When it's time to return to the One who always loved you

Have you ever experienced a season when you were running away from God? It's not a rational thing to do, but it's something we've all done in one way or another. Sometimes it's painfully obvious when we're running from Him. Other times, our desire to become distant from Him can show itself in more subtle ways. But if you've been running from Him, keep in mind that His compassionate heart invites you to return.

Years ago, I knew a couple that seemed rather happy together. I didn't know all the details of their relationship, but there wasn't anything that stood out to me as being odd or out of place. They were planning to get married, but then, without warning, the woman ran off with another man and married him instead. She didn't even really know him well, but she married him anyway. Within months, maybe even weeks, he became erratic and abusive toward her. Things got dangerous enough that she decided to end the marriage just as quickly as it started. I wondered what would happen next.

Fast forward a few months and I learned that she was back together with her original fiancee. He still loved her and wanted her back, even after all the ways their relationship had been damaged and tested. I remember watching that and wondering what I would do if I was in his shoes because I'm certain reconciling their relationship wasn't an easy thing to do.

All that to say, if you've been running from God, rejecting His embrace, and venturing out on your own only to discover that you've made a big mistake, it isn't too late to come back to Him. In fact, He makes a point to show us in Joel 2:12-17 that He delights in showing us His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

If you've been running from God, whether in big ways or small ways, are you starting to sense that it's time to return to Him who still loves you?

I. A broken heart can be a very good thing

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?
— Joel 2:12-14, ESV

It would be nice if we didn't need to learn so many things the hard way, but typically, it's the hard lessons in life that stick the best. When we read through the Old Testament, we can list so many ways that the Lord chose to bless the people of Israel and Judah. He sent them prophets, priests, judges, and kings. He defended them. He performed miracles among them. He even revealed His word to them before the rest of the world. Yet in spite of all that, they did what humans always seem to do. In their own esteem, they elevated themselves over God instead of submitting themselves to Him.

Joel and the other prophets revealed those errors to the people, but prophets are often ignored until long after they're dead. So what did the Lord do for the people of Judah - the people Joel was serving among? The Lord did them the favor of breaking their hearts, and that was a very good thing. Their locust-infested land was destroyed. Their earthly hopes were dashed, and their idolatrous hearts were crushed.

But the story doesn't end there. The Lord spoke through Joel to remind the people of something they were clearly forgetting. They had spent so many years treating God like an afterthought, that they forgot about the fact that not only is He the perfection of justice, but He's also the perfection of grace and mercy. The Lord invited the people to return to Him with all their heart. He invited them to repent of their self-serving independence with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

The Lord wanted the people to be reminded that there is blessing in repentance, and the Lord was more than willing to give them relief from His swift hand of judgment. Just as He was chastising them with a plague, He was willing to relent and bless them once again. This is such a hard, yet beautiful testimony of God's nature for us to ponder in a personal way.

Has God ever blessed you with a broken heart? Did you consider it a blessing at the time? Do you consider it a blessing now? As painful as it may be, one of the greatest blessings He gives us in life is a broken heart that gets crushed just enough that it's prompted to repent. He invites us to grieve over our rebellion and turn to Him for healing. This is at the heart of the gospel.

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
— Luke 24:45-47, ESV

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, came to this earth to suffer for our rebellion, then defeat the power of sin by rising from death. Through Jesus, we find forgiveness should we desire it. Through Jesus, we find redemption and new life. Because Christ has endured the penalty our sin deserved, we can repent of our unbelief and rebellion, and find complete healing of our brokenness through Him.

II. Let yourself and your family be set apart as the Lord's

Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;  gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
— Joel 2:15-16, ESV

The other day, a friend played a song for me that I had never heard. According to YouTube, the video has been viewed 74 million times, and the song is quite popular with young people. In the lyrics to the song, the artist openly brags about his vanity, his rampant drug use, his disdain for authority, and his exploits with women. As the song was playing, my friend asked me, "Would you let your children listen to this?" I told him, "Absolutely not. I wouldn't want them to welcome that kind of ungodly influence into their lives."

Every parent knows how hard it is to guard their children from the negative influences of this world, but we do our best to guide them, and many of us pray diligently to the Lord for His help. For those who have experienced new life through Christ, we are set apart as the family of God. Our lives are to be lived "set apart" from ungodliness. Our children are to be raised as those who have been "set apart" as well. This can only be done well when our hearts are sensitive to the Lord's leading and we're relying on His wisdom and guidance.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
— 1 Peter 2:9, ESV

Joel was encouraging the people of Judah to do something that would display an understanding of, and appreciation for being "set apart" as the Lord's special possession. They were called to consecrate a fast and gather the people together for a solemn assembly. This assembly was to include the elders, the adults, the children, and even the infants. This wasn't a time for celebrating and feasting, it was a time for prayer and tears. It was a time to regain an appreciation for the Lord's calling on the lives of His children to walk by faith and holiness in the midst of a dark world. It was a time to repent and seek forgiveness with tear-stained faces.

How many of our prayers have come with tears? There are times in my life when I have prayed soft and "safe" prayers, and other times when my prayers have come with tears.

  • I pray with tears when I need a miracle.

  • I pray with tears when I grieve over the sin of those I love.

  • I pray with tears when I have tried to run from the Lord and need to repent.

  • I pray with tears when I see a lost soul come to faith in Jesus.

The Lord isn't afraid of our tears. He knows they can often be the fruit of our hearts getting right with Him again as we re-learn what it means to be set apart from the alluring, but false promises and temptations of this world.

III. Give up your pride and admit your need for mercy

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
— Joel 2:17, ESV

Pride is something the people of Judah had been embracing, but now their circumstances were driving them to a place of humility. Their idolatry and outright ignorance of the teaching of God's word were a terrible testimony to the unbelieving nations that surrounded them. Now as they were being judged through a locust plague, there was concern that the surrounding people would either believe that the God of the people of Judah was weak or maybe had abandoned them. In humility, for the sake of the Lord's name, they were invited to seek God's mercy.

Pride is a common fault among all people. Would you consider yourself a proud person? I imagine that some of us would, and some might not, but pride is a sneaky character defect that has the capacity to blind people to its presence.

Not long ago, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth posted a blog that listed 41 questions that were asked with the desire to expose the presence of pride in the hearts of those who claim to be followers of Christ. I'd encourage you to read her full list sometime, but let me share a few samples that we can ask ourselves now.

  • Do you look down on those who are less educated, less affluent, less refined, or less successful than yourself?

  • Do you think of yourself as more spiritual than your mate, others in your in your church?

  • Do you have a judgmental spirit toward those who don’t make the same lifestyle choices you do . . . dress standards, how you school your kids, entertainment standards, etc.?

  • Are you quick to find fault with others and to verbalize those thoughts to others?

  • Do you have a sharp, critical tongue?

  • Do you frequently correct or criticize your mate, your pastor, or other people in positions of leadership (teachers, youth director, etc.)?

  • Do you give undue time, attention, and effort to your physical appearance—hair, make-up, clothing, weight, body shape, avoiding appearance of aging?

  • Are you proud of the schedule you keep, how disciplined you are, how much you are able to accomplish?

  • Are you driven to receive approval, praise, or acceptance from others?

  • Are you argumentative? https://www.reviveourhearts.com/articles/41-evidences-of-pride/

The people of Judah were proud, but they needed mercy. We are also proud, but need mercy. Thankfully, we can be recipients of the mercy of God through faith in Jesus Christ. So again, let me say, if you've been consumed with pride, arrogance, and illusions of self-sufficiency, it's time to give that garbage up. There is no greater day than today to return to the One who has always loved you. Stop running from Christ and start running to Him.

© John Stange, 2019