The Gracious Prohibition of God

By Mark D. Roberts

June 10, 2015

And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.'”

Genesis 2:16-17


In the narrative of Genesis, God has given human beings many positive instructions, either explicitly through commands or implicitly through story. We are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (1:28). We are to eat the fruit produced by the earth (1:29). We are to “till” and “keep” the garden in which God has put us (2:15). All of these instructions, both the explicit and implicit ones, are positive. They tell us to do certain things, opening up vast areas for discovery, productivity, and delight.

In Genesis 2:16-17, for the first time God gives a negative instruction, a prohibition. The man may “freely eat of every tree of the garden,” except for “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The fruit of this tree is forbidden. Eating it leads to death.

As you might well imagine, theologians have wrestled for millennia with the character of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” I won’t enter the fray now, other than to say that, whatever else it might be, this mysterious tree somehow represents the experience of evil that comes with sin. When we sin, we know evil and its consequences, and therefore we also know goodness in a different way. These are not good things for us. Therefore, God prohibits eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I spoke of the “generous provision of God.” Today, I’m thinking about the “gracious prohibition of God.” At first, this phrase might seem to be self-contradictory. How can it be gracious for God to say “no” to us? Yet, if God’s prohibition is for our good, then it really is gracious. It denies us that which will hurt us and, in the end, kill us.

Let me offer an analogy from a recent trip to New York. When signs in the subway stations say, “Don’t touch the third rail,” they aren’t trying to ruin my life by limiting my freedom. Rather, they are seeking to preserve my life by, yes, limiting my freedom. I receive these signs as gracious warnings, meant for my good, not as some unwelcome limitation of my freedom. And, for the record, I have never touched the third rail.

Danger-Electric Third Rail-Do Not Enter

Genesis 2:15 reveals something we will see again and again throughout Scripture. God’s generous provision is linked with his gracious prohibition. God gives us more than we need and invites us to delight in his gifts. And God creates boundaries over which we are not to cross. Both the provision and the prohibition reveal God’s deep care for us and desire for us to live fruitful, joyful lives.


How do you tend to respond to prohibitions in life? Are you one who is by nature compliant? Or do you tend to stretch the limits or break the rules?
How do you respond to God’s prohibitions in Scripture? Why?
Are there any biblical prohibitions that you need to take seriously today?


Gracious God, thank you for telling us what to do and also what not to do. We need your invitation. And we also need your wise prohibition. Help us, we pray, to receive all that you have for us with willing hearts.

Lord, you and I both know where I tend to dismiss or disobey your prohibitions. Forgive me for these trespasses. Help me even this day to heed your warnings, to not do certain things so that I might do that which leads to flourishing, both in my life and in the world around me. Amen.

Photo courtesy of Richard Masoner via CC 2.0.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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