We can do nothing to make God love us. We can do nothing to make God not love us. We are caught; fixed in God’s love. This love is eternal, unchanging, relentless. This is the good news that Jesus brought us. It is also the bad news for that in us which does not want this love.
We have in us a will that is set against love; a will that closes our eyes to the Father who looks upon us with the same love with which He loves His Son. (John 17:26) We are afraid of this love, for we know it will consume us, will make us one with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. We want to stand alone, apart, a god unto our self. And so we doubt that God’s love is the best, the highest destiny for us.
The primal temptation was to doubt God’s love. The lie that seduced Adam and Eve was that God did not love them entirely, perfectly; that He was withholding from them a great truth: that they could become gods apart from Him. With this distrust in his heart, Adam bit into the forbidden fruit held out to him by Eve. We are told that after this fatal act, he and Eve tried to hide themselves from God.
Why should they have hidden themselves? The conventional answer is that they were ashamed; that they had sinned and wanted to conceal what they had done. Their sin made them feel naked, and they wanted to hide their sin. But this attempt to hide was but a continuation of sin. They did not trust God’s love and behaved as though it were conditional and liable to be withdrawn. Rather than confess and repent, they dissimulated, cowered in the bushes and covered themselves with fig leaves.
God then barred them from Paradise, so that they might not take hold of the tree of life and live forever. Yet, we know that it is God’s desire that we should live forever, so why did He keep Adam and Eve from the tree of life? Because had they taken hold of it in their sinful condition, still doubting God’s love, they would have been fixed in that condition, with no possibility of repentance and redemption. They would have been in hell. The expulsion from Paradise was not a punishment, but a preservation. God cast them out of the Garden, not out of His heart.
Before they were cast out, we are told that God clothed them in animal skins. Animals do not look up: their eyes are fixed upon the ground. Even the eagle, no matter how high he soars, is always looking down. Adam and Eve had wanted to become lords over the Earth. The Earth was now theirs: they tilled it and toiled upon it; they died and were buried in it. They were lords of the Earth, the highest of the animals, but they were meant to be companions of God. And because this was their destiny, they suffered in its denial. They were living an unnatural life, a thwarted existence. It appears as though God were saying: “You wanted to look down on the world, as gods. You have done so. Now, look up! And follow your true destiny! Recognize that you are My children, My companions!”
But Adam and Eve’s children continued to live outside of Paradise, forgetting who they were and becoming immersed in the world; yet, sometimes remembering, in a dim way, that they were created by God and trying to placate Him with sacrifices and rituals so that they might escape His anger. Bu this was all a continuation of the sin of Adam and Eve: doubting God’s love. Those who were mindful of God feared Him, uncertain of how He might behave toward them and doing what seemed likely to win His favor. God was conceived as a great potentate with absolute power. Love was not part of the relationship, except in a rhetorical way, as a means of flattery, for what was there in this terrible God that anyone could love?
Among the Israelites, however, there were some who saw beyond the façade of the terrible God who rewards and punishes. They saw, like a thin shaft of light piercing a dark thunderous cloud, a loving Father. In the Psalms, in some of the prophets, we see the knowledge of this Father-God growing. Neither as the temperamental Zeus of the pagans, nor as the tribal warrior God of genocidal wrath, but the notion of God as a loving Creator began to emerge.
Then, Jesus was born among us, He from whom all things came to be. The Creator became a man and walked with us, sharing in all our human joys and sorrows, even in our death. And He came to show us that God was our Father; that we were loved with the same tender love with which a good father loves his children on Earth, except that God’s love was infinite and everlasting and perfect. Jesus told us that it was God’s love with which we loved others; that God was love.
And Jesus urged us again and again to trust Him. The Greek word pistuein, that is usually translated “to believe,” also means “to trust.” We only believe the word of those we trust. Jesus came to re-establish the trust that Adam had destroyed by his sin and that we had perpetuated. Jesus showed us the face of the God that we had turned away from in doubt and pride and shame. He brought God’s love to Earth and it shone through Him as the Light of the World. It was always the Light of the World, but it had been shining in the darkness of our doubt and we had not seen it. When Jesus came, the light blazed forth. And it is blazing still.
But old habits die hard. After so many centuries, indeed millennia, of doubting God’s love and erecting systems and sacrifices to placate His wrath, we find it hard to think of ourselves as loved by God. He comes to walk with us and we push Him away and place Him again on the judgment seat, far from us. This love, this light that is Jesus, frightens us, unsettles us, and we repeat Adam’s sin of doubt. “God does not really love me,” we think in our heart of hearts. And this also means that we cannot love God, for we do not trust in His love.
And the fact is, there is a part of us that does not want God’s love, that fears it more than anything in creation. For this love that Jesus shows us consumes all of our doubt, all of our pride, all of our self-assertion. It strips us of all the marks of identity that selfishness has crafted for us as our personality. It tears away the animal-skin of our ego and leaves us naked in the sunlight. When this happens, we may be frightened at first, for it feels as though we have lost everything and that we are exposed and vulnerable. But if we stand awhile in this light, we can sense its purifying rays passing through us, awakening in us our lost innocence and joy. We then stand again in the Garden and the way to the tree of life is open to us, calling to us, “Take and eat.”
It sounds an odd thing to say, but we are threatened by love. Although we talk about it constantly, affirm it as the highest good in sermons and songs, in books and films, even in political rhetoric, when it actually touches us, we jump back as though stung.
And how does God’s love touch us? Usually in seemingly small ways. Before we say that biting word, the still small voice within us sounds a warning: “Don’t.” But we often do it anyway, for we cannot resist the pleasure of malice. It makes us feel good to hurt others: it lends us a sense of power and makes us god of the moment, lord over a vulnerable person.
When a kind act is possible, but effort is required and resistance is present, we often turn away and leave the kindness undone. And our thoughts tend to revolve around what gives us pleasure, even at the expense of others, even at the expense of those whom we say we love.
But what happens when we overcome our inclination to malice and self-gratification? What happens when we act out of sacrificial love? It is as though a gentle rain falls on the hardness of our hearts and a tender shoot begins to grow. It may be small and barely perceptible, but it is there. And like the mustard seed of the parable, it has the capacity to become a great tree that will offer shelter and shade to many.
If enough of us determined to live tomorrow in loving kindness, always mindful of God’s unconditional love for us and acting as a channel of that love for all we meet, then tomorrow would be a day to change the world. No economic scheme, no political or educational alliance, no social-justice agenda will ever change the world. So, let’s not be deceived, nor deceive ourselves. We have one way to salvation: surrender our doubt in God’s love and live in it. Simply live in it. And all good things will follow.