The Drama of Desire
. . . man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
In the ancient wisdom of storytelling, Genesis tells us that we are part of God’s good creation. It then tells us we have a special responsibility as God’s reflections or image bearers.
It tells us that in order to reflect God’s image, we have to desire the Tree of Life, not the tree that feeds our pride so that we think we can play God and judge between good and evil.
Of course, we know what happened. The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t need to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting God as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing God ourselves. We reject the Creator and choose another model instead: a snake (the story says), who seems to represent a subtle and dangerous desire to choose rivalry and violence over harmony and well-being.
'So they hide from God in fear.
In Genesis, after feeding on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve suddenly feel a change come over them. Perhaps they each fear that the other will judge them for being different, so they fashion crude clothing to hide their sexual differences. When God approaches, they no longer see God as a friend, but as a rival and threat. So they hide from God in fear. When God asks what has happened, they blame one another and refuse to admit their mistake. Soon they face a harder life of pain, competition, sweat, labour, frustration and death – east of Eden, outside the beautiful garden that was their home.
Later, their two sons repeat the pattern. The older brother – we might say he is ‘more advanced’ – becomes an agriculturalist. His life is wrapped up in fields, fences, ownership, barns and accumulated wealth, with all the moral complexity they bring. The younger brother – we might say he is ‘more vulnerable’ or ‘less developed’ – is a nomadic herdsman. He can’t own land or accumulate wealth, because he moves constantly with his herds to wherever the fresh grass is growing. Their different ways of life are expressed in different forms of religious sacrifice. They soon become religious rivals, competing for a higher degree of God’s favour. The perceived loser in the competition, Cain, envies and resents his brother.
Sometime later, we can imagine Abel leading his flocks into his brother’s field.At that moment Cain, his resentment simmering, no longer sees a brother: he sees a trespasser, an enemy. He plays God and judges his brother as evil and therefore worthy of death. Abel soon becomes the first victim of violence, and Cain the first murderer. So we humans quickly turn from reflecting the image of a creative, generous, life-giving God.
With Adam and Eve we become graspers, hiders, blamers and shamers. With Cain and Abel we become rivals, resenters, murderers and destroyers – the very opposite of God’s image.
What do these ancient stories mean for us today?
They help us know what’s broken with our world: something in us human beings. And they help us know what’s broken in human beings: something in our desires. And they help us know what’s broken with our desires: we have stopped imitating God’s good desires to create and bless and give life. Instead we’ve started imitating the prideful, competitive, fearful and harmful desires we see in one another . . . the desire to acquire what someone else has, the desire to compete and consume, the desire to judge as evil those who get in our way, even the desire to harm or kill those who are obstacles to our desires.
Think about how much imitation runs our lives.
'Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do?'
Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do? Hit them back! Criticise them back! Somebody buys a new shirt or a new TV, and what do you want to do? Buy an even better shirt or bigger TV! Somebody moves to a bigger house in a different neighbourhood, and what do you desire? To get an even bigger house in an even better neighbourhood! And what happens if you can’t get what you desire? You’ll be tempted to cheat, steal, lie, harm or maybe even kill to get what you desire.
Now there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating? To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose a path of death.
If we imitate our way into that rat race, we will compete rather than create, impress rather than bless, defeat rather than protect, dominate rather than serve, and exploit rather than respect. As a result, we will turn our neighbour first into a rival, and then an enemy, and then a victim.
We all live in this drama – the drama of desire. We have the opportunity to imitate God’s generous and good desires on the one hand – and we have the temptation to imitate selfish, fearful, envious human desires on the other hand.
Think of all the advertisers who are trying to influence our desires. Think of all the politicians who are eager to mould our desires so they can manipulate us for their advantage. Think of all the potential rivals who are glad to engage us in competition – their desires against ours. What’s true of us as individuals can also be true of us as groups – both personally and socially, we are caught in the drama of desire.
That’s another reason Jesus is so important to us: because he modelled a different way of life. He gave us a down-to-Earth example of God’s creative self-giving. True, Adam and Eve grabbed for the chance to be like gods – judging others as good or evil, exploiting rather than preserving the Earth, competing with one another rather than loving and serving one another. But Jesus didn’t grasp at god-like status. He humbly poured himself out for others – in service, in suffering, even to the point of death. He even gave us a way of remembering his attitude of self-giving: he said that his life was like food, like bread and wine, and he freely gave himself for us. His constant invitation – ‘Follow me’ – could also be expressed as ‘Imitate me’.
To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn towards God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image-bearers who want to imitate and reflect God. Let us humbly and fervently desire the right kind of desire.
Meditate and Contemplation
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about your interaction with someone you were jealous of or considered a rival. What did they have or desire that you desired? How did your relationship play out?
3. How do you respond to reading the Philippians 2 passage as a reversal of the Genesis 3 passage?
4. For children: How do you feel when you win or lose in a game? How do you feel when you do better or worse at something than someone else? Tell us a story about it.
5. Activate: Be especially sensitive to rivalry this week. When you feel it, ask what ‘desire to acquire’ is driving you. And ask whom you are imitating in this ‘desire to acquire’. In this way, seek to become more aware of the Cain and Abel struggling in your own life and heart.
6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, let one emotion rise to the surface and express that emotion to God – and, if you’d like, to your companions, with a brief explanation.