Nothing breaks like a promise; its echoes carry through the years. Human beings, as bearers of God’s image, were uniquely crafted for love and commitment. So how did it all go so wrong?
Genesis 3 has been called the “pivot” of the whole Bible. It’s no exaggeration; the decisions made by this First Couple—the promises they would break to God and to each other—represent a malignancy that creeps over nearly every page of the Bible from this point forward.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:1-7)
Thus, the iWorld was born. Where once the couple had eyes only for one another, now the woman “saw that the tree was good for food…a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise.” And before we let the man off the hook, we should point out that he stood idly by and watched the scene unfold rather than intervene and protect his wife.
What Christianity calls sin might really be seen as a form of misplaced love, a form of self-interest. Martin Luther would later describe this as the homo incurvatus in se—the “incurvature of the soul.” Our hearts, once inclined toward God and to each other, became twisted inward, lovers only of self. It’s as though we became convinced that we would be happy—really truly, deliriously happy—if only God had given us more than he already has.
Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy is that we’ve come to assume that this is the way it should be. “There is no one big cosmic meaning for all,” writes international novelist Anaias Nin. “There is only the meaning we give to our life, and individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” And why not? After all, if we remove God from the equation, then there can be no absolute basis for right or wrong, for the design of the human story. A student address during a Harvard commencement speech observed that one unifying value the graduates could share was one of “confusion”—because they had been repeatedly taught that no value system should be declared superior to another. “The freedom of our day,” he concluded, “is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”
LOVE IN A TIME OF SELF-INTEREST
How does this impact our search for love? Simple: we have come to view romantic love as a way of getting my needs met. In their influential book Habits of the Heart, social researchers described this attitude this way: “If other people don’t meet your needs, you have to be willing to walk out, since in the end that may well be the only one way to protect your interests.”
It seems too easy, then, to note that a world that prizes the individual would likewise promote easy access to marriage—and divorce. Though the iWorld began as movements dating back before the Renaissance, we finally saw its full effects in the last century of American culture. In her book Divorce Culture, Barbara Defoe Whitehead noted that in the context of marriage, “satisfaction…came to be based on subjective judgments about the content and quality of individual happiness … People began to judge the strength and ‘health’ of family bonds according to their capacity to promote individual fulfillment and personal growth.”
INSUFFICIENCY OF SELF
In the Garden of Eden, man and woman were tempted with the lie that if they served their own interests, they could be satisfied. And it’s the same lie that plays itself out in every facet of human society since then. So are we?
I grew up in the age of the self-esteem movement. In elementary school, we received specialized education on self-esteem; I even received a children’s book entitled Eight Keys to a Better Me. Recent years, however, have produced research that seems to suggest that the self-esteem movement didn’t have the efficacy they envisioned. Writing for the New York Times, Erica Goode summarizes recent research that says that high self-esteem has negative impact on a person’s overall well-being:
“High self-esteem…was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors…[in studies] carried out on aggression, they found that it was narcissism, self-love that includes a conviction of one’s superiority…that led people to retaliate aggressively when their self-esteem was threatened…[College students] who were invested in appearing attractive…reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia…They also became more depressed as the year wore on.”
It’s what Bob Dylan once called the “disease of conceit.” And it’s what the Bible refers to as sin. Focus on self, and the soul withers; relationships die. Love can never be a means to some personal end—nor can we possibly give assent to the myth that “love is blindness.” Far from it; love demands acuity, it demands that we look at our lover neither with rose-tinted glasses (to mask their faults) nor with a critical lens (to critique their flaws). Instead, it demands that we look at one another with honesty and integrity, seeing one another for all that we are, and having the courage to see the image of God still alive beneath the surface of fig leaves and scars. When we do that, we cease to see one another solely through the lens of our own expectations, and to come closer to seeing them as God sees them.
 W.H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary, p. 48.
 Luther’s Works, 25:291.
 Quoted in Robert Bellah et al., The Good Society, p. 44.
 Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart.
 Barbara Defoe Whitehead, Divorce Culture
 Erica Goode, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills,” New York Times, October 1, 2002
 Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit,” from Oh Mercy, 1989.