Thanks Amid Thorns

Is there any reason to give thanks after a day when one thing after another has gone wrong? Maybe you’ve had some pretty bad days when it was hard to feel thankful. But now try to picture a really, really bad day, a day when everything has gone wrong at once, a day worse than any day you’ve ever had.

Before this day, life was trouble-free and you never had to deal with any opposition. But now you’re caught up in a constant, unavoidable struggle with a cruel and hateful enemy who’s out to get you. Before this day, you and your spouse enjoyed complete happiness and harmony. But now family life has become painful and your marriage difficult. Before this day, you loved your work and got great results without a struggle. But now your ideal work situation is gone, and you’re stuck with toil that involves many frustrations and a much smaller payoff. Before this day, you were the picture of health and never felt sick in your life. But you’ve just been told that you’re going to die. Before this day, you lived in a perfect neighborhood—friendly, safe, splendid, no hassles. But now you’ve been evicted and aren’t allowed back, even though your former neighborhood is the only place with a supply of what you need to prevent your death.

Has anyone ever had so much go wrong in a single day? And if they did, could they possibly have any reason to be thankful? Yes, a man and a woman really did have a day like that; and yes, they really did have plenty of reason to be thankful. The Bible tells about it in Genesis 3. In a single day, our first parents, Adam and Eve, plunged from a perfect paradise into an ongoing struggle with Satan’s cruelty, pain in having children, tension in marriage, working and struggling just to put food on the table, being told they would die and return to dust, being kicked out of the beautiful Garden of Eden, and being barred from the tree of life, which alone could enable them to avoid death. This was God’s judgment on them for disobeying him.

But even amid so many thorns, they had reason for thanks.  Things were still not as bad as they could have been. God showed his wrath but also his mercy. He was stern but also kind. Satan would hate and attack Adam and Eve and their offspring, but eventually humanity would defeat Satan. Family life would often be painful, but it would still be possible to taste the love and joy of families. Getting food would involve hard labor and their bodies would eventually die, but that was far better than having no food at all and dying right away. God would drive Adam and Eve out of paradise, but that was far kinder than casting them into hell immediately, which God could justly have done.

Even in declaring judgment on our first parents and on us who are their offspring, God softened the blow, limited the effects of sin, and preserved much that makes life bearable, even enjoyable. He made human existence hard but still hopeful. He offered hope that even people who deserve only hell might yet reach paradise. But we need God to open the way, and we need to follow a painful path that leads through a broken world of troubles and even through death itself. Meanwhile, we can trust God and give thanks amid thorns.

Battling Satan

When Adam and Eve rebelled against God and took the advice of Satan (who spoke to them through a serpent), God first passed judgment on the serpent, then on Eve, then on Adam.

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike at his heel. (Genesis 3:14-15)

God condemned snakes to a lowdown, accursed existence, slithering around in the dirt. Snakes and people would be enemies from then on, with snakes biting people, and people smashing snakes. As Satan used the snake to be his mouthpiece, so God would use the snake as an ongoing picture of the Lord’s judgment against Satan.

When Satan led Adam and Eve into sin, Satan may have seen it as a great victory. But God immediately made it clear that he, the Lord, was still in charge. Deceiving humanity did not bring Satan any closer to dethroning God. Satan only succeeded in heaping greater curses upon himself.

When Adam and Eve followed Satan’s advice, perhaps the devil thought the human race would from then on side with him and eagerly work with him against God. But God made it clear that humans would never truly be pals and partners with demons. In fact, God made it clear that Satan’s final downfall and ultimate doom would occur at the hands of a human. The devil had deceived the woman, but that would not help his cause. Instead, he would be crushed by woman’s offspring.

Imagine how Adam and Eve must have felt when God said this to the serpent. They must have shuddered at the thought that they, who had never had to deal with an enemy before, would from then on face attacks from a sly, hateful, and hurtful being. Still, they had reason for thanks, even though terrible conflict lay ahead. They must have taken heart when the Lord announced that humanity would win the decisive victory over this deadly enemy.

It can be frightening to know that behind the confusion and cruelty in this world lies the dread power of Satan and his armies of demons (Ephesians 6:11-12). It is sobering to know that Satan is “filled with fury” (Revelation 12:12) and “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But even when this awful enemy does his worst, we don’t have to give in or give up. A son miraculously born to a woman—Jesus Christ, son of the virgin Mary and Son of God—crushes Satan and gives believers power to crush him.

Jesus, throughout his entire life, resisted all of Satan’s temptations and obeyed God perfectly—unlike Adam and Eve. At last Satan, filled with fury, entered Judas and moved him to betray Jesus. Christ’s enemies tortured him and nailed him to a cross. The serpent was striking Jesus’ heel. But in dying on the cross, the Savior crushed the head of Satan the serpent. Jesus paid the price of sin, conquered death by rising from the grave, and shattered Satan’s power. Since that time, Satan has been thrashing about trying to do whatever damage he can in the time he has left, but his doom is sure. Jesus has triumphed, and by faith you can share his victory. If you trust Jesus and devote yourself to him, the Bible assures you, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Thank God!

Family Pain

The Lord’s curse on the serpent was bad news for Satan and good news for Adam and Eve. However, that didn’t mean they were off the hook. Earlier Adam had blamed Eve, and Eve had blamed the serpent for their sin. So when God began by judging the serpent, perhaps the man and woman thought their excuses had worked. But then it was Eve’s turn to face God’s judgment. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you'” (3:16)

The consequences of Eve’s sin would be felt most keenly at the very core of her identity as a woman: in her family life. In God’s original design, Eve could have enjoyed intercourse and pregnancy without any pain in giving birth. She could have enjoyed good, obedient children without the agony of disobedient, destructive kids. In her marriage, she could have delighted in submitting to the kind, considerate leadership of her husband. But now it would hurt to have babies, it would often hurt to bring them up, and the husband-wife relationship would often be a battle of the sexes rather than a union of perfect love.

The pain of having babies is just the most obvious, physical aspect of the enormous pain women have had to bear in dealing with their children. The Bible says, “A foolish son brings grief to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). Perhaps the only thing that wounds a woman more than a grievous child is an uncaring husband. The Bible says the earth trembles for “an unloved woman who is married” (Proverbs 30:23).

Family troubles also hurt men, of course. The Bible says, “A foolish son is his father’s ruin, and a quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping” (Proverbs 19:13). Troublesome children and troubled marriages are painful for anybody, man or woman. But the worst pain is often felt by the woman, since her motherly bond to her children and her desire for her husband’s protection and affection are so central to her feminine nature.

How terrible it must have been for Eve to hear God announce these consequences of her sin! How could she be thankful? Well, there would be pain in having children, but at least there would be children. There would be trouble with her man, but at least she would not be alone in the world. God could have made it impossible for Eve to have children, but he didn’t. God could have separated her from Adam and made each live in solitary confinement, but he didn’t. Sin would have consequences, but God would limit the negative and uphold some positive things.

Giving birth and rearing wise, enjoyable children is much harder in a sin-shattered world than it would be in a perfect world. But it is still possible. Parents should be patient with children, especially since they get their sinful nature from us. With faith in the Lord, faithful teaching of God’s ways, discipline, and much prayer, the Bible says that you can have children that “give you peace” and “bring delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17). You can say with the Bible that children are “a heritage from the Lord” and “a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3). Despite difficulties, thank God for your children.

Marriage is harder now than it would have been without sin. But if a husband patterns his leadership on Jesus’ loving and sacrificial leadership of the church, and if a wife patterns her submission on the church’s willing submission to Jesus, their marriage will flourish. With faith in the Lord, faithfulness to each other, and much effort, you can say with the Bible, “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). Despite challenges, thank God for your spouse.

Struggle to Survive

After announcing to Eve a judgment mingled with mercy, the Lord turned to the man. Adam’s earlier attempt to blame Eve for his sin did not excuse him. As the woman’s punishment affected her in her womanly role as a mother and wife, so the man’s punishment affected him in his manly role as worker and provider. To Adam, God said,

“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”    3:17-19

Adam had rebelled against God, so now the ground would rebel against Adam. Before Adam sinned, the earth produced only what was healthy and enjoyable for Adam. But now the soil would be less cooperative, and there would be thorns and thistles to deal with. Adam’s life would become a stressful struggle to survive, and eventually death would turn him to dust.

Adam’s fall affected not only him but the whole world. God made Adam the head of humanity, so when the head of humanity fell, all his offspring fell with him. God created man to rule creation, so when the human king of creation fell, his entire realm was affected: soil, plants, animals, weather, and various processes of nature. The soil became less productive, plants became less nourishing, and some animals that had once lived on fruit and vegetation began to get nutrition by eating other animals. Weather became harsher. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which once were entirely harmless and even helpful, often became harmful, even fatal. Cells and organs which once operated perfectly could become cancerous. The Bible speaks of the creation’s “bondage to decay” and says that ever since Adam’s sin, “the whole creation has been groaning” (Romans 8:21-22).

By the way, this is a major reason why scientific research can’t offer an accurate picture of when or how God originally created everything. Scientists study the world as it is now and project their observations into the past in order to explain the origin of things. They assume that death, decay, and struggle for survival have always characterized the world and its creatures. But the Bible makes it clear that sin’s curse drastically changed things from the way God originally created them. If a theory of science contradicts what the Bible says about the original creation, then it’s wise to believe the Bible and reject the error of assuming that nature has been, and always will be, subject to the processes we observe in a sin-cursed world.

Adam’s sin brought decay and death on the whole earth, and this makes it hard for a man to work and provide for his family. Still, Adam had reason to be thankful, and so do we. The ground produces thorns, but it still produces good plants as well. Work is often sweaty, stressful, and frustrating, but at least work still accomplishes something and puts food on the table. So give thanks for work and food and the many good things that God sprinkles into your life to remind you that it’s not all bad.

Sin brings death—but even in this, God shows mercy. Adam would eventually return to dust, but not right away. And even when he died, his offspring would live on. The human race would not die out. Hadn’t God also said that Eve would have offspring that would triumph over Satan the serpent? So after God had announced his judgment on Adam and Eve, Adam responded by speaking not of death but of life. Earlier he had named his wife “woman,” but now, says the Bible, “Adam named his wife Eve [which means “living” or “life-bearer”], because she would become the mother of all the living” (3:20). Even though Eve had no children yet, Adam believed God’s promise and named his wife “life bearer.” Adam and Eve would submit to God’s justice, hope in his mercy, and bring forth offspring who would need to do the same.

Earlier, Adam and Eve had made a pathetic attempt to cover their shame by making clothes of fig leaves. But now, after exposing and condemning their sin, God himself covered their shame. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Another being had to be sacrificed and its blood shed in order to cover them.

That was a hint of what God would later do in sacrificing his Son, Jesus, to cover our shame and make us right in God’s sight. The Lord sentenced Adam to sweat, thorns, and death, but  Jesus bore the worst of sin’s punishment when he sweat great drops of blood, wore a painful crown of thorns, and endured the most accursed death possible on a cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse,” says the Bible, “by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The anguish of his death would lead to new joy and eternal life for the people and the world he came to redeem.

Sadness and Gladness

For now, though, the Garden of Eden lies behind us, the fullness of the new creation lies ahead, and our lives are a mixture of sadness and gladness. We cannot enter paradise on our own terms or get eternal life in our own strength. God expelled our first parents from Eden and blocked them from returning.

The Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim [high-ranking angels] and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (3:22-24)

Ever since then, life on earth has been far from paradise, and eternal life has been beyond our grasp. Should we complain about that? No. We should be thankful that although God has placed us outside paradise, he has not cast us into hell.

If you feel overwhelmed by the problems and pains of life, you may be angry at God and see little reason for thanksgiving. But if you face the seriousness of sin, you will realize that the most shocking thing isn’t that bad things happen to you but that God gives you anything good at all. Your life isn’t paradise, but it’s not hell, either. In fact, you have the opportunity to forsake the path to hell and walk a path that leads to paradise.

We are in a world where much is broken and much is beautiful. It’s a temporary situation in which two possibilities lie before us: resent God and perish, or repent and flourish. If we persist in sin and rebellion, the angels and the flaming sword that guarded Eden will sweep us into a lake of fire that torments us forever. But if we submit to God’s majesty and accept his gift of salvation in Christ, the angels will someday welcome us into God’s new creation.

When Jesus returns to earth, he will raise our bodies from the dust and renew his entire world. In the new creation, says the Bible, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” “No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 21:4, 22:3). God promises that “he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her.” Because sin has brought decay and death, says God, “The earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever… The ransomed of the Lord will return… Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 51:3-6,11).

Meanwhile, says the Bible, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:20-23). After the groaning comes joy. Jesus said, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:21-22). So believe in Jesus, and you can truly give thanks amid thorns!

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.