Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Everybody has a self-theory, some hypothesis or doctrine about what/who they are. Some of these theories are simple sentences like, “I’m an athlete.” Others are more fundamental, like, “I’m worthless.” According to Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden, our self-theories lead directly to our self-esteem maintenance/repair strategies after we fail at a task or to reach a goal. (Dweck, 130-131). They have distilled the various self-theories into two helpful categories.

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of activities that are difficult. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves to bolster their sense of worth/skill.
  2. Growth View
    Those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. These individuals use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tend to be associated with success? If you guessed, “the incremental theory and the growth view,” you guessed correctly.

In the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and to other people is a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

Burning off dead wood

What is a human being and how does it grow? Two men offer helpful and constructive answers can be found below. To be human is to be the sort of creature whose mind can incorporate struggles and trials into itself to become more. Marcus is commenting on the Stoic concept that human beings are rational animals, Peterson is commenting on Scripture in the first quote and on Jung’s understanding of Solve et Coagula[1] in the second. I hope what follows is helpful and encouraging:

Marcus Aurelius

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher. (Aurelius Meditations, Hays Translation 4:1)

 

Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. (Aurelius 5:20)

Jordan Peterson

It’s not just a little linear, it’s step-wise, right? It’s that the you that emerges as a consequence of your latest catastrophe is everything that you were before plus something more. And that actually constitutes what you might describe as measurable progress, right? And that’s another argument against moral relativism, because if you can do everything that you could do before, and you can do some more things we could just define that as better. It’s not a bad definition. And then we have enough. It’s like, what you’re trying to do is to differentiate the world and differentiate yourself and every time you undergo one of these revolutions then hopefully both of those things happen. And then there’s a moral to that story, too, which is do it voluntarily and maybe do it don’t wait for it to happen catastrophically. Keep your eyes open and when something goes a little bit wrong that you could fix it. Don’t say, “No, that doesn’t matter.” Maybe it does matter. Maybe it is matter. Maybe it’s exactly the matter out of which you should be built.[2] 

 

[confronting the unexpected and undesired good is…] It’s a forest fire that allows for new growth, and that’s how those things are put together and, and it’s useful to know too because if you burn something off you might think well there’s nothing left. That’s not true! If it’s dead wood, then you have room for new growth. And you want to be doing that on a fairly regular basis. That’s the snake that sheds its skin and transforms itself, right? That’s the death and resurrection, from a psychological perspective. It’s exactly the same idea! Now, we don’t know the upper limit to that, right? Because we don’t know what a person would be like if they let everything that they could let go let go and only let in what was seemly, let’s say. But you can see, that’s funny we know that to some degree you can see people vary from you can see people start to do that, it’s not a rare experience. And people improve very rapidly. They can improve their lives very rapidly, a lot of it is low-hanging fruit. If you just stop doing really stupid things that you know are stupid your life improves a lot so and it frees you up. It also means there’s a there’s an element there that’s also associated with pride because people tend to take pride in who they are, and that’s a bad idea because that stops you from becoming who you could be because if you’re proud of who you are you won’t let that go when it’s necessary you won’t step away from it you know and then you end up being your own parody That’s also a very bad idea. You want to be continually stepping away from your previous. Part of that too is that you have to decide, are you order, or are you chaos, or you the process that mediates between them? If you’re the process that mediates between them you are the thing that transforms. And that’s the right attitude for human beings because that’s what we are. The thing that voluntarily confronts chaos and transforms. That’s what we are. And so, for better or worse, you know, that’s our deepest biological essence, you might say. So, you can let things go if you know that there’s more growth to come.[3] 

 

Reflections

Aurelius’ meditations and Peterson’s broader argument provide a helpful rationale for learning the dialectical arts, adopting asceticism, and a more positive approach to life’s trials.

References


[1] One of my dear friends was deeply interested in Jung and before his tragic death wrote the song linked above.

[2]

Don’t Pray When Tempted?

We all know that prayer is a great tool for spiritual growth and in some ways it is the method and even the goal of the Christian life. But is there ever a time in the Christian life in which prayer is not the go-to tool? In a book on Greek Orthodox spirituality, the author recounted a conversation that was shocked me:

“There is a detail we must keep in mind in reference to the repetition of the Prayer as a method of overcoming the logismoi, [word for spiritually disturbing thought]” Father Maximos said softly as we turned back to where the car was parked. “A person should not resort directly to the Prayer immediately after being assaulted by troublesome logismoi.” “Why not?” I asked puzzled. “I know that what I am about to say may sound paradoxical. But an automatic recourse to the Prayer could have the opposite effects. It may lead a person to extreme psychic turmoil and to a loss of self-mastery. Old Paisios used to tell us that when confronted with a logismos, whoever resorts to repeating the Prayer very rapidly resembles a terrified soldier in the heat of battle. He holds his rifle tight to his chest, paralyzed with fear. To reassure himself that he is not afraid he repeats ’Holy Virgin help me, Holy Virgin help me.’ And he shakes from head to toe, sitting there completely immobilized and unable to fight or even to breathe.” Father Maximos laughed. “That reminds me,” he mused, “of the dentist we had on Mount Athos. The moment he would take a look into our mouths he would sigh, start crossing himself, and begin lamenting. ’Holy Virgin! May you help us. May God place His hand here.’ “Before a person begins to pray, when confronted with a troublesome logismos, a rational mastery over the situation must be developed. Again, if at all possible, the best way is to employ the strategy of complete indifference.1

When I first read this I was taken aback. But then it hit me, Jesus says to pray for God to protect us from temptations when we go to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). But his instruction to his disciples when it comes to sin is to ‘deny yourself.’ Not only so, but St. Peter’s instruction to disciples is to “be sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Later in the same letter, being sober-minded is connected with resisting Satan’s temptations! Sober-minded, rational mastery over temptation is what we do for our prayers.

It would seem that having rational mastery over your emotions, your deepest desires, and the things which tempt you to sin is precisely the remedy to temptation in the moment. And one of the chief strategies of overcoming self-defeating thoughts is to distract yourself. The same, it seems, applies sinful thoughts in general.

It makes sense. While we should pray for God’s help in all things, asking God to help us overcome a temptation when we’re not trying to remove ourselves from its presence, master its cause in our hearts, or arrange our lives to exclude sin is like praying for good health while eating donuts. It seems doubtful that the Lord would help us to do anything we don’t care to accomplish. Overcoming sin is no different, we cannot simply pray for repentance, we must obey the command to repent.

References

1. Markides, Kyriacos. The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (p. 139). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil

Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3 ASV)

In ancient cultures, conformity to the majority was near the top of the hierarchy of values. In fact, the Old Testament takes great pains to enforce conformity to social norms through various and elaborate status rituals and harsh legal penalties. But, the Old Testament vision of social conformity is not conformity to society as such. Instead, the vision is of society conforming to the good, rather than the individual becoming a microcosm of society. The expectation of breaking rank when the rank and file turn to evil is an implicit demand to contemplate social norms and reason whether they be good or evil. This passage also calls for a rejection of social naivete which implies gaining some degree of contemplative virtue. And as a strange conclusion, the passage also proscribes allowing pity to substitute for truth. A conservative error is to equate poverty with vice. The liberal error is to equate poverty with virtue. The Biblical middle-ground is to pursue the good generally and legal justice particularly. The following passages from Proverbs illustrate the same principles in aphoristic format:

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. (Proverbs 14:5)

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:8)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. (Proverbs 14:16)

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

What is my calling?

Briefly, Jesus outlines the calling for every Christian here:

Mark 12:29-31 ESV Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (30) And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (31) The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This isn’t a very specific answer, but it’s a very significant one.

It’s in response to Jesus being asked what the most important part of the law is. Why would somebody ask that? Because they’re hoping to trip Jesus up or they’re hoping for some sort of permission or endorsement of their current way of life. In the case of the Israelites of Jesus’ day, they were looking for laws connected to overthrowing the Romans or perhaps gaining public honor through religious ritual (Matthew 6:1-18).

But the most important thing, before you start looking to do some “world changing” or “personally enriching task” is to learn to appreciate God and to bring well-being to your neighbor.

From the outside in?

The pattern we typically set for people who wish to be more like Christ is this:

Start from the inside out.

It’s not unreasonable. Jesus says roughly that to the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:25-26 ESV “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (26) You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

And I think the advice in generally sound. But, sometimes people’s desire to be like Jesus is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already working on the inside and they need something to do to actualize the potential God is putting there.

First, a passage from Proverbs:

Proverbs 24:30-31 ESV I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, (31) and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

What the passage is getting at is that the sluggard won’t even care for his own property. And the problem with the sluggard is a spiritual problem. But it would seem that taking care of the outside, the literal outside of his house (his field), might help his inside. And Proverbs does mention something like that:

Proverbs 24:27 ESV Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

The meaning is very practical, but it may have a spiritual application as well.

If so, for some Christians, especially young men and women, maybe the first steps in discipleship might really be things like:

  1. Clean your apartment.
  2. Clean out your car.
  3. Change your oil.
  4. Get out of debt.
  5. Get to work/class on time.
  6. Groom yourself.

One somebody turns their life into something resembling order, it might be easier to help them overcome something like despair, arrogance, porn, or anxiety.

The Mindset of the Spirit and the Mindset of the Flesh

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve been utterly intrigued by Carol Dweck’s concept of mindset. What’s interested me most is where the idea appears in Scripture. The most obvious part of the Bible is in Romans 8:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.[1]

The more literal translation of “to set the mind on the Spirit” is “the mindset of the Spirit,” or perhaps “the mentality/outlook of the Spirit.” The concept is something like, “the way of managing one’s mind which starts with “setting the mind on the things from the Spirit” from verse six. In other words, it’s the total of beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes that a Christian uses to be transformed by the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:1-2).

But what is this mindset? What are the beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes that Paul means? And beyond that, what are the beliefs, attitudes, and thought processes provided by the Holy Spirit outside of Paul’s immediate reference? I propose a three-step way forward:

  1. Look at what Paul says in Romans pertaining to thoughts, the Spirit, and the flesh/sin.
  2. Look at what Paul says in the rest of his letters.
  3. Look at what the rest of the Bible says that fits the conceptual framework of a mindset that comes from God’s Spirit.
  4. Forth Bonus Step: Look at what nature can tell us about a good mindset from philosophical reflection and scientific experimentation. This would still be, insofar as it was not sinful, a mindset of the Spirit, who was over the face of the deep when nature was created.

Below are some of the contrasts yielded by this approach. Some elements of contrast indicate the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. But others indicate where you might be in the process of having your mind renewed:

Mindset/mentality of the Spirit Mindset/mentality of the Flesh
1.      Regarding God as ultimate reality.

2.      Treating Jesus as the supreme revelation of knowledge about God.

3.      Hearing and doing the commands of Jesus.

4.      Regarding the Bible as a repository of genuine knowledge about God and wisdom for life.

5.      The Abel ethic.

6.      Growth mindset.

7.      God saves you from sin.

8.      You cooperate by faith, hope, and love.

9.      Reverence for divine law.

10.  Creative dominion in the face of chaotic circumstances.

11.  The wise man in Proverbs

1.      Regarding creation as ultimate reality

2.      Treating anything as supreme to Jesus w/respect to revelation.

3. Hearing and ignoring the commands of Jesus.

4.      Ignoring the Bible in your quest for genuine knowledge about God and wisdom for life.

5.      The Cain ethic.

6.      Static mindset.

7.      Something else/nothing saves you.

8.      You either exercise virtue on your own or not at all.

9.      Hostility to divine law.

10.  Resentment, hatred, and retreat in the face of chaotic circumstances.

11.  The fool in Proverbs.

References

[1] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), Ro 8:5–8.

What is a good person?

Dallas Willard defines a morally good person:

The morally good person is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will called “character.”

This is a serviceable definition. It is a few words away from a definition of a mature Christian. I would alter it this way to make it Christ-centered:

The mature Christian is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. The mature Christian recognizes that Jesus Christ’s teachings are the surest guide to the relative degrees of importance of those goods, especially Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. They understand that God is the highest good and source of all good in the world, including any good in themselves. They also see that at any moment may reject the good and are therefore themselves in need of constant repentance and are necessarily in need of forgiveness and atonement. By treating Jesus’ words as the foundation of their lives, they thereby rely on God’s Spirit and receive transforming help from God himself. 

Willard also describes the morally bad person:

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Of course, this is the person who is like Cain. Cain sees his brother Abel, wishes to have God’s approval just like him, and instead of sacrificing his own behavior and desires to achieve his ideal (to be like Abel) he slaughters his ideal. The morally bad person is similar. It’s not that they literally pursue evil. It’s that they take imprudent shortcuts to the good that destroy the good in the process or they pursue penultimate goods as the ultimate good (idolatry). Of course, the mature Christian sees the potential to become this person residing in their heart at all times. In fact, even an innocent person who has never sinned has the potential to become evil (see the Adam and Eve story).

Anything I’ve left out?

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Main Point:

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is meant to impart knowledge of good and evil through the constant practice necessary to say, “No” to the desire to eat from a tree with tasty fruit.

Minor Point

God never offers instant wisdom in Scripture, but instead treats wisdom as a good to be sought over time. So whatever Adam and Eve receive when their eyes were opened in Genesis was either evil in itself or evil because they were not ready for it.

In my effort to make those two points, things got circuitous.

The Tree

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 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.
(Genesis 2:8-9 ESV)

Was there really a tree with fruit that conferred knowledge upon its eater? Initially, the idea seems silly. But eating an apple confers knowledge of the taste of an apple. And if you eat a fig and it kills you, your fellow tribesmen know that the fruit is poison. If it does not poison you, you now know a reliable food source. In this sense, knowledge is conferred by the consumption of fruit.

Knowledge of Good and Evil?

But how is it possible that the Bible, which lauds the value of knowledge of good and evil, starts out with a command from God not to eat of a tree which allegedly confers this very knowledge? In Genesis, it appears that God is opposed to the very knowledge that is apparently necessary to please him.

If we read this story in its canonical context, we can see some of what the Biblical authors thought it meant to obtain “knowledge of good and evil.” The Bible is clear that growing in knowledge and wisdom is a process which God intended to take place over time. For instance:

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
(Hebrews 5:14 ESV)

 

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
(Colossians 1:9-12 ESV)

Maturity of the sort which allows for solid food (explanation of deep knowledge of God) comes from “constant practice” of discerning good from evil. And being filled with knowledge of God’s will is implied to be a process when it leads to “bearing fruit in every good work.” The road of easy knowledge and instant wisdom is a road unknown in Scripture. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that God’s will is that people grow in wisdom over time. We also know that God forbids some things that aren’t intrinsically immoral. An example of this can be found in various dietary and fashion restrictions in the Old Testament. So it’s not knowledge of good and evil that is forbidden. It’s knowledge of good and evil that could result from not eating of the tree.

My thinking is that in Genesis, the tree is named “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” because having a moral prohibition helps human beings learn moral reasoning, particularly in a world in which things are made to be a hierarchy of goods (Genesis 1). For instance, many things God did not command are morally wrong. God never told anybody not to murder. Yet, Cain’s murder of Abel was immoral and led to punishment.

Similarly, God never commanded anybody to worship, but Cain and Abel innovated sacrifice. In fact, eating meat was neither commanded nor prohibited, Abel did it (as is evident by his sacrifice from his flock) and was not reprimanded. And so it appears that the point of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to show that in the hierarchy of goods there are many conflicts and difficulties (it’s wrong to kill humans but not animals), but that explicit rejection of God’s instructions is usually bad (though at times, God has spoken things he apparently did not want obeyed or put into practice at all, see Ezekiel 20:25-26 and Exodus 32).

Possible Corollaries

If what I outlined above is true, it seems that the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were made innocent, but not perfect. This makes more sense to me. In Genesis 103, it is clear that they are not immortal. They understand death and they also can only obtain immortality by eating from another tree (the tree of life).

This is helpful for general theology/anthropology/theodicy as it is evidence to the effect that God’s purpose in making man was to make a being who would/could grow into moral and spiritual maturity in the face of risks to that process. In other words, the pay off for the possibility of moral development is worth significant potential and actual downsides.

It also helps us understand the fall. A being of perfect righteousness and wisdom would not be able to fall from grace.