I was asked to talk to you about the pitfalls facing young Christians going away to college for the first time. There are many. The number of young Christians whose faith is substantially undermined when they go to college is alarming. I look back at my years as an undergraduate with great fondness. I hope your college experience is equally enjoyable. However, you would be well advised not to underestimate the potency of the impending challenges to your faith.
Yesterday, while I was weeding the garden, I thought about what I would say to you today. The temptations that a college student faces are not essentially different from those we all face. However, college freshmen face a barrage of very subtle and seductive temptations at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. I decided that it would be most helpful to spend my time describing the nature of temptation and how to resist it. To do that I would like to look carefully with you at Moses’ description of the commission of the first sin by Adam and Eve.
But before we turn to Genesis, let me explain why the experience of a college freshman is uniquely dangerous. In our culture young people are highly dependent upon their parents until they go away to college. In Christian families, one would hope that eighteen-year-olds have lived their lives under the watchful eyes of parents who held them accountable for their actions daily. When they start college, they typically leave their parents, go away to a new environment, and start a separate existence. Suddenly they have both the opportunity and the need to decide what kind of life they are going to lead as independent adults. Away from friends and family, they can take on whatever identity they choose (jock, bookworm, hood, party animal, political activist, and so forth) without anyone knowing whether or not this new identity is consistent with their previous eighteen years. Furthermore, they no longer have Mom and Dad looking over their shoulder, so they are free to choose an identity that might be objectionable to their parents. To a much greater degree than ever before, freshmen begin making their own independent choices as to what is valuable and worthwhile in life, and living with the consequences of those choices.
As they begin exercising this new-found independence, they are inundated with a myriad of temptations, much like a young child running the gauntlet of hawkers at a fair who all want to divest him of the dollar he is clutching in his hand. College has probably long been a severe testing ground for young Christians, but in recent years it seems to me the subtlety and danger of the temptations have increased. When I was in college twenty years ago, there was a great deal of overt hostility on campus toward Christianity. This was not pleasant, but at least many of the attacks on my faith were overt and straightforward. Today the climate is different. Now students and professors look on Christians with a mixture of pity and disdain, impatient for Christians finally to achieve their level of enlightenment. For them Christianity is like a dying man–they are torn between letting him die a natural death and euthanizing him in order to minimize the cost of prolonging the ordeal. When Christianity was seen as a feared enemy, at least Christians enjoyed the respect of adhering to a compelling world view. Now Christianity is treated with scorn–a defeated foe. Consequently, Christian students are immersed in an environment that wears down the defenses rather than attacks them; this is the more dangerous. Given the nature of the contemporary college environment and the vulnerability of the freshman, it is no wonder that many succumb to the pressures. It makes sense to enter into such a challenge as well prepared as possible. So let us look at the biblical record of the first sin in Genesis chapter three.
As you will recall, Genesis explains how this world came into being. Chapter one recounts the creation of the various parts of the universe, culminating in the creation of man. The second chapter tells how God made a paradise for man to live in. He furnished it with valuable minerals, flowing streams, and beautiful plants. God granted man the liberty to eat from the fruit of those plants to his heart’s content. Only one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was declared “off limits.” Furthermore, God recognized Adam was missing something, and after making him aware of his need, God fulfilled it by creating a companion–woman. Adam and Eve could have looked at all God had done for them and seen that He was indeed gracious. Nevertheless, this is precisely the issue Satan called into question.
Temptation is by definition subtle. Temptation is evil masquerading as good. If evil showed itself for what it really was, there would be no attraction. In the garden, Satan approached Eve in the guise of a serpent, a revealing choice. He came not in the form of a powerful bull or bear–he came in the form of a silent, slithering serpent. He does not launch direct and open attacks. He probes for weaknesses in the defenses and then attacks in guerrilla fashion.
The serpent began his assault on Eve by asking a seemingly innocent question, “Indeed has God said you shall not eat from every tree of the garden?” This question was not asked in order to gain information; the serpent wanted to raise a very important issue in the mind of the woman. The question was calculated to focus the woman’s attention on the prohibition and cause her to ask herself a series of questions: Why would God place restrictions on us–the most important beings in all of creation? Is there some good thing God is denying us? Does God really want what is best for us?”
Eve responded by restating what God had said originally. However, her restatement is not word-for-word correct. The changes appear slight, but close scrutiny shows them to be very significant. Let us look very carefully at each of those alterations.
When God had originally issued the prohibition, He prefaced His prohibition with a statement of generosity, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely. . . ” This generosity apparently was not impressed upon the woman, because her restatement does not retain important elements. She omits “any” and “freely” from her words: “From the trees of the garden you may eat…” These omissions indicate that the woman had never really reflected on God’s generosity; she took it for granted. Since she had not seared into her gray matter evidences of God’s graciousness, she was vulnerable to suggestions that God was not gracious. This fact was not lost on the serpent.
The second alteration was the way in which the woman referred to the tree from which they were commanded not to eat. God had referred to it as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” He had described the tree by name, and that name was intriguing–it begged explanation. But the woman’s intellectual curiosity had apparently not been aroused, because she did not refer to the tree by name; instead she referred to the tree by geographical location: “the tree in the middle of the garden.” Eve had missed an excellent opportunity to prepare herself for the temptation. Had she leisurely assessed the various possible explanations for this name, she would have had the opportunity to examine each interpretation and settle on the one most consistent with all the information available to her. However, since she had not thought about the name, Eve left herself open to suggestions–an opportunity the serpent was not about to pass.
The third alteration is an addition Eve made to the words of the prohibition. God had said, “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…” Eve, on the other hand, said, “…you shall not eat or touch…” I have wavered over the years as to the significance of this addition, but I am currently inclined to see it as an addition that ought not to have been made. Some have suggested that the motivation for this addition may have been, in a sense, laudatory–to create a buffer zone around the divine prohibition so that violation would be less likely. However, the law is not improved by being made more severe at a superficial level. And in any case, the end result was bad. Eve added to her error of not retaining an appreciation of God’s generosity, by exaggerating the scope of what was prohibited. This addition had the effect of making God look all the more onerous.
The last alteration Eve made concerns the punishment for disobedience. God had said, “In the day you eat of it you will surely die.” God’s wording gave an air of weightiness to the prohibition. God stressed the certainty (“surely”) and the immediacy (“In the day you eat of it”) of the punishment. The woman said that God had simply said, “you will die,” omitting any indication of certainty and immediacy of the punishment. The woman’s restatement downplayed the seriousness of the prohibition. Once again the woman had not seriously and carefully reflected on the words God had uttered when He issued the prohibition. Therefore she was not in a position to understand fully the prohibition and its significance.
When the woman’s answer is analyzed, all the pieces present a consistent picture. The woman had never taken the time and mental energy to ponder the questions raised by her existence and God’s acts with respect to mankind. She should have mulled over such questions as: Who is God? What kind of creature is a human being? Why am I here? What are good and evil? How are they determined? Since she had not carefully worked out well-reasoned answers to these issues, she was open to suggestions. Seeing that she was defenseless, the serpent moved quickly to the attack, offering an alternate way of looking at the world.
The serpent began by flatly contradicting God, “You will not surely die.” Although Eve had probably never before entertained such a thought, once suggested, it must have seemed plausible. Having created the world for man, God was not likely to kill him for the trivial act of taking a bite of a piece of fruit. The serpent was living proof that God did not really kill those who acted independently. But if God did not kill rebels, then why did He say He would? The serpent had an answer.
The serpent called into question the goodness of God. He said, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve had assumed that the prohibition was made for man’s benefit. But the serpent suggested that the prohibition was in God’s own interest. He argued that God had prohibited man from eating the fruit because He wanted to keep man in a place of subservience; He wanted to retain His position of power. Today God was prohibiting them from eating the fruit, but what would He prohibit tomorrow? If God was allowed to keep calling the shots for Adam and Eve, they would soon find themselves slaves. Consequently, the serpent asserted that taking a step of independence would be a wise act. By eating the fruit, the woman would be taking control of her own life, realizing her full potential. By taking her life in her own hands and deciding for herself what she would and would not do, she would attain god-likeness. In so arguing, the serpent made obedience to God seem foolish and disobedience virtuous.
The woman fell for it. She began to look at the same fruit through completely different eyes. The verse says, “She saw that the fruit was pleasing to the eyes, good for making one wise, and good for food.” These are all judgments, perceptions. None of them can be determined by looking. The woman was persuaded by the serpent’s reasoning. She took and she ate. The woman was duped.
This passage brilliantly presents the nature of temptation. It all began with an innocent sounding question, but that question was carefully phrased to arouse suspicion about God in the heart of the woman. Then the serpent explained the prohibition as a restriction devised by a sinister God. The serpent offered no new evidence; he merely reinterpreted the existing evidence from an assumption of mistrust. Apart from an assumption of mistrust, the serpent’s reasoning was not compelling or even plausible, and there was good evidence that God was indeed watching out for man’s best interests. Thus the serpent’s strategy was dependent upon a deep-seated eagerness in the heart of the woman to mistrust God. Having detected such eagerness, the serpent then offered a rationalization that could be used to justify disobedience.
The woman was vulnerable to this temptation for two reasons. As I have noted, she was attracted, probably at some deep subconscious level, to mistrust God. This weakness was compounded by her intellectual unpreparedness. She was not ready to counter the arguments of the serpent. This is important. We are all sinners by nature and inclined toward mistrust, or rebellion, toward God. Consequently, that rebellious spirit is easily aroused. However, God made us rational beings. We are naturally compelled to act according to reason. Consequently, we are beings attracted to specious reasoning that justifies rebellion. By specious reasoning I mean a line of argument that initially looks compelling, but upon closer inspection is flawed. Therefore sound reasoning and knowledge can be a bulwark against temptation. Ignorance is like drunkenness in that it lowers our ability to resist temptation.
I used to think of the course of one’s life being the product of a few important choices–spouse, college, career, faith, and so forth. I have since realized that this is illusory. The course of our lives is the product of a myriad of little choices that make the big ones foregone conclusions. The greatest challenges you will face at college will not be professors who will pin you against a wall and shout, “Denounce your faith or flunk!” The greatest challenges will be off-hand remarks by friends or teachers that will call into question the goodness of God and His principles of right and wrong. You will face such challenges whether you go to a secular college or a Christian one.
You need to prepare yourself. First, you need to be intellectually strengthened. You need to understand and have good reason for your faith. You need to understand clearly what the gospel is. You need to know God’s principles. The only good way I know to do this is to study the Bible. When I say study, I mean study. The Bible is a ponderous book, but the most essential truths are the most accessible, and deeper truths are penetrable to anyone who is willing to perform humbly the labor it requires. Second, ask God to strengthen your faith. Temptation is ultimately spiritual, not intellectual. The best safeguard against faithlessness is spiritual transformation. But such a transformation is beyond our ability–only God can perform that operation. Beg Him constantly to strengthen your faith.
I have made these remarks with respect to the challenges you will face at college. However, all of life is filled with many of the same temptations. Thus, coming to understand better God’s truth and praying for spiritual strengthening ought to characterize our entire lives.
I wish you well in the coming years, and I hope God will use this experience to teach you much about what is true, beautiful, and good.