History’s Most Misunderstood Tree

Why Nothing on Earth Will Satisfy

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Guest Contributor

What is the most beautiful tree in creation? From the beginning, one tree stood out. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Surprisingly, few people gravitate to this tree. Rather, they view it as an unwelcome interloper in an otherwise pristine garden of Eden, a sinister weed with the power to rain doom on humanity. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” declares the Lord God (Genesis 2:17).

And yet, on closer inspection, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil inspires awe. What makes it special is the divine prohibition against its fruit: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:16–17). Alone among the trees of the first orchard, it presents humans with an option: either they can refuse its fruit, or they can eat its fruit. By refusing, they obey God. By eating, they disobey.

An Invitation to Satisfaction

However, there is more to the tree than merely obeying or disobeying. At a deeper level, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides an opportunity to express delight with God and the life he gives. By standing over against the other trees of the garden, it presents an alternative path to “satisfaction.” By refusing its fruit, humans can affirm their entire satisfaction with God. For them, God is enough. In him, they discover fullness of life.

But the affirmation was fleeting. Adam and Eve did not celebrate their life in God with full-throated praise. Instead, they sought satisfaction in the forbidden tree. “When the woman saw that the tree [of the knowledge of good and evil] was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).

It was a catastrophic bite, dooming the first humans, as well as their progeny, as well as every one of us. All that ails humanity can be traced to that simple crunch.

The Torment of Unrequited Desire

Why did Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit? The answer can be summed up in one word: desire. “Desire,” claims the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, “is the very essence of a man.” To know what a person desires is to know who a person is. We are nothing more or less than the aggregate of our desires.

Desires can be vexing. Rarely are they satisfied. Take, for instance, the desire for money. Startup founder Markus Person, who sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion and bought a $70 million mansion, complained, “I’ve never felt more isolated.”

Or consider the desire for power, prestige, or popularity. Jerry West is a member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, winner of NBA championships both as a player and as a general manager, and the person whose silhouette adorns the logo of his sport. Despite his many successes, West admits to melancholy. “As far as I am concerned, I haven’t done anything. . . . Even though I sometimes feel, ‘My goodness, you’re among the upper echelon,’ there is still a huge void there. A huge void.”

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, collected a remarkable twenty-eight medals. Yet amidst the fame and success, he was disconsolate. “I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”

No matter how impressive our attainments, they are never enough. Desire sees to it. Unrequited desire can torment us all.

The Lesson of the Tree

While this may confound us, it does not confound God. When God created us, he created us with desire. And he did so for a purpose — a purpose enshrined in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent coiled in the branches of this tree, it zeroed in on human desire — the desire of hunger, pleasure, and wisdom. Beguilingly, it tempted the humans: “The tree [is] good for food, and . . . a delight to the eyes, and . . . to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

In other words, eating from this tree will satisfy your desires. It was a lie. Far from assuaging desires, it awakened despair. Worse, it prompted expulsion from the orchard of life. “The Lord God sent [them] out from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23). Chasing desires, humans lost Paradise.

This is the lesson of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When we seek to satisfy our desires apart from God, we gain a diminishing, not a satisfying, life.

The Purpose of the Tree

What sense, then, do we make of our desires? Are they simply cruel tricks, making us yearn for what can never be found?

When nothing on earth satisfies, what do we do? We look above the earth. We look to God, which is precisely what God intended. He created us with desires so big that they can be fulfilled only in him. According to seventeenth-century English clergyman Thomas Traherne, “My desires [are] so august and insatiable that nothing less than a Deity [can] satisfy them.” God-given desire points us away from earthly things to something bigger and better — to God himself.

This is the purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It points to the true object of our desires. It poses an implicit question: Will you seek fulfillment in the life of God or in the things of earth? Or to put it another way: Will you seek fulfillment in more of what God gives you in himself — more of his love, more of his goodness, more of his righteousness, more of his joy, more of his power, more of his truth — or will you seek fulfillment in more than what God gives you in himself? More of God or more than God?

The Walking Dead

Sadly, the first humans — and every human since, save one — wanted more than God. Falling under the spell of the serpent, they grasped for life in more than what they received in God.

Their blunder has become every person’s downfall. We have all succumbed to the temptation to seek satisfaction apart from God. And the consequences are devastating: death (Genesis 2:17) — not in the sense that our hearts stop beating and our lungs stop inhaling, not physical death (although that, too, will follow), but in the sense that we are cut off from fullness of life. We are separated from the source of life, our Creator. We are banished from the life of Paradise.

It is a separation more painful than physical death. While still standing and still breathing, we are severed from the life for which we were created. We are the walking dead.

Praise God for the Tree!

For many of us, fullness of life is elusive, and we now know why. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil tells us why. By seeking a life apart from God and according to self-seeking desires, we orchestrate our own downfall. Instead of walking with our Maker “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8), we relegate ourselves to an eternal hell.

Praise God for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Although it is unable by itself to deliver life, it does identify the way. Ultimately, it points to a second tree, an even more beautiful tree, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), where a Savior redeems us from the sin of seeking life apart from God — where the Son of God “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

ministers to Christian leaders and churches in Europe and is a founding council member of The Gospel Coalition. He has authored several books, including most recently Discovering the Good Life. He and his wife, Lesli, have two children.