Fine print of mortgage terms and conditions

Terms of Engagement

Now, if I was Creator God, I would have set things up differently in the Garden of Eden. It seems like a bad arrangement from the start: why even put the tree there, in the middle of the garden? Everyone knows that if you don’t want your kids to eat the treats, you hide them out of sight, up high in the cupboard, or you don’t buy them at all. You certainly don’t leave them out in the middle of the kitchen bench.

I would have arranged it differently. It would be less risky, I’d have less chance of being rejected. It would be safer, more controlled, more… robotic. But, of course, that’s not real relationship. Love requires the possibility of being rejected, and so the choice to disobey is offered to Adam and Eve.

In eating the fruit, our first parents weren’t just disobeying a rule, they were pushing away from God. The underlying thought goes something like “I can’t trust God to guide me in life… I know better… I can decide for myself what’s good for me… I’m going to make up my own life separate from you God”.

Turns out, you don’t know better, and your own life separate from God is full of hurt, shame, and ultimately death.

And how does God respond? He doesn’t storm out “I know what you’ve done! Now there’s hell to pay!”. He asks “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). It seems more like a genuine inquiry, motivated by a longing for ongoing relationship. God knows everything, but he doesn’t come accusing.1 Yes, there are consequences, but even in announcing them God is laying out his plan to take those consequences upon himself in the death of his son Jesus (Genesis 3:15).

The story goes on and God again and again affirms his love for humanity and His commitment to us. Some of the covenants include stipulations where obedience will result in blessing and disobedience in cursing, but there is always a way back to God – and the Israelites need it again and again. But in the covenant with Noah as representative of all humanity, and in the New Covenant promised by the prophets and fulfilled in Jesus, we see something strange: there are no stipulations. The terms of engagement are one-sided when it comes to commitment. There’s no possible situation where the deal is off. God says, “this is who I am, and this is who I will always be, regardless of how you behave” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13).

This is nothing new here really, but I am a slow learner. We all are in this. The human heart always turns to religion. Maybe it’s that fruit we ate which has us forever setting up systems to judge what is good and what is bad. We often start out with the gospel of grace and a free life in the Spirit, but then we add on the extras: religious requirements, cultural expectations, standards of behaviour.

That’s what happened with the church in Galatia. Paul left the church grounded in grace, but some “Judaizers” came along and convinced them that they needed to add on top of grace a whole lot of rule-keeping, particularly circumcision. This gets Paul so mad, he writes the letter of Galatians to correct them and he doesn’t go easy. While there’s often nothing inherently wrong with the behaviours we add in (sometimes they’re a great idea!), it is a big problem if we’re adding them into the terms of engagement of our relationship with God. If we say that these religious or cultural behaviours somehow determine who is in right relationship with God, whether He approves of you, and how good He might be to you.

Now circumcision is not an issue for me, as you can easily imagine. But recently, I was listening to Galatians (I’m a fan of Streetlights on Spotify), and I swear I heard the Spirit sub in some different words to address the issues in my own heart. It went something like this.

“If you are counting on circumcision serving the church to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favour with God by being circumcised a good girl, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses be totally perfect. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law to your high standards, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.” (Galatians 5:3-4 The New Maja-ised Version).

Ouch.

While I was sitting with this rebuke, I read the parable of the Prodigal Son through fresh eyes. In Luke 15:11-31 Jesus tells this story, which while it is pretty familiar to most Christians today, would have been shocking to its first hearers. Again and again the outcomes are surprising, and as the parable overturns these expectations it challenges cultural assumptions and ideologies.2 The younger son is rude and presumptuous, rejecting the father, but the father doesn’t rebuke or discipline him, instead he gives way and waits until the son returns. This wastrel son comes back with a plan: he’ll offer to be a hired servant in his father’s house, at least then he’ll be fed. But the father will not receive the son as a servant. He doesn’t even listen to the plan, but calls for the symbols of position, dignity and authority to be bestowed again on his son. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible points out that “the father’s actions reject the son’s proposal”.

Something similar is happening with the older son. He had been slaving away for his father, obedient and undemanding, but distant. He refuses to celebrate his brother’s return (the self-righteous critic never joins the party!), shaming his father publicly. And again the father approaches him with scandalous humility, inviting him to relationship. The older son remains stiff and cold-shouldered; unwilling to admit his brokenness, he can’t enter into grace.

The Father refuses to engage with both sons on the terms of engagement that they propose for the relationship.

In the heart of the younger son I hear something like: “I’m coming back to you, but you’re probably angry with me. I know I blew it, so I’m not expecting much. I won’t ask for much, and I’m going to get it right this time, I’m just going to stay at a distance from you. Father, I can’t believe that you would accept me as I am.”

The Father responds: “None of that. Here is position, authority, dignity. But first of all: Embrace. I’ve been waiting to embrace you again. There’s room for error, I am not disappointed in you.”3

In the heart of the older son I hear: “I’ve worked hard for you, I haven’t disobeyed you, I haven’t asked for much – I’ve been a good boy! But Father, I can’t believe that you really want to be abundantly good to me just because you love me.

The Father responds: “None of that. Those were never the grounds for our relationship, that was never the basis of my approval of you. You have held me at a distance with your work ethic and your good behaviour, but I’ve been waiting to embrace you for always.

The father is willing to let his sons hurt him – he releases the younger son with his inheritance without rebuke – but he will not settle for a servant relationship with them. Just like in the Garden, the children are free to mistreat and reject the Father, but He will never refuse us entry to His embrace, He will always pursue us.4 

But to this servant idea that the younger son proposes and the older son has been living out, Father God says: I will not accept the terms on which you are asking to engage with me. I will accept nothing less than love, nothing less than scandalous grace.

Generally we resonate with either the heart of the younger or the older son, but to us all the invitation is the same:

No deals, no promises, no pretence—just you being you, and me loving you. 

  1. For more on this, See Thompson, Curt. The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015, 110-111.
  2. John Dominic Crossan explains how parables are “stories which shatter the deep structure of our accepted world and thereby render clear and evident to us the relativity of story itself. They remove our defences and make us vulnerable to God.” Crossan, John Dominic. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 1988, 100.
  3. “I am not disappointed in you”, “There’s room for error” – what proclamations for my little Enneagram 1 heart! If you want to sit this with more, I’d highly recommend listening to Dion Davis singing “Lean Back” and the spontaneous track that follows on that album.
  4. I am taken by the translation of 1 Corinthians 13:4 that appears in a note in The Passion Translation, “love patiently endures mistreatment”. How often I mistreat God with my disobedience, my prideful rejection, my hurtful accusations.
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