God invites us to love him
but he never forces us to love him.
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.”
“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.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.