It’s difficult to define the conjunction “but,” but (there you go) we all understand what is meant when it is said. Children often hear it as limitation or restriction. “You can go out and play,” my mother would say, “but come in for dinner,” thereby putting boundaries on my play. “You can go to the park, wherever you like, “she’d say, expansively, “but don’t get in the water.” I felt tethered.
The Bible is full of “but.” The first one is also experienced by Adam and Eve as a word of limitation. In Genesis 3:3, answering the serpent, Eve echoes the prohibition spoken by God in 2:16: “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But God said. After a burst of explosive creative activity marked by the word “let,” as in “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), Adam and Eve stumble over the first “but,” over the first “shall not.” And yet the prohibitions are intended to maximize our freedom to be who we were fashioned to be. Not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil preserved our sinless state, where all we would have done would have been permitted and good.
But not only is “but” a word of prohibition, it can also be a word that heralds overcoming. The familiar John 3:16 ends with the promise that those who believe in Jesus “shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Psalmist says “My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:27). The long lament of the writer of Lamentations, a thesis of judgment, is broken by the antithesis of hope contained in vv. 21-23: “But this I call to mind, and therefore have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”
My mother ended her days on earth under the pall of Parkinson’s Disease, a sickness which progressively restricts movement and lucid thought, tethered, as if God said “you can live and breathe and see, but you cannot leave this bed, this room, this place.” But who am I to say that this word of restriction did not give her soul a freedom she had never known, that she experienced her Father in a way that she might not have without that illness?
Joseph, after enduring all he did at the hands of brothers, all that was allowed by God to happen, could say “For it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8). But he didn’t know that until later. And we don’t always know that until later, if at all. Yet we can live in antithesis. Faced by difficulty or challenge, with what seems like restrictions on our ability to play out our lives, we can say, “but God.”