There are some phrases we’ve heard a lot during the pandemic – like, ‘the new normal’, or ‘these unprecedented times’ or ‘you’re on mute.’ But recently I’ve heard quite a few people say, ‘It’s not much of a life right now, is it?’ Which begs the question, ‘What’s a life worthy of the name?’
Oscar Wilde once said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world – most people are just existing.’ And I guess most people, at least sometimes, feel that’s true – but can’t quite see what would turn existence into life. And even those of us who’d call ourselves Christians aren’t immune from feeling we’re just existing – especially right now.
So, what turns existence into life? Well, that question gets answered in our Bible passage this morning, as we carry on in this Genesis series. So first, let’s pray:
Please use this part of your Word to show us more of yourself and of what it means to be made by you and for life in relationship with you.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
So, if Genesis was a film, so far in Genesis 1 we’ve been shown the big, wide angle sweep of God creating the whole universe, with the Earth and us within it. But then in Genesis 2, the camera zooms in for a close-up of some of the key relationships we were made for – with God, with the opposite sex, with creation, and so on. And it begins like this, verse 4:
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.
And that’s the first appearance of a heading you find throughout Genesis. For example, chapter 6, verse 9 says:
9 These are the generations of Noah.
And what comes next is the story of Noah and his sons – because that heading, ‘these are the generations of Fred’, meant, ‘This is the story of Fred and his offspring – this is their family history.’ So, verse 4,
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
means, ‘This is the story of the heavens and the earth and the ‘offspring’ God put in them – i.e., this is the human family history.’ So, the writer of Genesis meant us to read this as about real events and a real, original human pair (even if some things may be described symbolically). And he says three things about the life God made us for:
1. God is the one who gives us life
Now Genesis has already said that. But chapter 2 zooms in for more of a close-up. So, look down to verse 7.
7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
So that means: we’re not here by accident – as the atheistic evolution story says – but by personal creation. And the picture in verse 7 is of God as a potter and Adam as the clay – because that word ‘formed’ was the particular one used back then for a potter working (forming) clay.
We once visited a pottery where the potter was working in her shop. And she let our children sit on her lap and ‘help’ (in inverted commas) with the jug she was making (thankfully pottery is reversible at that stage). And her shop was full of beautiful, one-off pieces. And I said to her, ‘How do you feel about selling them?’ And she said, ‘It’s not easy at all. Because you put something of yourself into every one of them, and every one of them is personal.’
And the picture in verse 7 is of the love and value that God the potter places on his first, one-off, personal creation. And each of us was likewise made by God as another of his loved and valued one-off, personal creations. And we can say that because Job said it later in the Bible about himself – it’s not just true of the first man created. Job said:
8 ‘Your hands formed and made me…
9 Remember that you have made me like clay’ (Job 10.8-9)
I was reading a celebrity autobiography recently, in which he describes a loveless childhood. And he says, ‘The day came when Dad explained that I was an accident, and that they’d never wanted me at all.’ But according to verse 7, whoever else says you’re an accident (whether it’s Darwinism or your Dad), and whoever else doesn’t want you, or doesn’t include you in their friendships, or doesn’t offer you that place or that job, or doesn’t rate you at work or grade you an A, God loves and values you as his one-off, personal creation – and doesn’t want you to be anyone else. And knowing that helps turn existence into life.
That’s the main point in verse 7. So, what’s the point of verses 5 and 6?
5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist [or you can translate that ‘rain cloud’] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7 then the LORD God formed the man
Well, the point is that God doesn’t just give us life, but what we need for life, as well.
So, remember: Genesis 2 zooms in on what we’ve seen in Genesis 1. So, this is zooming in on day 6 of God’s creation work, when he made man and woman. But back in day 3, vegetation had already appeared on the Earth. So, what are to make of verse 5 here, where apparently there’s no vegetation in the close-up of day 6?
Well, I think the answer is: it’s not talking about the whole Earth, but about ‘the land’ – the particular bit of land God had earmarked for the first humans. And it’s talking about the Middle East, where there’s a cycle of dry then rainy seasons. So, verse 5 again:
5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field [i.e., edible crops] had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land [it was still the dry season], and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist [or ‘rain cloud’] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground [i.e., the rainy season was just beginning]— 7 then the LORD God formed the man
In other words, he only gave him life once he’d created the conditions to sustain his life. So, verse 5 reminds us that it doesn’t just rain. God causes it to rain. And verse 10 reminds us: there are other ways he delivers water, as well, because we’re also told:
10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden
So, this is a reminder that what we need for life doesn’t just happen. And it’s not just down to Northumbrian Water and Lidl and John Lewis and your payslip or pension. It’s all ultimately thanks to the Lord. Because he loves and values you as his one-off, personal creation, and he hasn’t brought you into this world only to neglect you. Isn’t that why the Lord Jesus said,
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…
26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6.25-26, 31-32)
So Christian believers don’t have to join the rest of the world in anxiously looking out for number one – because we know that the Lord is already looking out for us.
And of course, unlike the birds, we do need to sow and reap and store – we need to train for work and look for work and do work. But not with the anxiety of thinking, ‘No-one else is looking out for me. No-one else is ultimately on this.’ Because the Lord is. And would he die for you on the cross for your forgiveness, only to let you down on lesser things you need?
So, God doesn’t just give us life but what we need for life, as well. Which means we can trust him – especially when it’s not obvious where that’s going to come from next.
And it means we can thank him for everything the rest of the world just thinks happens. Someone came up to me after a funeral I’d spoken at and said, ‘I’m an atheist myself, but I envy you – because there’s so much in life to feel thankful for, but I don’t have anyone to thank.’ To which the answer is: she does, she’s just not thanking him, yet. And a Christian believer knows who he or she has to thank. And that also helps turn existence into life.
But the Lord has provided way more than just what we strictly need.
Look onto verse 8:
8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east [and the word for ‘garden’ means ‘parkland’ or ‘pleasure ground’ – it’s the word from which we get our word paradise], and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.
So, God himself clearly thinks that life is about more than just existence – more than just having our daily bread (or in Eden, maybe your daily banana). He clearly thinks it’s about pleasure. And beauty. And sights that take your breath away and move you to tears. And creativity and the arts – I take it that explains the throwaway line in verse 11 about,
he whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
As if the Lord put the gold and gem stones there with future generations of jewellers in mind. And it’s about music and poetry and literature and film and theatre and all the rest of it.
So, it’s sad that Christians have sometimes got a reputation for being life-denying – as if all those things I’ve mentioned are somehow bad, rather than the inevitable mixture of good and bad that everything is in this fallen world. So, for example, someone once said:
‘Puritanism [a form of very Biblical, very committed Christianity] is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying themselves.’
But that actually wasn’t fair on many Puritan Christians – who did know how to enjoy the good things God has given us. And it certainly doesn’t reflect Genesis 2 – where God clearly wants us to enjoy life, and not just eat and exist. And that may be news to you if you’re just looking into Christianity after being brought up on the cultural lie that God is the great killjoy in the sky.
So that’s the first thing: God is the one who gives us life. Then the second thing is that:
2. Real life means relationship with God
Let me read from verse 8 again:
8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So here we meet two trees that stand for two truths about relationship with God. And the first is ‘the tree of life’.
Now if you go to BibleGateway and do a search for ‘tree of life’, you’ll find it comes up again in Proverbs and Revelation. And in both places, it symbolises life in relationship with God. It symbolises the truth that the only life worth living – because it’s the one we were made for – is life with God at the centre.
So here in Genesis 2, the tree of life might have been a real tree with a meaning attached to it. But I think, more likely, it’s a symbol (as it is in Proverbs and Revelation). And it stands for life lived in constant fellowship with God. Which is the thing that turns existence into life. Because we can have all our needs met, and all those extras on top – pleasure, beauty, art, music; and throw in love and success as well – and yet still feel like we’re just existing. Isn’t that the message of so many celebrity autobiographies – ‘I’ve now got everything… but still feel like I’m just existing, still feel empty.’
A while back we had a student called Patrick in our church family. And we interviewed him in a service about how he came to faith in Jesus. And he said something I’ve never forgotten, because he was converted out of what the world would say was the absolute definition of ‘having a good time’. He said, ‘I was into drinking, I was into girls, I was into everything that was supposed to be fun. But… in my experience, non-Christian life is like vegetarian food. You can eat as much of it as you like, but it never really fills you up.’ Which he hadn’t planned to say. And from the look on his face, you could tell he knew he’d just offended all the vegetarians. So, he quickly put in something conciliatory about macaroni cheese. But then he said, ‘I’d never swap the life I have with God now for the existence I had before.’
Because he’d discovered the truth of the tree of life – which is that the only life worth living – because it’s the one we were made for – is life with God at the centre. Or as Augustine put it in one of his prayers,
‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’
I wonder if that feeling of restlessness is moving you towards faith in Jesus right now? And I wonder if those of us who’ve already come to faith in him appreciate enough the life we have in him, compared to the existence we’d have without him.
God is the one who gives us life.
Real life means relationship with God.
Third and lastly,
3. Relationship with God means he defines good and evil
Look at verse 9 again:
9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So, two trees that stand for two truths about relationship with God.
We’ve looked at the tree of life. Now we need to look at ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. And we’re told more about that tree in verse 15:
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
So, what does the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stand for? Well take a look at this picture:
The crown stands for the Lord. The stickman stands for Adam – and us. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands for who has the right to define good and evil – who has the wisdom, the knowledge, to draw that line between good and evil. And the answer is: only God does. And so, he says to Adam, and through Adam to all of us:
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, [in other words, you have all that freedom] 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
In other words, ‘I’ve given you amazing freedom – but you’re not free to define for yourself what is good and evil. You’re not free to draw that circle yourself. My place is to draw the circle. Your place is to trust me and live inside it.’
At which our culture would scream, ‘No! Don’t accept any limits on your freedom. Freedom is being anything you want to be and doing anything you want to do. Why would you let anything or anyone else decide what you’re free to be and do?’ For example, Richard Dawkins puts it like this in The God Delusion:
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful… as we choose to make it.
In other words, we define reality. We define good and evil. We define gender. We define sexuality. We define marriage. We define life. We define everything. And that’s the culture we live in, this side of Genesis 3.
But Genesis 2 is how it’s meant to be – and how Jesus is re-making it in your life, if he’s your Lord. And is that picture (of the crown and stickperson) really of someone being infantile? Isn’t it better to call it child-like? And isn’t a child being wise when it lets its parent decide things that it knows are beyond its own wisdom? And isn’t that what Proverbs is on about when it says:
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3.5-7)
So, when the world says, ‘Why would you let God set limits to your freedom? My answer is, ‘Because I recognise the limits of my wisdom. Because I recognise, I’m a creature made to be the image of my Creator. And that only he knows what will therefore fulfil me. And that my freedom is not to found in being or doing anything I want – but in being what I was made to be.
Some friends have a goldfish which from time to time leaps out of its bowl onto the table. And so far, thankfully, someone’s always been there to put it back. And you can see it from the fish’s point of view – because it’s stuck in the same bowl, with the same weed and the same rocks and the same view every day. And it longs for freedom. But actually, the life of true freedom for a fish is to be a fish – which means living in water, with all the limits which that involves.
And the life of true freedom for us is to be the creatures we were made to be – which means living in relationship with God, with all the wise and loving limits which that involves. That’s what the Bible says turns existence into life. Whereas, if you ‘jump out of the bowl’ of relationship with God, then as it says at the end of verse 17,
‘you shall surely die.’