What causes people – of any age – to turn away from God?
We all know someone, whether family member or friend, who once walked with Jesus. Then, later, a decision was made. It might have been a subtle departure. Then over time, their faith disengagement widened into indifference, apathy and detachment. Their family and faith community may have attempted to draw them back, but no amount of word, prayer or action seemed attractive enough to woo them back to the loving arms of God.
Those who have chosen to walk away from God have their own unique story to tell. Some have been hurt and betrayed by their faith community – believing their pain and suffering to be God’s fault. After all, it was a group of Christians that inflicted harm. There are those that feel that God is indifferent because of the challenges they experienced. They believe their prayers fell on deaf ears. Some have been disgruntled by the hypocrisy and lack of love that they observed in Christians and no longer want any part of such a condemning, self-righteous and judgmental community. While others have questioned the faith of their parents and asked, “What if I had grown up in another part of the world and been introduced to a different religion? Would I be following the tenets of that faith instead? Who says my parents’ religion is the way to God?” Some think they know what is right and best and don’t value the word of God anymore as a guiding set of truths.
At the heart of it all, however, there was a decision to abandon hope and trust in God.
It’s not the first time.
People have been giving up on God for centuries and centuries and centuries.
The nation of Israel, God’s people, even did.
A long time ago, there was a man named Jeremiah. He was a sensitive, devout follower of God who was called to boldly and courageously declare the message of God to the nation of Israel. He served in this prophetic ministry for approximately forty years. The duration of his life and ministry were painfully difficult for Jeremiah. Israel had been carried off into captivity by the Babylonian Empire. Their confinement would last 70 years. The Babylonians sought to assimilate their captives into their culture in order to eliminate Jewish culture and belief. In addition, the nation of Judah was in a bad state – especially after King Josiah died – its people also turned away from God. Soon, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies and the people of Judah, too, were carried off into captivity. The nations of Israel and Judah had forgotten their God as their hearts became more and more devoted to idolatry. Jeremiah was grieved by their indifference, disobedience and apostasy.
It was into this time of captivity that Jeremiah shared these words:
‘My people have been lost sheep;
their shepherds have led them astray
and caused them to roam on the mountains.
They wandered over mountain and hill
and forgot their own resting place.
Whoever found them devoured them;
their enemies said, “We are not guilty,
for they sinned against the Lord, their true pasture,
the Lord, the hope of their fathers.”
New International Version, Jeremiah 50: 6-7
Initially, I asked, “What causes people – of any age – to turn away from faith in God? What causes people to abandon their hope in Him?”
For the people of Jeremiah’s time, one of the central determinants were their leaders. The kings, judges, priests, and false prophets of this period, were steeped heavily in idolatrous practices. It hadn’t just happened. For hundreds of years, the kings, judges, and priests of Israel and Judah had failed to abide by and devote themselves to the Word of the Lord. Instead, they became more and more entrenched in immoral, idolatrous behavior – thus guiding their people to do the same.
Over 800 years before Jeremiah entered into his prophetic role with these nations, the Lord had commanded the Israelite and Judean kings to read, copy, and adhere to His Word:
“When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me’…Also it shall be, when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel.”
New International Version, Deuteronomy 17: 14 – 20
The Lord also commanded that every king have the Scriptures read – every single word of it – to his nation every seven years during the Feast of the Tabernacles.
The kings didn’t do it.
It wasn’t until King Josiah began his reign in Judah that a neglected, cast aside copy of the Scriptures was found collecting dust in the temple of the Lord. King Josiah was convicted by its words and called upon the nation of Judah to repent. And they did for a while. Yet, when King Josiah died, the Word of the Lord was cast aside and forgotten again.
Thus, this people became a straying, lost, broken tribe. They were utterly void of faith. They did not remember who they were or what they had been called to be as the nation of God. They were exposed and vulnerable as they moved forward in life – not remembering how to return home to their assured place of security, faith and rest. And for hundreds of years they didn’t care; that is, not until they were placed in captivity and a place of want.
Through it all, their true pasture, their Hope, awaited them.
Miqveh is the Hebrew transliterated word that is often used to describe God, the Hope of Israel. For He is their reservoir of grace. He is their pool of Righteousness. He is their binding, gathering Hope. This true pasture is the place of God’s saints – a habitation of righteousness – where God dwells as their Strong Tower and as their Rock of Refuge.
The people of Israel and Judah had lost their way and forgotten that the Lord offered Himself and His protection to them – always.
It wasn’t until the captives came to the end of themselves and in their brokenness and need cried out in repentance to their God for salvation, that God released them from their bondage in Babylon. It took 70 years for this people to acknowledge God as their Hope. It sometimes takes time – a long, concerted length of time – for indifference, apathy, detachment, deception, and idolatry to be worked out of the heart of man.
Nonetheless, our God waits.
Jesus acknowledged this waiting place when He said:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
New International Version, Matthew 11:28 – 30
There are many reasons why someone may choose to walk away from the Lord. However, the reasons are not as important as the amazing love and boundless grace that is available in God’s true pasture – the place of His infinite Hope, Peace, and Rest – when someone decides to return!
This is what I pray for!
– and this is why I choose to extend love and grace when someone is questioning, wandering, and more in their faith journey. As my God waits in love for them, I can do the same – trusting the Holy Spirit to invite them back. It is my prayer that whoever has strayed and forgotten the secure, sure and restful space of their true pasture in God will remember.
I have friends and family I am praying to remember and to find their way back to Hope – do you?
Let’s keep praying for our wanderers –
Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
New International Version, Psalm 116:7
Yes, our God of Hope has been and will continue to be good – even as we wait for our loved ones to find their way back and be gathered up to Him.