Flirting with the Forbidden
- Wednesday, February 22, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Flirting with the Forbidden: Finding Grace in a World of Temptation by Steven James (Revell).
I lost two sons today.
One to his brother, the other to himself.
And I screamed.
Screamed into the darkening day.
But Death had come and there is no turning back, no rebirthing again. This I have learned. This is the lesson of my life.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming.
Yesterday, when I was preparing the morning meal with Cain, I had the small, tender sense that things had changed.
He told me that God had spoken to him, and I felt a flare of jealousy. God had spoken to me in the garden, yes, but hadn’t spoken to any of us since the rift, the great divide. Since we’d been banished from the place of harmony.
“What did God say to you?” I asked my son.
He was slow in responding. “It was a message for me.” I caught the hint of a grin. “Only for me.”
His words were like a slap in the face.
First he taunted me and now he was drawing satisfaction from it.
“Tell me, Son. What message did God give you?”
He eyed me. “He told me that sin is crouching at my door, that it wants to control me. But that I must master it.”
I was quiet. I didn’t know if this truly was the Lord speaking to him, but it was a message my son definitely needed to hear and I doubted he would have come up with those words on his own.
“Then you must master the sin, Cain,” I said. “The Lord will help you.”
“He told me I needed to do it.” A touch of venom in his words. “He never told me he would help me.”
“Do not talk that way.”
“Don’t speak in truth? You would have me—”
“Stop.” I stemmed off the argument. “Trust that God will help you and you’ll be able to resist.”
Then Cain smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll resist.”
“Don’t open the door.”
“I won’t open the door.”
It would be easier if I didn’t remember the way things were in the Garden. It’s the knowing that hurts, the knowing that things were different once, that harmony was possible. I wish I didn’t know that, wish I could just erase the memories once and for all, forget it and live as if this were the best of all possible worlds.
But I can’t.
And that’s part of the curse.
It seems like so long ago when we walked with the Creator beside us. Listened to his presence. It wasn’t like a voice speaking but an understanding being shared that was beyond words. We were surrounded with the overwhelming weight of his holiness, the comfort of his acceptance, the warming presence of his unspeakable love.
The memory stings like a new breed of loneliness.
When Adam looks at me I can see it in his eyes too. A longing backward through time, before all of this. A terrifying regret that we will never feel that peace again.
I used to wonder what it would be like for my boys—growing up never knowing the way things were in the Garden, only seeing splintered, thorn-encrusted glimpses of paradise. And if I have more children—if—then I wonder if there will be an eventual forgetting of what things can be like between us and the Creator, each generation falling further from the knowledge of the Garden.
The day the rift occurred is a stain on my memory. That day when death came into the world and the hot horror of shame overtook us still haunts me.
A blade cut through my heart after it happened, especially when I looked into Adam’s eyes and I saw a slow-growing darkness. I found out later what it is called.
And when the Creator spoke to us, I explained that I’d heard the thoughts, the words of the snake—which wasn’t all that unusual since both Adam and I had a sense of what the animals were saying to each other. Not in the same language we spoke but in a whisper-reflection of it.
I looked to Adam for his support, for his help, but he stepped backward.
Faltered. Blamed me for everything.
And all that had been pure and right between us crumbled.
I knew I would never trust him again, not like I had, and I could see by the look on his face that he had already stopped trusting me.
So much pain.
And I thought, If death is to come, let it come! I desire it!
But in a wicked twist of fate, the Creator let us live.
I wish he had not.
And when my sons came, despite the pain, the terrible pain of their birth, I had a sense of hope. A daring seed of belief that life would go on, that the past could be redeemed by the birth of something new.
They looked like their father. I hadn’t known it would be like that.
When I awoke this morning, a tumult of clouds was roiling on the horizon. They would do this sometimes, chase us, then descend and surround us with a gray mist.
But the breath of the clouds’ damp wind hadn’t found us yet. The air was staid and still and sharp with the heat of the awakening day.
At the morning meal Abel announced that he was going to make an offering to God. Adam, Cain, and I listened quietly.
“An offering,” I said.
“Yes. A gift.”
“What gift could you possibly give God?”
Adam eyed me, trying to let his look rebuke me, but I didn’t let it.
“One of my lambs,” Abel said.
“How will you give your lamb to God?” Cain asked.
“I will burn it and let the smoke rise to heaven like a fragrance.”
The scent of death as a gift?
“God is a spirit, Abel,” I told him. “He does not need your dead
“He gives us all we have,” he replied. “Everything. But what do we give him? He gives us the sun, the air, the earth, the food we eat.” He smiled in his innocent way, his naive way, and I wished I could feel that sense of trust in the Creator, that pure thanksgiving, unclouded with regrets or shame. “I want to thank him.”
“Then thank him by the way you live.” I was done with this conversation. “Don’t thank him by killing. Death is a curse, not a gift.”
He was quiet.
“Let’s just eat,” I said, but almost immediately Adam contravened what I’d said.
“Go on,” he told Abel. “Give God your offering. Who knows, he may be honored by it and bless us.”
I felt anger twist me. Had I told Abel to go to the fields and make his offering, I could only guess that Adam would have told him to stay back. That’s the way it was between us.
Cain cleared his throat slightly. “I’m going to give God an offering too.” He didn’t keep animals but gathered from the field, and I wondered what kind of offering he would give, but before I could respond, Abel nodded to him. “Good. We’ll go together.”
Adam was not a man to stop people from acting. He’d said nothing to me when I took the fruit, even though he was standing right beside me. And now, as our sons left, he said nothing.
The wind picked up as the deep clouds rolled our way.
When the boys had stepped away, I said, “Adam, this is not—”
“There’s nothing wrong in offering to God what we have.”
“Is that what you think Cain is doing?”
My husband rose quietly and headed toward the river. I might have called for him to go fetch our sons, but I did not.
And now I wonder how things might have turned out if only I had.
When the bank of clouds arrived and our sons failed to return, Adam went to find them. But somehow I already knew. A mother knows these things. Even before he returned with the body of my younger son in his arms, a deep ache had begun to gnaw at me.
Abel hung in his arms limp and still like an animal, like one of the lambs. No breath. Adam laid him down and I collapsed beside my dead son.
Dust to dust.
Then I screamed my grief into the blackened sky.
I lost two sons today.
And now I cry out to the Lord, begging him for a new life, for a new hope, and the howl of the wind on the edge of the skies is his only reply.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen. 4:8–11)
This is where it all began.
In a garden with a choice, in a field with a body. That’s the legacy of humankind—the quest to be like gods, the elevation of self over others. The firstborn human murdering the second and a shattered mother weeping in the dark.
According to the Bible, things between God and humans were not always as they are now. Now we have these cliffs of pride that humility struggles to scale, these depths of despair that drown our joy, this friction between us, within us. We have arguments and grudges, fistfights and muggings, incest and abortion. None of this was in the original plan.
In the beginning, harmony existed between us and God, between us and creation, between us and each other, and, in a very real sense, between us and ourselves.
Most people feel it inside of them, a smoldering knowledge that we are not what we were meant to be; we’re nagged with a hunger for eternity. Even those who reject believing in God don’t seem to be able to shake the thought that a bigger purpose must be at work, a deeper joy available somewhere.
The tempter is real.
Our choices separate us from unity with the divine.
We’ve been cast out of the garden of clarity, of harmony, because we have sought and picked and eaten the forbidden fruit.
Here’s something I’ve been learning the hard way: I’m never free from temptation. It might be the temptation to slant the truth in my direction when it benefits me, or to yell at my daughter when she won’t stop picking on her little sister, or to lash out in anger when the world doesn’t tilt my way.
I struggle with big things and I struggle with little things—anger, materialism, impatience, frustration, disappointment, and a rather unhealthy addiction to chips and salsa. Dissatisfaction in the world. The root of the fall itself.
And I’ve found that no matter where I travel or what I’m doing, I’m just one thought away or one action away from stepping over the line and entering the land of the forbidden.
Every day, every hour, every minute of our lives we have the opportunity to either say “yes” to God or “yes” to ourselves. That’s why Jesus emphasized something I don’t hear much about at churches these days—denying yourself: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). I think he found it necessary to say that because, while most of us want to do what God wants, we also want to do what we want. And that’s where the problems begin.
Being honest about life requires that we admit we’re stuck somewhere between sinfulness and holiness, between being lost and being found, between indulging ourselves and serving our God.
After all, we’re both wretched and royal, sinners and saints, part of God’s divine solution and part of the overarching problem.
Paul discovered that when a person trusts in Jesus Christ, the core priorities of her life fundamentally change instantly. He wrote to his friends in Corinth about this: “He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor. 5:15 NLT). When I read those words, honestly, I get a little uncomfortable. Jesus didn’t die just so that one day I could go to heaven, he died so that I might stop living for myself now.
Welcome to a paradigm shift. When I first stumbled across that verse, it was a wake-up call for me to realize that every moment I’m faced with a choice: will I offer this moment to God or try to keep it for myself ?
Over the years I’ve read lots of books about following Jesus. Typically, they tend to make me feel guilty because I’m either not rejoicing enough or witnessing enough or going to church enough or tithing enough or praying enough.
Or they make following Jesus sound like a piece of cake: that life will just keep getting easier and easier as I get holier and holier and put into practice the Five Time-Tested Tips and Seven Life-Changing Principles that the author has based his current book, seminar series, website, or DVD curriculum on.
But I find very few books that lay out the paradoxical truth of the matter—(1) following Jesus isn’t always easy, practical, fun, or popular because temptation hounds us every step of the way, every day of our lives, (2) through it all, God’s grace and forgiveness are powerfully available and instantly accessible to everyone, everywhere, all the time. We live in the middle of a deep and rich paradox. Grace and truth, pain and healing woven through our world, through time itself.
The greatest saints of the ages have discovered something most of us haven’t. Not only are they familiar with their own shortcomings and sins, they’re also aware of the outlandish grace of God. By being mindful of both their fallen nature and Jesus’s risen love, they’re able to live on the escarpment of evil without constantly toppling over the side.
When we’re tempted (either by our own desires or the nudgings of the devil) I don’t think the point is to make us do the unthinkable—at least not at first. The goal is to make the unthinkable more and more reasonable. And then, when it doesn’t seem so bad anymore, when it seems trite and harmless, when it seems like the next logical step, to have us go ahead and take a bite out of the forbidden fruit.
Ever since the tragic choice in the Garden of Eden, temptation has been the default setting for life on this planet. But most of us don’t just pluck the fruit and start eating. Instead, we first get curious about what it might taste like. We wonder about the other people who’ve eaten it. Did they like it? Are we missing out? Isn’t it unfair that they get to try some but we don’t? Why should we be the only ones left out? Huh?
God never said you couldn’t pick the fruit, did he? He just said you weren’t supposed to eat it, right? Well, go on. Pick it . . . Good . . . Now smell it. He never said you couldn’t smell it. There’s nothing wrong with smelling the fruit . . . There, now, lick it. It’s not the same as eating. He was clear you weren’t supposed to eat it, but he never said anything about licking it . . .
And so it goes.
Until we take a bite.
It’s so much easier once the fruit is in your hand, once you’ve touched it with your tongue.
And until we finally admit that temptation is a reality of life and that (at least to some extent) we want to lick the forbidden fruit and explore what lies beyond the fence, we’ll remain vulnerable to the dark thoughts that keep trying to climb into our souls and burrow deeper into our hearts.
The secret to overcoming temptation is not to try harder but to receive more of what God offers: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11–12). Even the ability to say “no” comes from the grace of God.
That’s how lost we are.
That’s how much we need him.
That’s how gracious God is.
And that’s what this book is about.
© 2012 by Steven James
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
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