How easy it is for us Christians to see ourselves and our world in black and white. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Many of us believe God has set a course for each of us in stone and that every choice we make is either right or wrong. If we stray but a little from that “right” path, we believe He will punish us, become frustrated with us, reject us and/or abandon His plans for our life. But right now as I am attempting to read through the entire bible (I am currently in 2nd Samuel) I am seeing a very different picture of God’s character. Though most Christians are confident that they going to heaven regardless of their inability to be perfect, many still believe that God is distant from them here on earth either because He is disappointed with them, mad at them, or just plain sick and tired of them for not being closer to perfect. So we mourn every time we fail and run further away from the arms of the One who loves us. We forget that we are living under the New Covenant. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, our ability to keep God’s law is no longer the determining factor of our salvation, how close we can be to God, or even of how blessed a life we will live. Our relationship with God is now only conditional upon us believing and receiving what He already did on our behalf. And yet many Christians continue to live in bondage with an overwhelming fear of messing-up, and by punishing or shaming themselves if they do. We do this because we don’t yet know the Father’s heart for us.
Jesus knew how lost we were when it came to understanding the Father’s heart for His children, so He paints us a picture in the parable of the prodigal son. In the story, there is this son who goes to his father and basically says “I can’t wait for you to die, so can I have my inheritance now, please?” (How rude, right?). His father obliges and the son runs off with it, and wastes it all on a sinful lifestyle. Finally, he runs out of money and his life becomes so miserable, he crawls back to the father with the intention of begging for the privilege just be a servant in his house. The father is already there watching for his return and when he sees his son, goes running and sweeps him up in a hug. “A servant? You are my son! Here, I am giving you back everything that was yours before and more since I will be announcing to the world that my wonderful son is back with an extravagant party!” (My paraphrase of the story in Luke 15:11-32 ) This is the heart of the Father for you. A few things I learned from this story about the heart of our Father for us:
1) Love is not love without freedom. This parable paints us the image of the perfect father, and yet how many of our earthly fathers would disagree with his “soft” methods? I know MY dad would have some words for him:
“Why would you give your son his inheritance early? You knew he was going to blow it all! When he came back, why didn’t you punish him for doing that, and make him be a servant first to teach him the value of money and hard work?”
This perfect father gives his son what he asked for even though he knows it won’t be good for him. I can see the father taking the money out of the vault, slowly, sadly hoping his son will change his mind. But God, our Perfect Father, does not want to be our jailer. He is our Shepherd, our guide. He wants a relationship with us based on our love for Him, not on our fear of what He’ll do if we leave. So the father, lets his son make the bad decision, and even gives him the money to do it. He lets him go. Every day that father must have gone to that field watching, hoping, and believing for his son to come over the horizon because the day his son came back, the father was already there waiting. He goes running to meet him.
We see His character in this way even in the Old Testament. When Israel wants a king so it can be like all the other nations, God tells his prophet Samuel to tell the people all the reasons it’s not a good idea. When they don’t change their mind after hearing God’s warnings, we see that God feels rejected by their request because He wants to be their king. Nevertheless, He tells Samuel to let them have their way and sets up Israel with a human king. (1 Sam 8) Why? Because He loves us too much to enslave us to His way. He wants us to love Him and chose His way freely, not by punishment, threats or manipulation.
John 4:18 says “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. I see him as a Shepard watching all of his sheep, leading us onward and upward to better things. He’s talking to us about those things we are doing, loving us through them, and patiently shepherding us towards something better. It is a narrow road, yet if we stray slightly from the path on the way, He doesn’t zap us with an electric fence, or whip us back into line so we learn never to stray again. He guides us through life with His voice (John 10:27) and He allows us to make those bad decisions, because love is not love without freedom and love requires no fear of punishment. We are welcome to take the harder, longer way if we like. He lets us go, gently calling us back, lovingly and patiently waiting for our return. If we stray too far, He goes off to find us and rescue us from the wolf (Satan and his lies), but won’t drag us home if we don’t want to go. When we do return He doesn’t reject us and punish us for it, but says that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over that one lost sheep” (Luke 15:7).
2) Repentance isn’t a process. Repentance is not punishment, it’s not wallowing in guilt or shame or even mourning the past. The word “repentance” simply means to turn around. Like the prodigal son, we often come back to God from our mistakes miserable and expecting punishment. We expect to be bonded and treated us like servants. Yet like the good father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is running out to meet you with open arms. He is celebrating your return and wants to give you everything you lost and more! So it’s simple. Turn around and start walking towards God instead of away from Him. Romans 2:4 says that the “kindness of God leads you to repentance.” Not the punishment, neglect or anger of God, but the kindness! The father knew his son wasn’t returning out of love for his father, he was returning out of need and desperation. But that didn’t stop the father. You can bet that the moment his father received him in love and kindness, when he expected shame and humiliation, that son knew his father’s love for him and never wanted to be parted from him again.
3) We are unpunishable. Christ died for our sins. Death and rejection by the Father was the punishment we deserved, but Jesus took it on himself with his death. He was rejected by the Father who turned His face away from Him, as He bore all of our sins past present and future. Romans 3:25-26: “ For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus.” Paul says, “I do not set aside the grace of God, if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21) If you’re punishing yourself, or living in guilt and shame you are nullifying what Christ did for you on the cross, setting it aside as though it has no real power in your life.
So step into freedom, and receive His love for you no matter where you are or what you’re doing! Of course there are things God clearly outlines in the Bible as wrong and our freedom does not change those things from being what they are: sinful rebellion against God. But focusing on those things does not keep us close to him. Love keeps us close, and rescues us and protects us from sin. Did you know that even if you did the worst sin you can think of, Jesus is not going to abandon you. No! He might be hurt, sad, but he’s not mad. Did you know God promised never to be angry at us again? (Read Isaiah 54:9-10). This is our promise in the New Covenant.
4) God makes even our “Wrong” Choices “Right” Because of this we have so much freedom to not worry about living perfectly. If we are determined to live as close to God as possible, then we need only listen to his voice and his kindness will lead us forward. Paul teaches us that when we focus on the law or “right and wrong”, we actually put ourselves in bondage to sin and death. He says we are called to serve in the new way “of the spirit” not in the old way of “the written code” (Romans 7:4-6) This new life in the Spirit is explained in Hebrews 8:10-11: “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts...No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Don’t doubt it- you do know his voice! We have the Holy Spirit as our guide.
More often that not God guides us even more gently than our earthly fathers! Many times in a moment of decision, I’ll ask God which way to go and He doesn’t stamp “RIGHT” on one way and “WRONG” on the other. Instead, I hear a gentle, quiet voice say, “I know this way looks harder and rockier, but it’s better.” “Doesn’t that mean the other way was wrong?” you may ask. No, because God is able to make “good” out of even my inferior choices. (Romans 8:28)
He often speaks to my life in “Good and Betters” and because I know that now, walking with Him is so much more joyful. I know what it means to walk in true freedom. My love for Him keeps me close, not my fear of punishment. In fact, I stay closer to God than ever before, because my eyes are focused on Him instead of on the law. I do not trust in my own ability to follow His laws, but I trust him to take me on the best road. Let us no longer believe the lie that He will reject or abandon us or His plan for our life when we make a mistake. When we do that, we end up paralyzed in every decision or find ourselves bonded by the sin into which we strayed. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery!” (Galatians 5:1).
5) God is Fun What is waiting for you at home in the arms of the Father is not a boring drudgery of a life. Jesus said He has come that we might have, “Life and life to the full” (John 10:10). The good father was waiting with a PARTY for his lost son. The story later tells us that the older son got jealous and raged, “Why didn’t I get a party? I never left you!” The father tells him, “Everything I have is yours, you could have had a party any time you wanted!” Life with God is a party. If you don’t know that yet, you are either the lost son trying to find your joy away from Him or you are the older son and aren’t believing in the goodness of your Father and receiving all He has for you.
See my poem “Falling into Perfect” inspired by this idea of freedom and perfect love. by Caroline Frost Shea