Today my seeking of Canaan takes me east of Eden.  Now, I won’t get into where people think Eden was geographically, or how the ancients arranged their cardinal directions; to today’s layperson Canaan would be assumed to be west of Eden.  But bibliophiles will instantly recognize I’m referring not to an actual geographical location, but rather to Steinbeck’s classic novel which parallels the epic story of Cain and Abel, a metanarrative interwoven with other subplots of revenge and redemption, of coming to terms with death (and life) and all the intricate and delicate interactions we experience till the day we arrive at that destination.  Above all, I think, the novel deals with the ultimate and inescapable realities of good and evil and a man’s daily choice to partake in one or the other.  Chapter 34 summarizes this theme in 3 short pages.  Indeed the brevity and mastery of this section is what led me to blog on this in the first place.  Here are some key quotes from the section:

John Steinbeck

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?”  And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go?  How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder.  Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil….There is no other story.  A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil?  Have I done well — or ill?

And in our time, when a man dies — if he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments – the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? …Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: “Was he loved or was he hated?  Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?”

It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”

I dare not even attempt improve upon the insight of one such as Steinbeck.  Its true, when we think of those people who existed to serve themselves at the expense of others in their lifetimes, our most natural inclination is to allow a twinge of joy to enter our consciousness, even if we simultaneously recognize an immense sorrow for a viable life wasted in self-pursuit.

The Bible comments on this in several passages, both directly and indirectly; indeed, I’d venture to say to one degree or another from cover to cover God’s Word in its entirety deals with what Steinbeck calls the “one story in the world.”  After all, Christ died that man might not; Christ conquered sin and death that man might actually have the option to choose life, rather than hopelessly wallow in his own self-perpetuated existence of evil.  Paul’s external monologue in Romans 7 is a good example of this daily fight:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  (ESV)

Here Paul is even recognizing that the default setting among us is to choose the evil, even with a knowledge and desire to do good.  Steinbeck was right, but he didn’t finish the thought.  Firstly, if we do good now, just to be missed when we’re dead, we still only serve ourselves.  Our souls experience no exercise in altruism by doing good simply because it’ll be better for our self-esteem when we find ourselves on our deathbed.  Is it a good exercise to remember our death throughout our day?  Absolutely.  Keeps us humble.  Keeps us honest.  Keeps us real.  But ultimately, it isn’t our kind deeds or lack thereof that make us good or evil, but rather our motivations.  We were made for good works, for God’s glory.  We do them to realize our existential identity in that glory, namely to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.  It’s not because we’ll feel better about ourselves for it (although we might), not so people will love us (even though they may), and it’s not to be remembered well after we die (even though we probably will be).

No, we do them because, like a flower that withers in the sun when it isn’t watered, we will never realize our God-intended existence without them.  And in the same vein, as God’s emissaries in a fallen world, if we choose to perpetuate that fallenness, we reject the role of steward that God has bequeathed to us, thereby dulling our senses ever so gradually to His eternal plan.  But if we choose to bring love, light, joy and redemption to it, we begin to see Him more clearly, for we are being aligned with Christ and his glory.

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