Article: In The Beginning (3/3)

The Father’s Wisdom

Summary: The punishment of Adam and Eve is examined as the first record of suffering in the Bible, and as the model for understanding suffering in a Scriptural context. This introduces the Biblical response to the so called ‘problem of evil’.A considerable amount of evidence is provided to demonstrate that the Bible’s teaching on dealing with discipline, suffering and evil is both realistic and psychologically sound, and should therefore be considered an authoritative guide to human behaviour.

Parental Discipline Not Blind Suffering

Given all this evidence that the creator is a loving father, it may seem contradictory for God to have punished Adam and Eve as He did. As a consequence of their sin, they were expelled from the garden of Eden, and would enter an environment which was no longer arranged so carefully for their benefit. On the contrary, parts of this environment would be actively hostile to them, and they would experience a struggle against it. In addition, they would age, weaken, and finally die, turning to dust again.

Though we understand that good parents discipline their children, it may seem confusing that God, having carefully arranged an environment for the care, protection, and benefit of His children, would degrade that environment in such a way as to make it a struggle for His children to live in it. Is this really the behaviour of a loving father?

In answering this question, we should first take note of the fact that all the amazing benefits which the universe contains for us which we have already considered, all those remarkable arrangements which so many scientists view as evidence of a caring creator, are benefits which God left alone when He cursed the earth. So then, even in the world after the punishment of Adam and Eve, even in the world cursed with conflict and struggle against man and woman, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of a creator who cares and provides for those He has made.

Secondly, we should note that although Adam and Eve became dying beings as a punishment of their sin, they were not totally denied the opportunity of life. It seems at first that God was excluding them from any chance of redemption when He guards the tree of life with cherubim:

Genesis 3:
23 So the Lord God expelled him from the orchard in Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken.
24 When he drove the man out, he placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden sentries [Hebrew ‘cherubim’] who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

But there are two important details to note. The first is that before doing this God had given Adam and Eve the promise of a redeemer (Genesis 3:15), and showed His love and care by forgiving and covering them (Genesis 3:21).

The second is the fact that the role of the cherubim was not to exclude Adam and Eve from any possibility of eternal life, but to ‘keep the way’ of the tree of life, to show that access to this tree would be deferred to a later date, and would take place only in God’s terms not theirs.

Proof of this is found in the fact that at the end of the Bible the way to the tree of life is made open once more, but only to those who have kept the commandments of God:

Revelation 2:
7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’

Revelation 22:
2 flowing down the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22:
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and can enter into the city by the gates.

The reward represented by the tree of life therefore was not permanently forbidden to man and woman, it was merely deferred. This deferral or ‘delay’ of the reward is a constant theme of Scripture, and throughout the Bible we are exhorted that such a deferral is not a cruel punishment but a means of important character development:

Psalm 37:
7 Wait patiently for the Lord! Wait confidently for him! Do not fret over the apparent success of a sinner, a man who carries out wicked schemes!

Psalm 126:
5 Those who shed tears as they plant will shout for joy when they reap the harvest.
6 The one who weeps as he walks along, carrying his bag of seed,
will certainly come in with a shout of joy, carrying his sheaves of grain.

Romans 5:
3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
4 and endurance, character, and character, hope.

Galatians 6:
9 So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.

James 1:
2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials,
3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
12 Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.

James 5:
7 So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s return. Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains.
8 You also be patient and strengthen your hearts, for the Lord’s return is near.

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name.
11 Think of how we regard as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and you have seen the Lord’s purpose, that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Hebrews 10:
36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised.
37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay.

The concept of deferred or delayed reward is extremely unpopular in today’s world of ‘instant gratification’. The exhortations of the world in which we live are the complete opposite of Bible teaching:

* Just do it
* Get it now
* Why wait?
* What you want, when you want it
* Instant results
* No delay
* Buy now
* Don’t wait
* Immediate satisfaction
* No need to wait
* Same day delivery
* Within minutes
* Within seconds
* Available now
* Take it home today
* Movies on demand

Psychological research, however, proves that there are significant benefits to delayed gratification:

‘One characteristic of many of today’s young people, children and parents, is the need for instant pleasure, and little patience with any need for ‘delay of gratification’. This technical sounding term, which actually carries a wealth of meaning, is a description of behaviour first demonstrated in experimental studies by developmental psychologists in the 1950s, and then made prominent by the work of US psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s.

Mischel showed that young children varied in their capacity to wait some time for a reward when they were placed in a challenging situation, which required patience and self-control.


Mischel and many others have shown that the ability to self-regulate and to delay gratification or to wait for rewards is a very good predictor of many aspects of psycho-social health and wellbeing in childhood, and in later life.’

ABC Radio, ‘Instant Gratification versus Resilience in Children’, broadcast Sunday 7 July 2002

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes.’

David Brooks, ‘Self-control Is The Key To Success’, New York Times Service Tuesday, May 9, 2006

On the other hand, those who adopt the mindset of ‘instant gratification’ are unable to regulate or discipline themselves effectively, and suffer for it:

Poor capacity to regulate oneself, on the other hand, is a predictor of psycho-social difficulties in the longer term, including problems in attending to, or persisting with a task, adapting to changing environments, and considering the perspectives and the needs and feelings of people around them.

ABC Radio, ‘Instant Gratification versus Resilience in Children’, broadcast Sunday 7 July 2002

The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.’

David Brooks, ‘Self-control Is The Key To Success’, New York Times Service Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The Bible teaches that delayed gratification leads to the development of a character which stronger, patient, and more able to deal with challenges:

Romans 5:
3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
4 And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope
5 that will never disappoint us. All of this happens because God has given us the Holy Spirit, who fills our hearts with his love.

Psychological studies indicate that this is true:

The learning that results from these kinds of experiences contributes to the growth of resilience. The resilient young person has the capacity to withstand setbacks, to rise to a challenge, to find new ways of solving problems, to feel a sense of self-confidence in managing the social and material world, and to know that hardship can be overcome.’

ABC Radio, ‘Instant Gratification versus Resilience in Children’, broadcast Sunday 7 July 2002

Young people who can delay gratification can sit through sometimes boring classes to get a degree. They can perform rote tasks in order to, say, master a language. They can avoid drugs and alcohol. For people without self-control skills, however, school is a series of failed ordeals. No wonder they drop out. Life is a parade of foolish decisions: teenage pregnancy, drug use, gambling, truancy and crime.’

David Brooks, ‘Self-control Is The Key To Success’, New York Times Service Tuesday, May 9, 2006

It is important to note that the character and circumstances of a child’s parents have a significant impact on whether or not the child is raised in an environment which will encourage delayed gratification:

The ability to delay gratification, like most skills, correlates with socioeconomic status and parenting styles. Children from poorer homes do much worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes. That’s probably because children from poorer homes are more likely to have their lives disrupted by marital breakdown, violence, moving, etc. They think in the short term because there is no predictable long term.’

David Brooks, ‘Self-control Is The Key To Success’, New York Times Service Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Some parents clearly lack the means or the will to provide such an environment. Certainly parents of lower socioeconomic status tend to have a mindset of instant gratification, or else do not have the will or means to provide an environment which encourages delayed gratification. But even many wealthy parents, who have the means to provide such an environment, lack the will to do so, and the ‘rich spoiled kid’ is proverbial as a result. Similarly, parents of a lower socioeconomic status may develop thrifty habits for themselves as a response to their poverty, and encourage such delayed gratification in their children.

The personal will and character of the parent is thus more important than socioeconomic status when determining whether or not parents will provide for their children an environment which encourages delayed gratification.

Those parents who do have the means and the will, and who provide for their children an environment which encourages delayed gratification, are intelligent, loving, and thoughtful parents. The provision of such an environment is therefore a positive reflection on the character of parents who do so. When we see parents providing this environment for their children, we know they are good parents:

‘What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis,” is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it.’

David Brooks, ‘Self-control Is The Key To Success’, New York Times Service Tuesday, May 9, 2006

It is clear from the Bible that God did exactly this:

* He created a stable, predictable environment in which man could live (not only the garden of Eden, but the world itself), and placed man in the best part of it (the garden of Eden)

* In this environment, good behaviour paid off (obedience to God would result in the continuance of life in a pleasant environment)

* He presented His children with a test which required self control (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil)

Even after man and woman were sent out of the garden of Eden, they found themselves in a stable, predictable environment which is regulated by Divinely ordained laws (Genesis 3:17-19, Psalm 65:9-13; 147:8, 15-18, Proverbs 8:29-30, Ecclesiastes 1:4-7; 11:3-4, Isaiah 55:10; 61:11), in which good behaviour paid off (Genesis 4:4), and God presented tests which required self control (Genesis 4:3-6).

Modern psychological studies indicate that the best parents provide for their children in the following ways:

* Prepare a stable environment
* Provide stimulus
* Set limits
* Apply discipline

As we have seen, this reads just like Genesis 1-3, and the message of the rest of the Bible is identical. The so called ‘problem of evil’ is simply man’s phrase for an environment which sets limits and applies discipline in various ways.

The results of Scriptural discipline are clear:

‘In a landmark study of more than 4000 teens, Philadelphia’s own Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, and colleagues asked teens to classify their parents according to these four styles and looked at how well the children were doing. Their research highlighted the important role that parents play in shaping their children.

Children from authoritative families (firm yet supportive) fared best – better adjustment, more competence and achievement, more confident about their abilities, and less likely to get into trouble.


In sum, parenting that involves firmness and clear expectations delivered in a supportive, loving, non-punitive environment that encourages social responsibility, self-regulation, and cooperation is the best recipe for success.’

Philadelphia Jewish Voice, ‘Raising A Mensch’, Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston M.D. Ph.D., 2005

Equally clear are the results of a life without such restraints:

‘Professor Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, is one of the top psychologists in the US, and before he turned to studying positive psychology and happiness, he devoted a lot of his research to depression.


Seligman says America and all the rich countries are facing an “epidemic of depression”. The question that interests me, however, is: why? What’s causing this deterioration in the quality of our lives? Is it happening because of, or in spite of, our obsession with economic growth?


First, the rise of individualism – what he calls “the big I and the small we”.

The more I believe that I am all that matters, and the more I believe that my goals, my success and my pleasures are extremely important, the more hurtful the blow when I fail,” he says. And life inevitably brings occasions of failure and helplessness.

In earlier times we had more comfortable spiritual furniture to sit in – belief in causes bigger than ourselves, be it God, nation, family or Duty – and this brought us consolation in times of adversity.


Second, the depredations of the self-esteem movement. This is the notion that the job of parents and teachers is to make children feel well about themselves.


Third, the rise of victimology. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to blame our problems on someone else – our parents, the government, The System – rather than accepting responsibility and finding ways to overcome them.

This is a formula for what Seligman has pinpointed as “learned helplessness” (nothing I do matters) – a concept that helped make his name. “Notions of responsibility are importantly preventative,” he says.

Fourth, the growth in “short cuts to happiness”. We’re encouraged to do all manner of things that bring instant pleasure but require almost no effort on our part: junk food, television, drugs, shopping, loveless sex, spectator sport, chocolate and more.

The trouble is that the pleasure they bring is fleeting and they soon leave us feeling empty. Nature built us in a way that we gain more lasting satisfaction from things we have to work for. A lot of the satisfaction comes from the work itself.

A life spent pursuing short cuts to happiness allows our strengths and virtues to wither, rather than develop, and sets us up for depression.’

Ross Gittins, ‘Why All This Living It Up Gets Us Down’, The Australian, February 22, 2006

The wisdom of the heavenly Father in encouraging His children to self-restraint, delayed gratification, patience, acceptance of personal responsibility, and long term goal setting, is clearly superior to the wisdom of this world.


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