One aspect of our being that God guards the most is our free will. Naturally, we had no choice about being given free will, but once it was given to the first human beings by God he has respected it. Nowhere is this more evident than in his love for us.
As the writers of the Septuagint were translating the Hebrew Old Testament into a Greek version they chose to use the Greek word agape to describe God’s love, rather than the more common word eros. Eros was the more typically word used for the love of the gods for human beings, but it described a love that was unlike that of the God of the Old Testament. It was the love that Zeus might display to a mortal woman. A glimpse of his radiant glory and she would be completely consumed by his burning love, unable to resist. It was the equivalent of emotional rape. Whether one wanted to our not, they had to accept the eros of the gods.
The God of the Old Testament, though clearly having this ability, never used it. He was content to offer his abundant love, but never demanded that is must be requited or returned. Obedience yes, love no.
The nature of free will is that one always has the option of saying no. When God gave Adam and Eve free will he knew that they had the potential, and in fact would, use it to disobey him. I think it is fascinating that God affected the curse when they ate from the tree. He could have chosen not to. Instead, he valued their free will so much that he gave them the freedom to experience the consequences of their actions. In this he was showing his love. To withdraw his punishment would to be to negate their freedom, to have their wills consumed by his will. When someone’s will ceases to be their own they begin to become a part of, or one with, the one who holds their will. In a sense they lose part of their ability to be an individual human being. God wanted to not only love Himself as he does in the Trinity, but to love something outside himself and to be loved back. Only individuals with free will can do this.
It is one of the reasons why I believe, in addition to the Biblical evidence, that there is no universal salvation. If God saves people whether they want to or not, he has denied their free will and destroyed their ability to freely love him. Love is no longer love. As odd as it may sound, there will be in the end people who do not want to spend eternity with God. Hell is not where they are forced to go against their will, but their preference, a truly terrifying place. God can go up to the very knife edge in trying to motivate us to come to him but he not push us over, that is a step we have to take.
Of course when we cross over we face a life of daily giving over our will to God. It is a constant surrender of our ambitions, desires, goals, and dreams. We pray that our will will become his. This is where an odd thing happens. All this time God has been careful not to force himself on us or break our will. Now we hand our will over to him like a bent bicycle tire which will not travel straight. It is one we have been trying forever to return to the right shape. He takes it and disappears in the back for a while and then returns with the tire completely fixed and hands it back to us. “Here this is yours now, I have fixed it,” he says. Our broken and bent will has been made straight so that they point to him. When we voluntarily give them up to him, he gives them back to us. Only by giving our will over to God will it truly become our own, free from the effects of the fallen life in which we live. This is something that must be done constantly in every crack and crevice of our lives and in more formal language is called sanctification. Only in this way will we finally be able to return his love of our own free will, untainted by any impure motives.
I want to end this with a little reflection on our own love for each other. Where God is carefully not to cross the line, we humans often rush across. It is common for human love to become the consuming eros. This occurs when we love someone so much (in reality not enough) that we try to control them and make them something they are not. It happens when a parent tries to conform his or her child to a certain vision or future they have for them. It is motivated by a loving parent who truly wants the best for their child. However, if he or she tramples the child’s will then it is not love, rather it is a consuming love, making the child’s will become a part of their own. It happens too with jealous and controlling husbands and wives who try to make their spouses into something or someone they are not.
God’s love for us is a better picture. The child freely submitting to a parent who is engaged in the delicate process of helping them become the unique person that God has designed them to be. In the marriage relationship the couple mutually submitting their wills to each other, becoming one person, and thereby becoming more uniquely their own than they could have been separately. God’s love provides the model.