Someone once pulled me aside after a class I taught and said something close to the following: “I can’t believe that God is loving. He put people in the Garden along with a tree He told them not to touch, saying it would lead to their death. He set them up to fall. How can He be good?”
I don’t remember my immediate response, but I’ve since pondered that final question quite a bit. Why would God deliberately place a deadly forbidden object within the easy reach of those He claimed to love? No responsible parent today would keep an open box of poison in their home within reach of their small child and simply say, “Don’t touch it, or you will die.” Child Protection Services would have good reason to investigate.
In all my reflections, I have always chosen to start with the premise that God is good. That’s what the Bible states over and over, and it seems fair to study a Bible story within the context of the Bible as a whole. So, I ask myself, how does this tree-leading-to-death scenario in Eden fit into God’s loving character? As Creator, couldn’t He have put such a tree beyond human reach, or better yet not have made it at all? What was His purpose, and how could it possibly be good?
Genesis chapter 2 tells us that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was accessible yet forbidden. But there was another tree in the Garden with no restrictions on it—The Tree of Life. It seems that God wanted them to eat the fruit of this second tree. It would ensure they always had His divine life within them. Instead in a crazy twist, they chose the forbidden fruit that promised death. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had not given them a choice at all?
What’s the Big Deal About Choices?
“Free-will” is an idea I hear thrown around in philosophical and theological discussions, but what is it, and why is it controversial? According to an online dictionary it is “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” In other words, to possess free will means that I can make choices that are purely my own, that originate within myself. My will is mine. It may be influenced by outside forces, be they the manipulations and demands of other people, my family history, my own bad habits or my inherited DNA. The concept of free-will, however, says I can choose to disregard all influences and do things that go against my biology, my genealogy, my social environment and even my past choices. I can do unexpected, contradictory things simply because, in my own heart, I decide to. At least that’s the theory.
Many smart people doubt and out-right deny the existence of free-will because it cannot be “proven” empirically. Some say that our brains “trick” us into believing we can freely choose. If, however, I erase the influence of free-will from the equation of my behavior, it seems that everything I do is then pre-programmed. I don’t “choose” anything. I merely follow a pattern that has already been set by past events or within my physical makeup. Without free-will, the idea of “destiny” takes on a totalitarian quality that leaves me either enriched or victimized by forces outside my control. Theoretically, there is then nothing I can do to change my future because it only appears that I’m making “choices.” I’m stuck in a box made up of my DNA and environmental upbringing, doing things that were determined long ago. Where’s the hope in that?
With the concept of free-will, however, comes the freedom to do things that defy inherited patterns. Free-will means that real change can be initiated in my life and the world around me. I just need to find the wisdom and courage to choose it (both, God has promised to give if we ask). But it also means I can do stupid things that create problems and messes for me and others. And most uncomfortable of all, it means I can be held responsible for each one of my choices—because, regardless the influences, they came from me. And I don’t always like that.
Is God Mean or Just Crazy?
Why would God make us with this ability? Surely, He knew we would mess things up and open the door for evil. And this is the reasoning (I assume) behind the question that was posed to me that one day after class. Why would a good and loving God make humans choose between eternal life in relationship with Him as one option and evil and death as the other? Is that how love is supposed to work?
To be operational, love requires several things. The ability to choose is the most foundational. “I choose you” is a very powerful statement for one person to say to another. My wife chose me out of many options in young men interested in her. If I had been the only male she had ever met when she agreed to marry me, I would have reason to wonder if she truly loved me. In the same way, imagine if I had the ability to program my children to obey without question everything I told them to do. What if I could even schedule each of them to say, “I love you, Dad,” five times daily? Would anyone be convinced that my kids were acting out of true affection? And ultimately (though it might be nice for the short-term) that’s not what I would want. Free-will is what makes love possible.
We’re told in the scriptures that love is one of the highest values for God. In fact, 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” Love is not just what He does, it’s Who He is. I can’t truly comprehend what that even means. But it does give me some insight as to why He gave humans free-will. Jesus said the greatest of all commandments is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” (Matthew 22:38). To love God is to choose Him, everyday, regardless the circumstances, regardless what I feel. I can do that with my will—choose Him or reject Him—because that’s the way He made me. And the surrendering of my will to Him as an act of love is what He longs for from me.
In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” As the Son of God, He has the power to kick the door of my heart down and come in to take whatever He wants. But instead, He gently knocks, waiting for my will to engage in a way that makes a loving relationship possible. The stakes are high—life with Him or without Him, yet He gives me the choice to say yes or no. That’s a picture of goodness.
He Chooses Me and You
We must also remind ourselves that when the Bible says God loves us, it means that He has chosen us. Out of the 200 million possibilities at your conception, you were the one selected to be formed in your mother’s womb. You and I are not accidents. Out of all the options a holy and completely righteous God had in dealing with our sinfulness, including rejecting, ignoring or completely wiping us out, He chose to pursue us as well as suffer with us, and for us. It’s quite clear that God wills you and I to be in His family—if we choose to.
So, why were those two trees in the Garden of Eden?
Humans needed the opportunity to make a real choice so that real love would be possible. And even though our ancestors chose badly (death over life), convincing themselves that God could not be completely trusted and they needed to take matters into their own hands, He chose to not give up on them. That is love. And He still gives us the opportunity to choose.
So, what choices do we need to make and not waste such goodness?