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.

 

 

Franklin Graham Does Not Understand Holiness

Franklin Graham and his holiness fail.
Image of Franklin Graham from The Christian Post.

In a recent speech, Franklin Graham demanded that pastors in his audience speak out boldly on several moral issues, lest they fall under God’s wrath for being cowards. He said:

“The definition of a coward: a coward will not confront an issue that needs to be confronted due to fear. That is a coward,” said Graham.

“God hates cowards. And the cowards that the Lord is referring to are the men and women who know the truth but refuse to speak it.”

Graham essentially used the fear of God to prompt his audience to overcome their fears of speaking out.

There are many different aspects of Graham’s talk we could challenge, but I’d like to call into question the role of a wrathful God who hates people in prompting people to change their behavior, such as speaking out on specific moral issues. Graham’s right wing agenda aside, is God really in heaven with his finger on the “hell” button, waiting for us to screw up? I know that I’ve lived this way, fearing that one day’s failure had finally cut me off from God.

Most importantly, how does this approach to God’s wrath and holiness compare to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers about holiness?

A misconception of holiness is at the heart of Graham’s statement. According to Graham, God demands a particular lifestyle, one of moral crusading in American culture, and those unwilling to conform to God’s program receive God’s hatred and an eternity of suffering.

I’ve stated that crassly, but I believe it’s accurate because I also thought that way for most of my life. It’s pretty much what you’ll hear today if you listen to most Christian radio shows.

The only way to avoid God’s wrath in Graham’s system is to change your actions out of fear for self-preservation.

Did Jesus relate to people through fear and the threat of his hatred?

 

How Did Jesus Interact with Sinners?

Jesus said he didn’t come to judge the world. Isn’t that nice to know? Perhaps he knew that his followers would do enough of that in the future.

In fact, Jesus adopted the role of doctor, comparing the “notorious sinners” of his day with the sick. They were still told to leave their lives of sin, but he didn’t walk around telling people to clean up their acts or God would hate them.

In fact, Jesus sat down to share meals with tax collectors and women with unsavory reputations. When Jesus saw someone living in sin, whether that was cowardice, sexual immorality, cheating, or violence, he had… wait for it… compassion.

Rather than Jesus pounding his fist on the table and shouting that his followers needed to shape up, he slapped his palm to his head when they failed to understand the gift of the Spirit that would empower them to serve others rather than rule as kings.

Far from sitting with his finger on the hell button, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and entered into real life with people. He humbled himself, even taking the form of a servant to help us find the way of redemption.

He called his disciples “friends” rather than threatening them with an eternity of suffering.

Before facing the cross, he promised that the Spirit would come to empower us, fill us wisdom, and guide us into all truth. Yes, there are consequences for rejecting the message of Christ. But he related to others through mercy and grace, imparting his Spirit to imperfect people who desperately needed God’s presence in order to pursue holiness.

 

How Do We Live Holy Lives?

Whatever you’re trying to do for the sake of Christ, the most important lesson from the Gospels and epistles is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. You won’t last long by simply trying harder.

Living in fear of an angry God will grow old.

When fear of God gives way to loving God as a father, holiness becomes a natural response.

Graham wants the pastors in his audience to fear God, and he’s hoping that this fear of God will trickle down into their congregations. He wants them to try harder as culture warriors in order to win God’s favor.

Sadly, Graham has adopted a kind of works-based righteousness for the sake of a political agenda.

Graham doesn’t realize that God’s favor already belongs to us. All who are thirsty are called to come and drink. God so loved the world after all…

Before the cross, God had an intense, undying love for us.

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul had God’s mercy rather than his wrath in mind. He also called his readers to be renewed in their minds rather than trying harder:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:1-2, NIV via BibleGateway)

I rarely call out specific Christians in my writing, but Franklin Graham’s approach to holiness is contrary to the message of Jesus. It grieves me to think that pastors who look up to him are receiving a message that fails to consider the mercy of God, the healing Jesus brings, and the power we receive from the Spirit to live in holiness.

Paul wrote that the Spirit of God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7, BibleGateway). We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters. God demands holiness. It’s not a free for all, but God’s ways under the Spirit are not rooted in fear and wrath.

God relates to us as a caring and compassionate parent who desires to restore us—end of story.