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.