Which starting point?

I was once at a weekend retreat, speaking about God’s overflowing love.  “This triune love,” I said, “explains the creation as God’s selfless giving of himself in a work of joy.  The creation was made to receive and reciprocate that love.” 

 

I pointed, for support, to Genesis 3 where God came “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” only to find Adam and Eve had hidden themselves.  Here was God, as lover, looking for those he loved.

 

I went on to explain how Adam had sinned and why he was now hiding.

 

“The ‘freedom’ of humanity is located only in the heart—or ‘spirit’—the sole center of all our motivations.  And our hearts are never ‘self-determined’.  Rather we were designed as responders: both receiving and returning the love offered to us by God and each other.  What’s the basis for saying this?  Because God’s own being exists in eternal communion—in an ongoing exchange of mutual love and glory.  We were made in this relational image.”

 

I continued:  “Yet sin was possible because the heart can never be forced to love.  Love is lost in the moment that coercion arises.  Coercion, as an act of force imposed on another, is never a function of love.  It violates the ‘offer-and-response’ delight of lovers.  God invites us to love him but he never forces us to love him.”

 

How did sin emerge in the garden?  How did the human partnership of love with God, shared in the cool of the day, end?  By a seduction. 

 

Here is the basis for seduction.  The heart, as the sole center of response in our souls, always remains free not to love.  And in that freedom it can become hardened towards one lover if it ever gives itself away to another lover who is competing with the first.  It was in Adam’s freedom not to love that he turned from his proper and spontaneous love for God to a love for himself.

 

Why and how?  Because he both received and responded to the serpent’s promise of relative independence—a prospect to be “like God” by expressing his free will by eating the fruit.  In this promise the serpent had given him the moral equivalent to a mirror by which Adam judged God’s word to be inferior to the serpent’s word.  In doing that he also judged God to be unloving and, with his new free-will, he then followed Satan.

 

So when God came into the garden after Adam and Eve had declared independence from God by eating the forbidden fruit, they had turned away from his love.  The prior communion they had in the garden with God had been shattered, so they hid themselves in fear and shame.

 

During a break that followed that part of my presentation one of the men attending the retreat sat down and asked for a few moments of private conversation.

 

“Certainly,” I responded.  The man was an advanced seminary student and seemed very bright.

 

“I appreciate what you’re trying to say about God’s relational being, but I think there’s a much better and more accurate way to view it.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“You see, the events in the garden actually represent God’s judgment of humanity.  Adam had been given a covenantal responsibility and he had failed.  So God was coming into the garden to confront Adam’s sin—his failure to fulfill the covenant of works—so that God’s appearance in the garden was judicial: he had come to hold a hearing.  After the hearing we find the narrative shifting to a trial in which Adam, Eve, and the Serpent are all judged.  Finally we have a summative and executive judgment by God against all of humanity—which concludes as Adam and Eve are driven from the garden.”

 

“Yes,” I responded, “I’m actually very familiar with your view.  And while it holds elements of truth I can’t embrace your basic portrayal of God for a host of reasons.”

 

Let me now depart from this particular story.  I’ll conclude by saying that he and I ended in an impasse over our different approaches—with his concern to represent God mainly as a judge, and my description of God as one who “is love” leaving us far apart from each other in the end.

 

What I want to share from my experience with the seminary student is this: our hearts define the way in which we view God! 

 

This man’s view of God as the “ultimate judge” represented his view of all God’s dealings with humanity.  That much was explicit in what he said.  And I’m sure that it also represented his own experience of God.  Why do I say that, given that in our conversation he never quite said as much?  Because my own presentation of God failed to draw a positive response from him.  Instead he felt that I was misrepresenting God.  And that I failed to represent the role of the human free will as that which had failed, and for which Adam was being judged.

 

My thoughts then and now turn to a similar controversy that Jesus had in John 8:30-59 with a group of “believers” who were also concerned about the primacy of free wills.  Yet Jesus confronted them for their lack of love as the basis for their failure to understand and receive what Jesus was teaching: “my word finds no place in you . . . . If God were your Father you would love me . . .”  Anyone who has experienced God as his loving father—while aware that God is also a judge—will see him first as the “Abba” who loves them.

 

So as my friend at the retreat, and others, insist that sin is essentially “covenant-breaking” or “law-breaking”, it tells me that the vision of God that stands behind that view is one of a self-concerned, boundary-sensitive deity—a God defined by the laws he imposes by his self-determined free-will.  And which our own self-determined free wills need to obey.  His love comes later, as a reward to those who are obedient to his will.

 

If, on the other hand, we view sin as an expression of “whoredom”—a turning away from a proper response to God’s love to an illicit self-love—we have a vision of God who must judge us, but whose judgment is rooted in his proper jealousy for our spirits that were made by him and for him.  The Father’s wrath is directed against all who despise the Son whom he loves—yet he is willing to send the Son to death in order to draw us out of our spiritual adultery.

 

My invitation to the seminary student and to all others is this: read through the Bible in a month or two and see which themes stand out—is God primarily a judicial figure, or a stubborn lover who calls for our hearts to turn to him?

 

But first pray and ask God, by the Spirit, to pour out his love in our hearts so that we would have him present in us to offer a heartfelt orientation to what he directed the original authors to write.

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11 Comments

  1. Leanne

    Ah, but Ron, don’t you know it’s easier to view God as a judge and ourselves as unworthy unless we earn His love?

    Some will argue that the reason this view of God exists is rooted in familial experiences, past sin, etc.

    Me?

    I say it’s rooted in self-exaltation. In stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the God of the Bible is EXACTLY who He says He is-LOVE.

    The reason we don’t have a right understanding of this is because somewhere, deep down, we have not fully surrendered. We are still holding ourselves apart for God’s love because we refuse to give Him supremacy.

    It’s pride and self-exaltation covered in piety that keeps us from loving God.

    That and stupid ole Satan.

  2. Leanne

    Just so my comment doesn’t come across as snarky,

    Ephesians 3:19 NLT

    May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

  3. Morgan Reynolds

    “walking in the garden in the cool of the day”
    doesn’t sound formidable to me! God already knew what they had done, where they were and what was to come. this was the beginning of the end, i guess i would have expected fiery chariots and flaming swords! but no, a loving confrontation. the response from adam and eve was so…human! they (read WE) blamed each other, the serpent and then God. not fully surrendered; neither am i according to my daily inventory.
    God comes to me also “in the cool of the day”
    another loving confrontation from one who weighs my heart and offers me love/forgiveness
    no impasse here..

  4. R N Frost

    Leanne wrote: “It’s pride and self-exaltation covered in piety that keeps us from loving God.” And Morgan comments, “they (read WE) blamed each other, the serpent and then God.”

    Thanks for your thoughts that both point to the self-deceptive force of sin. I wonder, in light of your comments, if the punchline of our exchange might be this: Any focus on God’s status as judge allows us freedom to be judges as well.

    That is, by ignoring the biblical emphasis that God loves us in Christ, and by focusing instead on his judgment against our sin, it allows us to “be like God” as we seek to judge both ourselves and others. I.e. the focus remains on us and not on God. Love, by contrast, invites a complete focus on him … a focus of desire and delight.

  5. Leanne

    I was thinkng about what I wrote yesterday and you know what struck me? Yes, pride and wrong focus is certainly one of the ways we deny God’s truth as Love but there’s also the flip side-fear/shame.

    I keep thinking about witnessing to the lost (and to myself, too!) and how, oftentimes, the reason people are not able to see God as love is because they think they are unlovable.

    I remember one neighbor who, after his wife realized the extent of the sins that kept us from Christ, said, “Yeah, I’m glad it’s working for you and L but I have done too many things to earn God’s love.”

    Maybe a little off track in light of your last comment, but……..well, that’s been in my head. Either way, you’re correct, Ron, in that the focus is all wrong.

    So, if this is our understanding, that God is love and that pride/shame are the things Satan uses to keep us from His grace, what then?

  6. Morgan Reynolds

    leanne wrote ..” pride and self exaltation…”
    i dont know how many times i have had to recall my judging thoughts, usurping Gods ‘job description’.
    the tactics of the ‘one who roams’ doesn’t change either does it? we are constantly thinking we can be like God.
    so, rons constant theme of prayerfully reading the Bible continues to hold true. what then indeed!

  7. Lois

    Wow, Ron, my heart really responded to the love of God. Leanne, Judy and I still meet weekly for our ReadThru and that love is one of the major things we find as we read each week; no matter what they did, no matter how many times they turned away, just ONE word of repentence and HE was there to forgive and bring them back to a place of joy. HE even stayed around and begged them to repent. That has been my experience, too, HE never leaves me alone. He sings to me HE encourages me. His Word constantly speaks to where I am. Not with judgment but with promise and hope. And to your example of Adam and Eve, God gave them exactly what HE promised and along with that discipline HE gave them hope and continued love. Thanks for keeping us thinking, Ron, and showing us the real truth. God does love us. Amazing, isn’t it! Lois

  8. David

    Ron, thanks for this. For so long I walked with God thinking of him as primarily judge. I may not have thought of it that way, but my walk demonstrated only that. Whenever I distracted by other affections I ran away from Him thinking I was not worthy or pure enough to be in His presence. Only after a few days would I risk a personal encounter with God. Later on when my brother came to Christ I burdened him with all the ways he should he live now that he was walking with God. Behind such thinking was that God is primarily Judge. What a lie!! It only leads to guilt, loneliness, giving up and walking away (like my brother), or a constant focus upon self to do the right thing (like me). Only when God is communicated as being relational and driven to love us are we free to respond and run to him no matter what we have done. I have seen this change in my walk as well as my brother’s. I want to run to Christ because I know he loves first and foremost!!

  9. R N Frost

    I appreciate the testimonies of God’s love offered here. Yet I fear that my seminary friend at the retreat expressed the current spiritual wisdom (harking back to my prior post) among most evangelical Christians these days.

    Is there a chance this might change? Are we who find God to be first and foremost our Abba, Daddy, on the cutting edge of a movement that finally reads the Bible with hearts able to hear that God’s heart is motivated by a stubborn and transformative love? I pray for that each day!

    Yet the odds are against us, if history tells us anything. Consider, for instance, what Martin Luther wrote just a couple of months before he posted his famous 95 Theses:

    “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”

    And, “The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the ‘child, who has been born to us'” [Isaiah 9:6].

    Again, “Every deed of the law without the grace of God appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin.”

    And once more, “The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

    These are all taken from his 97 Theses, usually referred to as his “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology” in September 1517. Good, biblical content, yet it failed to raise a response at the time it was published. Instead it would take the public’s irritation over abusive indulgences to light the popular fire that became the Reformation.

    So, reformations are hard to start and even harder to sustain! But let’s ask God to keep on reforming our own hearts, as the testimonies offered in the comments here display…and see if God wants to offer his spreading goodness to others through our joy. Who knows what God’s love might accomplish!

  10. Sharon

    I have always viewed Adam and Eve as children. Am I correct in that they did not know sin before they acted on their desires to be like God? Imitate the Father? Certainly an act of independence. Eve must of had an understanding of what wisdom was in a backward or upside down sense. God knew what would happen before it happened. That’s why I view them as children. You can tell a child a million times not to touch a hot stove and the minute they don’t think you’re watching, guess what they will do? They don’t want to be burned. They don’t do it with the knowledge that they will be burned and that the burn will be painful. I believe we are children to God, little, bitty babes no matter how grown up we see ourselves. What they received were consequences. God in His mercy and compassion removed them from the garden of Eden. It seems as though they tried to take a different route to know God as children are apt to do to test what a parent will do especially when they are small. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

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