When God planted two special trees in the Garden of Eden, He decided that His relationship with humanity would begin with a choice. With an invitation, not a command. Think about that. From the very beginning, God said—“Here’s what’s best. Now you choose.” One tree would have guaranteed obedience, but two trees meant the possibility of a willing relationship. It also meant the possibility of heartbreak.
When God planted those two trees, He forever declared His priority for connection. For God, a relationship is the heart of the matter. God cares about obedience, but He cares about connection more. He’s not afraid of our messes and our failures. He is always hopeful about our future. He wants us to follow His lead, because He always leads us toward goodness, toward the best version of ourselves, but He does not make obedience a prerequisite for relationship.
I used to think He did. I used to think that when Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15 NASB), He meant our obedience was proof of our love. If we didn’t obey, we didn’t truly love. In that scenario, I found myself working hard to prove my love, to be enough for Him—instead of letting His love teach me to obey.
The truth is, God has never made any one of us earn His love. His love is always a gift—one none of us deserves. Yet He somehow makes us worthy.
I’ll never forget the day God showed me the true meaning of Jesus’ words—that if we grow in love with Him, we will begin to obey because His love empowers and compels us to obey. Security in love produces obedience.
The choice of the two trees stands before us. Will we be compelled (or motivated) in life by love or by fear. God’s way is love, but so often we respond to Him in fear, expecting Him to withdraw His love if we don’t measure up.
The Old Testament record of the Israelites shows us that fear of punishment only takes us so far. Over and over, they failed to do what was right. The external motivation of judgment was not enough. They did not intimately know God, and as a result, their hearts ran after other things. When Ezekiel prophesied the new covenant to them, he expressed it in terms of the heart:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV).
God knew the missing piece. His people needed hearts alive with love. They needed His Spirit within them. They needed to feel His heartbeat. In that place of intimate connection, God would cause them to live righteously. He would make a way. And He did. In Jesus, He made a new covenant of love and forgiveness, a covenant not of rules, but of relationship. He became our Father, and we became the children of His heart.
As a parent, I do not want my kids to obey me out of fear—fear of punishment, fear of my anger, fear of my disappointment. None of these will foster a healthy connection. Instead, my number one priority as a parent is making sure my kids know they have my heart, no matter what. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or that they don’t experience consequences for poor choices. It does mean that my husband and I prioritize building a relational foundation that will influence our kids to obey because they love us and want to protect our hearts—not because they fear losing our love or experiencing our anger.
In healthy parent-child relationships, obedience is the fruit of connection. This is the model God shows us and invites us to experience as His children. For many years, I focused on obedience, thinking I needed to prove myself to my Father. His focus was always on our connection. Only in that connection will I find the grace to become who He made me to be—to live righteously.
When our hearts are His, His love compels us to live righteously. His love informs our decisions and desires. The deeper our relationship with Him becomes, the easier it is to obey. The Bible says that as we behold Him, or spend time growing our relationship with Him, we change into His likeness (see 2 Cor. 3:18). We begin to look more and more like Him. Obedience is the default setting of our new nature (the new heart of flesh He’s given us), and it is activated through our heart connection with God.
I like to think of God as my archery coach. He steps near and shows me how to hold the bow, how to place the arrow and aim at the target. He stays by my side, guiding my arm as I pull back and then release. My first few attempts land in the grass, yet He is encouraging. He focuses on what I did right. “That’s a great start! Your form is good; you just need more power. You can do this. Let’s go again.” And no matter how many times I almost get it right, He cheers me on. He believes in me, and He keeps me close. When I finally hit the bullseye, I know we did it together.
God is the kindest person alive, and in His love, I find my way. I become who He made me to be. Love is the heart of the matter.
No matter where you are or what you’ve done, God the kind-hearted Father is watching you, longing to connect with you, wanting to help you find your way. He has made a home for you in His heart.