By Audrey Stallsmith
We novelists get to play God, in the sense that we also create characters in our own image. And ours rebel sometimes too.
There I am, typing merrily along, when the so-called "good guy" in my story punches a teenager in the face. And, tearing at my hair, I shriek, "You can’t do that. You’re the hero!"
In another of my mysteries, a heroine is accused of a nasty act of spite. Although I had originally intended that charge to be false, the closer I drew to the end of the book, the clearer dawned the unsettling revelation that she really was guilty.
Such unexpected developments can play havoc with the original plot of a story, but we writers usually consider them a good sign. Those stirrings of life indicate that we have created characters so human they appear to make their own decisions. And, like real mortals, they fall all over themselves to make the wrong ones!
Until the characters I create are put down on paper, however, they do not exist outside of my mind. And, if I become annoyed enough with their antics to abandon the ungrateful wretches altogether, they fade back into oblivion.
Fortunately, the Author from whose mind we sprang is not as easily frustrated as I am. He is also the only one whose thoughts can take on a genuine life of their own. As real as my characters seem to me, I must reluctantly concede that they are only fiction. That is probably just as well. Considering what happened with God’s experiment in emancipation, I will stick to my illusion-of-reality figures, thank you very much!
In A Room Called Remember, Frederick Buechner recalls that, "Adam and Eve, like the rest of us, made a break for it as soon as God happened to look the other way. If God really wanted to get rid of us, the chances are he wouldn’t have kept hounding us every step of the way ever since."
The truth is, of course, that God never did look the other way. Since the Almighty is the source of all life, love, and goodness, it would have taken only a millisecond of disregard from Him for Adam and Eve to have blinked out like light bulbs to which the current has been cut.
In the beginning it seems they were so close to the Source, so infused with His power, that they didn’t have to struggle to live, love, or do good. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in Ethics, "Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with his origin. He can know God only if he knows only God."
An omnipotent Deity had to foresee how badly this choice thing was going to turn out. So why, we ask, didn’t he just post a "No Snakes Allowed" sign--or, better yet, knock the slimy intruder in the head with a spade or something? Once cast down from heaven, after all, a fallen angel has no power except what he can wheedle from gullible humans.
The answer, we have to conclude, is that God wanted the beings he had created to love Him by their own choice. Any abused spouse can tell you that a love relationship maintained by force is not love at all.
For man to be able to choose, there had to be an alternative. In The Devil to Pay, Dorothy Sayers writes that Satan is "the price that all things pay for being, the shadow on the world, thrown by the world standing in its own light, which light God is."
When Adam and Eve chose to listen to the enemy, God played fair and left man "in the hands of his own decision." (The Wisdom of Sirach) But, like a rejected lover who doesn’t know when to give up, our Creator has continued to pursue us ever since.
There will always be some who complain that our liberty isn’t worth the toll it has taken in conflict and suffering. But, not being able to see the story in toto, we are in no position to judge. If our life is really eternal, after all, we are barely into the prologue!
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis affirms that "If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will--that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world that only moves when he pulls the strings--then we may take it it is worth paying."
God did not exempt Himself from the suffering either. In fact, He became the only Author in history to enter the time line of His own story. And He chose to fix things, not by force, but by the abdication of it. He allowed the creatures to decide what they would do with their Creator. Frankly, after the misery I put my characters through, I would not want to meet any of them in a dark alley!
A nun with the initials R. M. states that "Man grasps and makes a name--seeks fame./ God gives Himself away and takes the lowest place./ Takes on Himself the helplessness that every love must know." Doesn’t God have any pride? we might ask. The answer is, of course, "No."
That’s the devil’s trait. "The Fall," writes Lewis in The Problem of Pain, "was caused by Pride--the movement whereby a creature (that is, an essentially dependent being whose principle of existence lies not in itself but in another) tries to set up on its own, to exist for itself."
This movement is, Lewis asserts, "the basic sin behind all particular sins." So the desire for complete autonomy, which we seem to set so much store by these days, is not a healthy one. As Dr. Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey point out in Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, the only fully independent cells in a body are cancer cells.
The Creator mercifully never allowed the connection between He and us to be entirely severed, since that would have meant annihilation for us. Although man retains only a flicker of the image he once had, the Source hasn’t lost power. He has simply chosen to give us control of the switches. Now, we only get as much of God as we want.
One unidentified author wrote, "God does not love Christians best; He simply has more access to them." Even we believers, though, tend to admit as little of the His Spirit as possible--because we are rightfully scared to death of what it can do. "We want to be saved," Fulton Sheen agrees in Peace of Soul, "but not from our sins, not at too great a cost, and in our way, not His."
But there have been a few characters in history who have had the nerve to let God flow through them with electric force. Elisha was one of those "conductors." He had the temerity to ask for twice as much power as Elijah had--and got it. Elisha then committed miracle after miracle with what I would call a matter-of-fact impatience.
This cranky prophet didn’t have what we would perceive as a saintly personality, either. But his irritability was largely a reaction to other people’s puerile preoccupation with money or position--or their rattlebrained reluctance to ask God for anything. When a friend demanded her dead son’s life back, Elisha did not reprove her for requesting the impossible. He simply performed it!
"We have within us so much more of his power than we ever spend," Buechner mourns, "such misers of miracles we are, such pinchpenny guardians of grace." We also look wistfully back to a time when man had no reason to hide from God. We don’t quite seem to get it through our numbskulls that, though the Fall changed us, it did not change Him.
In Tremendous Trifles, Chesterton writes, "We are in the wrong world. So the false optimism, the modern happiness, tires us because it tells us we fit into this world. The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We come from somewhere else. We have lost our way." He concludes that "the doctrine of the Fall is the only cheerful view of human life."
Stories about reconciliation are, after all, perennial favorites. Who among us doesn't shed a tear when the music swells at the end of a film, as the formerly estranged lovers or family members return to each others' arms? The reunion wouldn't be so sweet if the path back to it hadn't been so difficult.
We Christians are often accused of seeing things too much in terms of black and white. But there have only ever been two sides in this battle. If we choose against our Father, we have, by default, fallen onto the other side. And I use the word "fallen" literally.
"That there could ever be any other good than God is an athiestic dream," Lewis concludes. "God says ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows, then we must starve eternally."