Freedom and Choice
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? What words can reach beneath her thick skin, to the deep place within, behind the brick walls she has built to shield herself from a life being treated like dirt. 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 speak I am 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 (as 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.’
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 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. Imago Dei.
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.
When God had said “Let us make humankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26) He was silently saying.. “I choose you to exist as I exist – I choose for you a loving heart, a responsible character, a propensity for truth and a volitional will.” He was saying “I love you. I choose you”.
“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…”
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 were completely free to choose from hundreds of different trees all with fruit that looked and tasted good (Genesis 2:9). They were free to live and rest and work at their vocation 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.’
Every day that Adam and Eve walked past the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and chose to keep on walking they were soundlessly speaking, silently saying to God, “I love you, I trust you, I choose you; I choose to trust your heart. I trust that your gifts are good, your words are true and the boundaries you set are good”.
Because love never was just a feeling. Deep love is always a choice. A choice that costs. A choice that chooses another over every other inclination within.
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 say.
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.”
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.
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.
We have never understood it, never understood ourselves. Without this freedom to choose, we are not fully human.
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.