The first evidence of God acting with self-constraint in relationship to us is in the second chapter of Genesis. The story of the Fall teaches us – among many lessons – that God treats us with respect, and does not force or coerce us to come into relationship with him. “All of his love-actions are things he does himself, things that are his own personal responsibility, not things he does to make us respond in a specified manner,” I wrote in my last Spiritual Boundaries post, “He treats us with trust and honor, and does not not insist upon His own way.” (This “not insisting” is one of the marks of true love, according to Second Corinthians.)
Think about this:
When Eve reached for the fruit, God did not intervene. No army of angels – that we know of – came between Eve and the tree. Rather than expending great energy in trying to keep her from her fall, the greater work of God appears to have been self-restraint: he stayed his voice and his hand, allowing her to eat that which was forbidden, and so bring judgement on herself. However profound his grief and anger and pain, he still did not intervene in her choice.
Why? I think he did not interfere in that moment because he had already done all the work that was his to do. He had fulfilled his entire responsibility toward the man and the woman, and to do any more would have violated the principles of love and relationship. Eve knew that he loved her, Eve knew he was God. Eve knew. God could not and would not force her to love him in return or stay at his side. If he did, that wouldn’t be love at all.
Love Planted The Tree
It was love that had placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden in the first place. In addition to representing sin, the existence of the tree also represented freedom of choice. And freedom of choice is the bedrock of relationship. To withhold this freedom is to act out of fear, rather than love.
“You are my creation, and I love you, and I made you to be in relationship with me,” he seems to say, “but this tree is here to ensure that you know that you are choosing me. Never will you be my slave, never are you without voice or choice. You are free to love me, and free to reject me, because I created you in my image which means I created you with the capacity to love and engage relationship. Love is only love when it is voluntary, freely received and freely given. I want to be in relationship with you, in communion and covenant with you, and this only comes when you choose to be in the same with me.”
So yes, it was love that placed the tree in the garden. The same love also offered an abundance of alternatives to this tree. Really, the whole earth and all that was in it, the entire Creation and all the Garden spoke to who he was, and all of it was theirs. His witness was everywhere. And more than this, God himself was everywhere, present in real time, communing with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening, day in and day out – and Eve knew God. She knew who he was, and who he is.
So when the serpent came to her, and Eve faced a choice, God offered her trust. Though He of course knew she would choose against him, He trusted and honored her anyway, because love always trusts, and always honors. God let Eve make her choice.
The Scandal of Trust
This is scandalous to us! We want God to step in, to interfere, to insist upon his way, to fudge on his principles just once because obviously Eve is having a severe lapse of judgement. If he only stopped believing all things and hoping all things and being willing to endure all things, then how much grief would have been avoided!
Except, the grief wouldn’t have been avoided. Made in the image of God, in the image of Love, we are hardwired to have free will. We have to be free to choose to love whom we love and reject whom we reject. We have to be free to choose to love God. If not given the choice, but instead forced or required, we don’t actually love at all.
God had to act according to his nature. He had to be “patient, kind, humble, honoring, trusting, hoping, enduring”; He had to be the opposite of “easily angered, self-seeking, resentful and dis-honoring.” Again, all these descriptions are from the Love Chapter in 2nd Corinthians.
God even had to give Eve the choice to break her covenant. She did, she sinned and broke relationship with the Holy God.
We can love, but cannot force another person to love in return
When I consider this relationship principle of free-will, free-choice as exemplified by the story in Genesis, I turn in my mind to our relationships as people with one another. Because we are not God, our conflicts in relationship with each other are rarely about one person being in the right and the other in the wrong. In fact, probably never are our relationships as cut and dry as the ones in Eden, because sin has permeated every aspect of our lives. In our own natures, left to ourselves, we are just as sinful as those to whom we give our hearts. And yet, even knowing that we are broken and imperfect, in our relationships with each other, if we offer anything other than freedom and trust – offer anything less than self-constraining, other-honoring love – we fail to actually love.
You see, with the help of the Spirit, we can obey the principles of God within our own hearts and actions. But we can never force another person to do the same. We can do our best to do right, but cannot force another to do what we see as right for them. We can offer kindness, but not demand another to be kind. We can offer trust and be trustworthy, but not demand another trusts us in return.
We must constrain ourselves to our own domain, which is our own heart and mind and will and action. We rule and take responsibility over ourselves, over our own character; we do not rule over or control the heart, mind, body, will or action of anybody else. Even submission to spiritual authorities in the Kingdom of God, even obedience to the principles and laws of God, is voluntary – by which I do not mean optional, but of free-will. We choose.
This Is a Hard Teaching
“This is a hard teaching,” I think the disciples might say. “If this is so, it is better to never be in relationships. The risk is too great. The hurt too possible.”
Thinking of Eve, I imagine God to respond, “yes, I know, it feels that way.”
But thinking of Jesus, I imagine him to add, “but the relationship that comes because of the freedom of choice? The relationship formed on respect and trust? It is the only way to truly love and be loved in return. Remember, you love at all because I first loved you. Freely you have received – now freely give to others.”
Hold in mind – God’s love doesn’t just include free will and trust.
It also includes forgiveness and grace.
Eve’s story was just the beginning of the larger story of humanity. By the end of humanity’s tale, we’ll all know beyond a shadow of doubt that the God who trusts is himself also trustworthy and true. May we also have our own love, and our own relationships, so proved.
The above is a consideration of the spiritual laws governing love and relationship, a consideration of how God acts out his love for us. It is not a doctrinal statement on salvation, pre-destination, or anything else. I am building off of First Corinthian’s “Love Chapter” in my understanding of the nature of God and the rules by which he postures himself toward us.