This old Bible story suggests that the happiness so many of us have been made to chase is a mirage. It is a happiness that is always just ahead, ever so slightly out of reach. It is a happiness we can never seem to get our hands on: If I get good grades, then I will be happy. If I get into a good college, then I will be happy. If I get into a great graduate program, then I will be happy. If I am offered a fantastic first job, then I will be happy. If they give me just a little raise, then I will be happy. If I can only find the right person, then I will be happy. If we could have a house of our own, then I will be happy. If we could only afford a second home on the Cape, then I will be happy. If the kids get good grades, then I will be happy. If the kids get into good colleges, then I will be happy. If the kids get in great graduate programs, then I will be happy – and on and on and on. It is a happiness that seems to boil down to being able to do and buy what you please, then sit back and watch your kids do and buy what they please until one day you drop dead. But it is a happiness with hidden costs. It is a happiness which denies that, measure for measure, the ladder you have been climbing has become distance between you and your loved ones left down below. It is a happiness that bellows, Pay no attention to the caffeine and the credit and the alcohol there behind the curtain.
That happiness is a sham and built on a seduction, on a lie that this old Bible story turns on its head: you can have it all. You can have it all. It is the lie that I suspect some of your lives no less than mine are shaped around. It is the lie that few of us think we are as beholden to as in fact we turn out to be. It is the lie at the heart of so much our striving and our spending. It is the lie that says you can uproot yourself from your family and move half a world away, and your relationships will not be at risk of withering. It is the lie that says you can burn the midnight oil without you yourself burning out, too. It is the lie that says you should run your kids ragged in the interest of their being ‘well-rounded’ and they will thank you someday. It is the lie that says you can skip dinner, cancel on a friend, and it is fine. You will not be missed. It is the lie that says you can save the world and not lose your spouse. It is the lie that says you can buy now and pay never. It is the lie that says you can have sex without intimacy, have another drink, have what you want when you want it and nothing has got to give. It is the lie that lures us onto the hamster wheel. The lie that lulls us into justifications and compromises. The lie that leaves us exhausted and bitter and jealous and lonely. You can have it all.
This old Bible story is a harrowing tale of two people who are hell-bent on having it all. Two people who when given the world, want the moon. Two people who want the one thing they cannot have, cannot rest content with their countless blessings so long as even one lay beyond their clutches, but who go grasping after more and more and destroy themselves in doing so. God set before Eve and Adam the lush bounty of Eden and bid them to feast on its delights: to climb trees and mountains, to stargaze, to swim in the river and dance in the rain, to see and enjoy everything, and taste the goodness of everything – taste of the goodness of everything, except for some ugly, shriveled pomegranate-looking thing. God said, “From every fruit of the garden, you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” That is, God said, “You have more degrees, more honors, more money, more whatever than you could ever need. Let enough be enough. Learn to say no. Because you will kill yourself trying to have it all. Because you will kill yourself trying to do it all. You will be dead to those you love the most; you will be dead to the ones you are doing all this for.”
I am aware that this old Bible story speaks in stark protest of the spirit of our time. I am aware that this old Bible story affronts some of our own aspirations. I am aware that, at least given the right gadgets, a life coach and enough diet coke, we are all supposed to be able to juggle our way to enduring fulfillment. But that is fantasy. Even in paradise, even in Eden, there were to be limits. There were to be occasions to say yes and to say no, to remain unsatisfied, to disappoint our appetites, and to discipline our whims, to hunger for something we do not and finally will not have. Even in paradise, even in Eden, the flourishing, the bliss God ordained for us was not to be found in having everything we would think we want, but in having formed the right attachments, and in having strengthened them by gifting some measure of our love and of ourselves to them, to them, and not to the myriad other things calling out to us. Even in paradise, even in Eden, we were not destined to have it all; happiness was not to mean having it all.
You know, when we fast in Lent, when we say no to this so we can say yes to that, to that which is better, when we deny ourselves something we want, friends, that is life as God intended it; not eating everything we might eat, not doing everything we might do, not having everything we might have – that is the way of paradise. That is the way of Eden. That is the way of blessedness, which Eve and Adam reached beyond, but to which we do not have to reach. When you fast in Lent, when you give up meat or coffee or chocolate, the point is not that you are starving yourself for forty days, but that you are coming to see, in a far deeper sense, you are coming to see that you have been starving yourself for years. You can give up liquor, you can put the bottle at the back of the shelf until Easter Sunday, but that is not the deprivation. The deprivation is the sort of same-old, same-old, almost getting by, almost getting ahead, almost getting it all, soul-crushing treadmill of a life that you are buckling under, that you have been at and that is making you miserable, that is making those around you miserable. When we fast in Lent, we discover that the suffering is not in our giving any one thing up, but rather the suffering is in our giving in to everything we think we need and think we want, the suffering is in indulging the Siren songs of our deepest fears and insecurities which beckon us to work, to earn, to volunteer, to buy, to consume, to accomplish our way to wholeness. When we fast in Lent, when we practice saying no to this, so we can say yes to that, to that which is better!, when we fast in Lent, we take baby steps toward freedom from the false happiness of having it all. May it be so. Amen.