Blaming it on the Snake
Genesis 2.13 The snake tricked me into
eating the apple.
A strange finding of modern
psychology concerns a way of getting people to honestly describe
themselves. The difficulty psychologists face is that none of us likes to
be absolutely open and frank about our self-perception. If so, how can
they know what we really think?
One method of getting an honest opinion is to ask
subjects to look at photographs of people they don't know and describe the
characters of those they are looking at. Because of a lack of real-life
information about the person in the photograph, subjects tend to project
their own self-image onto that person. The surprising discovery is that in
attempting describe the other person, they in fact describe themselves
more accurately than if they were trying to do it without the photograph.
We're all familiar with the mechanism of projection,
first detailed by the great psychologist Sigmund Freud. Parents experience
it in the childish refrain: "It's not my fault! Johnny made me do
it." Most of us recognise a tendency, even when we're adult, to project
onto others responsibility for our actions.
The reason? We don't like being caught out doing
something wrong or unacceptable. In the past, men and women were convinced
rules could be made about right and wrong. However, the self-blame which
comes from making and then breaking rules can be hard to live with. Paul,
writing about how he tended to break the rules, exclaimed, "What an
unhappy man I am!"
For some the burden can be too much to bear and they
may give up on life completely - which is what we call despair. For all of
us it's sometimes more comfortable to pass the burden of our guilt for
breaking the rules on to others.
This sort of projection is as old as the hills. The
ancient story of the temptation of Adam and Eve is a classic example.
First Adam blames Eve; and then Eve blames the snake for tempting her to
break God's rule about the tree which gives knowledge of what's right and
wrong. And so the Devil, that "sly snake", was invented to lift from our
shoulders the burden of guilt for breaking the rules.
Many today tend to think of right and wrong in terms of
breaking God's rules - from a confused and anxious teenager whose sexual
experiments lead him or her astray, to an 80-year-old who looks back on
life in agonies of regret about having willfully crossed various lines
between right and wrong.
When religion proceeds to make some rules absolute (like
divorce or abortion being "always wrong" regardless of situation) then it
must needs also invent a hell for those who fail to keep the absolute
rules. Paul's "unhappiness" can then become a terrible agony of fear add
to the remorse. In such circumstances, blaming it all on the snake is a
natural and understandable defence mechanism against an intolerable
Jesus was keenly aware of this terrible trap. He stood
out firmly against those who use rules to condemn others. Paul, to his
everlasting credit, made the same keen awareness central to his mission.
Jesus said that rules about ritual cleanliness which banished people in
his day from society are nonsense - even though they were considered vital
to the Jewish religion. Paul took the great Jewish rule about not mixing
with Gentiles and proclaimed that had Jesus lived and died for all,
regardless of ethnic origin or religion.
Underpinning both Jesus and Paul was a realisation
central to Christianity - that, in Paul's words, we all have the
undeserved gift of "Not guilty!" when we break mankind's rules. Temptation
of a sort is with us always because we continually face choices to love or
not love others as we love ourselves. But failure to love does not condemn
us to punishment. God's love, says Jesus, is greater and stronger than any
set of rules. Love overcomes everything. Nothing can come between us and
God, says Paul.
The upshot is that as we move into the Lenten season, we
can be more aware that repentance isn't about wallowing in agonies of
guilt. Nor need we seek to blame either ourselves or others for breaking
whatever rules others have set up for their own ends.
The essence of being Christian is to live out life free
of guilt, without making self-righteous projections. We don't need to
project hellish consequences onto others to make ourselves feel better.
Because God's love isn't bound by man-made rules or anything invented by
religion, the snake has not an ounce of power over us.