read Acts 18. There is something so romantic about the quest for Eden. It’s like the quest for the Holy Grail. It evokes King Arthur and Indiana Jones and that shapeless Harrison Ford hat (which, btw, Harrison Ford the actor bought himself while shopping in London).
So where is Eden? Can we find it on a map? Can our GPS guide us there in its bossy brassy voice?
Karl Barth once posed the romantic notion that we “stumble over” Eden all the time. Yeats asked if Eden was “far away” or if it was “hiding from human thought”: “Do our woods and winds and ponds cover more quiet woods,/ More shining winds, more star-glimmering ponds?”
According to Genesis, a river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches. The first branch called the Pishon flowed around the entire land of Havilah. The second branch called the Gihon flowed around the entire land of Cush. The third branch called the Tigris flowed east of the land of Ashur. The fourth branch is called the Euphrates. Genesis 2:10-14. It’s the kind of specific but poetic directions that makes the Meriwether Lewis in all of us start salivating. We find ourselves scuffling through the backs of our closets in search of our dusty compasses, our moldy water bottles and our own shapeless hats.
There’s more information about the way to Eden. Genesis says that once Adam and Even ate from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord banished them from Eden. He did it for the tender loving reason that He didn’t want them to eat of the tree of life and live forever in their fallen state. After “sending them out the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:22-24 (emphasis added).
Did you catch that? The fact that there is a flaming sword to “guard the way” suggests there IS a way. It exists. So can we find it? Can we sneak past that cherubim guard Indiana Jones style? Can we crawl on our bellies, roll past snakes, leap over bottomless pits or swing from writhing snakes?
We feel sure we can get there by our own strength. But first we have to know where to look. Is Eden at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates in Northern Iraq? Is it in Africa? Is it in the Persian Gulf? Would we find it in Lebanon?
Well, we have choices. We can sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the death of kings. That’s King Lear’s way, and it’s the path that leads to depression, despair and ultimately insanity. It’s called self-pity and wallowing in our misery and we’ve all done it but it’s not our “most attractive” self, not by a long stretch.
Or we can fall in love with fantasy and try to escape the dissatisfaction of this world. We can immerse ourselves in Tolkien, the Matrix, and, if we’re of the right age and gender, Xbox. But the danger of falling in love with fantasy is that we cease to enjoy our “real” life. We mistake the fantasy for the real thing.
But isn’t it sometimes hard to tell the difference?
We’re not wrong to feel confused. There is a spiritual realm. There is an eternal battle being waged between good and evil. The powers and principalities of darkness seek to own us all. Ephesians 6:12. Deep calls unto deep. We sense it. We feel it. We, like Jim Carrey in that movie where everyone knew he was in a tv show except him, will find the cracks between our world and the spiritual world if we go hunting. There is a sense in which we KNOW Eden is real. But how do we find it?
The key is to hunt. God rewards those who seek. Seek and we SHALL find. Luke 11:9. Jesus promised. But we have to REALLY seek.
What does it look like to really seek? A young man seeking his fortune in fairy tales tied a loaf of bread and if he was lucky a gold coin in a handkerchief on a stick; bid his weepy (usually short dumpy) parents good-bye; and wandered off into the world in search of the unknown. That’s real seeking.
But seeking can spill over into obsession. A white whale lurks at the bottom of every ocean, tempting us to hurl our spears at it until we have nothing left of ourselves and nothing to show for our sacrifice. How do we distinguish between a quest for fool’s gold and the real thing?
Jesus said we’ll know a tree by its fruit. Matt. 7:20, 12:33; Luke 6:44. A quest that fills us with supernatural love for people who don’t deserve it and allows us to love others better is a quest that’s bearing good fruit. A quest that separates us from others through hatred, bitterness and envy is a quest we need to abandon. The first is a quest that lands us squarely in Eden. The latter is a quest sending us to the yawning gates of hell.
The good news is that Bible says we DO get a GPS in our quests for Eden. If we ask for help the Holy Spirit comes to us. “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Isaiah 30:21. Sometimes God talks to us in a “still small” voice. 1 Kings 19:21. Other times the voice of the Lord “roars” from on high; he “thunders” and “shouts.” Jer. 25:30. Sometimes His voice comes in a fire that burns without consuming as it did with a bush for Moses. Other times God will speak as He did to Paul in Acts 18 with specific directions: “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, ‘Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.'”. So with God speaking in all those different ways, how do we silence the wrong voices and open our hearts to the right ones?
Just as we writers lose our way when forget what the “juice” of our novel is, so we wisdom seekers lose our way when we forget what we were really looking for. It wasn’t gold. It wasn’t even the thing we thought gold could buy. It was a free gift, offered to us by God, bought by God himself hanging on a tree to restore us to the tree of life. Gal. 3:13-14.
Because the way back to Eden HAS been opened up again. The truth is we can’t get to Eden by our own strength, with our own compasses, through exerting our own willpower. We couldn’t pass the flaming sword no matter how many times we crawled on our bellies. But the Son of God knew that, so He took that sword in His own heart so we don’t have to. Jesus’ sacrifice on the tree re-opened the gates that had been shut for so long. That’s why Jesus said, “I am the way.” John 14:6. That’s why the early Christians like Paul in Acts 18 were called the followers of the Way. Jesus is the way to eternal life. Jesus is the way back to the tree of life. He is the only Way. When we find Him, our “desert will blossom like Eden.” Isaiah 51:3.
So how do we find that way?
We have to ask Him. We have to look for Him. The question takes us back to our original one: what are we really looking for? What is life? What does it mean to say we can eat from the tree of life right this very second?
One definition of real life is having the supernatural peace that comes from believing in and trusting Jesus. Those who have never experienced God’s peace tend to underestimate the word peace. It’s like telling a blind man there’s a deep blue ocean in front of him. “Big whoop” is his understandable response. But if you tell a thirsty boy there are streams of water in front of him, he’ll run. Or if you tell a hungry girl there’s food around the corner, she’ll bolt. That’s what the peace of God is like – it’s the food and drink our bodies crave most. It’s the heavenly food which we were created for. We can “run” on other food and drink, but the peace of God is the food that allows us to run our best. When we feast on God’s peace, we feel like we’re flying and yet are more grounded than ever before.
Here’s the most practical example I can come up with to show you how we find Eden, because it happened to me a few days ago. I was at the doctor’s discussing a minor health issue, and all of a sudden heard myself RANTING about someone who hurt me YEARS ago. I had NO idea I had all that bitterness stored up inside me – but there it was, spewing out in living technicolor. Ooops. So I went home and tried to forgive her. Nothing. I read up on all the practical reasons to forgive. It would give me better health, better relationships, a better mind frame. God couldn’t forgive me unless I forgave her. Great. True. I know, I know. But none of that helped. I still didn’t want to let go of the ugly image I had of her. I still wanted to think I was better than her. Sad but true. Then on Saturday I woke up and remembered once reading something profoundly freeing on this topic in the first chapter of R. T. Kendall’s book Total Forgiveness. Was that God speaking to me? I think so. I can’t prove it, but that’s what it felt like. So I shot out of bed and hunted the book down. It took me 15 minutes. Triumphant, I took the book to the fireplace, lit a fire – and read Life of Pi instead. It’s no coincidence that the part of Life of Pi that grabbed hold of me was its description of the … sloth. All day passed without me reading that one chapter. All day I could sense God wanting me to listen to Him. Finally, it was time to go to dinner. I told the friend staying with me that she could leave without me but I absolutely needed ten minutes, shot into my room, shut the door, and FINALLY read the chapter.
It told me the truth point blank. If you want God’s peace, you have to totally completely forgive the person who hurt you.
That did it. It cracked open my rationalizations. I had no choice. I had to forgive. I WANTED that peace. Health, forgiveness, humility – none of those things enticed me enough. But peace? I knew I wanted it more than anything else.
I’ve had God’s supernatural peace before. It first came to me my sophomore year in college when I was so restless I couldn’t stand it, so I asked God for faith and He gave it to me. I discovered then why the Bible calls it the peace that “passes understanding.” It’s supernatural. It’s like nothing else. It’s the kind of peace that “fills” you – because it’s Christ’s presence.
And since then, I’ve learned how we find ourselves back in a desert if we lose it.
So I ran for it. I went through all the bad things the woman had done. I went there. I didn’t sugarcoat it. And then I asked God to help me forgive her: “Please give me your peace instead.”
And suddenly the desert all around me disappeared. It was as if the desert was the mirage and the streams of living water I thirsted for were the real thing. Eden opened up before me. Peace flooded me. I could think of that woman peacefully as being beautiful. She became just another human being to me instead of a caricature. And I went to dinner filled with garden peace.
It turns out Eden had been there all along, just as Barth and Yeats sensed. There WERE quieter woods and more star-glimmering ponds beneath me. I just couldn’t see them until I remembered what I really wanted.
So where is Eden? It’s at our fingertips all day long – or at our feet like Dorothy’s shoes. It’s ready to carry us home the moment we remember that what we really crave is Jesus. Eden is shimmering in the air all around us, all the time, ever since Jesus cried out: “forgive them Lord for they know not what they’ve done!” God knew what we’ve done and would do – and He offers us His everlasting peace anyway.
Eden IS too good to be true. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful, any less elusive and yet any less accessible. We don’t find Eden. It’s already found us. The garden waits. We can smell it on the back of every wind. We can see it in the bend and curve of every leaf. We can hear it in the still small voice of our hearts crying out that there is a more excellent way.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 3, 2012 in “A Chapter a Day,” with thanks to Dr. Sean McDonough and the Christian Union for putting me onto the Yeats and Barth quotes.