others blame the stars. And such a response is nothing new; Shakespeare had his Cassius correct Brutus:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves ...
(JULIUS CAESAR, I, ii)
Even so, perhaps we have refined the skills of earlier generations. Our great learning has given us new ways to excuse ourselves. Vast numbers use psychiatry and its related sciences to aid and abet their natural inclination to blame someone else. Jerome Ellison, a premier magazine editor from the middle years of this century, recalls that he spent many thousands of dollars with several psychiatrists to cure himself of alcoholism, and the whole experience ended with the feeling that his parents had failed him in his infancy. Later Ellison wisely concluded that it did no good to blame his parents for the state he was in. That wasn't really the issue. Now the only point was to see what he could do with the life he had and the mess he had made of it. For all of us, that means stripping ourselves of all excuses and making a new start.
Our knowledge is leading us, it seems, to a veritable epidemic of fault-displacement. George A. Tobin, the Washington attorney and writer, recalls an acquaintance who excused his various moral lapses by saying, "Well, I'm just the kinda guy who ..." All of us have known such a person; some of us have sometimes been such a person! But now we have science, of sorts, on our side. We're quite sure we can find secrets in our genetic code to prove that we're really not responsible for what we do. "What can one expect of a person whose intricate makeup is like mine?" we ask. There's something both perverse and amusing about the fact that some who scorn the idea of a devil have shaped a devil of their own and have christened it in the name of science.
The ultimate tragedy of the second sin is that it prevents us from finding God. The ancient poet cried out in his guilt:
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (PSALM 51:17)
God can visit the penitent soul because the penitent soul has an open door. But God is shut out of the life that covers over its failures with a hard surface of excuses. The Forgiving One never has opportunity to forgive and restore those who will not acknowledge that they want such a divine Friend.
When Adam and Eve sinned, a great mercy came into their lives. God called, "Where are you?" When you're trying to run from yourself and from God and from life, that call doesn't at first seem a mercy. In his epic poem "The Hound of Heaven," Francis Thompson describes God as one whom we flee "down the vistas of the years." But kindly and persistently, God pursues us, hounds us, follows after us.
I imagine a community that has been devastated by a fatal epidemic. Now a physician comes who has a sure, accessible remedy. Through the streets of the village he walks, past closed doors, crying out as in ancient Eden, "Where are you? Where are you?"
Some hide in the basements of life and die. But others sense the mercy in the cry and recognize that as painful as it may be to confess the possibility of their infection, they must submit themselves to treatment so that their lives can be saved.
Shall we say to the physician, "My neighbor is responsible ... the woman you gave me." "I was born with a constitutional weakness, and the environment is against me." "The system is bad. Who can get well with a system like the one where I live?" No, no! Say, "I'm infected. Please heal me. Please make me well."
Whatever sin or weakness or inadequacy affects and afflicts us, God offers the remedy. Only one thing can prevent our getting well. Only one! The second sin.
Our innate unwillingness to confess that we need help—and on the basis of that confession, to seek God's remedy.
Excerpted from Old Testament Stories from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 1995 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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