Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Pursuing God gives a tour de force of an open-spirited evangelical vision of God’s lively and active grace. I appreciate his graceful approach to grace, God’s willingness to embrace those who perceive themselves unembracable, and forgive those who think themselves unforgiveable.
After looking at the website of Imago Dei Community, where Butler serves, I was left wondering whether or not he believes that there is a limit to God’s pursuit. Does God give up on us? Does God accept not only behavioral sinners but also those who are doctrinal or intellectual sinners, by that I mean, those who do not explicitly accept Christ as their savior, are agnostic, or are committed adherents of other faiths? Traditionally, evangelicals have affirmed the grace of God and forgiveness of sins until our deaths, when our fates are sealed for eternity with God or apart from God’s presence.
I believe that for grace to truly be grace God must gracefully accept everyone regardless of any “work,” and that includes the “work” of belief and doctrinal affirmation. Traditional evangelical attitudes beg the questions: Is God more offended by doctrinal sin than godless behavior? Is intellectual assent more important than behavior in determining our eternal relationship with God?
While I don’t know the answers to these questions, they are at the heart of divine pursuit. Obviously we can keep running from God’s call, but does that mean that God quits pursuing us at the hour of death, thus consigning skeptics and unbelievers to eternal death? Despite traditional doctrinal beliefs regarding the scope of salvation, I have found that unbelief is seldom a matter of pride or willfulness or conscious turning from God, but rather a result of the impact of life experiences, faulty expressions of Christian faith by followers of Jesus, meaningless tragedy or tragedy attributed to God’s will, chemical-based problems (for example, depression and anxiety), and country/culture of origin that initially determines our faith. Moreover, if I can find good reasons, as a Christian, for disbelief, God can find better grounds for our unbelief and is more understanding – dare we say graceful – than many of his followers.
The image of the pursuing God that Butler draws upon is found in the three parables Luke 15 – the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. In the case of the lost sheep and lost coin, the key word is “until.” The word “until” has no temporal ending. The divine shepherd and divine woman will search without end for the lost ones, they are that important to them. One can infer from these passages that death and disbelief are no hindrance to the divine search. They also suggest that being lost is often accidental and involves no culpability in the one who is lost – the sheep meanders foolishly away from the flock with no ill intent; the coin simply slips through the cracks, is forgotten, neglected, and considered of little importance until it is lost. This is certainly obvious among those our society has forgotten – the poor, addicted, and unemployed.
The third of these parables indicates that the loving parent takes the initiative even though the lost child has no expectation of acceptance and no belief that he is worthy of welcome. My sense, experientially speaking and based on my encounters with agnostics and seekers, is that even “unbelievers” express this same hope in moments of crisis and despair, and would be welcomed home with all their doubts and disbelief.
While I have no definitive answers, I am inclined to conclude that the pursuing God continues to pursue until we find ourselves in God’s embrace. We can put up impediments or be imprisoned by doubt and fear, but these only stall our experiences of grace, they do not defeat the pursuing God. Like any loving parent or grandparent, God will not quit pursuing us – or loving us. Not even death can hinder God’s pursuit, for nothing can separate us from the graceful and pursuing love of God.