I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eyes see you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I’d been having some pretty disturbing dreams when I mentioned them to an old friend.
“Have you been feeling a lot of anxiety lately?” The response was typical, but it caused me to pause long enough to reflect on those anxieties.
It was supposed to be my Fall Break, the time in which I refrained from thinking about work and focused more on the Lord, my family, writing, and being outdoors, but instead, I did what I’ve done in the past, though never with good results, and I knew I shouldn’t have done it: I tried to self-diagnose and find the perfect remedy through multiple internet searches.
I should have known from my experiences with Web MD alone that this was a bad idea. They—whoever they is—always tell me I have cancer or a heart attack or some other life-threatening illness when I simply can’t handle highly processed foods, lots of caffeine, and little sleep. I know that, and yet I still find myself wanting to see what that symptom checker is going to say. How much worse can I expect it to be with difficulties of a socio-emotional or spiritual nature? (If those two are truly separate.)
I often blame this compulsion on the fact that I like to know and understand things, hence the reason I am notorious for asking family, friends, professors, co-workers, and my pastor question after question after question. And like the Little Prince, I never let go of a question once I have asked it. A professor once looked at me and said, “You ask hard questions, and you don’t accept easy answers.” At the time, I took that as a compliment, but we were sitting in his office talking about matters of faith. He was pointing out my realization that the Christian life isn’t a nice neat set of propositions, but looking back I think I detect in his smile the realization that I would also have to come to grips with not being able to discover or grasp the hard answers.
Studying is a fun thing for me, and I not only enjoy learning dialectically, but I often seek wisdom in the form of books, both old and new. While good in many ways, my impulse to reach for answers via a person has also proved detrimental. The age of self-help and its infiltration into the Church hasn’t helped. Information is too readily available, and even if you have a mind ready to sift through all the world has to say, you still are exposing yourself to those ideas in the first place. It’s exhausting, and often it can lead to fixating on our flaws, failures, and struggles like a young child who won’t stop picking at a scab. And what do we always tell that child? Stop it. It’ll get infected.
I’m not going to make a blanket statement that we should forgo the internet or all self-help books. But I will say that in my last episode with anxiety, I had to once again admit that I often use self-help information as a way to self-medicate and even self-cure because I repeatedly insist on pursuing the most fool-proof, self-reliant solution possible when I already know the truth, when I know that Scripture, which is not a self-help manual, pulls me out of myself and points me to Christ. So often we attempt to boil Scripture down to three things we need to do whereas the Gospel begins with the truth that we can’t do anything, and Christ has already done everything.
The week following Fall Break, I read selections from Books I and IX of Paradise Lost with my students, and it struck me how Satan appeals to Eve by focusing on what she can do to better herself. An expert rhetorician, he poses himself as an example of the benefits of eating the fruit:
O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of Science, Now I feel thy Power
Within me cleere, not onely to discerne
Things in thir Causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest Agents, deemd however wise.
Satan’s emphasis on knowledge and reason and their relation to power echoes his conversation with Beelzebub in Book I. Both Satan and his second in command recognize God’s omnipotence, and yet they still insist on opposing His will. It is almost within the same breath that Satan declares “…so much the stronger provd/ He with his Thunder: and till then who knew/ The force of those dire Arms?” and “yet not for those/ Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage/ Can else inflict do I repent or change.” Sounding like a noble underdog, he asserts his right to make his own way. In a later rallying cry before gathering more rebels to his cause, Milton’s Satan seals his damned independence based on his own works-based faith:
Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
If we are honest, how often do our hearts long for that same self-rule? How often do we seek for knowledge in order to be able to say that we have transcended and redeemed ourselves? I know many times I have ignored, no, rejected the Word of God and prayer for a substitute, many times a so-called Christian one, as if that made the idolatry any better. I keep learning that that’s a hereditary habit, for Satan used the same lie of self-redemption when he tempted Eve:
Queen of this Universe, doe not believe
Those rigid threats of Death; ye shall not Die:
How should ye? by the Fruit? it gives you Life
To Knowledge: By the Threatner? look on mee,
Mee who have touch’d and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfet have attaind them Fate
Meant mee, by ventring higher than my Lot.
Knowing how important it is to define your terms, Satan names Eve “Empress” and “The Queen of this Universe,” implying her entitlement, and with the same manipulation of language and thought he calls God “the Threatner.” It is after such doublespeak that he questions whether or not God means what He says and then whether or not God is just at all. The knowledge of good and evil can only be a good thing, and to pursue it is brave and indeed virtuous—things to be commended by a God who is truly just and desires the well-being of His creation. In his boast that he transcended himself and attained the good life by “ventring higher than my Lot,” Satan demonstrates the mindset and consequences of a pseudo-humane—make that down-right perverted—interpretation of the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself.” In the following lines, he adds his own definition of the good life, or true happiness:
…or will God incense his ire
For such a petty Trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless vertue, whom the pain
Of Death denounc’t, whatever thing Death be,
Deterrd not from atchieving what might leade
To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunnd?
Again, we see Truth questioned and turned up on its head as Satan weaves doubts through what otherwise sounds like practical wisdom—
Are death and evil even real, and if so, wouldn’t it be wise to know about them so you can avoid them?
You are ultimately doing this for good, so if God is good, then he should be pleased.
It is that type of logic that neatly leads into Satan’s real argument, an attack on God’s character and therefore, his authority. If God is not pleased with such an earnest pursuit of good, then perhaps he’s not worth listening to to begin with, is he? Even more so, we see that Satan defines happiness as something that you create for yourself. First he refers to the happier life as “knowledge of Good and Evil,” but then he deconstructs those ideas following the logic of his earlier words: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/ Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” anyone? My heart swells to hear Morgan Freeman reciting those last lines “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” just as much as anyone, and the pursuit of knowledge over wisdom and right performance over faith and submission are quite tempting. The problem is all of creation has seen the result of her decision to disregard the Word of the God who created her and create her own way, “ Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat/ Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe/ That all was lost.” In addition to conveying the extent of Eve’s tragic disobedience, Milton captures Eve’s lust for self-reliant knowledge in light of her destructive ignorance in lines that weigh heavier than any final scene in Shakespeare or the last few sentences of 1984: “Greedily she ingorge’d without restraint/ And knew not eating Death.”
Eve’s tragedy is our own. Originally, I was going to end this post with a reflection on Job’s response to God speaking out of the whirlwind, with an emphasis on our standing before an all-knowing, all-wise God. Given the emphasis on Milton, whose purpose for retelling the story of the Fall was to “assert Eternal Providence/ And justifie the wayes of God to man,” that probably wouldn’t have been a terrible idea.
But, that’s not where God ends things, and I’m continually reminded of that truth in the way my pastor always ends his sermons with Christ. Milton may for his purposes end with the banishment of Adam and Eve, but he points very clearly to Christ in his opening lines when he introduces the “loss of Eden, till one greater Man/ Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat.” As Paul explained in one of his letters, just as sin entered through one man and spread to all the rest of us, death also became our inheritance. And more wonderfully so, the obedience of one man brings us complete and abundant justification and eternal life that we could never attain on our own.
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
de Saint Exupery, Antoine. The Little Prince. Harcourt, 1943.
Dore, Gustave. “Adam and Eve and the Snake,” wood engraving, Science Source.
Henley, William Ernest. “Invictus.” Poetry Foundation.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by H.C. Beeching. The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 29, Edited by Mortimer J. Adler. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1990.
 Job 42:2-6, ESV.
 John Milton, Paradise Lost, Edited by H.C. Beeching, The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 29, Edited by Mortimer J. Adler, (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1990), 9.679-683. (references are to book and line numbers)
 Ibid., 1.92-95.
 Ibid., 1.250-263. (emphasis mine)
 Ibid., 9.684-690.
 Ibid., 9.568 and 687.
 Ibid., 9.690.
 Ibid., 9.692-699. (emphasis mine)
 Ibid., 9.697.
 Ibid., 1.254-255.
 Ibid., 9.782-784.
 Ibid., 9.791-792.
 Ibid., 1.25-26.
 Ibid., 1.4-5.