“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. As we look at our world, we might come to a similar conclusion.
Looking at the beauty, majesty, and intricacy of creation, we might call it the best of worlds. But looking at the wars and violence that hang over so much of it, we might also call it the worst of worlds.
If we think about all the creative, original, innovative inventions we have witnessed over time, we might think it’s the best of worlds. But it doesn’t take long to see how easily these innovations can be used for evil purposes—and that makes us think it’s the worst of worlds.
When we stop to think about all the random acts of kindness and the determined acts of self-sacrifice all over the world, we might smile and feel proud of what we are capable of. But when we think about all the betrayal, unfaithfulness, and cruelty that are out there, we hang our heads in embarrassment.
The season of Lent is the perfect time for us to ponder these contradictions. It’s the perfect time to thank God for the beauty that he has created, to acknowledge the sin that has cast a shadow over this beauty, and to look to Jesus, who is God’s perfect answer to all of these contradictions. As we said in our first article, we can find great hope during this season of grace as we focus on God’s goodness.
Because we know that God is all good and all loving, we can find the courage to look at our own sin and the sin in the world. And that’s exactly what we want to do in this article.
In the Beginning . . . The story of sin begins in the Book of Genesis, right after the story of creation. Now, Genesis is not intended to be a historical explanation of how creation happened and how sin entered the world. Rather, the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to produce a story that would capture the heart of God’s goodness and help us understand why we sin and what sin does to us. In other words, Genesis is a theological book that focuses on the who and the why of creation, not so much on the how and the what of creation.
When it comes to the beauty of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, we see the who—God, who created the world, and our first parents, who were the beloved crown of his creation. We also see the why—God wanted to share his love with us as his sons and daughters, and he wanted us to live in perfect harmony with him and with one another. But when we turn to the story of sin in chapter 3, we see another who, the serpent, and we see another why, the desire to become like God.
A Tempting Offer. At the beginning of the story, the woman appears ready to obey God’s command to not eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. But the serpent introduces a new thought that carries a powerful temptation: “God knows well that when you eat of it . . . you will be like gods” (Genesis 3:5). The woman couldn’t say no to that thought. The idea of being equal to God was just too tempting. So “she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband” (3:6).
At that moment, the picture of perfect peace and harmony gave way to one of conflict, envy, and alienation. Sin entered the world. Our first parents’ eyes were opened as the serpent promised—but the experience did not make them like God. Rather than seeing everything with godlike clarity and wisdom, they saw clearly what they had done, and that vision filled them with guilt, shame, and regret.
Adam and Eve’s terrible decision began a slide into greater and greater sin until finally, God decided to start over by destroying the humans he had created with a mighty flood (Genesis 6:5-7). Likewise, our attempts to become gods unto ourselves will lead us down a path of deeper and deeper sin. When we follow our own selfish desires, our decisions will bring about tragic consequences. So what are these consequences?
Loss of Harmony with God. At the beginning, our first parents enjoyed a close relationship with God. They heard his voice, they walked with him in the garden, and they lived in peace and innocence. But when they ate the forbidden fruit, that innocence was lost. Rather than walking freely with God, they hid from him and tried to cover their guilt. Their actions also show that fear entered the picture. No longer did they see God as a loving Father. Their fear and shame blinded them to who he really was. The consequences of their sin loomed larger than the goodness of the God who created them.
The same thing happens to us when we sin. We feel guilty and ashamed. We’re afraid to come to the Lord because our consciences are accusing us. We forget that God loves us with boundless love and that his mercy never ends. We feel so unworthy that we lose sight of the fact that no sin is powerful enough to make God stop loving us.
Loss of Harmony with Each Other. When God confronted Adam and Eve with their act, both of them tried to shift the blame. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. This couple who had been one flesh now began looking out for themselves instead of each other (Genesis 2:24). As the story continues, things only get worse. Their own son Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy (4:4-8). Lamech kills a man for simply bruising him (4:23-24). As the disunity grows, God sees that “every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil” (6:5).
Doesn’t the pattern of sin in this story sound familiar? At the heart of every sin is a selfish drive that ends up separating us from God and each other. Bent on self-preservation, we do whatever it takes to get what we want, regardless of how it affects the people around us. Then, when we sense that our sin is going to be found out, we want to find the simplest way to escape, even if it means blaming someone else. Again, this can start small, but the cumulative effect of all of our divisions and disagreements magnifies the sin and leads to open conflict, eventually to the point of war.
A Clouded Mind. Tempted by the serpent, Adam and Eve let their thinking become clouded. Maybe God isn’t as good as we thought he was, they thought. Maybe he’s trying to keep us from becoming like him. In reality, God did want them to share in his divine life—just not through deception and rebellion. He wanted them to learn how to love as deeply and purely as he loves. He wanted their love to be characterized by faith, trust, and humility. But instead, the serpent convinced them that God was not to be trusted.
Like Adam and Eve, our thinking can get clouded as well. The goodness of God gets overshadowed by our fallen, self-centered desires. Subtly at first, but then more and more clearly, we believe the lies of the evil one, who tells us that God is not on our side. We believe God is holding us back rather than patiently forming us. We begin to desire and chase after things that make us feel like a god, only to discover that we have been duped. Only God can fulfill our deepest desires, and he grieves when we reject him and seek fulfillment through shallow, temporary ways instead.
The True Story of Our Lives. This story of sin would be tragic if it ended with the world of contradictions we mentioned above. There’s nothing sadder than to see someone with great potential squander all his gifts, and there’s nothing sadder than to see all the beauty of the world—and all the goodness we possess—overshadowed by sin, division, and rivalry. If this were the full story, then St. Paul would be right in saying that believers are “the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
But we know that’s not the end of the story. Even as early as the Book of Genesis, we see a God who is patient, merciful, caring, and compassionate. Over and over again, we see him protecting the very people who have sinned against him—by clothing Adam and Eve, by marking Cain as off-limits for retribution, and, ultimately, by preserving the human race from the great flood (Genesis 3:21; 4:15; 6:11-14).
This is the true story of our world. It’s the story of a God who never gives up on his people but who loves them to the end. It’s the story of Jesus, the Son of God, who went to the cross so that we could be reconciled with God and one another and know true peace in our hearts.
Our world may have many dark spots, but we should never let ourselves become discouraged. Every day this Lent, we can rejoice, because we know that wherever sin abounds, grace overflows all the more!