Monday, April 12, 2021

Anonymous Asks (140)

“Does God want humans to sin?”

Years ago I used to leave pocket change lying around the house where anyone could see it. My father, concerned for the constant temptation loose coins posed to his then-six-year-old grandson, suggested I should put them somewhere less obvious.

It wasn’t a bad thought. After all, I didn’t want my son violating his conscience, did I? Why tempt him unnecessarily?

A Quick Rethink

Then again, by testing my son’s character in a controlled environment, perhaps I could help him better prepare for the temptations he would later encounter in life. There is always money lying around somewhere in the world, inviting shrewd people to make off with it ... IF they do not have well-ingrained convictions about the morality of their actions and the effects of their behavior on others. If my son could learn to experience temptation and reject it, perhaps that is an even better state to be in than not having experienced temptation at all.

So our question for today is not as silly as it may at first sound. Genesis 2:9 prompts it; indeed, it makes it almost obligatory to consider it. Why put a tree in Eden, the fruit of which mankind was never to eat? If God didn’t want humans to sin, all he had to do was eliminate the option. Doesn’t the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden at very least raise the possibility that that God wanted the events of Genesis 3 to play out just as they did?

Sinning and Choosing

I’ve been thinking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for a very long time, and the answer I’ve come to from my reading of God’s word is something like this: God doesn’t want humans to sin, but he definitely wants humans to choose. And if conferring the ability to choose allows for the possibility of sin occurring, God is willing to risk that possibility in order to enjoy the company of creatures possessed of genuine agency; men and women capable of intelligently examining the entire spectrum of possible options open to them, then deliberately and lovingly choosing those which please God rather than those which don’t.

If you want your child to learn to share, it means you first have to give him something others around him don’t have: a $20 bill, a chocolate bar, a set of toy cars. But in doing so, you are allowing for the possibility that he is a horrid little monster interested only in his own pleasures, and that he will end up hoarding his treasures or flaunting them in the faces of other children. Your little test could result in a demonstration of character that might be very disappointing to a parent. On the other hand, the opportunity may result in exactly the sort of happy outcome you are looking for. The only way your child can demonstrate what sort of person he is inside is when you give him the option of doing something desirable … or something quite undesirable. Both options must be on the table in order for that demonstration to occur.

Who Needs to Know?

But another consideration arises: If God knows already knows whether I will choose good or evil, no real-world test is necessary. The marks for the entire class are already in the hands of the teacher long before the exam is passed out.

So let’s play with that “exam” analogy a bit. It is readily agreed that if the object of taking an exam were only to inform the teacher how much each of his students had learned, omniscient teachers would never give out exams. But providing data to teachers is not the only object of exam-taking. We all know it doesn’t end there: the next step after marking is always for the teacher to hand back the marked exams to his students.

So then, one further object of the exam is for the student to find out how much he knows and how much he doesn’t, so he becomes aware of his deficiencies and what he needs to do to remedy them (or, in a sadder situation, why exactly he has failed his year and is being held back). Yet another purpose for examining students is to grade them and rank them for third party observers. And indeed, others around us have a stake in knowing how we are doing at choice-making. Future wives care about the demonstrated character of potential husbands, and vice versa. Future employers look for evidence of character that might prompt them to choose one potential candidate over another. (I am not saying that all the metrics used by employers in the present environment are wise or useful ways of measuring potential on the job, of course, but the fact is that such standards do exist; your level of education and your success or lack of success in studying matter to human resources departments everywhere.)

Sure, the omniscient teacher could just tell me what I would have done on the test, and the omniscient teacher could tell all the relevant third parties how I would have done. But I can tell you right now how I would feel about that: not very good. The first thing out of my mouth when told I had failed a test I had never taken would be this: “But it didn’t really happen!” And if I didn’t say it, someone else would, because it’s a good point.

Justified in His Words

In order for the results of a test to be indisputably fair and binding, they need to happen somewhere other than just inside God’s mind. God knows this, and from the beginning he has been interested not just in assessing men and judging their conduct, but in demonstrating the appropriateness of his judgment to the world, “that you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” It is not enough that judgment occur in private and be technically correct, but it is also necessary for that judgment to be out there in the open where everyone can see it and acknowledge its rightness and appropriateness.

If you want to produce a truly loving human being, you have to allow for the possibility that he will act hatefully. If you want to produce joy, you have to allow for the possibility of bitterness. The effort to produce self-control admits the chance that you might get crazed self-indulgence instead. Encouraging me to be generous opens up the possibility that I may decide to hoard everything I have been given.

So no, God never wants humans to sin. But he does want us to choose, and he wants those choices to be genuine and meaningful.

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