The pursuing God, review and summary (Part 1)

This is the first of three posts about Joshua Ryan Butler’s The pursuing God: A reckless, irrational, obsessed love that’s dying to bring us home (Nashville: W Publishing, 2016). It consists of a brief review, followed by a summary of Part One.

The opening words of this book get straight to the point: ‘This is not a book about our pursuit of God; it’s about God’s pursuit of us.’ It’s quite a remarkable book. It is aimed (or so it seems) at a popular American audience, but it certainly does not have the superficiality of some popular Christian literature. Its subject matter is the basics of evangelical Christian theology, and Butler tackles certain folk simplifications of that theology, explaining what Christians traditionally believe and why. He does this with stories and illustrations rather than dry theological exposition, outlining the fundamentals of belief in some detail and with passion. He has a way with words, and he communicates theology in the language of 21st-century readers, replete with telling images and pithy illustrative narratives. My notes may capture something of his content, but they don’t capture too much of his style.

Butler’s overall theme is encapsulated in his title: the pursuing God—a reckless, irrational, obsessed love that’s dying to bring us home. The book has three parts, each with a catchy title, but subtitled ‘Incarnation’, ‘Crucifixion’ and ‘Resurrection’. I will devote one post to each part. The section titles are mine, hopefully bringing out the structure implicit in the book. Biblical quotations in footnotes are from the NIV.

Part One is titled ‘The artist in the painting: Incarnation’, and its first chapter (Ch 2) tells a parable about Jesus and sin. An artist has painted a magnificent painting. As he stands back to look at it, he sees a mould-like spot at its centre, decay enlarging to spread across his masterwork and threatening to destroy it. What happens next is odd: the artist steps into his own painting, and the corruption now attacks him — then suddenly it vanishes. ‘The artist had absorbed the destructive power until it was extinguished’. Instead of stepping back out of the painting, however, the artist remains at its centre, the picture glowing with the life he brings it. The painting is now as it should be.

Butler understands Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s side of her covenant with God. He focusses on the parallel between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the Israelites’ behaviour in Sinai. The Israelites were tested, but failed to trust God. Jesus, on the other hand, passes the test, trusting God all the way to the cross (Ch 3). Jesus is truly human, whereas our humanity is degraded by sin. The haemorrhaging woman was unclean, and anything she touched was unclean. But when she touched Jesus, the opposite occurred and she was made clean through his purity (Matthew 9:20-22). If we let him, Jesus gradually makes us more like him.

'God can't stand sin'

People say 'God can't stand sin' (ch 4), but the truth is that sin can't stand God (John 3:19–20),[1]  and Butler weaves this thought through Part 1.

After they disobey God, Adam and Eve run away from him and he seeks them. The snake has persuaded them that eating the apple will make them be like God rather than just being with him. We want to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. We want to rule the earth. One can take the account of Adam and Eve hiding from God as a metaphor for the history of the human race, says Thomas Johnson (2014:23). In Butler's words, 'Our broken trust is intimacy severed, communion torn asunder.' When God excludes Adam and Eve from the garden, he does this not to reject but to protect humanity by preventing us from being stuck in the grip of sin for ever by continuing to eat from the tree (Genesis 3:22).[2] 

Similarly at Sinai, each time God comes near, the Israelites run from him (Ch 5). He wants to give them himself, but in their sin they can't stand his presence. The Ten Commandments are wedding vows, which Moses smashes in frustration at his people's adultery with the golden calf on the eve of their marriage to God (Exodus 32). In Butler's words, 'God wants relationship. We settle for rules.' We wonder why the Torah contains so much law: it is a response to the Israelites' rejection of a marital relationship with God, an attempt to hold their self-destructive sin within bounds. The Law 'was added because of transgressions' (Galatians 3:19). In the end God remains faithful when his people don't. He remains in the tabernacle, present but hidden.

Jesus is the pursuing God, ‘calling out to his lost and wandering children, “Where are you?”’ (Ch 6). In his Son, God ‘gives us himself, in love’, sending him into the war zone in which we live. His mission isn’t to tell us we are dirty, but to wash us clean (John 3:17).[3]  The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15) emphasise God's love and concern for the lost -- that in his economy the absence from his kingdom of a single person matters absolutely (Ch 7). Butler asks, ‘Will we get transparent, honest and vulnerable with where we’re at before him?’

But if ‘God can’t stand sin’ means that God can’t stand what sin does to his world, then we are right. ‘God hates sin. He hates it not because it gets him dirty, but because it alienates us from him and tears apart his creation.’ Hans Boersma (2004:49) writes, ‘God’s love requires that he become angry when his love is violated. For God not to get angry … would demonstrate indifference, not love.’

God's reckless love

Modern readers often miss the full force of the parable of the Prodigal Son (ch 8). For a son to ask for his inheritance while his father was still alive and to leave the family home was tantamount to saying “Drop dead, Dad! I don’t want life with you. I just want what I can get out of you.” It was an act of sacrilege and could be punishable by death. Worse still, the son only wanted to squander his inheritance. This is us: we want to be independent and rule the world without God. The son sinks to the lowest place for a Jew, rearing pigs, and finally decides to risk returning home as a servant. But his father receives his repentant son with joy and throws a party (Luke 15:11–32).

God still delights in our prayers even when we're angry, wounded or just want to scream profanities at him (Ch 9). But instead we vent to friends and allow our sin to isolate ourselves from God. The psalmists knew how to vent to God. Whom we address these things to is more important than their content, and as we experience God's embrace we grow more able to trust him.

As we experience God's reckless love, we want to share it with others. Butler tells how a couple in his church who fostered vulnerable children began a movement that spread across the churches of their city and their state to reach numbers of children and to support foster-carers. Jesus incarnates the brother who is the converse of the pharisaical older brother of the Prodigal Son. He 'goes willingly to be rejected, mocked, and ultimately crucified . . . All to bring us home.'

The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9) depicts God as a farmer who sows like no Middle Eastern farmer, scattering valuable seed into places where it is unlikely to grow. Jesus' immediate audience would have picked this as a parable of God's total generosity, offered to all (Ch 10). The question is not, What kind of soil am I? It is, How will I receive God's overflowing grace? Am I distracted by idols (birds eat God's seed)? Do I quickly fall away again (seed can’t take root on rocky ground)? Do I stay in the church but stay untransformed (choked by weeds)? Or do I let God's generosity make me generous? Butler writes, 'So over the long haul, it’s healthy to ask: Is God’s generosity spreading through me? Am I growing in the goodness, holiness, and justice that mark Jesus’ kingdom? Do I increasingly love God and care for others, providing life-giving nourishment to God’s hungry world?’

As an example Butler tells the story of Bien, a poor Vietnamese woman whose husband infected her with AIDS and then died, leaving her an outcast with no means of support (Ch 11). Through the leader of an HIV class run by a Hanoi church, she met Jesus and started a church among HIV-positive women in her village. Despite official threats that HIV medication would be withdrawn unless the church was closed down, she and others persisted. They fulfilled God’s call to love and serve one’s neighbours by establishing small businesses for vulnerable families, a support centre for prostitutes and a drug rehabilitation program, and in a few years Bien became the official overseer of all HIV work in her province. Her story illustrates the fact that God often chooses the most improbable people for his kingdom: the Israelites were slaves on the periphery of an empire; David was the least significant among his brothers; and the twelve disciples were an unlikely crew. God’s generosity is irrational both in its extent and in the agents he chooses. His kingdom grows from a mustard seed (Matthew 13:32). Bien allowed the seed of God’s kingdom to take root in her life, so that lifegiving fruit burst forth. The seed is Jesus, and in the resurrection new life springs forth from death and burial.

The metaphor in Matthew 13:45-46 sees a merchant selling all he has to buy a magnificent pearl that he has been searching for (Ch 12). Is the merchant God or us? Butler says both. God pursues us, and gives his most precious possession, his Son, for us. And when Jesus finds us, he wants us as his bride. ‘On the other hand,’ Butler writes, 'God is worth everything. There’s nothing more precious, no one more worthy, nowhere more valuable.' He comes back to Bien: 'When Bien risked her life for Jesus, many probably saw her as just a dumb farmer. But she had a secret: she’d found something worth giving it all for.'

The second of three posts on The pursuing God is here.

Footnotes

  • [^1]  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.




  • [^2]  And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”




  • [^3]  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.




  • References

    Boersma, Hans, 2004. Violence, hospitality, and the cross: Reappropriating the atonement tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
    Johnson, Thomas K., 2014. The first step in missions training: How our neighbors are wrestling with God’s general revelation. Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft.

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