By Catherine A. Deddo
"Just Do It!"
"Just Do It!" was the motto of the Nike corporation for a period of time. Nike sells athletic gear, mostly shoes. The commercials would show various people straining to do their best in their athletic performance. The advertisement is appealing to your desire to face the challenge, pluck up your will and get the job done. The only way to really achieve anything great is to make things happen by exercising sheer willpower.
I think that as Christians, we are often tempted to think that the triune God operates towards us like a Nike commercial. What God mainly wants is obedience from His creatures. He has come up with many rules for us to live by and the only way we can please Him is by obeying them. And, like the Nike commercials, God is not so much concerned with our motivations or feelings—He just wants us to get the stuff He commands done. Our relationship with God, then, is primarily most similar to a master-servant relationship. And we are tempted to judge the quality of our relationship with the triune God by how well we are doing in our acts of obedience.
Where does this thinking come from? Well, I wonder if it stems from a misunderstanding of the character of God as we see Him in the Old Testament. It seems to me our thinking goes something like this: Wasn’t the God of the Old Testament the One who gave the Ten Commandments, plus all those other dietary, liturgical, and ethical laws? And weren't His punishments always dealt out in response to people disobeying? And His punishments often seemed so severe. Doesn’t that just prove that the heart of the God in the Old Testament was His law and His desire was that His people obey it? Isn’t the very definition of sin simply disobedience?
What I am asking here is a very fundamental issue for our faith and our lives as Christians. What is the heart, the core, of God? Why did He create us? What does He most deeply want from us? We live by an answer to these questions, whether we are conscious of our answer or not. It affects every part of our lives as Christians. It affects how we understand who Jesus is and what He came to do for us and in us. Do we think that Jesus primarily came to save us from the penalty of our sins, in other words, our disobedience? It affects our understanding of the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives. Do we believe that the Holy Spirit is given to us primarily to help us obey? And it affects our understanding of sanctification, of our maturing in our Christian lives.
Really, what we are going to explore here and in the next couple of entries is connected to the first question I raised, the question that is at the heart of theology—Who is God? If this is a question we think we have already answered, so that we don’t need to continually come back to it because, now, the issue is “getting the work of the kingdom done”, then I would say, we are already heading down the wrong path in our understanding of Who God is, who we are, what sin is, and what our lives here on earth are fundamentally about. Actually, the irony of all this is that even our understanding of what obedience is, is determined by Who we believe God to be.
I believe that the central question God Himself has sought to raise and answer from the beginning is the question of Who He is. He wasn’t, and isn’t, seeking first to make sure His creation knows what they are to do, but to help us know the God that He is, and to help us grasp and understand everything else in the light of Who He is.
As Paul pointed out in his letter to the Galatians (3:17), the law came 430 years after God had established His covenant with Abraham. If God’s main interest was our obedience according to Law, why did He wait so long to tell them the rules?
But before we look at God’s relationship with Abraham, let’s step even further back—to Adam and Eve. Looking at the first chapter of Genesis, the author tells us that humanity was made in His image and to have dominion over the rest of creation. But what does He tell the first man and woman after creating them? What is the word He gives them? Here is what the text says, “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (1:28)’” So the first thing that these humans receive from God is a blessing, and then a commission to be fruitful and to have dominion over everything.
But God doesn’t stop there. He goes on, “‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. (vv. 29-30)’”
So what are the first things God wants to tell those beings that He has created in His image?—that He a God who blesses, and that He is giving them all that they need to fulfill the purpose He has for them. He reveals that He not only has created them for good purposes, but that He is committed to enabling them to achieve these purposes. He reveals Himself to be a giving God, and a blessing God.
If we look at the creation narrative in the second chapter, there is a beautiful description of God preparing a home for His human creation: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…(2:8-9a)” When God speaks again to Adam, He tells him that he is free to eat of every tree in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die. (2:17)”
Again, we see that God does reveal something of His good character to Adam and Eve. He shows Himself a God who cares and provides for the needs of His creation. And before He created Eve out of Adam’s rib, He reveals Himself to be One who gives Adam the opportunity to participate in His work by having him name all the creatures.
So, before the serpent ever comes along to tempt Eve, what do they already know about God? What has He revealed about Himself? They know that He is a God who blesses them and provides abundantly for them—they can eat freely of all the trees that God has placed in the garden for them except for one. And He intends for them to have dominion over all of creation. In other words, He gives them all of what He has made for them to subdue and take care of.
And what does the serpent do when he tempts Eve? First, he misquotes God to have Him sound like One who mainly withholds instead of gives, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?(3:1)’” Satan isn’t primarily checking to clarify God’s commands, he is trying to get Eve to distrust God by questioning His character, questioning if God can be trusted to be the God He has revealed Himself to be. You notice, then, when Eve responds she adds to what God actually said, making Him look more strict than He was, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die. (3:2-3)’” Having set her up to think of God more negatively than He has actually revealed Himself to be, the serpent now goes on to claim that God was lying, “‘You will not die,’” and then to claim that the reason God has forbidden this fruit is because “‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing God and evil. (3:4-5)’”
What the serpent does, in getting Eve to eat the fruit, is to get her to question whether God could be trusted, whether He really was as good and as for His creation as He had revealed to them. And God, as we have seen, had made sure to let them know enough about Who He is that they could trust Him and obey Him (eat of all the trees but one) out of that trust.
So, from the first pages of the Bible, we can see that the God who is, is a God who desires His creation to know His true character and to trust Him to be the God He reveals Himself to be. All human action, then, is to be based and grounded in that knowledge of who God really is, and upon nothing else. And sin, primarily is distrust of God and what springs from that distrust.