We are all runaways

Life and circumstances caused me to put a hold on this blog for the past six weeks, but I’m determined to get back into writing again. A lot has happened, not the least of which is, by God’s providence, I now have an exciting new position at an amazing startup company! I’ll be talking about that more later, but what drove me to write today relates to something that happened at work this past week.

It had been a strange year in terms of weather in the Bay Area. Even though we’re having a typical California summer in which most days are warm and dry, a few days ago it suddenly got very windy and cloudy and chilly and even a little rainy throughout most of that day. Right from the morning, everyone at the office caught a weather-induced feeling of gloominess.

But then the day got worse. A phone call brought the unexpected and concerning news that the 14-year-old sister of one of my co-workers had run away from home. My co-worker was teary-eyed, but there’s nothing much she could do about it, being that her home is 2000+ miles away. I wanted to offer anything to help her out, but really all that could be done was to wait anxiously for her sister to come home. For my part, I silently prayed that God would keep her sister safe in His hands.

As the hours trickled past and there were no updates on my co-worker’s sister’s whereabouts, I started getting distracted from work as well. Because I’m passionate about youth, and I work with several teenage girls in the youth group at my church, those girls’ faces kept popping up in my head, and I asked myself: how would I feel if one of them ran away from home? I started getting more and more nervous and I read some online articles about runaways.

Then, at the end of that long day, my co-worker finally received a phone call that her sister has come home! She was relieved, and so was I!

During my drive home, finally feeling some happiness after a long and gloomy day, I remembered how Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It aptly describes what we’re like when we are lost — like the son who denied any meaning in continuing to build a relationship with his father, but instead choosing to run away to find a life, a meaning, and an identity for himself. So in a way, we are all runaways.

Many people misunderstand that the message of Christianity is about condemning people for doing “bad things.” However, the gospel actually repeatedly talks about people trying to do good and moral things on their own without the need for God. The main issue is not about one’s deeds, but about one’s denial and usurpation of God’s place in one’s life. Instead of relating to God and depending on Him for our lives, we run away from Him to try to build our value and identity on our own.

The amazing thing is that the gospel also reveals God as a loving Father longing for us to come home. As Augustine said back in 4th century A.D., “You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

A couple days ago I just happened to have shown a Jackie Chan movie to my kids (I wanted them to learn who Jackie Chan is!) called “The Spy Next Door.” It was basically a fun laugh-out-loud action comedy, but if you look deeper, the movie is also about three children who ached in their hearts because of a missing father. Those who run away will soon find that home is not just a place, but a part of their heart. God created us in a way that our hearts can only be fully satisfied when we have a restored relationship with Him. Even though we are not lovable, by His grace He calls us His children, and He asked us to call Him our heavenly Father.

When the prodigal son returned, Jesus described how the father ran out to meet his son and lavished on him such love and forgiveness. Likewise, that’s what our God is toward us. As Ray Ortlund beautifully put it in the book “The Gospel”: “Our willful denial of God is the mega-offense above all our other offenses that God challenges by his massive love in Christ.” And on that gloomy day during those anxious hours in the office, I was fortunate to be able to feel just a little bit of what it’s like for God to wait for His runaway children to come home, and what kind of celebration it would be to welcome the lost child back where he/she belongs.

Actually my own story of coming to faith in Christ also mirrors the story of a runaway. When I first went to Austin, Texas for college, I tried to avoid Christians, but the love among the local Christians drew me hard to that community. After a few months with them, they asked me to go with them to a winter retreat, and so I did what I did best: I ran away. I left town and went to my favorite uncle and aunt’s place, intending to spend the winter there and away from those pesky Christians. But my uncle and aunt were also Christians (that’s why they were/are my favorites — because of their genuine love and care for me), and after spending a few days with them and their friends, I had the chance to again witness their faith and conduct. A few hours before the winter retreat was about to start, they suddenly asked me again whether I wanted to go there. This time, I said yes. Someone arranged a ride for me to get there, but during the journey, the car broke down! Fortunately, not even a broken down car could prevent me from getting there. At the winter retreat, I heard the gospel clearly, and it was there I realized nothing in this world except God alone could satisfy the hunger deep within me.

That was many years ago, but from time to time, I’ve wanted to run away from God. There’s something in our sinful nature that wants to stir up our self-centered desires and to propagate the lie that it’s more liberating to be free from God and to live the way I want however I want. But in the end, it would never satisfy. The runaway must come home.