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Friday, February 5, 2010


God puts two trees in the garden -- the tree of life, which makes sense if life is really about the presence of God's Spirit like we've seen before. But he also puts the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there, and then tells Adam not to mess with it, which is a little confusing to us. We think that knowing good from evil is a good thing. Right? We call it "discernment." We teach it to our children. We expect it of ourselves. Someone who doesn't know good from evil is a little scary; we call such a person a "psychopath." But if we read the text carefully, the mistake Eve makes in the next chapter is that she wants to do a good thing. She sees that the fruit of this tree is pleasing to the eye, that it is good for food, and that it makes you wise. What could be wrong with that? What is the Bible getting at here?

There's a problem with our knowing good from evil. Fact is, we too often get it wrong. Our discernment is not trustworthy. We set out to know good from evil on our own, and we mistake the two. Worse, we put our own sense of good and evil, right and wrong, ahead of the command of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, wrote about this problem in his book, Ethics. He never finished the book while he was alive, but after his death the notes were collected and published. Here's Bonhoeffer's take on this issue. Feel free to take some time to ponder this:

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin.

In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all; for he can know God only if he knows only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil.

But man cannot be rid of his origin. Instead of knowing himself in the origin of God, he must now know himself as an origin. He interprets himself according to his possibilities, his possibilities of being good or evil, and he therefore conceives himself to be the origin of good and evil. (From Ethics, pp. 17-18)

I have a confession to make. I have started to read this book at least twenty times, and never gotten beyond this quote. If we understood this concept, it would revolutionize the way we think about good and evil, about a relationship with God, and about what it means to follow Jesus.

We see the consequences of our misunderstanding in well-meaning people who "believe in Jesus", but they see Christianity as a structure for living a good, moral life. In their minds the gospel can be summarized, "Be nice." Functionally these people are no different than the guy next to me on the airplane who, when he hears that I am a pastor, responds quickly, "I'm a pretty good person." Morally and socially, these are both good people. One has given intellectual assent to the person of Jesus, but the belief has no power to change their life. The other sees himself as an outsider to Christianity, but is still caught up in its moral framework to the point that he feels defensive when confronted with a pastor. Neither of these people has a clue what it means to know Jesus or of the power he has to transform the life of his followers.

It is only when we know Jesus first, last, and only that we begin to experience the power of his transforming presence. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer asserts that for the follower of Jesus, all relationships are mediated by Jesus. That is, no matter how close our relationship, we receive only as much of each other as Jesus Christ desires for us to have. Even for Christian husbands and wives, parents and children, the relationship is mediated by Christ. If it is not, to the extent that they know each other apart from Christ, they are cut off from the fullness of life that Jesus desires for them. In essence, this is what it means when God declares from Mount Sinai, "You shall have no other gods before me." When Jesus is all we see, all we know, and we know all else through him, we begin to experience what it means not to know good and evil in ourselves. We receive life in all its abundance as Jesus leads, as Jesus gives.

This life is the edge of the knife, for we can fall off either side all too easily. On one hand we may mistake who Jesus is and substitute a mental or emotional idol of our own creating without every really knowing Jesus. So the person who substitutes a social gospel for the truth of Christ believes they receive all things through the need, the demand, that social structures should line up with their "gospel". This is a favorite error of liberal Christianity. We choose a particular social agenda du jour (advocacy for women, for gays, for the poor, for HIV/AIDS victims, for whales, for the environment, whatever) because we believe it is "good" and we superimpose it on Jesus, and from that moment on we hear Jesus recommending our social agenda. But this Jesus is an idol of our own creating. The error of conservative churches on the other side of the knife's edge is not really any different; they just substitute a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior" (we used to abbreviate it PRWJCAMLAS) for the social agenda. Their error is to believe that this personal relationship is my only concern and now that I'm saved, I have nothing to worry about except perhaps helping to save another individual here and there. I can take my fire-insurance policy and go back to my self-oriented life. Again, we have missed the real Jesus in favor of an idol of our own personal creation.

The danger here is tremendous. In both cases, we have substituted a societal agenda -- one from the political left, another from the inner-focused fringe of evangelicalism -- for Jesus. We are not governed by Jesus and his words to us, but by our sense of what is right. Many times I have heard "good" church-attending people -- even church leaders -- confronted by a statement straight out of the mouth of Jesus in the gospels, say "I don't think Jesus would ever say that." Sometimes we dress our prejudice up a little better than that., but once we make this shift away from an external understanding of who Jesus is, we can justify any behavior, any prejudice, any judgment, because we believe we're following Jesus. So the self-focused PRWJCAMLAS Christian can read the gospels over and over but never hear Jesus' heart for the poor, the sick, the blind, the leper -- all these things are spiritualized beyond any connection with reality. Similarly, the social liberal Christian can read the gospels over and over and like Nicodemus in John 3; all Jesus' words about being born again, born of the Spirit, run off their hearts like water off a duck.

External accountability is critical, because we are so capable of deceiving ourselves. If we are simply left to make Jesus in our own image, the gospel is no hope and no help. A good friend of mine is a master at equipping leaders for ministry. Early in their discipling he turns them loose on the gospels, recommending that they read all four in order to get to know Jesus. "Then what?" they ask. "After that, read the gospels," he says, "And then read the gospels again." We need to know Jesus for who he is, not for who we think he is. And knowing Jesus as he is, we need to surrender more and more of our lives to him -- relationships, beliefs, spending, saving, entertainment, social action, rest, laziness, parenting, driving, work, shopping, everything. Otherwise, if we hang on to our "right" to decide for ourselves what is good, all we have done is to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we have missed God.


  1. Why did God put the "tree of knowledge of God and Evil in the garden"?

    Seems to me that since he created man with a will, it was only a matter of time and someone (myself perhaps) would have let curiousity get the best of them....

  2. My bad. Make that the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". Why did God put the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" in the garden?