One of mankind’s recurring delusions has been the idea that there exists somewhere in that nebulous void between good and evil; heaven and hell, a third option ~ some metaphysical ‘safe zone’ situated between God and the devil where one can safely park in undisturbed peace and comfort. People have long sought after such a material, earthly utopia, imagining that every new discovery or invention would someday provide the elusive key to human perfection and happiness here on earth. All advertising, in fact, is based on this subconscious human desire.
Modern man is not the first to pursue a material shortcut to happiness, however. Adam and Eve, our original parents, were the original targets of this sales pitch ~ and it was the very same ad man pitching instant happiness to them who continues selling the same soap today to whoever will buy. That first temptation by the serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden was twofold, for the wily creature made its devious appeal on both a material level as well as a spiritual one. This corresponded to Eve’s own nature as an embodied spirit: a physical body combined with a spiritual soul. As such the crafty devil plotted to disarm her defenses on both counts.
The serpent began by leading her to question the established divine order of things with a very misleading question. “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ (Gen. 3:1) Like a courtroom lawyer he begins with a deceptively mis-phrased question, as a device to set her up. He needs to engage her in dialogue to gain her confidence, as if to say, “I’m your friend now, so let’s talk this thing over.” But his real intention is not to befriend Eve but to trick her. That is why he has not approached Adam, Eve’s guardian and protector, because the serpent knows that the man is unlikely to fall for his ploy. Adam is imbued with that Madison Avenue would call today,”sales resistance.” But he is aware that Adam too has his weak point, and that is Eve herself. If the serpent can cajole Eve into an act of disobedience, Adam will surely follow suit simply to please his wife.
Eve’s first mistake is to engage the serpent rather than fleeing from it. She innocently answers that God has placed a prohibition only on one particular tree, for by eating its fruit one will surely die. The serpent now spins his first lie. “No, you shall not die,” replied the devil in perhaps the most far reaching and monumental falsehood ever uttered. Even today this infamous lie resonates in a modern culture that does everything in its power to distract us from seriously pondering death.
The serpent now presses hard his case to ensnare Eve in fatal disobedience on two levels, the sensual/material and the psycho/spiritual. “Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye.” (Gen. 3:6) The devil stirs up in Eve a desire for something that is, on the surface, both good and pleasing. And with her, we too share a bodily nature that is attracted to physical things. But without careful discernment as to which things might be good for us and which may be bad, we can get into a lot of trouble. A large part of life is learning well the maxim, “all that glitters is not gold.” Eve was the first to learn this lesson ~ the hard way.
But the serpent’s temptation went much deeper than just the material aspects of fruit. He also promised that this food would bestow something more than sensual pleasure. It would give her a knowledge which she did not yet possess. This was ‘Gnosis,’ a hidden kind of knowledge that would give Eve greater powers over creation; in fact, a God-like power to know and understand the very essence of things. Our modern high-tech society perfectly understands and idolizes a similar precept, namely that “knowledge is power.” But it is the lust for power, not a pure love of knowledge, that ultimately drives systems which thereby end up being used more for exploitation than exploration. And if knowledge truly translates into power, it would confer on Eve an unimaginable level of autonomy: the ability to be her own person; to be independent, self-contained, and free of all boundaries.
This was the spiritual side of Eve’s temptation: unrestrained freedom. By throwing off the fetters of any obligation, even to her Creator, the serpent promised that, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Gen. 3:5) This appeal to personal pride proved to be the deal clincher. Eve already had everything she could ever want to be happy and content, and yet, she was still subservient not only to Adam but to God as well. It was no fun being #3. By slyly bringing her attention to this subtle inequality the tempter inflamed in Eve a sudden discontent with her station in life. Envy made Eve yearn to break through that imaginary ‘glass ceiling.’ She thus became the unwitting prototype for the radical modern feminist of today.
Rather than surrender to God’s legitimate authority, Eve chose to set herself up as her own authority. But in doing so she also surrendered her free will, and those of her countless descendants, to the will of the devil. The very pride that had caused Satan’s downfall he now employed to secure the downfall of Eve, and through her influence, of Adam as well. (Adam’s sin was greater, however, because he not only succumbed to pride alongside Eve but he also failed to protect his more vulnerable wife from the wily tempter.) Even today the devil’s most expedient lures remain a sensual materialism combined with spiritual pride: pleasure, fortune, and fame; sex, money, and power.
The very things that corrupted our first parents continue to corrupt mankind today. Because of that ‘original sin’ we are born into a state of slavery, i.e., our wills are bound up. We come into this world quite literally as slaves. Slaves to what? To sin, yes, but I sometimes find that answer a bit too abstract to fully appreciate. More concisely, we are born as slaves to a person, not just an idea, and that person is Satan. Our weakened wills are subjected to the prince of demons from our very first breaths. Just as he mastered Adam and Eve in the garden, so he has mastery over us. This is the unfortunate condition into which we were all born. But thanks to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ we can be ransomed from that bondage to the Evil One by the infusion of Sanctifying Grace. God showers this on us, first in baptism, and later through the other sacraments of the Church.
Grace releases us from our previous condition and makes our free wills fully operative again. With our spiritual batteries thus recharged we are able to function as free agents, similar to Adam and Eve before they sinned. And what defines a ‘free agent’ is the ability to dispose of the things in our possession. That is why each one of us is sooner or later faced with the choice to surrender our wills either to God or to the self. If we surrender our free will to self with its countless passions, we are effectively surrendering it back to the Evil One who then stokes those passions even more until we become trapped in them. If we surrender our will to God then we will find, paradoxically, real freedom and true kinship with Him. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mt. 12:50)
These two choices we can make, but rest assured, there is no third option available contrary to many popular opinions. For example we have all heard, “I’m a pretty good person, most of the time anyway, and that’s good enough to get into heaven.” How about, “A loving God would never send anyone to hell.” All such opinions are modern bunk! There is no fence-sitting with one’s salvation, and the Scriptures confirm this reality in Christ’s own words. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters.” (Lk. 11:23)
Jesus Christ never advocated any third way or option. There is no place on the sidelines, no neutral zone where one can indefinitely avoid choosing the complete surrender of one’s will. In fact, because of our naturally fallen natures, not to choose is tantamount to choosing evil and its eternal consequences, hell. Remember the fate of the man in Christ’s parable who was found without a wedding garment. (See Mt. 22:11-14) “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
This means that the true price of heaven is the total surrender of one’s will to God, our Father in heaven. Anything less can only lead to death and condemnation. That is why Jesus exhorted his followers to, “enter by the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and smooth the path that leads to destruction, and many are they who enter that way. How narrow the gate and rocky the path that leads to life. And few are they who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14) Too many clerics today are loath to stress that last sentence (my italics) but it is something we all need to ponder seriously if we take Christ at his word.
But ‘total surrender,’ really? Is such a thing even humanly possible? We are, after all, children of Adam and Eve, and inheritors of their fallen nature. That may be true, but the story does not end there. We are also the recipients of some very “good news” which enabled us to be reborn as sons and daughters of the ‘New Adam’ and the ‘New Eve,’ namely Jesus Christ and his mother Mary. For just as Adam fell through Eve, each proudly asserting their own wills in opposition to God, so too Jesus became a man through Mary to redeem all of mankind. Both did so by humbly surrendering their respective wills to the Father. There is such a beautiful symmetry to the story of salvation that it can make one breathless to behold. Mary undid the disobedience of Eve through her perfect obedience to God which then allowed Christ to undo the disobedience of Adam by his perfect obedeince on the cross, as St. Paul illustrates so beautifully in Philippians 2:6-11.
It is only because we now have two such extraordinary models of surrender, Jesus and Mary, that we too are given the grace to surrender our own human wills to God, from whom we received our free will in the first place. This path becomes the only road to true happiness. We can either choose to imitate our first parents which leads only to doom, or we can choose to imitate the New Adam and the New Eve, which will lead one to the indescribable joys of heaven. Bur remember, there is no third option. So if one must choose (and we all must), then choose wisely.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.
post script: Published on this 25th of July, 2018, the feast of the holy apostle St. James the Greater also being the 50th anniversary of the publication of that most momentous, yet sadly reviled 20th century encyclical by Blessed Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. May mankind finally come to realize the great wisdom contained therein.