I. Have you ever wondered how a friendship begins?
A number of years ago I attended a conference on church history. On the first day of the conference, during the coffee break, a gentleman named Dr. Lee introduced himself. We talked over coffee and found that we had some common interests. It was the kind of conversation one often has with strangers. But over the next couple of days we did bump into each and visit. Each time we got to know each other a little better. Then on the 3rd day of the conference I presented a paper. After I finished Dr. Lee found me, and ask me if I had a moment to talk. He told me that he enjoyed the paper. But he also told me that it could be better. He saw some places that could be improved, some mistakes that could be corrected. At first I was a little taken aback, a little offended. I didn’t know him that well, and wondered why he thought he had a right to criticize my work. But then he told me he wanted to publish my paper in a journal. If I could improve it, then he would publish it. This changed my whole attitude. I realized that he wasn’t trying to make me feel bad. In fact he liked me enough that he was trying to help me improve, and reach my goals. In the years that followed we became good friends, and in fact he was the supervisor for my PhD. That friendship started when he showed he cared enough to correct me, and encourage me to do better.
My name is Robert Hunt, and my talk is “Prevenient Grace”
II. God is seeking a relationship with us.
Before we ever really know God, God wants to have a relationship with us. In fact God has put it in our hearts and minds to long for him in different ways. God has made us restless until we find something that transcends our narrow human world. Yet God does more. Because God is really our friend, and wants us to succeed and be the best we can be, God makes us aware of our mistakes and our sins. And God challenges us with a vision of deeper, fuller, human life in relationship with him.
A. God makes us restless.
1. One way in which God makes us restless is with a kind of intellectual yearning to understand where things come from, and where they are going. We see this in scientists who constantly try to understand the origin of the universe, and how it will end. We see it in children. I have a 6 year old friend named Philip, and almost every Sunday morning he has a question for me. Lately his favorite question is: “who made the tree in the garden?” and when I answer that it was planted many years ago he isn’t satisfied. “Who made the seed?” he asks. And then “who made it grow?” “Where does the rain come from?” “Why does it rain?” He is curious, but curious in the way that God makes all of curious. We want to know why we exist, what purpose life has. And all the human and even scientific answers just don’t satisfy. Only God can satisfy that longing.
2. In the same way we often long to understand beauty. Look at the little valley behind this house. It is so lovely. Where does natural beauty come from? When we see a beautiful painting we ask, “who inspired the artist”, because we know that there must be some spirit greater than our humanity to bring out such beauty. The longing to know the inspiration behind the art, the longing to know the genius that made it possible for a human to do great things: this is a longing to know God.
3. And sometimes God draws us to know him through providence – by doing things for us that make us think that someone is looking out for us. A couple of weeks ago a friend called me up and asked if I could spend a day bicycle riding with him. I wanted to go, but I had a meeting on that day with my superintendent. Then a few minutes after my friend called my superintendent called to cancel the meeting. So we could spend some time together. And the next day as he and I rode, and talked, it became clear how badly we each needed to share our problems and concerns with a Christian friend. And we both felt that someone must have been looking out for us, and caring for us, to bring us together in that way. This feeling we get comes from God, who is looking out for us.
B. God helps us see our flaws.
Have you ever had an itch? You know, that feeling on your skin where you just have to scratch? Now have you ever had an itch you can’t reach? In the middle of your back? That’s the worst kind. But itching isn’t bad. It’s a way our skin tells us that something is wrong, that some kind of poison is hurting it. Did you know that God makes our hearts itch? When we do something wrong we feel bad. When we hurt someone we feel bad. Why? Because God made us for relationships with others, and with God. And our feeling of guilt, or feeling discontent with ourselves, is a kind of itch reminding us that hurting others, or doing things that are wrong, is poisoning us. And it’s destroying our relationship with God. And we need something or it will get worse and worse. We need forgiveness. Bruce Springsteen sings a song you may have heard. “The Streets of Philidelphia.” In it he says he would “walk 1000 miles to slip out of his skin.” We know that feeling. We’d like to put the past behind us, get rid of our faults and mistakes, and be better people. And that is an itch only God can scratch. Because only God can remove the poison from our hearts, forgive us, and make us new people.
III. Prevenient Grace is God wooing us.
When I was growing up our church had something called a “box lunch supper” to raise money for missions. Women in the church would make up nice lunches, and put them in a beautifully decorated box. Then all these lunches would be auctioned off. Now a big thing was for a young woman to make a very special lunch for some young man she liked. Then she would let know which one was the one she made. And wait. She would wait to see whether he buy it, because although she might like him, she wanted him to be free to decide if he liked her. She wanted to give him something beautiful and delicious. But she didn’t want to force it on him. She offered her love, but wanted him to love her freely.
And God is that way. God offers us many beautiful things that God has made. God reminds us that we need healing and forgiveness that only God can offer. But God also makes us free to choose whether we will have a relationship or not. This is God’s prevenient grace. It woos us, and draws us, but it does not force us.
Over these three days I hope that you will think about the ways that God has drawn you to the mystery of the Divine through beauty, through the love shown by others, and through providence. You should take time to think about all the time God has saved you from evil by giving you a conscience, by making you hate what is wrong, or by making you long to be a better person. For God longs to be your friend, to both guide you into better ways and fulfill your hearts desire. And God is leaving you free to choose.