Last night I caught my five-year-old son reading in bed when he should’ve been sleeping. I asked him to give me the book and he did, albeit reluctantly. I reminded him that it was late and he needed to go to sleep because he had school in the morning. Then I put his book at the end of his bed and turned to leave. Luke couldn’t believe his luck. “Haha – I can get that book when you go!” he said with a wicked grin. “I know you can, but I hope you won’t. It’s time to sleep. Good night, son.” I closed the door and waited outside for a minute. Then I opened the door a crack to see if he had caved into temptation. He hadn’t. His head was still on the pillow and the book was untouched. “Attaboy,” I said to myself. The single most astonishing discovery in the gospel is that Almighty God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, has faith in us. He trusts us. He gives us the freedom to choose, encourages us to “Choose life,” and then lets us decide. This explains the tree. Faith and love in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden tree was not an obedience test, as in, fail the test and God will punish you. The forbidden tree was an opportunity to trust God. Tragically, we didn’t and we paid a price. But God, good Father that he is, didn’t wash his hands of us. He didn’t say, “What a bunch of screw-ups. They’re no kids of mine.” Instead, he made things right, indeed, even better than before, because he still believes in us, he still thinks the best of us, and he longs for us to trust him back. Is this not the greatest untold story of human history? Think about it. In the beginning God makes a planet – perfect in every way – and then he gives his beautiful, shiny planet to us to look after: The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to man. (Psalms 115:16) You might say it was a reckless gamble, but I say it was an audacious act of love and trust, like when a father hands his daughter the keys to his Shelby Mustang and says, “Go have some fun!” What is man that you are mindful of him? … You made him ruler over the works of your hands. (Psalms 8:4,6) God gave us the car-keys to planet earth and said, “Go have fun!” True, we responded by crashing the car. But don’t miss the bigger point, which is this: Knowing what we would do, and knowing how much it would cost him to repair the damage, God went ahead and did it anyway. Why? Because he loves us and believes in us and hopes that one day we will stop running and come home.
“God believes in you!”
You won’t hear this message from manmade religion. Instead you will be asked, “Do you believe in God?” And if you hesitate to answer, religion will try to manipulate you with carrots and sticks. “If you believe, you’ll be blessed. If you don’t, you’ll burn!” But this is not love. Love makes no threats. “Love doesn’t force itself on others” (1 Cor. 13:5, MSG). And this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). A back-to-front gospel says, “Believe in God or pay the price.” But the gospel of grace declares, “God believes in you.” This is the stunning revelation that sets us free from the prison of loneliness and distrust. Last night it would’ve been the easiest thing for me to take my boy’s book by force and put it where he couldn’t reach it. I could coerce him into doing the right thing because I’m stronger than him. And if he were a strapping teenager I could control him through carrots and sticks. I could make him do what I wanted by making threats and saying things like, “Under my roof, you’ll do what I say!” But what kind of father would I be if I did that? And what kind of son would he be? He wouldn’t be a son but a slave. And since we were not made to be slaves he’d eventually run away. I don’t want to relate to my son through power or the fear of punishment. I want to relate to him through love. And how do I do that? By giving him freedom to resist me, and then loving him no matter what. It’s the same with our heavenly Father. God is stronger than you or I and it would be the easiest thing in the world for him to make us do whatever he liked. It would be no trouble at all. But that’s not how love works. Love doesn’t seek to control or coerce. Love yields, and the greater the Yielder, the greater the love.
“God longs for you!”
This is the surprising announcement of the gospel. Despite all our mistakes and foolishness, our Father holds nothing against us but waits by the gate for us to come home so he can clothe us and throw a party that is so outrageously good fun that religious kill-joys are scandalized by it. Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke about the nun and the atheist. The atheist says, “I don’t believe in God,” and the nun replies, “But God believes in you.” This is no joke! This is the gospel truth that penetrates the unbelieving heart. God isn’t shaking his fist at you. He loves you and wants to be with you. As a parent, my greatest joy comes from experiencing the fearless and trusting love of my children. When Luke gave me his book last night, he was saying, “Daddy, I love reading, but I love you more and I trust your judgment.” It melted my heart! But here’s the thing: Luke would never trust me if I didn’t trust him first. Again, it’s the same with our heavenly Father. We love because he first loved us, and we trust because he first trusted us. See the sequence? God acts; we respond. The reason some people have trouble trusting is because they don’t see God with outstretched arms but with clenched fists. Religion has taught them to fear his punishment. Such folk need to hear the good news of his grace. They need to hear how much their Daddy loves them and wants nothing but the best for them. Everything that God has ever done testifies to his love for us. The Garden, the tree, the cross – he did it all because he loves us and believes in us and is not willing that any of us should perish. His enduring hope is that we will stop doubting his intentions and trust him back. And when that happens – when we stand firm in the confidence of our Father’s love – life will really begin!