One of my favorite hymns is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I love the poetic lament of a one who seeks God fervently, but is deeply aware of his/her own sin. My favorite lyric from the hymn is “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.”
I don’t know that there’s ever been a truer lyric written that expresses how I feel toward my tendency to wander. When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was walking through the mall with my mom and older brother. One of the first stores we walked by was a toy store. We were very poor and I didn’t have a ton of toys at home. I remember loving Care Bears and Cabbage Patch kids. A lady at our church made me a homemade Care Bear. It was not the same. At any rate, we stopped for a moment to watch this toy dog do somersaults at the toy store. I was enamored. This battery powered pup flipped and flipped and barked. It was pretty cool. I am not sure how much time passed, but by the time I looked up, my mom and brother were long gone. I ran toward the center of the mall screaming for my mom and crying. I didn’t intentionally stay back and leave her side. I would never have done that. I was a super obedient child. And yet, here I was, with no clue where my mom was. I wasn’t even sure which store she was there to visit. I knew the mall well, and found my way to the information center in the middle. I sat there sobbing, fearing the worst. She’s left me here and now I am going to be shipped off to a foster home or orphanage like Annie the orphan. Perhaps that’s a little melodramatic, but I was definitely a fatalist in my younger years. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I could see my mom approaching. I felt awful. I felt like this was my fault. I was sure I would be in trouble.
We tend to get caught up in the stuff right in front of us and allow our communion with God to get farther and farther from us. I’m a “good” person. I’m a “smart” person. I do the “right” things. It is easy to go about my business and look as if I am walking closely with God. It is easy to start a journey with Him, close enough to hear His whisper “we’re going this way now, follow closely” and then at some point, I see something spectacular. I have to pause and enjoy this, take it in. Slowly, as God continues to move, I am still stuck, maybe even wandering further toward the shiny sparkly distracting objects. By the time I realize how much time has passed, I feel the distance between us. I feel how far I’ve wandered.
I love the Bible, because there is a commonality among all humans in that we tend to be foolish and we tend to behave pretty similarly as every human before us. The patriarchs (fathers of Judaism – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) are no exception, especially in their tendency to wander. Often when we learn about the patriarchs in the Old Testament as kids in Sunday School, we are given the impression that these are super faithful men that we should emulate. We aren’t often taught about their humanness, or their failings. That’s unfortunate. It can make faithful following of God seem unattainable.
Recently, I was reading the account of Abraham to my boys and was struck (again) with how repeatedly Abraham wanders off course and forgets what he has been told by God. Early on in the narrative of Abram/Abraham (God changes his name when He establishes His covenant with him), Abram and his wife Sarai/ Sarah travel to Egypt to avoid a famine (Ge 12). Sarai is a beautiful woman and Abram decides it’s probably better if people think she’s his sister so they don’t kill him to take his wife. So, he tells his wife “Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Ge 12:13). She does. Pharaoh notices her and “takes her into his house.” This is colloquial for Sarai became one of his concubines. God had plans for Sarai and Abram, so He struck Pharaoh and his house with a plague. Pharoah kicked Abram and Sarai to the curb after rebuking Abram for lying about his wife. Abram goes on to spend some time with Lot, receive God’s covenant that he will be the father of a great nation, circumcises himself and all of the males in his household, has a son long after his wife’s ability to bear children, but only after he and his wife try to “help” God by having Abe conceive an heir with his wife’s maidservant. Then after Sodom is destroyed by God, Abraham settles in the Negev, where he once again decides that he needs to save his own skin by sacrificing the truth and his wife. He tells the king of Gerar, Abimelech, that Sarah is his sister. The king takes Sarah as his wife. God didn’t use plagues this time, he gave Abimelech a dream, revealing the true nature of Sarah and Abraham’s relationship. Abimelech is unhappy with Abraham, rebukes him and sends him on his way.
Abraham’s son Isaac would do the same thing with his wife Rebekah, saying she was his sister to keep himself safe. When danger presents itself and fear sets in, Abraham has trouble seeing how God is going to work it out. He’ll just help God. I mean, it’s not like God has spared any miracle or blessing on Abraham, so why does Abe feel like God needs his help? Why is it so easy to wander from the truth, from communion with God, from God’s promises for us and spin a web of our own design?
We do the same thing don’t we? As a single woman in the church, I had very little faith I’d find a man who loved Jesus like I did but wasn’t super socially awkward or strange. I blame church singles groups for my lack of hope. I was always trying to help God out when it came to finding me a husband. I wandered far off in the toy store of singleness in an attempt to make sure that His promises to me were fulfilled. “Don’t worry God. I got you. I’ll find him…” It didn’t look like very far when I started, but by the time I turned around, I was no longer walking in His path. As a result, I’m sure I missed a lot of what He would have liked to have shown me and I know I failed to rest in the assurance of His faithfulness to me.
As a married woman, I often tried to “help God” with my husband. So many things that he just needed a little help with. My voice is so much more effective than the Holy Spirit’s. I mean, I’m sure with just a little more “encouragement” (nagging) my husband will want to go to the 6:30am men’s group, lead a Bible Study and volunteer as an Usher. (That’s what being the spiritual leader of our home means, right?) Nope. Sister, if this is what you’re doing…begging your husband to be the spiritual leader so that you feel permission to follow God in a certain way. Stop. Just follow your Jesus. Your husband has his own journey with Jesus. You can’t make that happen. Get out of the way. Let them have their own journey just like you need to have your own.
God helped me see that He is a much better Father to my husband than I am, and that the more I focus on my walk with Him, and less on my husband’s, the more my husband can focus on Jesus and the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need my help. He is the “Helper.”
But, sometimes we wander big, don’t we? Sometimes we take big steps way off course and find ourselves in a pit. We look around and all we see is the space. The space between where we went off course and where we find ourselves now. The space between us and God. The silence in that space is often times painful. We long for His voice and often feel unheard and untended to. Maybe you’ve been in that space, in that pit, maybe you’re there now and someone has told you that that space is your sin and you need to repent…that God is far from you because of your sin.
Paul tells us in Romans 4 that it was Abraham’s faith that made him righteous before God, not his good works (clearly). Sister, Brother, friend – God is not near to you because you are really good at being good. God is not far from you because you didn’t obey the rules. Every time you sin, Jesus does not climb back up on that tree and die again for these new sins you’ve committed. All sin, for all time, is paid for – once and for all. You are covered in the blood and your faith has been credited to you as righteousness. God does not flee from you when you sin.
If you are saved, the practice of repentance isn’t for absolution, it is for your sanctification. Repent. Turn around, find your way back to Him. Move in the direction of His voice. If you don’t hear it, go to the last place you did hear it. Do this not because if you don’t He will abandon you, but because life is better with Him, on His path in His way...because it is the cry of our heart to be close to Him and walk with Him. And frankly, it is what He longs for also. He gave His life for it.
If you are feeling far from God, if you’re experiencing what feels like His silence, I’d invite you to close your eyes. Imagine the most peaceful place you can find in your mind. I envision a forest filled with cedars and pines, moss hanging from the branches, a stream off in the distance. The air is crisp and wet. The ground soft with rotting leaves and moss beneath my feet. Where is your calm place? The beach? A mountaintop? The desert? Find that place. Close your eyes. Imagine the smells, the sights, the sounds...activate all of your senses as you build this place in your imagination. Take a few deep breaths. Now, find a place to sit. Invite Jesus to this place. Can you envision Jesus? Are you willing to invite Him to sit with you in this place? If it’s been a while and feels hard, I’m sure He understands. He’s gentle. He doesn’t force Himself. What do you need to say to Him? What do you want Him to know? Take a few moments, say the words, cry the tears. And now, listen. Spend some time in this space. Even if it’s quite, just notice the tenderness of God.
You, beloved, are so precious. You have been pursued and held close to His heart. He has never been more than a breath away. Nothing you have done or could do would ever cause Him to abandon you.
“Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood…
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be
Let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee”
-Come Thou Fount