My friend ran away for an hour when she was young to tell some girls why she couldn’t play with them. When she came home, her mom and dad made her sit on the front curb while they had a meeting without her, to discuss whether they would allow her back in the family.
I told my parents I was running away, once to each of them, and a few years apart. When I didn’t follow through, both times the response was, “Why did you come back?” I had to humble myself to answer.
This is probably a strategy for many parents who don’t want to deal with the drama and genuine fear of a little one who runs away, never to be found again. But sometimes, this response has as much to do with the parent’s pain of rejection as preventing repeat occurrences. It hurts when people don’t want you.
Running from God
I ran away from God when I was 15 and years later, when I came back, I felt I needed to tell my parents that I had returned to the faith. There was a catch of pride in my heart though—I bucked at the thought of being humble before them, even though it was instinctual to do it before God. I thought their response would be, “Told you so.” (It wasn’t!)
One of my favorite Simpson’s episodes is called “Do it for her.” Simpson quits the nuclear power plant job he hates, but Marge gets pregnant so he has to ask for it back. When he enters, there are two separate doors for people who want jobs. Applicants get to walk in, but return employees have to crawl through a tunnel titled “supplicants.”
This is only a human reaction to forgiveness, not God’s. We feel we can punish or control others to keep them from hurting us. (There are healthy ways to place conditions on reinstatement of relationship in situations of abuse, and that is a separate conversation. Reach out to someone like: Safe Place Ministries.)
I’ve heard the passage on church discipline “treat them as a pagan/Gentile/corrupt tax collector/unbeliever,” interpreted several ways. I grew up thinking it meant put the person out of your life and close the door. Amish fiction helped me envision it. Because…we just don’t associate with tax collectors in the church! But my children’s youth pastor once preached that treating someone as an unbeliever meant showing them the love of Christ. We woo them back like it’s the first time, and not to make them confess error, promise anything or validate you.
Even though I believe God feels pain in rejection, he doesn’t withhold to forgive or reinstate us. He knows who He is and doesn’t need validation from us, so his forgiveness looks different.
Jesus’ own words describe how different it looks when a child runs away from him and returns. You can’t hear the prodigal son passage too often if you really understand it as a promise from Jesus’ mouth about how God looks at you running away. And how he will receive you back.
While the son was still a long way off…the father humiliated himself enough to hike his clothing and run with naked legs…fall on his child’s neck, kiss him, and shower him with gifts. Such vulnerable love!