From Chaos to Order
When I was a kid, I was a bit of a pack rat. My mom, on the other hand, liked order and organization. Every spring, I knew she’d do a full spring cleaning blitz of our house. For a week or two, I would walk home from school every day feeling this nervous dread because I knew that one of those days, I’d arrive home to find all the contents of my closet, dresser drawers, and piles of accumulated papers and junk in a pile in the middle of my bedroom floor. And I knew that I’d have until bedtime to sort through it all, purge what I no longer needed, and put everything else back in its place.
I hated that day. Until I looked around my room at the end of the day and saw order, space, and the conspicuous absence of looming clutter and chaos. Then, I loved that day.
Recently, I heard an interview with Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan, in which he said, “God’s story is, God is in the process of reclaiming all things and replacing all chaos with shalom.” That’s an extension of what we see right at the beginning in Genesis 1. When I think about the context for the Garden of Eden account, as it’s situated in the creation story in Genesis, how does this relate to the meaning of life? As we looked at last time, the meaning of life is all about relationship with God. The Garden of Eden was, and represents, a special place where God’s space and our space overlap so that humans can enjoy the fullness of relationship with God.
Another aspect of that relationship with God, as described in the Genesis creation story, is this: God’s blessing transforms things from chaos to shalom – wholeness, meaning and purpose - so that life can flourish. That transformation from chaos to order is depicted beautifully and deliberately right in the first chapter of the Bible. Here, again, I give credit to the Bible Project for unpacking this so well in their video commentary on Genesis 1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. Now the earth was formless and empty.” (Gen. 1:1-2a) In the video, we’re told that the Hebrew words translated here as “formless and empty” are “tohu vavohu” – unordered and uninhabited, or formless, having no meaning or purpose. Chaos. But they go on to show how, on the first three days of creation, God took that formless state and brought order.
On the first day of creation, God took this swirling nothingness – Hebrew, “tehom”, or “deep, sea, abyss” – and separated light from dark, day from night, bringing order by establishing the concept of time. Imagine trying to have order and purpose if there’s no such thing as time. No “before” or “after”. No “first”, “next” and “last”. Most of us just absorb simple time concepts like this and take them for granted. But working as a speech and language facilitator, I often worked with children who struggled with these concepts and for whom trying to accomplish everyday self-care tasks or schoolwork was chaotic and frustrating. You can’t have meaning, purpose or order without any sort of time structure.
On the second day, God separated sky from water, and on the third day, he separated the waters beneath the sky from the land. Now, rather than chaos, there was not only time but the physical spaces where life could exist. On days four through six, God populated the heavens with the sun, moon and stars that give light to the earth and. mark time. Then God filled the earthly spaces he created – air, sea and land – with all kinds of forms of life. Where there had been chaos, without order or meaning, now there were realms of time and place, teeming with life.
God’s blessing – his work of creating things that he declares “good” - transforms things from chaos to order, meaning and purpose so that life can flourish. From the dust of this amazing world, God created humans in his image and breathed his life into us. And now everything is ordered and meaningful, with chaos completely banished, right? Well, sadly, far from it. As Genesis 3 shows us, humankind’s choice to define good and evil for ourselves rather than to trust God brought a curse on all creation. The upshot of this curse is that our rebellion moves us, by default, towards broken relationships, de-creation and death rather than towards relationship, order and flourishing life.
Still, as Vander Laan reminds us, God hasn’t turned his back on us. He’s still in business of bringing order and wholeness - “shalom” – to our chaos. Some day, we’ll see that in its fullest expression in the new heavens and new earth. But even now, he brings order to our chaos when we embrace God for who he is as revealed in his word, and when we trust him by embracing truth and his definition of what leads to flourishing life.
I can think of a few ways God has brought order to my own chaos. Years ago, I had to leave my job and the career in which I based a lot of my identity and self-worth because my coworkers and I were the targets of “constructive dismissal”. Later, that same employer filed a professional misconduct complaint against me. (For the record, that complaint was deemed unfounded and was dismissed.) Having to grapple with whether God was still good in spite of my own circumstances, and concluding that he was, brought order and peace to the turmoil.
Another example. Sometimes, like Jeremiah (Jer. 12:1-2) or Job (Job 21:7-14), I wonder why wicked people prosper. You might be thinking, we’re not supposed to call people wicked; that’s judgmental. But, even if you’re thinking that – which is fine; you’re allowed – you have to admit that the Sunday school idea that a lot of us have been raised on doesn’t seem to explain reality. The idea that God rewards and blesses obedience, not disobedience. Yet there are plenty of people who have no space for God in their lives who are living the prosperity dream. Doesn’t that feel a tad chaotic to you? Like there’s no direct link between living for God and receiving his blessing? Yet, when I embrace God’s definition of blessing and flourishing, and when I look through the lens of eternity, things make a lot more sense. We live in a world, and specifically in a culture, that rewards a whole different set of values and behaviors than what God does. So if they prosper in terms of temporary wealth, comfort and popularity, it actually makes sense. But those aren’t the bases on which God defines flourishing. What God defines as flourishing is very different from the constant restlessness and striving and competition that makes life so often feel chaotic and meaningless in the end. Jesus’ invitation is to take his yoke, the one that leads to meaning, peace and rest for our souls, not just in eternity but also right now. (Matt. 11:28-30)
From chaos to order. From meaninglessness to peace and purpose. The “Eden space” is a place where we can find order, meaning and purpose in relationship with God. Even in a world tilted back towards chaos by the Fall, God invites us into the “Eden spaces” of relationship with him, where his blessing moves us from chaos to order and abundant, flourishing life.