He escaped from the shopping cart like a racehorse bolting out of a starting gate. Running wildly through the dairy aisle, he'd passed the yogurt and cheese before I caught up to him. "Stop!" I yelled frantically as I reached out to grab his shirt. But I missed, he picked up speed, and he rounded the bend near the margarine case to go running off toward the salad bar.
"Wow -- he's fast!" the florist remarked as she watched my 2-year-old son Justin race past.
Tell me about it, I thought. It seems like I'm always chasing him. He ran away from me in just about every public place I took him that had enough space for him to run: stores, parks, restaurants, and even our church (where he was almost "baptized" when he ran into the gate on the side of the baptismal pool, toppled it over, and fell toward the water until I caught him in mid-air by the seat of his pants). He escaped from every way I tried to rein him in: strollers, carts, holding my hand. Why couldn't he just stay close to me? Why couldn't he understand how much better that was for him?
As children of the ultimate Parent -- God -- we run away a lot, too. But God is a Father who cares. No matter how many times we run or how far we go, He's right there chasing us. As Psalm 139:5 and 7-10 declares about God, "I look behind me and you're there, then up ahead and you're there, too -- your reassuring presence, coming and going. ... Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? To be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you're there! If I go underground, you're there! If I flew on morning's wings to the far western horizon, You'd find me in a minute -- you're already there waiting!" (The Message). Jesus' parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son also show God's passionate pursuit of His children. He'll stop at nothing to catch us.
So why do we run away from our heavenly Father? It's not that different from why my son runs away from me:
We think something else seems more exciting. When Justin saw a big truck pull up outside a restaurant, holding my hand seemed boring in comparison. He ran away from me and nearly got out the restaurant's front door, drawn by the allure of the powerful vehicle. Lot of things can attract our attention more than God does: a job, a romantic relationship, a hobby, and even watching TV. We may think we'll be more fulfilled running after these things than we will be spending time with God. But when we devote more time and energy to something else than we do to God, we actually end up less fulfilled than ever.
We're afraid of what He may ask us to do. Justin will sometimes run away from me when he sees me bringing his coat to him. He knows that means I'm about to ask him to leave the house with me to go somewhere. If he doesn't want to stop playing right then, he'll try to flee -- even without knowing where I want him to go. When I chase him and finally get him into the car, he usually ends up having much more fun on our outing than he'd thought he would. It's the same with us and God. We avoid praying about certain people or situations because we fear God may tell us to do something about them that we don't like. We don't serve others in the ways God leads us to, because we're afraid that saying "yes" to God will mess up our lives. We run away in an attempt to control our lives, to set our own agendas. But we miss out on crucial opportunities to grow when we run away from what God wants to ask us. We'll never discover all the great things He has planned for us unless we stay close enough to listen to Him.
We think we'll experience more freedom on our own. Like Justin, we often yell "Out!" when our heavenly Father puts us in a place we don't want to be. I gave into my son's cries to get out of the stroller at a clothing store, only to have him run after his big sister while she was heading for the ladies' dressing room. His few moments of freedom -- spent opening doors that revealed several shrieking women in various stages of undress -- led only to more confinement when I scooped him up and returned him to the stroller. Staying in an uncomfortable situation feels constricting, and we're tempted to think we'll fare better if we take matters into our own hands rather than wait for God's direction. But it's only by trusting God that we'll experience the true freedom that makes a great life possible for us -- a life that isn't limited by our sin.
We don't believe He'll really love us as we are. The guilt Justin felt after throwing his toys -- something I'd just told him not to do -- caused him to run away from me at home. He knew I would reprimand him when I caught him at the end of our hallway. But he may not have expected the hug I gave him along with the reprimand. Too often, we let our guilt and shame over our sins propel us farther away from God. If we would run closer to Him, instead, we would discover His unconditional love and the grace He offers us to grow.
We want others to think we're independent. Nobody really wants to be a "Mama's boy." It seems so much cooler to try to make other people think we can handle everything on our own. That's why Justin ran away from me when I tried to help him climb a piece of playground equipment he was struggling to climb by himself. Other kids were watching, and he didn't want them to see that he needed help. Once they left, however, he returned to me and asked for the help he'd needed in the first place. It's so much better to stop running and admit how much we need God than it is to live in our own strength just to try to impress others. Ultimately, God's opinion is the only one that matters, and His power working through us can accomplish far more than we ever could on our own.
After a while, all our running can exhaust us or hurt us. While we may not end up in the emergency room -- like Justin did after smacking his forehead into the side of our bed -- we'll definitely suffer in some way whenever we run from God, simply because we're headed in the wrong direction.
So why not turn around and run the other way -- into the arms of your heavenly Father, who's been chasing you all along? Often, when I catch Justin, he'll give me a big smile and say, "You got me!" No matter how hard he runs away, he actually wants to be caught. He knows that it's lonely and scary to keep running for too long. The next time you're running away from God, stop long enough to ask yourself why. What do you really want? Is anything worth more than your heavenly Father's love?
It can be good to be caught!