The Gospel invites us to walk out the will of God. We can do that because of Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will, to be the perfect Lamb Sacrifice. His obedience categorically crushed our disobedience. Not that we won’t on occasion slip, stub a toe, stumble, or fall, as we try to stay in step. To obey comes from a heart that trusts God’s will, and a soul that delights in it. When the energies of my heart’s affections fall squarely on the desire to follow the Spirit’s lead, that is salvation, the restoration of my life to obedience to the will of God (Rom 6:17).
By contrast, we read a story in Luke chapter 15 of a son who leaves his father and family. The other day I scribbled the following in my journal in response to this story: “Each time I disobey God, I am leaving, just like the prodigal son. The father in the story says, ‘go son.’ He knows the danger, he knows it may hurt, perhaps the son will never return, but still says, “I cannot love you less now as I watch you leave, than when you return. In both your leaving and returning the beating of my heart is a passionate and faithful song of joy sung over you. I see every step you take away and in coming home, and I understand, because you are mine.””
When I wrote these words, I pondered whether or not it was the gospel. Does our Heavenly Father really say, ‘go son?’ The father’s silence in the story suggests so. Is it true that on my return, he loves me no less than in my leaving? No grudge, no lingering anger, or subtle blame? I think so, and here’s why. In no better way do I learn how to give and receive Agape love. In the end, it’s what he’s trying to get through to me above all things. Henry Nouwen said, “If we do not claim the presence of love in our departures, we experience a guilt-ridden return to a dark God.”
It’s one of the ways, in fact it may be the only way, God teaches us to depend more on first love than secondary love. Let me explain: Our first love is a surrender of our whole selves to God, to become bondservants, our willing refusal to keep our rights and privileges our own. Second love is what we try to squeeze from relationships that surround us. Moving from a second love to a first love is a process walked out by faith. It’s not a once and done act, sealed for the rest of life. But in the wisdom of God, He stretches out our journey, navigated by the Spirit within us. For most of us it includes disappointment, shades of success and a share of setbacks, but also redemption. When we pause and look back, we see that every milestone on the course has severed a hidden need for something trying to replace real love. God uses the leaving and the coming home like a shaping hammer on an anvil.
Will we ever come to the place of a radical transition from human affection to agape love? Perhaps substantially, but never fully. What God loves is that we are the willing ones, determined to keep moving, even when the path to get there is a mixed bag of reluctancy, leaving and coming home, shame and overwhelming gratitude. Rather than disqualify us, it brings love into our most important relationships, and fits us to stand before a world who has left God, and wonders if they can return. That’s when Love can speak through our life and witness and say, ‘yes, you are safe to come home!’