Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why God put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden

I came to know the Lord in 1974 at the age of 16. Soon after I became a Christian, I was on fire for the Lord. I read George Verwer’s book ‘Hunger for Reality’ and immediately wanted to serve the Lord as a missionary in India. But I felt the Lord telling me again and again to go to university and study. Eventually I went to the UK and studied law. The study of law trained my mind to think analytically and critically. I discovered that I was rather skillful at that. I also became too intellectual and skeptical for my own good. I did not stop believing in God, but my heart eventually got colder and colder towards the Lord and my spirit became almost dead.

I returned to Malaysia in 1983 and immersed myself in my legal practice and became quite well known working among some of the top lawyers in my country. But all the while, for about 8 years, from about 1981 – 1989, I was away from the Lord and my spirit shriveled till it died. By God’s mercy, in 1989 the Lord allowed me to be hit hard with a physical affliction and through the ordeal I was brought back to Him. The account of how I came back to the Lord is told in another story.

After I returned to the Lord, I was really grateful and glad to be back. I could really feel my spirit alive again, and communing with the Lord became a reality again. I could feel Him speaking to me again. I read the gospels afresh and God seemed to reveal new things to me that I previously did not see. But there was one thing that troubled me for a long time, from the time I first came to know the Lord really, that I still needed an answer to : Why did God put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden?

I reasoned that all the terrible atrocities, wickedness, cruelty , tragedy, pain and suffering in the world can be traced back to that tree and man’s fall. Surely God knew that would happen. Surely God knew that Adam and Eve would fall for the devil’s temptation and eat the fruit from that tree with its consequences. Yes, He came to save us and show us His love, but why did He put that tree there in the first place? If I could have the answer to that question, I surmised that the whole of the Bible would open up to me. I remembered I read sometime ago that someone, it could have been CS Lewis or Spurgeon or other, said that if we can understand Genesis we can understand the whole Bible. I had to have the answer. It was a huge piece of the jig saw puzzle that had to be found and fitted in or I would not be able to go on. So I asked the Lord to tell me. He did, but His answer came in a rather unexpected and unusual way.

My wife and I love dogs. (When I once told this story in a church in Indonesia, I paused and asked them if they loved dogs. The whole congregation smiled and nodded. Several of them were grinning. My interpreter laughed and told me, “Ya, we all love dogs .. on a plate!” They were a Batak congregation. I learnt that Bataks love eating dogs! “Oh no!! that’s not what I meant! Horrors!” I exclaimed. Cross cultural teaching has its cross-cultural boo-boos).

We were living very busy lives and did not have a dog. My neighbor had a dog. Instead of getting a dog of our own, we vicariously enjoyed our neighbor’s dog without having to look after one ourselves. Almost everyday, in the evenings, we would go to the chain link fence between my neighbor’s house and ours and stick our hand through the fence and my neighbor’s dog would come and lean itself against the fence and we would pat it. One day, my wife and I were in our house and we heard two dogs barking! We went out to see and lo and behold my neighbor had acquired another dog, a lovely golden retriever. We immediately fell in love with it. The golden retriever learnt very quickly. Whenever they saw us, both dogs would come and lean against the fence and my wife and I would stick our hands through and pat them!

One day, my neighbor was very amused watching us do that and he enquired, “Hey you love my dogs so much, why not take one of them? I can’t look after two dogs. But don’t take my old one, he’s attached to me. Take the new one.” “Really? You mean it? Wow, thanks!”, I said, really delighted and thrilled to take the golden retriever. I renamed her “Betsy” as I thought “Fifi” was such an awful name. (Here’s another boo-boo. When I once told this story in another church in Indonesia, the whole congregation laughed out aloud, almost bending over in stitches, on hearing me say this. I was puzzled and wondered what it was that was so hilarious. It turned out that the name of the wife of one of the pastors was “Fifi” !! I could have died there and then!).

I brought Betsy back to my house. I bought a chain and tied her down and I closed the front gate. Everyday I would let her go out to “do her business” but when she had “done her business” she would go back to my neighbor. I would have to go and bring her back to my house and close the gate and tie her down. The next day, the same thing happened. And the next .. and the next. This went on for at least a week. One day, I let Betsy out but after she had “done her business” she came back to me! I was so delighted as I saw her coming in through the gate. I exclaimed in delight, “Betsy, you came back to me!” As soon as I said that, I heard the Lord speaking so clearly as a voice in my head : “Betsy was never your dog until today.” That’s all He said. Immediately the whole Bible opened up to me. I suddenly saw at once why God put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. (By the way, I don’t always hear the Lord so clearly. I usually have an “understanding” that God is saying something to me rather than hear specific words. But sometimes God speaks so clearly as an inner voice in my head. This was unmistakably such a time).

What did God mean by that? It was abundantly clear to me. So long as I kept Betsy tied down with my front gate closed, Betsy was never really my dog. Just like I had to let Betsy go and in time she would come back to me and become my dog, so God had to let man go in the hope and plan that he would return to Him. That’s why He put that tree there. He had to give man the freedom of choice so that when we return to Him, He could say, “Now you are really mine.” Of course God knew the consequences, but there would have been no other way He could really have us.

God is love, and He created us in His image. That means we were created with the potential to love. But that potential would remain only a potential unless freedom of choice could be exercised. His desire is that we would become like Him, that we would come to know His love, and we would love Him and love one another and enjoy love in its fullness. That, obviously, can only be experienced freely. Not something that can be programmed into us. Love necessarily means that it has to flow out of a heart set free to choose. As terrible as the consequences would be in the exercise of free will, that would however be the only way love could be experienced and enjoyed. And total freedom of choice with the capacity to choose good and reject evil means that God cannot be attributed with blame for man’s choices.

Since that revelation, everything in the Bible has made so much sense to me; not only why God let man go, but also why He doesn’t seem to intervene when we wish He sometimes would. Though in His grace He does somehow keep the world intact, or we would have earlier annihilated ourselves totally, He generally lets history run its course with all the terrible consequences of our folly, in the hope that in the degradation and decay, we would wake up to a realization of our folly and depravity and seek Him and thus be set free from it : Rom.8:18-21

As I reflected on this, I also came to realize that my own story, how I went away from the Lord, how in His mercy He allowed me to be afflicted, so that I would seek Him and return to Him, was like a parable or a small version of the big picture of why God created us, why He let us go, why He allows and endures all the terrible things in this world, only to wait in hope for our return to Him. It is naturally messy and complicated. But all relationships are messy and complicated. Not cut and dry, and clean, and ordered, systematic and perfect. It is heart to heart, not computer programming. It is love, not laws and rules.

The book of Hosea also makes so much sense to me. There I see, not a distant sovereign, almighty, holy and just God sitting on His throne somewhere in the skies above, but a God who takes Israel’s unfaithfulness (and indeed ours too) personally - a God who gets deeply hurt, who expresses shock, regret and grief, who gets jealous and takes revenge, and who pines with longing for our love. I am indeed thankful that I can experience Him. In my spirit, I feel Him sharing His heart with me more and more, not just how much more He loves us, but how much grief He experiences over our condition and estrangement from Him. It is painful but I would rather have a heart that can feel, than just a brain or mind to reason.

And for disasters, I see also how He has to judge, but also how His heart breaks for us while He unleashes the fury of His wrath, all in the hope that we would wake up and return to Him. I have seen the death, destruction and havoc wreaked by disasters. But I have also seen how it could have been worse. Indeed mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), and in that I hope, and believe, and work.

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