“Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11)
I’ve been meditating on Genesis 3 this week as part of the Ignatian Prayer Adventure (found at Ignatianspirituality.com), an online retreat I started earlier this year. I intended to make the retreat as part of my Lenten journey, but work in the form of an erratic and exhausting schedule got in the way. I set the retreat aside with regret, hoping I would get back to it.
And last week, I did — get back to it, that is. I began the Third Week. The focus is our sinfulness. “We look closely at sin and how it plays out in every human heart. Our aim is not to become mired in guilt, self-hate or despair. Instead, we ask for a healthy sense of shame and confusion when confronting the reality of sin,” Kevin O’Brien, SJ, writes in the introduction.
I had been hoping for a more cheerful topic, since depression has made a mess of my life yet again. However, I decided to stick with it even though I was not looking forward to reflecting on my sinfulness. I know from experience that depression can be a powerful distorting lens and I feared I might become — to use Father O’Brien’s phrase — “mired in guilt, self-hate or despair.” Instead, I’ve found comfort.
Comfort in reflecting on my sinfulness? No, comfort in reflecting on the Word of God.
The third chapter of Genesis starts with the infamous scene of the serpent tempting Eve. Eve apparently accepted the status quo until the serpent raised a few questions, and then she reconsidered the matter. She “saw that the tree was good for food,” (animals must have been enjoying the fruit without negative consequences) “pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it” (v.6).
Theologically, this is about free will and obedience. I know this, but I found myself filled with compassion for Eve. We are created in God’s image — and this God in whose image Eve was created wasn’t a God who was satisfied with the status quo. He’s got a perfectly good void, but He starts fiddling with it. He creates the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). Then He creates light and separates the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:3-5). He doesn’t stop there, he just keeps fiddling with things, changing things, improving things, creating things. That’s His nature.
And Eve was just like Him — exploring possibilities. There was one big difference between God and Eve, though. Eve was the creature and God was — well, God. And as the creature, Eve could not see beyond her limited understanding; she could not see the consequences of her actions. How often, I found myself thinking, is this pattern seen in my life? How often do I act on my limited understanding and discover that I erred?
I reflected on this overnight before moving on to the next verses. The following morning I was struck by God’s question. Who told you that you were naked? Who told you? It struck me that Adam and Eve looked no different after they ate the fruit than before they ate the fruit. They simply saw themselves differently.
I wrote in my journal, “We can’t bear to stand before God once we see ourselves with the eyes of the world. The eyes of the world change the way we see ourselves. We become ashamed. We stop seeing ourselves as created in God’s image; we stop trusting his perfect care. We see ourselves as naked and vulnerable; we rush to take action to cover ourselves.”
Over and over, in the days which have passed since then, I find myself coming back to the idea that when we see ourselves with the eyes of the world, we see ourselves differently than when we see ourselves as beloved children of God. When we see ourselves with the eyes of the world, then we judge ourselves by the standards of the world and we act in ways to elevate ourselves in the eyes of the world. But, we can’t do that and remain in a healthy relationship with God.
At least, I cannot. I know the gifts that God has given others are different than the gifts He has given me. I know that others are able to immerse themselves in worldly matters and still see, when they look in the mirror, the image of one created in God’s image. God works in them differently than He works in me.
This new understanding of the way in which I am tempted does not exempt me from my obligations in this world, my responsibilities, but it does subtly shift my focus, my emphasis. I must learn to see myself as God sees me, with the gifts and strengths He has given me, and I must learn how to reflect these into the world. For when I do this, when I live as a beloved child of God, created in his image and use the gifts He has given me, then I will give glory to his name. Whether or not I am doing this will then become the measure of my life — and I won’t feel naked.
I won’t feel vulnerable, because I will be looking at Him and living in him — whole and beloved.