Of Fig Leaves and Fellowship: Reflections from Genesis 3
The effects of humanity’s fall into sin are vast and far-reaching. Among the most subtle and devastating effects is how we are provoked to believe another gospel, both individually and interpersonally. The world we all wanted – a lush garden paradise where man could enjoy the presence of God with the freedom to both see and be seen by another without shame – was lost. In its place came the world we now live in defined by shame, self-protection, self-righteousness, and self-deception.
This once perfect world was inhabited by a man and a woman without shame (And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed – Genesis 2:25 ESV). The man and woman’s first response after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was covering up in one another’s presence. From that time on “nakedness” would be permanently connected with shame (Dt 28:47, 48; Ezk 16:39; 23:29). The human community has since then mutually agreed to hide from one another. People seek love and acceptance from one another, not as they freely disclose themselves, but as they veil or masquerade the truth about themselves. Very often moving to a new address, a new school, or a new job provides what we often call, “a chance to re-invent yourself.”
Now we work so hard to control information about ourselves: that which is seen and known about us in order to keep ourselves from being exposed. So much of everything that we do in front of others is an effort to keep covered anything that exposes our weakness, shame, and inadequacy. These function as our fig leaves. These are often either the fig leaves of religion (i.e. covering myself with my own moral or spiritual performance and assuaging my conscience by comparing myself with those I feel superior to – the elder prodigal in Luke 15) or the fig leaves of relativism (i.e. living my life on my terms
only and determining, right, wrong, and salvation myself – the younger prodigal in Luke 15). Why do we work ourselves to death in our professions, seek to preserve our physical appearance at all cost, labor for the approval of others, and even invest inordinate concern about God’s good gifts like marriage, family, or ministry? Why do we ever reason “I am nothing without (fill in the blank)!”? The reality is that we look to these to cover our sense of shame and resist exposure at all cost.
Why do we so easily put a spin on the truth, portray ourselves in the best possible light, call so much attention to all that we have done, and to take up our own cause with defensiveness? Once again, these conceptual fig leaves are so attractive, because we can control the substitute saviors that we create. Our fig leaves, or substitute saviors, are the things that we look to in order to rescue us or to give our lives meaning. Though we can control these false saviors, we soon find that their demands can never be satisfied. Though we can successfully cover ourselves by putting a new spin on the truth, getting a new appearance, or earning a successful professional performance, etc, we will inevitably have to do it again, and again, and again. Homemade fig leaves make terrible saviors.
The message of Jesus teaches us we are justified sinners, declared righteous, with the righteousness of Jesus, bestowed on us as a free gift by faith alone. The One who sees all is the One Who cleanses and covers all. There is no performance, moral, religious, professional, or otherwise that His gaze does not utterly penetrate. There is no one who is not laid bare, uncovered before the eyes of Him to whom we must all give an account. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He Himself covers us fully, with the one covering we all need, the white robes of His righteousness.
What does the gospel communicate into our hearts? The highest courtroom in the universe, the holiest and purest eyes of God Himself can call the most fallen and the most frail His own adopted children, because He imputes His Son’s own righteousness to those who trust in Him alone.
What does it mean to be fully known by someone who is completely perfect and majestically beautiful to us who are utterly imperfect and always seeking in vain to make ourselves beautiful? Jesus Christ truly knew heaven’s glory, beauty, and perfection and yet surrendered that to come to this world, become a man and to die on a cross with our sin charged to Him. He did this so that by faith in Him we will become what we could never become on our own: beautiful, glorious, and perfect. What does it mean to know you are that loved and accepted? What does it mean to no longer have any shame and to no longer have to keep putting a spin on everything in your life?
Only the finished work of Jesus Christ deals with our compelling need to continually justify ourselves and to incessantly seek to cover all of our shame. This gospel creates a new human community: the church, a redeemed and forgiven people. Believing and embracing the implications of this message between people who together share its benefits is the foundation of true Christian fellowship. The good news about Jesus wholly destroys the relational paradigm of hiding the Fall of Man has given to us. Christians gathered together in any relational context can receive and respond to one another in a way that is in line with the truth of the gospel.
The gospel allows us to receive one another as sinners who trust not in our own righteousness, but the righteousness freely given to us in Christ. Because God has accepted all believers by the merits of Christ, we must also extend that acceptance to one another. At the same time, we can lovingly and patiently call one another to repentance, to turn away from trusting in a specific kind of fig leaf (e.g., success, approval of others, etc.) and to turn to faith in the work of Christ on their behalf. What Jesus Christ has accomplished for those who believe is infinitely more glorious than the threats and promises the route that self- salvation through fig leaves offers. In every context and in every relationship, believing the gospel means living in the freedom that comes with knowing you are already covered (as opposed to being compelled to create an inferior covering), and viewing those with whom we share fellowship as sharing this very same covering.