Q & R: Are God’s hands tied until we “return” to God?

Question:

Have you done any writing, or know of someone that has…around the biblical theme of “returning” to God?  In contemplative prayer, “returning” has been a beautiful invitation, but many biblical references describe the “return” as being the precursor or condition to God’s favor, compassion and/or forgiveness. Undoubtedly this has contributed to the toxic idea that when we turn away, God is also turned away, and until WE do the work of returning, God can’t do anything. Obviously, I know you’ve written and talked a lot about this in the context of the “Gospel in Chairs” …but I’m just wondering about broader writing on the recurring theme of “return” in the Bible.

Response:

In my opinion, it’s this simple: God never turns from us and never stops pouring out his many mercies on us. That’s the ontology of unwavering love.

But our “orientation” to that love (metaphorically, “turning from” or “turning to”) does greatly affect our experience of that love. That’s the existential reality or experience of love.

The error is not that turning changes our experience of love. It clearly does. The error is thinking that our turning to God causes God to love us and turning from God causes God to cease loving us. The difference can seem hard to distinguish in our experience but the major difference is in how each version causes us to live:

Hearing that God loves us no matter what–even if we’ve turned away–encourages us to come home. Hearing that God is angry at us and will stay angry until we return triggers in us the urge to go hide. There’s the toxin. And we don’t even need to be told by third-party religiosity. Somehow we just infer it in our brokenness (as Adam and Eve did). In fact, the shame intrinsic to turning away might be the very toxin that causes us to misrepresent God.

The best illustration of this dynamic might be the prodigal son. His leaving did not end the reality of God’s love for him, but it certainly impacted his enjoyment of it in practical ways. By the time he was ready to return, he has already demoted himself from son to slave and God from Father to Master. That’s shame talking. But he finds that returning doesn’t make God love him. His Abba already does! But his return sure alters his experience of that love–he’s free to join in the celebration of his own homecoming, already prepared in the heart of Abba from the moment he first left home.

These days, I am also using the alternative language of surrender to describe the same realities. My defiance and my surrender are two orientations to the Grace that never ceases to flow. The orientation has no impact on the Grace but to be fair, when I am willful, I lose sight of Grace–even in her presence–because my self-will spurns it. When I surrender, the flow of Grace does not increasebut I certainly seem to recognize and receive it more freely.

I guess we need to admit that as long as we are invited to the table of Grace as willing participants, we’ll always be tempted to think we set the table. As long as we’re invited to partake of the heavenly supper, we’ll be inclined to imagine we made the meal. It’s a hazard … but the language of return persists and must persist because God in his love honors our authentic otherness as genuine willing participants.

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