Freedom and Choice.
‘Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…’
Read: Genesis 2:8-17
So we have eight year olds smashing the faces of twelve year olds here, girls no taller than my shoulder posturing gangster hostility, here on this earth where people formed from dust forget their breath and treat each other like dirt. And this one little girl who fires up like a Don she cocks her hip and shakes her head and waves her finger and taunts the other children with violent glares and hostile words… and she is eight.
I pull her aside and we talk, because I hear of what she did, smashing the face of an older girl. But what can I say? I have no words to make sense of all this sadness.
But words arrive from somewhere, “This is not who you are” (do I believe these words?) “You are beautiful. God loves you” I say, expecting nothing. But suddenly her eyes, they change, they soften and in that moment the gangster becomes a little girl once more. Both encouraged and half-disbelieving I continue, “You have a choice. If you continue down this path let me tell you where it leads… it leads to warring and pain and sadness and hurt for you and many others. There is another way, another choice, the path that leads to who you truly are, the beautiful you”. And as I spoke I was speaking to myself and hearing all my words for the first time. And she listens too, this little girl, all round eyes and furrowed brow, like I am speaking a foreign language strange and beautiful (and isn’t that what it is so often for all of us?) and she is straining so hard to understand. Small she now looks. Small and trapped in a cycle of violence that would take the will of giants to overcome. A stronger will than mine. Am I wasting my breath to hope?
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ Genesis 2:7
There is hope, because there is breath. There is hope because she is not a machine. She may not realise that yet, but though the path of violence surrounds her persuasive and pervasive, there is another path buried deep within her. The reason I know she can be reached, the reason I know there is hope, is that there is something within her to strengthen and grow, I know the Breath of God lingers in her lungs always longing to strengthen her to choose His way above the way of mud and mire. And the same is true for each of us. We are more than mud, more than dust, more than bones and sinews and skin. We are human. We are children of God.
These words that arrived from somewhere that day, they called her to rise above her reactions, to choose life, because as long as there is a human within our skin there is a will that can be challenged to choose life, to choose love, to choose light over dark. This ability to choose is our inheritance, our image-of-God nature breathed into us from the beginning of all our breaths and the birth of all our beginnings.
‘Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food… ‘ Genesis 2:8-9
In the beginning of all things, there were many choices, the garden of Eden was full of choice. God had given generously and abundantly and with great care provided His children with all they needed to flourish. They had community, purpose, beauty and peace. They were completely free to choose from hundreds of different trees all with fruit that looked and tasted good (Genesis 2:9). Free to live and rest and work at their vocation and calling without inhibition, doubt or fear. God had given them freedom to participate creatively in His creation by choosing the names of all the animals. They also had the freedom of moral innocence, naked and unashamed, nothing to hide, nothing to cover up (Genesis 2:25).
Freedom was everywhere, because trust and love were everywhere. Trust in God, trust between human beings, trust in the goodness of this world God had given. Trust and Love were everywhere because God was everywhere.
But mutual love and trust is built on the commitment to love another despite inclination, emotion or temptation not to. Choosing to love is also choosing against not loving.
‘…In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ Genesis 2:9
We love our children, not just when we feel warm emotion towards them, but when we rise in the night to their cries, exercise forbearance to their failings and when we are faithful in providing for their welfare and growth. We invest time, energy, resources and emotional presence in the ones we love.
Love costs. If love has no cost, no burden, no investment, no cross, it is simply empty sentiment susceptible to the changeable winds of passion and emotion. We truly love to the extent that we serve, sacrifice and give to the one we love ‘forsaking all others’, as many traditional wedding vows name.
God invited humankind to love Him, to forsake all others, to trust His voice over all others, to love Him over everything else their inclinations might be drawn to. To exercise love. To invest in their relationship with Him by exercising choice.
‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:15-17
Adam and Eve were given this choice: The Tree of Life or this other tree with all the ‘Bling’ of knowledge and the hidden stench of death. God wanted them to choose to love Him, so He gave them the option not to. It’s about a grace that lets us choose, knowing we may not choose Him.
The one tree, the one tree not to touch, it was never about the tree and it was never about the fruit. It’s about a love that lets go and lets the loved one be a separate individual with a unique and independent will. A love that gives freedom over force, volition over automation. If we were ever to make the authentic choice to love God, we had to have the authentic choice to reject Him, to reject His words, His command, His truth, His love.
And so these trees, these two trees are planted together in the middle of the garden. One beckoning to us to choose life, and the other giving us a choice against it. And all along this has been the point. If there was no alternative to loving and trusting God, if we didn’t have to choose to love Him, but loved Him only by default, by programming or instinct, would it really be love at all? In breathing His life into us, God gambled on humanity, giving us a chance to choose between the light and the whispering darkness, between God and the absence of Him.
We have never understood it, never understood ourselves. Without this freedom to choose, we are not fully human. Our Imago Dei within calls us, shapes us, conditions us, creates us, to be like God: volitional.
God breathed real life into real people and gave us real choice because He longs for a Kingdom of free human hearts living in joyous partnership with Him, walking with Him calling on His name, loving Him, freely, wholly and unreservedly.
God does not coerce us or manipulate us to choose Him. He only ever invites us, only ever respects us, respects the sacred presence of His own nature in us; Our own human volition, our human vocation, our capability for great self sacrificial love, like His.
We have choice, not so we can become the options generation, flexing free-will as a human right. Love gave us choice so we could choose to love. And this gift is the gift He knew would cause His scars, and yet He gave it still.
And today we all wear scars as the result of human choices.
There are always two trees. There is always a choice. A Tree of Life and a mixed tree where good and evil are flip sides of the same coin, where pleasure appears at first but darkness follows after. Every human being that ever breathed a breath will stand at some point in some form of garden and have to choose; God’s voice, or another voice. Gods path or the other.
Years after Adam and Eve stood before their two trees, Moses stood before the children of Israel on the edge of the promised land and named their two trees, their two choices…
‘This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Deuteronomy 30:19-20
What Moses made clear then, is still true today: there is a deep connection between the love of God and a human being fully alive in their beating heart humanity. The Lord is our life, loving Him breaths life back into us when the world has knocked it out.
Without God as the beating heart centre of human existence, human existence breaks down. Like a solar system without a sun we are empty and broken without Him in our beating heart centre. Our true human hearts were first created in the image of God, created to beat in time with His heart, created to live life with Him in the rhythm. When we discard Him from our beating core, we discard ourselves, the foundation of our humanity.
Even our ‘free will’ isn’t truly free without Him. DH Lawrence penned it and pinned it like a marker on a map,
“Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within,…not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west and shout of freedom…. The shout is a rattling of chains. Liberty in America has meant so far breaking away from all dominion. The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover the deepest whole self of man.”
(‘The Spirit of Place’ D. H. Lawrence)
This is a truth larger than one nation. We, all of us human beings long to discover our deepest whole self.
The challenge we face is that our God given volitional heart is as complex as the thousand shards it shattered into on the day humankind chose darkness over light in the first garden. Brokenness begets more brokenness, not wholeness. And wholeness is a prerequisite for true human freedom.
We can still make choices in brokenness, but none of these will ultimately lead to true freedom. Much of what we call freedom, (freedom of choice, freedom from interference, freedom of speech) has very little to do with the deep freedom that comes from being whole and abundantly alive in who we truly are.
For example, If a child born into violence and abuse, then abuses and belittles others, is she truly choosing? As she repeats the patterns all around her and as she inflicts her will on others, is this will of hers truly free? Or is it simply replaying the past, stuck in a life-loop, a cycle of bondage? The little girl that day, the one who smashed the faces of older girls, she was flexing her ‘free will’ at the time, but she was far from happy, far from whole. Far from free. She was not choosing, she was replaying, reciting lines her life had given her.
Free will is not the same as true freedom.
Without thinking, we, the human race live off scripts scrawled by the scars of our past. We re-play roles and re-live prejudices. So often we think we are free when we are actually inwardly chained, enslaved to archaic fear and unresolved emotion.
Here’s the rub. The more we reach for ‘freedom’ without God, the more we become slaves to the patterns of our scars; automated machines spitting out repetitions of the past and perpetuating these scars in our future and the future of all around us. Just as we can only truly love because God first loved us, we can only truly have free will when we are released from the programming scars and patterns of our past by the deeply healing, releasing love of God.
When people make broken choices it’s not our job to judge them, ostracise them, hurl insults or scripture passages at them. It’s our job to love them as God loves them, and to point them to God, because it is God’s love that calls all of us back to ourselves when we have lost our way. His love that heals the programming wounds of our past, so we can find true freedom.
We cannot choose our circumstances, our upbringing, our nationality, our DNA or our history. We cannot choose how the choices of others have left scars upon our hearts. But no matter where life has lead us, landed us or left us, we will always have one choice available to us. We can choose God. We can choose to fill ourselves up with His love and through Him be empowered to choose love. Choose life. Choose Him.
The choice between God and everything else is the choice underneath so many other choices, in small ways and big. The only choice that makes us; makes us whole or broken, living or dead, alive or slowly dying from the inside out.
God wants real freedom for all of us, not pseudo-free-will, but true, deep, peace-filled, life-releasing freedom.
But this is the irony, the strange paradox of freedom: True freedom is only found on the other side of a will surrendered to the love of God.
The more we give up our ‘will’ to God, and say with Christ in the second garden ‘not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42), and to God, ‘your Kingdom come your will be done’ (Matthew 6:10), the freer we truly become. The choice between free will and no free will, between freedom and automation is fundamentally the choice between accepting the healing, empowering love of God or rejecting it. Choices made outside of the love of God are ultimately default decisions programmed by our past, pseudo choices, delivering a pseudo freedom. Until we choose to love God, we are not fully freely choosing.
When we submit our will to God, and love Him with our whole heart, love begins to sit on the throne of our human heart. Our heart becomes ruled by Love, Love bearing the scars of our existence on His palms. And that love is what we need to be wholly human, wholly alive, wholly free. God on the throne of human heart means love is on that throne. The kind of love that could turn this whirling world of pain around.
We all of us are given garden moments, moments where we stand before two trees. We may not always tell ourselves we have this choice, but we do. We may choose by choosing not to choose, but decision by default is still a choice. We can’t choose backwards and change our history, but we can choose forwards, from this moment on. Our past doesn’t have to be our future.
Yes, some feelings fail us, some circumstances strangle, some habits are hard. Choosing the tree of life is never the easy choice. It’s always and only ever the road less travelled. But it’s a journey taken in company with Christ. In fact, it’s a journey we simply cannot take without Him. Because the truth under all theses truths is that, no matter how strong we are, we alone simply don’t have the willpower of giants to overcome our drivers and the scars of our past. We don’t have the strength to always choose life or choose love. But we can stand on the shoulders of one giant, who loves us into freedom and fits our souls for choice. One who’s will didn’t falter in the garden when faced by the choice between the mixed tree and the real tree of life (shaped like a cross), which took Him all the way through death and back again for love. Love for us, we the human race, still learning how to choose Him.