There is a terrible lie going around.
A dark, evil, truly terrible lie.
After all God has given us, and all the safeguards he put in place to guide us back to himself, that ancient, terrible, original lie persists: God is holding back. God doesn’t want us to be happy.
At the end of the day, that was the message of the serpent in the garden.
God, desiring to share his love with his creation, and to make us his sons and daughters by adoption – allowing us to share in the glory of his presence – created a paradise where every need was met, and we were free to be ourselves without shame.
And God, wanting our love for him to be real – to be freely chosen, as true love is – gave the simple instruction that we should choose to stay away from the things that harm us, from the knowledge of the dark, isolated alternative that is a life built solely around itself, isolated even from the God who created all things.
But then came the lie.
“Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’, came the crafty message.
“No, we can eat all sorts of fruit from all the trees… except one. There’s just one tree that isn’t good for us; he warned us that it would hurt us – it would even kill us – if we touched it.”
“…Oh, my dear, you actually believe that? Come on. Your Heavenly Father didn’t give you that rule to keep you safe. He’s holding back. He doesn’t want you to be like him. He doesn’t want you to be truly happy.”
That’s the dark, terrible, ancient lie that has infected all of human history. It’s the lie that all of us face each and every day.
The truth, from the beginning is clear – the signs revealed in creation to every people and nation, the truth revealed in the law and the prophets, the deep truth spoken by the Word made flesh, is just the opposite: God’s not holding back, he’s reaching out, continually with a free gift of grace. He’s holding out his hand, and would even send the Son to seek out us lost orphans, to bridge the chasm between death and life, to adopt us as his children, to make that relationship with our Father possible once more.
God’s not holding back – he held nothing back, even humbling himself to become like us in every way except sin.
The truth, revealed in part to all the great religions of humankind, and found in the person of Jesus Christ, is that God wants nothing more than for us to be like him.
The serpent was wrong. The lie of the world, the flesh, and the devil is wrong. God wants us to be like him; he wants to make us his own children, heirs of eternity.
And, in that, he wants us to be happy.
…But this is where the lie becomes attractive, even irresistible. We have a hard time understanding what true happiness is. For us, happiness is pleasure, and as we move through our days, it seems we need a constant supply.
This is precisely why God asked us to trust him in the first place, though the serpent’s lie was no surprise. Once we’ve experienced isolation; once we’ve experienced pride and jealousy; once we’ve experienced the pain of going without or being outdone, we lose sight of what really makes us happy, and we’re left thinking that this mess is all there is, that our purpose, our goal, is just this.
Our happiness is fickle. As Paul says in Philippians, our god is our belly; it’s our appetites that drive us, and even a little indigestion or a toothache can turn my happiness into self-pity, or worse, bitter jealousy of those better off.
God’s call to us, God’s instruction isn’t to keep us from something good; the invitation to follow Christ, to learn to love what is really good, is the opposite: it’s so that we can experience what is truly good, and to keep us from the pain and isolation that is the alternative.
But the lie persists.
When I was young, we lived in Sibley’s Cove, a small fishing community in Newfoundland. Our house was the last one out on the point, just up over the hill from the wharf and the fish plant.
There were benefits – this meant that our road was the only side-road that was paved. But there were drawbacks, as the large, dripping fish trucks would come and go several times each day.
Now, across the road from our house was, from my perspective, a beautiful, lush field of chest-height grass to run through, leading to the little brook where dad would take us fishing, and where you could jump across the rocks to get to our friends’ house.
As young kids, 4 or 5 years old, we had a lot of freedom – we could wander all the garden behind the house, we could go up over the hill and pick berries, we could go up to the vegetable ground or play on the mossy rocks behind the shed. …But there was one rule: we could not cross the road.
…But that ancient lie persisted.
Even with the wide open space we had behind us, even with the swingset and the large driveway to ride our bikes, my sister and I would stand for what seemed like hours, imagining the fun we could have if we crossed the road. Mom and Dad are so mean. We won’t get hurt. They just don’t want us to have fun.
Well, one day, I crossed the road. As it turns out, chest-high grass in summer isn’t as fun as it looks… it’s really just full of bugs. And, when I turned, ready to come back, the large, dripping fish trucks were leaving the plant. Mom and my grandmother came running, screaming from the house, and the driver stopped, the loud rumbling of the engine and the cloud of early 90s diesel smoke adding some drama to the tears running down my cheeks.
The rest of the day is a blur; but I knew one thing – Mom was angry. …Or, at least, I thought she was.
The Lie has a Twin
That old lie, that something good was being withheld, has a twin: that God is angry. Now, sure, my mom was angry: but even that which, from my perspective, was pure anger was, from her perspective, sadness and disappointment that I would disobey, and shock, even grief, at the danger I had put myself in, and the unspeakable harm that could have come.
But, no matter how things might look from our perspective, don’t give into the lie, and especially in this season of Lent. God, by nature, is not angry. God, by nature, is pure, unbridled joy, and his desire, from the foundation of the world, is to welcome us into that joy. He’s looking at all of eternity, at the trajectory each of us has chosen, to move closer to what truly satisfies us – Himself – or to choose the dark, sarcastic world of isolation and contempt.
But, if we buy into these lies – that God is withholding something good, and that he’s angry with us for wanting it – then, from our perspective, things change.
Perhaps you know someone who is bitter, or maybe you’ve been bitter yourself. You see, there is nothing worse to a bitter person than someone who is joyful, someone who is truly happy, someone who is unphased by the minor setbacks along the way.
From the perspective of a bitter person, joy is infuriating; it makes their skin crawl. Joy mocks the very existence of a person who has chosen to be bitter; from their perspective, the warm, life-giving fire of joy hurts to be around; it burns.
But, to the one willing to receive it, joy, and the love that lets us flourish is contagious, and leads to life itself.
There’s a terrible lie going around. Don’t listen to it.
God is not holding back. God wants you to be like him, even though that means, for now, taking up your cross and following Christ on what is, at times, a hard, hungry path through the desert.
This Lent, through study, and self-denial, prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, learn to love what lasts instead of what fills our bellies. Learn to love what truly leads to happiness, what is truly good, instead of what feeds our appetites.
For it’s through obedience that we experience God’s joy. And that’s no lie.
 “The Terrible Lie” is from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ remarkable theological paraphrase of Genesis 3 in The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan, 2007).
 I’m not suggesting that God does not detest sin, but that where human joy is dependent (“I’m happy if…” or “I’m happy when…” or “this made me happy”), following Augustine, God’s joy is fundamental to his Triune being, and following Nehemiah 8 and Hebrews 12, our joy is found in God. I commend this article by Tony Reinke, and this from John Piper.