Friday, May 29, 2009

The Initiating, Pursuing, Seeking, Divine Friend We Have in Jesus

I just spent some time reflecting on an insight the Gospels give me into the character of Christ. I am smiling, and want to try and get this down in hopes it will encourage the rest of you foot-draggers. Whenever I draft in Word and upload, the blog is plagued by funky html codes, so forgive the rambling, stream-of-conscious flow of this entry.

What We Know

We all know from Jesus Himself that He came to "seek and save' the lost. We also know from John 15:16, Romans and elsewhere that we did not choose God, but rather he took the initiative in seeking us out - the strongest argument for monergism there is. There isn't a Christian alive who isn't touched by the scene of the Father rushing out to meet the Prodigal Son, and when Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, He is alluding to His tendency to go after that one lost sheep He mentioned in Luke 15.

What We're Supposed to Know

But here is something so reassuring and simple that I often doubt, dismiss or forget: He initiates reconciliation (restoration of fellowship) with the sinning Christian. Even when we go through dry, 'desert' periods of prayerlessness, spiritual famine, and shying away from approaching Him in prayer, He pursues us. We don't have to slide into a season of overt sin and rebellion to shy away from coming to Him in prayer: I do it all the time. I get so self-focused and intent on being "productive" that I blow off devotional time. Then I fall prey to what Jerry Bridges calls "Quiet Time Guilt", and figure I'm such a carnal, uncommitted Christian that Jesus wouldn't really want me around anyway. My energies turn to "doing (spiritual) stuff", to make up for the fact that I don't have the emotional energy or courage to really face Him and repent.

The longer one stays in this dry valley, the easier it is to stay there (remember the law of inertia?) and the less "worthy" it is to come back and repent. But what's so amazing about the restoration process is that Jesus pursues us even while we're in the valley. So why do we let shame and self-consciousness keep us there? He doesn't need us (God doesn't "need" anything), but for some inexplicable reason He wants us.

Here's what got me thinking on this amazing attribute of God this morning. I was thinking about Christ's restoration of your homeboy and mine, the Apostle Peter. I have seen many devotions and other writings waxing nostalgic about the beach-side encounter of John 21, where Peter leaps out of the boat and comes rushing to Christ for forgiveness. Many consider this the first meeting between Christ and Peter since his callous denial back on the night of Jesus' arrest, and speculate that Peter went fishing that morning to get away from the ministry and go back to his old life as a fisherman. The common assumption is that Peter, not having faced his Lord until the moment He showed up on the beach, was at once eager to set things right.

That's wrong. Things had already been "set right", because Christ specifically sought out Peter when Peter lacked the ability, the courage, and/or the faith to come back. Much has been made of the angel's post-resurrection words, "and Peter", in Mark 16:7 where the angels instructed the women at the tomb: But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " I agree that his inclusion was not coincidental; it is highly likely that Peter felt so much remorse and shame over his denial that he felt himself disqualified to come back to the Lord. He may have even questioned his salvation.

What Peter Found Out

Even more telling, however, is an oft-overlooked verse at the end of the Resurrection account in Luke 24: "They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." (emphasis mine). Later, in his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul also mentions this obscure apparition in passing: "...and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve." From the timing, Christ's personal appearance to Peter must have been concurrent (or nearly so) with the angels' instruction to the women. Given the close timing, could there have been a sense of urgency in getting ahold of Peter? This is pure speculation on my part, but could it have been that Peter just wanted to run away; to distance himself from the other disciples, and his own sense of failure?

These few verses, which do not detail the encounter between Christ and Peter (perhaps to protect Peter's privacy), are loaded with significance. Peter messed up and was ashamed; absolutely devastated. Although Scripture doesn't explicitly say so, it's reasonable to assume he wanted to repent. He was with John when they went to the tomb in John 20:1-9, so he hadn't completely broken ties with the others. But who was the first one Jesus specifically sought out after His Resurrection? The very one who denied him. The most broken one. He didn't wait for Peter to seek Him out - Jesus initiated the first contact. How cool is that?

Maybe when we get to meet him in heaven, Peter will fill us in on that meeting, and who said what to whom. Given what we know about Christ, the tender nature of a regenerate disciple's heart, the nature of offense and the lavishly forgiving character of the Triune God, it's safe to assume it was a painful confession that instantly became an indescribably joyful reunion. That's why Peter leaped out of the boat - he couldn't wait to get back to see Jesus, with Whom his friendship had been eternally restored. The beach-side charcoal fire was the third post-Resurrection encounter Peter had had with Christ (the second was in the Upper Room, see John 20:19-21), but it was the one where he would be fully restored to ministry and his allegiance to Christ reconfirmed. Forgiveness is instantaneous. Healing and restoration come in time, and God's timing is always perfect.

The Conclusion We Can Draw (Hint: Jesus Christ is the Same Yesterday, Today and Forever!)

Why is this insight so significant? It drives home to me how the Lord really does seek us when we go astray (or just grow apathetic) all throughout our Christian walk. I often think of the parables and the "seeking" of God as being pre-conversion, but once we become His children He doesn't suddenly lose interest in us. While we do need to repent, for our part, before true, intimate fellowship is restored, God goes out of His way to woo us back to His Throne of Grace when we would slink back. Is it shame or pride that keeps us away? Perhaps and odd mixture of both. It is easier to convince myself that He is sternly waiting, teeth clenched, for the penitent to come crawling back on his or her knees before He will even condescend to listen to a faltering prayer for forgiveness than to accept His seeking, restoring, vulnerable grace extended to the wayward. There is a desire deep within the human heart to be pursued. We want to be sought after; to be valued. We want God to like us.

Several times, both in earlier periods of lifestyle sin and more recently in seasons where I become keenly aware of my pride (like Peter, probably recalling his earlier boasting), I have noticed unmistakable overtures from God - small but significant signs confirming that yes; I am still wanted. All I had to do was wonder if I could come back home to Him, or if I would arrive only to find that the locks had been changed. Once, in 2003, I was under heavy conviction for blatant unforgiveness I was holding in my heart. Every time I opened the Bible, my eyes would fall on warnings to the unforgiving. Every Christian book - even the Bible study I was then doing - was focused on the theme. To top it off, I heard two different pastors, in the same week, both preach on the importance of forgiveness to the Christian. Finally, I gave in. "Ok, Lord, I get it. You've made Your point." Immediately, He brought my nemesis into my path in Walmart.

His rebuke leaves no sting. His assurance comes from many different places - through preaching, many times books, His Word itself. God orchestrates circumstances in our lives to illustrate that He's paying attention and wants to draw us closer (like the incident in Boston yesterday). The net result is the same: He's taking the first step towards us, to restore what's broken in our relationship to Him. He doesn't wait for us to muster up the initiative on our own, because He knows that we can't (and even if we could, shame keeps us away). He is not ashamed to call us friends, and as He did with Peter, He will find a way to let us know we're still wanted.

So what are we waiting for?


JTW said...

This is a great post.

I hate to frame it this way, but one of the reasons I have become more Reformed in my theology (although I'm not firmly in that camp... yet) is because of how God began to deal with me a few years ago. I am reluctant to frame it that way because, of course, theology must come first and foremost from Scripture. I have a dim view of any theology based primarily on subjective experience devoid of Scriptural support. But as God began to work in my life, He also opened Scripture to me in a new way.

For brevity's sake I will not go into detail - suffice it to say, I also had issues with longstanding unforgiveness. Today I look back with astonishment at how God orchestrated the necessary circumstances to pry my fingers, one by one, from the death grip I had on unforgiveness. I had been in that state for far too long and, in many ways, was blind to my condition. I was on a downward spiral, holding on to bitterness as if it were a pet. I wanted to keep it, but He simply would not allow it. I was stubborn and hard-hearted, but that didn't matter. He did what needed to be done and He didn't stop there; He began to deal with me in several areas. As C. S. Lewis put it, "Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell."

I shudder to think about the sins that I once walked with and found comfort in. How could I have been so blind? But my Saviour came for me and I am exceedingly thankful that He did. I am overwhelmed by His grace and cannot praise Him nearly enough. The trajectory I was on would not have ended well. Because of His grace, He has become my greatest treasure - and that is a taste of Heaven on earth.

Nevertheless, I still need constant reminders of how great a Saviour we have. Why is it that some of the most fundamental teachings in Scripture, e.g., a Saviour who seeks His lost sheep, can be so easily forgotten or become distorted in our thinking?

Marie said...

Because we either A) misunderstand the Gospel; B) think we have to work together with God to achieve our salvation or C) cannot accept forgiveness. If (B) were true, we know we can rely on God, but we cannot rely on ourselves. Therefore, we could easily fall out of His hand. If (C) is true, it is because our conscience knows justice and condemns us - forgiveness is foreign to the conscience.

The nature of Christ - redeeming, gracious, and pursuing, is utterly different from the way we are in the natural and therefore difficult to accept. Accepting grace requires humility, which also does not come naturally to us humans.