Our Terrible and Tender God

Prepping a guest lecture for seminary a few weeks ago I was struck with the alignment between Adam’s and Eve’s shrinking from the presence of God after they ate the forbidden fruit, and the shrinking of the wicked from the presence of God at judgment (e.g. 2 Nephi 9). Adam and Eve feel naked, and hide. God calls them forth and rebukes them, confirming that they have something to be ashamed of. They are now to be cast out of his presence entirely. Yet then, after pronouncing curses, he makes clothing for them, as if to say, “Since you’re going out into the world, we’d better at least get you some real clothes!” (Is this Mother acting under the divine plural here?) He confirms they should be ashamed, and yet he specifically intervenes to mitigate their shame, even to bless it after a fashion. Now that he is terrible to them, he goes out of his way to be tender.

In a way our whole mortal period can be read as a shrinking from the presence of God, if Adam’s and Eve’s fall represents our entry into mortality. Yes, they are cast out of the Garden, but only after they have already made aprons of fig leaves and started hiding from God, anticipating God’s own response to their eating the fruit, which is to make coats of skins for them and cast them out of the Garden. It is as though God is only doing a better job of what they were trying to do, themselves! God’s casting them out of the Garden can be read as a wrathful gesture, and in their state of shame can hardly seem anything else to Adam and Eve, but his making clothing for them resists such a reading. Should both gestures be read primarily as tender gestures?

Suddenly the veil feels very different to me in this light. We talk about it as a matter of our being tested, and surely that is true as well. Yet I see a tenderness in God’s staying on the other side of the veil from us while we’re in mortality, patiently waiting for us to be ready to meet him. Is this probation a test imposed on us, or a merciful opportunity provided for us to pull ourselves together? We are capable of recognizing the dissonance between our spiritual state and way of life and his, even now, though not so perfectly as we will recognize it at judgment, if it persists. So he stays discreetly out of sight while we try to prepare ourselves, like a groom waits for his bride to finish preparing herself. While we work out our resolve and our habits as to whether we will freely live his ways. Even the flaming sword to keep us from the tree of life seems a tender gesture in light of Alma 12:26. This ambivalence (not like indecision, but like ambidexterity) between God’s being terrible and tender in his approach to us sinners has over the past few years been becoming the most delightful theme of (modern) revelation to me.

Is this a fair reading? But then is there not enough hellfire in our theology? Or can we have the hellfire and the unconditional love, both, completely, at once?

9 comments for “Our Terrible and Tender God

  1. April 26, 2004 at 11:53 pm

    Since God is, well, our Heavenly Parents & has both perfect charity & justice, without attributing either to gender, it seems to make lots of synergistic sense that we can have both, completely, at once.

    However Ben, be warned that if you write a book on this & it becomes a bestseller & future movie…you will be attacked as the Da Vinci code is being put under assault by lotz o’ Christians [But not Mormons so far, to my knowledge].


  2. dp
    April 27, 2004 at 12:31 am

    Of course, if God the Father embodies every good attribute in perfection (about which I have no doubt) including tenderness and compassion, might we not assume He has no need to defer to a Mother for such tenderness?

  3. April 27, 2004 at 12:39 am

    And vice versa

  4. Adam Greenwood
    April 27, 2004 at 9:56 am

    Joseph Smith tells us that, after rebuking betimes with sharpness, the divine economy requires showing an increase of love. Sounds like you’re suggesting the eviction from the Garden may be the model for that principle.

    Why the principle? It may be for the good of the rebuker–anger has a way of overflowing borders unless swiftly checked. It may be that the reconciliation is a necessary part of the rebuke. Rebukes can and often are made in love and for the good of the rebuked, but in my experience on both ends the defect that has led one to transgress usually leads one to resent the rebuking. So maybe an increase of love afterwards is key to reconciling the rebuked to the rebuker, which reconciliation is key to getting the rebuked to accept the rebuke and see the justice in it, which acceptance is key to their chance and repentance. Maybe justice and mercy are intertwined after all.

    It may also be a

  5. April 27, 2004 at 10:30 am

    Adam, I’m on the edge of my seat! I like what you’ve said so far, and it seems like you were about to say more . . .

  6. April 27, 2004 at 11:38 am

    A bit of a tangent, and this may be old news to everyone else, but it was news to me when my Stake President pointed it out, and it may inform this discussion in some small way: although it seems members often assume that “reproving betimes with sharpness” means “reading the riot act every once in a while,” the word “betimes” actually means “quickly,” “briefly,” or “early on.”

  7. April 27, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    Ben, I love what you’re saying here. I think the view of God clothing and caring for Adam and Eve at the moment he is “condemning” (calling?) them to a life of toil and pain shows him exactly as he is– juxtaposing attributes that we are simply not very good at understanding when they appear in combination.

    The story reminds me of an experience I had when I was a kid. After realizing there was no way my mom was going to let me out of the house without cleaning out my dresser drawers, I finally decided I had no choice but to run away from home. I packed my most precious belongings in the radio flyer, demagogued an innocent little brother into joining up with me, and bitterly struck out for the lone and dreary world. As I was reaching the end of the driveway, my mom appeared at the door way and commanded that I come back. Thinking that she was refusing to let me leave, I kept going, but as she continued to call me I had to turn back and see what she wanted. When I got back to the door I found she had packed us both a lunch, and a brownie, which she gave me with a hug and a kiss goodbye. I returned to the journey a little less excited for the independent life away from her.

    This has served me often as a good reminder of how Our Father loves us. Whether he’s casting us out of his presence, or we are running from him of our own accord, he sends us with gifts and love and guardians, that we will never be unprotected.

  8. Ben Huff
    April 27, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    Adam, I think you’re absolutely right about what is required for a rebuke to be constructive. The rebukee usually will want to turn away, and the rebuker has to be big enough to reach out at the same time, or soon after, or else the rebuke may only increase alienation.

    Ryan, what a great story! Yeah, lately that’s how I’m reading the clothing bit : )

  9. May 7, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    “However Ben, be warned that if you write a book on this”
    One of my favorite books has this concept as a main subject- CS Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

Comments are closed.