God's own has forgotten God

New Zealand has become paradise lost, writes Mark Smith.

''God's Own Country''. New Zealand is often endowed with accolades, like this from Thomas Bracken. The Legatum Institute ranked New Zealand the best place in the world to live.

''Free markets, free people and the world's strongest society'' ensured it claimed top spot in its prosperity index. Or as Paul Henry puts it: ''Have a brilliant day in paradise.''

But many in Aotearoa don't find it to be a utopia. Statistics demonstrate there are numerous social problems in paradise.

We are known to hurt those closest to us. Women's Refuge reports that 33-39% of women in our country will experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

We deprive those who depend upon us. Unicef claims 28% of New Zealand children live in poverty.

Our use of alcohol is killing us. A survey concluded one in five Kiwis are now classed as ''hazardous drinkers''. It is claimed ''alcohol dependence and abuse is at epidemic proportions''.

Our struggles with mental health are overwhelming us. More than half a million adults have been diagnosed with mental illness at some time during their lives. The economic cost of this is more than $60billion a year, let alone the social cost to communities and families.

New Zealand society reflects the conclusion of John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Why is it that so many have lost the ability to cope with life? Why is there so much anger in our homes? Why do so many choose to die rather than live? Why so much selfishness and greed? Why so many addictions and dependencies? Why do families living in the best country in the world fall apart and hurt one another? Why does ''God's own'' have such a dark and ugly underbelly?

There aren't any easy answers or simple solutions to these questions as the roots of the problems are deep, complex and intertwined. Better education and good government can help, but pointing the accusing finger in that direction isn't fair - the problem is deeper.

Former Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft has noted the ''spiritual vacuum'' present in many of our most dysfunctional young men. Julia Leibrich, a former Mental Health Commissioner, has also argued there is an ''agonising emptiness within our society that ... reflects a desperate need for meaning, relevance, something deeper in life''.

Historically, Christianity would argue that the surface symptoms arise from a deeper problem. They stem from a spiritual dilemma.

As in Milton's poem, our predicament begins in another paradise where our relationship with God became estranged. We are designed to live in relationship with God, the ''deeper thing in life''. Our very essence and existence comes from God himself.

Milton asserts that when humanity rejected God, the nightmare began. Corruption and violence continue to be part of human history from that time forward. Rejecting God creates a ''spiritual vacuum'' which in turn causes a restless unease.

Anger, greed, lust, hatred, bitterness and jealousy all flow from it, as does fear, anxiety, shame and guilt. We may attempt to quench it, escape from it or avoid it, but the emptiness remains. We try one placebo after another but the void is not filled; the emptiness is still haunting.

In Milton's Adam and Eve, they see the sadness of the future that their sin has caused but there is hope of redemption to come. A Saviour, God's Son, who experiences the full pain of paradise lost, so those that trust Him won't ultimately have to. The bittersweet of loss remains, for this is not the way things should be. However, the hope of paradise regained means they no longer despair. Instead, they seek to live lives that emulate the Saviour as they anticipate the ultimate paradise regained. The Bible indicates that for those who continue to reject God, paradise is lost and will experience the full reality of that loss.

Aotearoa ... a land of great beauty, special people and possibly the best place in the world to live ... but, at present, we're still feeling the effects of ''the original'' paradise lost.

-Mark Smith is Pastor of Grace Church, Dunedin.

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