“In the beginning” life was different. It was meant to be different: better, holy, beautiful. It was not meant to be a disaster, a series of dramas, scandals, and sins, of hurt, use and abuse; of weakness, sickness, sorrow and death. That was not the original plan.
The creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 is meant to reveal how that original plan was supposed to go and how much our Father loves us. See, when we look at the rest of creation, we see things that, just by existing, given Him glory. Mice, just by being mousy, give glory to God. Dogs, cats, termites, just by being themselves, offer to God all that He created them to offer.
But for humanity, He wanted to give us more, and in return wanted more from us. God created us for love, for us to share in His love by sharing in His freedom. He gave us the ability to choose to love Him, to serve Him, because if love is forced or coerced, it is not love.
For love to be real, it must be free.
And therein lies the problem of Genesis 3, the story of our Fall. When God decided to create us as creatures capable of intentional love, contained within that decision of His was the capacity to choose not to love, to not serve God. So our first parents had the options set out before them: love God or love yourself.
Don't let over-familiarity with the story of the Garden of Eden distract you from the deeper layers of meaning. This story unfolds intense psychological and theological truths. Let me explain.
The serpent's appeal to Eve was not to chose to hate God. That is an absurdity. Eve did not grab the apple while cursing God, saying "Take this, ya jerk! You don't own me!" She did what every one of us do when we sin, from the biggest mortal sins to the smallest venial sins: she chose herself first.
The serpent's psychological attack first got Eve to focus on what she could not have, on what limited her freedom. The "Father of Lies" which is what Jesus called Satan, is such a good liar that he can use the truth to tell lies. See how, in his first words to Eve, draws her full attention to the only thing that limits her freedom, and in so doing, he gets her to question God's loving generosity, thinking that He is holding out on her.
"Is it not truth that you cannot eat of every tree in the Garden?"
Technically, that is true. They cannot eat of every tree because there is one, and only one, out of the thousands of other trees, that they cannot eat. So yeah, they technically cannot eat of "every tree" 'cause there is one single tree that's outlawed.
The serpent draws Eve's attention to the very edge of her freedom and gets her to focus on this one limitation, this one tree.
Our sins begin in the same place. We sin because we think that God is holding out on us. That maybe, just maybe, we can get real happiness faster and surer than if we wait for the Lord to do His thing. We get frustrated, so we look for shortcuts. And even more than this, we believe a subtle lie that propels us into sin just as it did Adam and Eve in the Garden.
It is a lie, the most subtle, that love is subordinated to freedom. For love to be real, it must be free, but when freedom is placed above love, when it becomes the highest ideal, then that means we will do anything to rid ourselves of limits and restraints put on our freedom. We will even push away love, push away God, in order to have it.
In short, we choose our selves over and against God. It's not that we hate God or something extreme like that. It's just that we prefer ourselves. Eve's sin began in her act of switching places between love and freedom. Love, then, can even become an enemy if it is perceived as restraining one's autonomy.
Autonomy. That's a heavy word, but strikes the heart of the story.
Autonomy was the preferred expression of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant for his concept of freedom. Autonomy is based on two Greek words: "autos" meaning "self", and "nomos" meaning "law". Having autonomy means that you are a law unto yourself, you create your own laws and standards of action. You create your own morality. "You shall be like gods, knowing good and evil."
Eve ignored God's love, not because she hated Him all of a sudden, but because she loved herself more, wanting more freedom for herself, and in so choosing, she lost her life, her love, and her hope for happiness. She was deceived. She thought the shortcut to happiness would work. She thought that limits on her freedom would stop her from being happy. She was wrong.
And as the juice of the fruit ran down her chin, she found herself robbed of joy.
God's laws are written from the hand of love, and so they never really restrain us, as long as we see that love is higher than freedom. Love is real, and it makes demands on us. Its limitations may at times feel like we are being hemmed in, like happiness is passing us by, but those limitations are really only temporary. Because love is fruitful, it is generous, it will always expand. And in its expanding, that essential ingredient to love, freedom, expands along with it.
That is why Jesus Christ can tell his disciples: "If you love me, keep my commandments." Eve loved God, but herself more. I guess that's also why Jesus says, "If any man would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."