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Question and Answer

Every time I read the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, I wonder why God didn’t explain more clearly to Adam and Eve why He was asking them not to eat of the one tree. It seems as though God was setting them up or asking something unreasonable of them. If they were perfectly created, why wouldn’t they have done the right thing?

Many theologians have written varied and lengthy explanations, and this question was the subject of literary masterpieces such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a majestic epic poem exploring the drama of the Fall and its consequences, meant to, as Milton put it, “justify the ways of God to man.” I find pastor and author Tim Keller’s explanation of this passage insightful: “The lack of an explanation was a call to obey out of love and trust in God for who he was in himself.”

In other words, God wasn’t being manipulative when asking for Adam and Eve’s obedience; instead, He was interested in the relationship between Himself and them. He wanted Adam and Eve to choose what was best, not to be robotically controlled. So, as Keller comments wisely, “The relationship was what the serpent attacked.” Or, in the words of theologian Sinclair Ferguson, the serpent’s lie was “an assault on both God’s generosity and integrity,” an assault finally on His love and good intentions for us, an assault that every Christian must be highly attuned to. Our choices can constitute the difference between spiritual life and death.

Toward the end of the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:31–34, the disciples say to Jesus, “Rabbi, eat something.” He answers them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples seem puzzled, wondering if He has already eaten. Jesus replies, “My food . . . is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Why would Jesus answer this way, since He was human and must have been hungry?

Some commentators say that this passage is like the conversation that took place earlier between Nicodemus and Jesus (see John 3). Jesus says something that is misunderstood because the hearers interpret the meaning of His words with an uncomprehending literalism. Then Jesus unfolds the meaning until it is grasped spiritually.

In this passage, the disciples return with food and are worried when Jesus doesn’t want to eat. This appears to be one of those occasions when the great outreach and spiritual response Christ saw in front of Him lifted Him above and beyond bodily needs, showing His everpresent divine readiness and sensitivity (see John 4:38–42). The disciples were focused only on physical sustenance, ignoring the spiritual fulfillment that comes from doing God’s work.

I often hear Christians use the phrase “It’s not about you.” I think I understand what they mean: the world does not revolve around you. But I think this phrase flies in the face of the metaphors Christ used to explain His relationship with us, such as husband/wife, sheep/ shepherd, hen/chicks, vine/branches. I see those examples as being about both characters in the relationship. Marriage counselors don’t say to the bride-to-be, “Now, this marriage is only about your husband, not about you”? No shepherd takes an apprentice into the field and says, “The thing you have to remember about this job is that it is NOT about the sheep.” How would the original hearers understand stories about husband/wife, sheep/shepherd, hen/chicks, and vine/branches? Would they automatically see them all as being about the husband, shepherd, hen, and vine and not about the wife, sheep, chicks, and branches?

Your question highlights the difference between cliché and genuine metaphor. “It’s not about you” is not a metaphor; it’s a recent and increasingly tediously used aphorism standing in sharp contrast to the way Christ used language and approached people. Christ’s metaphors were rich word-pictures of ordinary life that people would understand sooner or later the more they thought about them. As one commentator says, He used them “to clarify, entertain, and stimulate.” Jesus knew that people tend to think in terms of comparisons of objects, people, and concepts that are familiar and dear to them. Comparisons and contrasts suggest to the hearer that both elements in the comparison or contrast need to be considered.

Phrases such as “It’s not about you” have an unfriendly tone, almost as though they’re thrown at the hearer. Christ never threw truth at people. While certainly at times Christ showed righteous anger, His great desire overall in His use of metaphorical language was to engage listeners, helping them to understand their need and to point to an answer colorfully and invitingly, leading the way to comprehension. In that way they could make a choice about themselves in relationship to Him and His commands.

All of us must consider the quality and depth and persuasiveness of the way we reach out to others. The truth must be handled carefully, for it is the truth, understood and believed, that makes us free (John 8:31–32).

BY Rosalie de Rosset, Professor of English, Homiletics, and Literature

Rosalie de Rosset has been teaching at Moody Bible Institute in the Communications Department for over four decades.  She is occasionally featured on Moody Radio. She is a speaker and writer and lives on the northside of Chicago, a city she enjoys for its natural beauty and multi-faceted art offerings.