Christianity 201

November 28, 2017

Spiritual Triage: Following God’s Example

In preparing yesterday’s devotional and looking at the “The God Who Runs,” I discovered this 2015 teaching at Patheos. The author is Reed Metcalf who works at Fuller Seminary. Click the link below to read at source.

The God Who Pursues Us Relentlessly

I will never forget discovering that a dear friend of mine had walked away from the faith. Granted, there was still an intellectual assent to the claims of Christianity as true, a willingness to defend the Bible, Christ, and Church as weighty, relevant, and authoritative, but it was all just lip service. No more church attendance, no prayer life, no Bible study, no commitment to any sort of Christian ethic or activism. All the vital signs of a healthy connection to the Triune God vanished.

My heart breaks even now.

Did not—does not—Jesus say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers?” [1]

I am so scared, so sad.

But what are we supposed to do? How do you approach that fine line of calling a brother or sister back when you know one poorly chosen word could break the last vestiges of faith? I am haunted even yet by mistakes made when I was a youth leader at my church in Orange, and I still struggle to love others back into their commitments to Christ and neighbor. We all know that pain when a friend, a sibling, a hero leaves the church: it’s like a sucker punch to the gut, like a wound that opens inside us. We have tasted and seen, and we know they leave behind the One who is the source of life itself.

And so we do what anyone does with a massive wound: triage. We try something to stop the bleeding in our hearts, and, when we are not careful, we turn to our own methods instead of God’s. We amputate and cauterize in a desperate attempt to keep it all together. We say, “The road is narrow… and thus few take it.” We sing, “Though none go with me, still I will follow.” We write off our brothers and sisters. We cry over them. We pray for them. But slowly, we accept the fact that they are gone.

We mourn them and try to find closure, because to do anything less hurts far too much.

Seasons pass and the cauterization stops aching, though we still feel a twinge of pain now and then; we still look through a mist of sadness when we see them outside of church, and we wonder, “Can anything bring them back?”

Jesus once held a small child in his arms and asked his disciples, “What do you think?”

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” [2]

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and death. As they go, Jesus teaches his apostles what this church of his—what the Kingdom of Heaven—is to be like. How to reprove someone gently, how to forgive, how to treat children. And now this story of a shepherd that goes after one out of many. Here is a glimpse at the ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven: a God who chases us down. We stand among the murmuring apostles, looking at Jesus and the child he holds, and it slowly comes upon us all as a hearth pushes the chill from a room.

“Here is the Son of God,” they say to each other. “Here, in our midst. Has he not already decried us as an ‘evil and adulterous generation?’ [3] Has he not displayed disappointment at our lack of faith? [4] Has God Himself not sent nation after nation to conquer us for our sins and failures? And yet he is here, telling us that he will not stop searching until the last one of us is found.”

“Is this not Good News?”

Failure after failure, betrayal after betrayal, Israel always finds God still mercifully searching for her everywhere. Even in Hosea—one of the most judgment-heavy books of the Bible—God raises his hand to rain destruction from the heavens and stops himself at the thought of his beloved children:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
  How can I hand you over, O Israel?…
My heart recoils within me;
   my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
   I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
   the Holy One in your midst,
   and I will not come in wrath.  [5]

The God we see in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is One who loves despite. Despite our sin, our waywardness, our piety, our efforts, our failures, despite everything. From the complaining under Moses to the rejection of God as King, from idolatry under the monarchs to the compromise under the Romans, God across thousands of years has pursued a stubborn people called Israel. When all else fails, He appears in the flesh to knock on their doors, to sleep in their gardens, to eat at their tables, to call them back to Him. God will not let them go.It is here that we find our hope. God’s reckless devotion to his own people makes up the scraps we Gentiles hope to eat as they fall from Israel’s table. [6] We hope to one day have the same devotion from the God of Israel: that even when it seems that we have crossed the final line, we see God, shepherd staff in hand, come rushing over the hill to bring us back. And how ecstatic are we when this becomes a reality, when God makes a way for us to become part of the chosen people through the death and resurrection of Christ? We are now part of the flock, part of the one hundred. Should even one of us—any one of us—go astray, the Shepherd will begin his searching again.

In this I take comfort. He is faithful even when we are not. When we walk away, the Shepherd follows us. But “follows” is really too weak a word to describe this. The Psalmist tells us that “Surely His goodness and steadfast love yirdĕpûnî all the days of my life.” [7] We tend to translate yirdĕpûnî as “will follow me,” but all other uses of the root rdp (רדף) have a connotation of hunting, pursuing, even persecuting.

“Surely His goodness and steadfast love will pursue me relentlessly all the days of my life.”

God refuses to give up. Ever. On us, on those who leave the church, on those who have never been part of the community. He is the God Who Pursues Us Relentlessly. Until our last day, He will dog our steps with love.

I think of my friend, now living apart from the flock. I fight the temptation to stop the pain, to stop the feeling by writing her off, by saying that she has made her choice and that is that. Such thoughts are not from God. His thoughts are the ones I must grab. His thoughts are yet turned to her, despite the pain, despite the rebellion, despite the waywardness. He picks up his staff and begins his pursuit, over hill and across desert, until the one is brought back. I cry with joy at the thought that the Shepherd has still not given up on her. I wipe my tears and follow in his steps.


[1] John 15:6
[2] Matthew 18:12.
[3] Matthew 12:39; 16:4.
[4] Matthew 14:31.
[5] Hosea 11:8-9.
[6] Matthew 14:21-28.
[7] Psalm 23:6.

 

November 27, 2017

The Reckless Love of God

Luke 15:11b [Jesus teaching] “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them…”

Often here we begin with a devotional study and then end with a worship video. Today, I want to begin with the song, Reckless Love. The following is a shorter (5½ minute) version of the song originally by Bethel Worship.

Before I spoke a word
You were singing over me
You have been so, so
Good to me
Before I took a breath
You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so
Kind to me

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it
I don’t deserve it
Still You give yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God

When I was your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so
Good to me
When I felt no worth
You paid it all for me
You have been so, so
Kind to me

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine…

There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
No lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God…

My wife and I had a discussion about this song on the weekend. The idea of a God who will “lavish his love” on us is found in the parable we call The Prodigal Son. We often think that prodigal means runaway, or someone who leaves and returns, but the word’s origins have to do with his spendthrift nature; how he burns through his cash reserves — with abandon.

But in the book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller points out that it is the father in the story who is free-spending. We actually see this twice.

First, he quickly gives away the inheritance to the son. Notice how quickly this is established in the key verse above. Some have said about this story that he knows he needs to lose his son in order to gain him back. There’s an interesting parallel here to 1 Corinthians 5:5 that we don’t have time to explore fully; “[H]and this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Second, he is equally free-spending when the son returns, throwing a huge party.

22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15)

Reviewing Keller’s book nine years ago, I noted,

  • “Prodigal” means “spendthrift”, which also means “reckless”
  • The father in the story is reckless in his willingness to forgive and reinstate the son
  • The father in the story represents God
  • God is “reckless” in that he chooses not to “reckon” our sin; instead offering forgiveness.

Others have noted the character of the Father in his willingness to run to meet his son while he is still in the distance. In a sermon titled, The God Who Runs Martin Ellgar writes,

He sees him coming in the distance and with joy runs out to greet him. In this way he brings honour again to his son. In the eyes of his neighbours, such behaviour of a man towards his disgraced son is disgraceful and unwarranted in itself. He has humiliated himself before others. The loving father has not only gone out eagerly to meet his returning son, but has willingly sacrificed himself to share in and to relieve the humiliation of the returning son.

To me this parable is much in the spirit of the lyrics of the song above.

However, we can’t leave the song there because much has been made of the lyric leaves the ninety-nine. It’s unfortunate that even among Christians, as we face declining Biblical literacy, we need to stop and explain this. Earlier generations — and hopefully readers here — would pick up on the reference immediately.

Interestingly enough, as I prepared this, I realized that the story is actually part of the trio of parables in Luke 15 of which The Prodigal Son is the third. (Maybe that was partly what drew me to the third story as an illustration of God’s lavish love.)

4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

God desires to lavish his love on you. Are you ready to receive it?


Further Reading: The Father’s Love Letter (presented in your choice of text, audio, or video and available in over 100 languages.)

See also tomorrow’s devotional, The God Who Pursues Us.


I mentioned that my wife and I had been discussing this song.  Sometimes I will workshop an idea for a blog post with friends online, and my friend Martin at Flagrant Regard agreed with her somewhat:

If we open dictionary.com, we have this:

1. utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution; careless (usually followed by of):  to be reckless of danger.
2. characterized by or proceeding from such carelessness: reckless extravagance.

I can’t get my head around the concept that God’s love is ‘careless’ or ‘unconcerned with the consequences of some action’. Just a bad choice of descriptors in my mind.

Words do matter. What do you think?