Do not fear

I have always considered myself to be a careful reader, and so, I cannot explain why it has taken me nearly twenty-five years of reading the Bible to notice that the tree of life was also in the Garden. It says it right there in Genesis 2:9, “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” And yet, I am not the only one who has made this oversight. When Eve speaks with the serpent, she does not mention, in fact, does not even seem to remember the tree of life. She tells the serpent that God commanded her and Adam, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden,” as though there were only one, and there is no doubt in her, the serpent’s, or our own minds that she is referring to the tree of knowledge: the forbidden one, the one God told her and Adam not to eat from—for it would only bring death—though He gave them the fruit of every other tree in existence. Indeed, He left open to them the tree of life itself.

I have never been troubled over whether or not the fruit that Eve and Adam ate was literal fruit. The act of their defiance, symbolic or otherwise, seems sufficient to make God’s point. I have too easily seen our collective and individual rebellion in that act of taking what was not theirs to take, striving to be like God because they had convinced themselves this was more desirable than being with God. It is true that He restricted the tree of knowledge, just as it is true that He places limits on our human understanding. But it is also true that He gave them the tree of life, without a single restriction around it, and this speaks so profoundly about the nature of God: that every time He shuts one door and keeps it shut, though we knock and kick and cry, He always opens another—softly, often imperceptibly beneath the howl of our wailing—and it is the door into His presence. It is the tree of life itself.

There are a great many faults I can rightly be accused of having. One is my inability to let sleeping dogs lie. I am not just a writer—I am a highly analytical, some might say obsessive, writer, and for reasons I can only assume are rooted in masochism, I am primarily a writer of creative nonfiction, more specifically, of memoir, which means I spend my waking hours raking over the wounds of my existence, trying to determine why I’m bleeding. However good this may or may not be for my art, I can assure you it isn’t good for my sanity. And yet, it is my life’s work, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. So in order to maintain what little sanity the Lord has granted me, I have had to, as it were, learn to live with myself, and the only way I have found this to be possible is by staying close to Jesus—by daily, if not hourly, bringing Him the mess of me, with all my roaring thoughts, and asking Him to still them, as He did the raging sea.

“Wherever you go,” it is said, “there you are,” and this is truer perhaps now more than ever, when we can’t go anywhere and many of us only have ourselves for company. The impulse to turn on the news, to scroll through Facebook and Twitter, to saturate ourselves with information that changes day by day, if not hour by hour, is more tempting than it has ever been. I myself am of the opinion that we were better off as a society when we didn’t know what was coming for us. But I realize I am in the minority by holding that opinion, and I’m certainly not disparaging technology on the whole. I couldn’t do my job without it. I couldn’t stay connected, or at least not as closely connected, to family and friends without it. But like everything, I believe we have to consume it in moderation. The trouble with technology, though, is that unlike food or alcohol, it’s not so easy to tell when we’ve had too much. It’s not so easy to tell when it’s begun to make us sick.

The desire to know what’s going on in the world and to learn how to protect ourselves and each other from a virus is not, in itself, a bad desire. But the question we have to ask is the same question Adam and Eve should have asked—and perhaps did ask—before they ate from the tree of knowledge: is this the fruit that God would have me eat? Is my pursuit of knowledge in this instance going to bring me closer to the Lord or push me away from Him? I once heard Tim Mackie say there is no such thing as a static relationship with Jesus, or with anyone, for that matter—you’re either growing closer or moving further apart. Our proximity to God can change moment by moment, and it is perhaps too big of an ask to say that, in every choice we make, we should be aiming for deeper intimacy with Jesus. But then, every aspect of Christianity is too big of an ask for sinful humans, left to our own devices. That’s just the thing, though—we have not been left alone.

Here’s another fact it took years of reading Scripture for me to realize: until Jesus came and died and rose again, mankind did not have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. The favored ones of the Old Testament had God’s presence resting upon them, for a time—some for a longer time than others—but they were the exception, not the rule. Suddenly, the Israelites’ deplorable behavior was not such a mystery to me. I wondered how they’d managed to behave as well as they had. Suddenly, the disciples’ panic over learning that Jesus would be taken from them was much more understandable. They did not know, as we know, what it was like to have God’s presence continually with them. I do not know where I would be without the last words of Jesus recorded in Matthew: “And be sure of this—that I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” There have been times in my life when this truth was the only thing that got me through the day. The reality in which we are currently living is one of those times.

As a lifelong academic, the desire to eat from the tree of knowledge is a desire for which I have a deep and abiding empathy. As a person whose life has been marked by loss and a trail of unanswered questions, the impulse to turn aside from God’s presence and to start clutching after my own remedies is an impulse of which I am deeply guilty. Knowledge certainly has its place, as do human remedies, but like everything else on this earth, there comes an end to their ability to help us—and that is the point we have to watch out for. It is different for everyone. I can’t tell you how much Twitter is too much Twitter (though it’s probably a good deal less than you’d like to admit). I cannot tell you at what point your desire to be informed has shifted into an unhealthy impulse to control what is and will remain beyond your control, no matter how many facts you gather. I cannot tell you when seeking to save your life and the lives of those around you starts to come at the cost of losing sight of Jesus and inviting sickness, even death, into your soul.

God does not lie to us, and when He told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge because it would kill them, He was not lying. It did kill them. Not instantly, and not, I believe, just because, following their transgression, God barred the way to the tree of life and struck them with mortality. But because God knew the moment they sought their sustenance apart from Him—the moment they decided to be their own gods and pursue what He had not left open to them—was the moment when they would lose their connection with Him. God used to walk with them in the Garden—do you remember that part of the story? And do you remember what Adam and Eve did after eating what they had been forbidden to eat? They hid. They hid from God. “I was afraid,” Adam said, when the Lord asked them why they were hiding. It is the first time fear is mentioned in the Bible, and it will not be the last. The stories in Scripture, even our own stories, are marked by fear, and what is God continually telling us? “Do not fear.”

“Do not fear, for I am with you,” He says in Isaiah. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Of all the impossible commands in Scripture, the command to not fear seems, to me, to be at the top of the list. It is one of the hardest commands to obey, and it is also one of the most often repeated. I believe these facts go hand in hand. But I also believe there is another reason why God is so eager, even to the point of being obsessive, to remind us not to fear: because He knows, the moment we give into fear, is the moment we lose our connection with Him. Peter walked on water, until he took his gaze off Jesus and looked instead to the wind and the waves swelling around him, and that was the moment when he started to sink. That was the moment when he realized he was just a dude who had stumbled out of a boat—frail, finite, ill-equipped, and incapable of facing what was before him. That was the moment when he forgot that Jesus was the One who had called him out onto the water—that Jesus, the One who could command the wind and the waves to still, was the One to whom he belonged.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. The choice before us is not exactly like the choice before Adam and Eve—we know all too well what it’s like to live in a world that’s been poisoned by sin—and yet, the choice before us is very much the same. We can strive to be “like God” until we’re blue in the face, but we will always only be human. And we may ask why seeking knowledge should preclude receiving life, and the only answer I can give is that God designed it to be so. And at a certain point, if we are to maintain our sanity, we have to stop demanding a different arrangement, and instead make the more difficult decision to eat from the tree of life—to tear ourselves away from what will only make us sick with fear, and choose instead what will bring rest to our souls. God is always present with us, always readily available to receive us. He places no restriction around Himself, but we have to remember to remember Him.