Does God Pursue Us When We Wander Away?

lost-sheep-parable

That stupid sheep got what was coming to him. That’s how I’d rewrite the parable of the lost sheep. I mean, gosh, the shepherd had 99 other sheep. Just sheer a few of them and buy another sheep with the profit if he likes big round, even numbers.

Ironically, our family recently lost a sheep. It wasn’t a real sheep. It was a bath toy that our son started obsessing over. He wanted to take the sheep everywhere.

I usually try to keep his most prized toys in the house unless we’re taking a road trip, but I relented when he wanted to take the sheep to the farmers market on Saturday. We loaded into the stroller, and he clutched his sheep… for about a minute. Then he dropped it out the side.

I was afraid this would happen.

“All done,” I said. “No more sheep. You dropped him.” I stuck the sheep in the stroller.

“Sheep! Sheep!” he said.

“All done,” I said with finality.

“All done… sheep,” he parroted back to me with resignation.

While I’d intended to tuck the sheep away for the walk and bring him out when we arrived at home, I somehow lost the sheep during our walk. It took a few days for our son to accept this development. I explained that’s why we don’t take our favorite toys on walks.

A few months later, my wife and I read him a children’s version of Jesus’ parables, and that included the parable of the lost sheep. Our son was really into it. It’s like the Bible’s version of Blue’s Clues, right?

Where’s the sheep?

Is he behind the rock?

Is he behind the tree?

Is he in the stream?

SHEEP! SHEEP! WAAAAA! WAAAAA!

So yes, the sheep is stuck in the mud in the shallow part of the stream. The shepherd, who has endured the hot sun, thorn bushes, and many weary hours of searching joyfully carries the sheep home. In this version of the story all of the other sheep cheer and smile when they see the shepherd return home with their friend.

The story ends with a full on party with balloons, party hats, cake, and, most importantly for our son, juice. It’s a golden colored liquid, so I suppose it could be juice or beer. I’m sure the sheep wouldn’t mind either way.

After walking downstairs I remarked to my wife that Jesus always looks for the sheep, but if our son loses his sheep, daddy says, “Too bad!”

I started out joking, but as I considered what I’d said, I realized that I’d just uncovered a really big problem. Sometimes it takes explaining something to a child to uncover that your theology and spirituality are actually bankrupt.

* * *

Try harder to obey God.

Seek God more fervently.

Commit to God more passionately.

Work for God more devotedly.

Study about God harder.

These have been mantras for my faith. I can’t say when or where I picked them up. I just know that I’ve had a, “Don’t blow it!” approach to faith as my default more times than not.

There have been glimpses of God’s grace and mercy. I’ve had breakthroughs when I realized that God’s mercy means he does the saving. However, I still struggle with guilt, fear, and isolation when I screw up. Over the past two years I’ve especially faced my issues with control, anger, and an overall detachment from people in need. In my head, I imagine myself repeatedly screwing up and God tossing his hands in the air with resignation.

I imagine the trinity having a conversation.

The Father: Maybe he’s not so great after all. He keeps being such a selfish jerk to people.

The Son: Look, I did my part. I died and rose again. Don’t ask me to do anything else for this guy!

The Spirit: Hey, look, I’m dwelling in him, but he keeps turning away. Let’s find someone else who “gets it.”

I’ve spent a lot of time with a kind of frantic guilt ridden spirituality. Even if I have plenty of evidence for God’s love and presence in my life, I keep worrying that I’m never doing enough. I’m never reaching out to God enough. If I make one false move and stop working hard enough, I’ll lose my grip on God.

This isn’t without some proof texts in the Bible. In the Gospels, Jesus often gives people a choice to follow him or their own plans. The story of the rich young ruler has given me chills for years. At one moment Jesus looked at him with love and then Jesus watched him walk away.

There’s also a strong theme of reaping what you sow. The Psalms open with a striking image of meditating on God’s law being like a tree planted by streams of water. That choice to draw near to God results in ongoing life, so we can imagine what the opposite result will be if we neglect this practice. In addition, Jesus warns that the measures we use on others will be used back on us.

However, this cause and effect theology shouldn’t override the message of mercy and grace that comes up over and over again in the Bible. It’s not just that God is inviting people to come back. God often sent prophets to reach out. Putting this in terms of the lost sheep story: The prophets acted as the “shepherds” with the task of bringing people back to God.

If the people came back, their welcome was never in doubt. The tragedy was that the people, who had wandered off like lost sheep, refused to even return with the shepherd in the first place.

I wonder if we forget that God is actively seeking us. We believe that we will reap what we sow, but we overlook our chance to accept God’s mercy that actively seeks us out. Perhaps we don’t believe that God would welcome us back.

There have been times when I’ve been ruled by guilt and judgment. I see the ways I’ve wandered off, and I start to believe that I don’t deserve mercy. I don’t deserve a shepherd. I don’t deserve a warm welcome.

Perhaps I have rewritten the story of the lost sheep in my mind. The shepherd in my version stands at the gate sighing in disappointment, waiting for me to get my act together, to work harder, to try to be a better sheep, and to stop wandering off.

And if I ever do manage to come back, the rest of the sheep will point their hooves at me. No balloons, no cake, and certainly no juice. Perhaps they’d even whisper behind my back:

He doesn’t deserve a good, merciful shepherd.

He didn’t deserve to be found or welcomed back.

He was dumb, discontent, and untrustworthy.

What shepherd in his right mind would search for him?

That sheep should have come crawling back. It’s a good thing he’s trying to do better now because that shepherd surely isn’t coming for him next time.

When Paul prays that his readers would “grow in grace,” I wonder if he had parables like this in mind. It’s so hard to believe that God is pursuing us when we screw up and that God expects us to show the same mercy to others who fail.

Perhaps it’s so hard for me to love others and to welcome those who have screwed up because I don’t believe God is doing the same for me. I don’t believe I’m worth it. I can believe in the cross as a divine transaction into my eternal bank account, but it’s much harder to believe in a shepherd who takes extraordinary risks and suffers unimaginably just to bring me home.

What if the only way to grow in grace is to receive it? What if we need to place ourselves into the story of the lost sheep every single morning so that we can believe we’re being pursued by a God who wants nothing more than to carry us home, throw a party, and serve us juice.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Does God Pursue Us When We Wander Away?

  1. This resonates with me. With a lot of prayer, conversation, and therapy, I’m learning to accept that God loves and accepts me, and am actually finding, ever so slowly, that I am able to show love, grace, acceptance to others. I finally realized I couldn’t simply command myself to show those things. I had to experience them, like you said. Thanks.

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  2. Oh so harsh and demanding upon yourself. I really love your honesty an especially your deeply rooted sincere values.

    Let’s talk father to father different than has ever been spoken before. Our children did not choose to participate in this life of cognizant responsibility that is subject to relentless cause and effect. We and our partners in love chose to risk being responsible for our beings of choice in our image. The consequences from our choices are our responsibility. This is no different relative us to Them who we are in the image of.

    I was immediately struck with your titling this query to be “sinner” inclusive.

    sheep = children
    lost sheep = sinful children

    Is “lost” and “sin” in any way or all ways synonymous with “separated from”.

    I was counseling other families prior to and during having my own family that I became by my choice primarily responsible to. I was prepared for many aspects of parenting that most new parents are not. When I became a parent I became unsuspectingly aware of what an unprepared child I really was and yet had finalized a covenant to being legally and lovingly responsible to a another life for the rest of my inadequately capable “adult” life.

    I’m going to skip ahead beyond where you are today in your family life as a parent. There is a lot of the good, neat and pleasurable rewards from parenting you pretty much knew before Ethan and have learned to respond since then with some pretty uncomfortable decisive actions already to support, nurture and prepare both your children while in support with your spouse of equal responsibility. What you might or might not have found already is every family household has a facade before closed doors concealing something deemed unspeakable. A harsh reality better explained by the what if I become certainly aware that my child is an illegal drug dealer, a rapist, a murderer or is plotting to bomb the local occupied house of worship? What if I do the right thing and turn my child into the local authorities and they determine that I’m delusional and that my child is not destructive or potentially so? What are my responsibilities and what are God’s responsibilities if I am that child of ill repute and His?

    Does this shed any light on why the only clear prerequisite to inheriting eternal life is the bond of love? What if my child, that I took responsibility for by choosing to give life, just cannot love and refuse ll love?

    Am I being too bold, over the top, a scare monger or just plain crazy to ask these questions and paint this picture? I would certainly be all of those and more if i couldn’t offer a working solution that is validated for me daily.

    I was 50 years old, with my children nearly all out from under my primary care and authority, when I realized in faith to risk lifting the facade (the curtain irreparably rent) separating the Holy Spirit from full time residence in my heart and mind in an effort to conceal what I deemed unspeakable and housed within. I know that’s silly because God already had a good idea what was there even if I tried in vain to keep it separate from Him. I too had a good idea what my children thought in vain they were concealing from me, not all, but most. When I openly related with God trusting in His love as His imperfectly adorable but no longer separate (lost, sinning) child I became a better father, spouse, friend and person and since then without apprehension happily anticipating continued growth for eternity.

    I am His child, I am His responsibility. I didn’t choose this opportunity as a responsible cognizant life being of choice in His image, I was graced this chance of a lifetime gift. God loves me, provides all for me and teaches me in all ways I and mine need to survive for as long as even eternity. I cannot earn anything as His child for even His total attention and service He gives me freely for His immortal adult life of no beginning and no end.

    In His example I would die that any or all of my children might choose to live in love. In His example I would not allow my child to inherit what my child would destroy if they cannot love.

    “Try harder to obey God.

    Seek God more fervently.

    Commit to God more passionately.

    Work for God more devotedly.

    Study about God harder.”

    … are all no longer a driving force in my life. I would no more impress my less capable children to do more for me than God impresses my infinitely less capable self to do for Him. Jesus came and comes to us and did/does not demand we go where He went/is and told us we were unable to follow. I obey all of God’s commands by doing unto all others as I would have all others do unto me. I commit to my Lord God only by vulnerably and nakedly opening my whole heart and mind to His presence bound by all the love I can command. I really don’t know how to work for a heavenly God but I plan on working with God all my life, temporal and/or eternal. I never had to study about my carnal parents when I had them sharing directly with me to ask.

    Most of the trepidation you present I do not have and do not believe anyone need have when fully baptized by the Holy Spirit as a child fully in and fully open to our Family of God.

    This response to you is completely off the cuff human father to human father. Love you brother, thanks!

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  3. Ed, well done on this post! I fight a similar battle to remember God’s love and how He’s the Pursuer. I think you’re on to something as far as remembering just who we are in God’s story–prodigals who’ve been redeemed by God’s love. Thanks for this post.

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