I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Eze 34:16, NIV)
A few years ago, I was taking care of a dog for a friend of mine. She was a cute dog, and I loved her to pieces, but she liked to run. I was staying at my friend’s house, and one day I came back to find a hole in the fence. The dog was gone.
You'd think I would have gotten angry at the dog, but any anger I had was overshadowed by my fear. Now this dog wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. I was afraid that she might have run into traffic, or that she was wandering lost and afraid, hungry and thirsty. Maybe the dog was in the pound, and would be gassed.
Well, I walked all over the place looking for her. I knocked on people's doors, and I walked for miles and miles calling her name. There was no response. I called the animal control people. They hadn't found her, but they said they'd call me in the morning if they did. I stayed up until 3 a.m., walking around the neighborhood with my flashlight. Someone else had posted a sign of another lost dog. The sign was a month old, and it was fairly clear that if the dog hadn’t been found by this point, then it probably never would be.
In the morning, I got a call from the animal control people. Someone had called in to say that he'd found the dog, and had kept her in his house overnight.
I ran over to this person's house. He had her on a leash, and when she saw me her tail started wagging wildly. I called her name and she came running to me.
I had a strange mix of emotions at that moment. I was angry at the dog for running away, and I did scold her with a few words. But I couldn't stay angry for very long. It was just such a relief to see her back, and safe. So I gave her a big long hug, and by the looks of her wildly wagging tail, she seemed genuinely relieved to see me again too.
All the Bible stories and parables about the lost share a common theme. God Himself promised to search for the lost sheep of Israel and bring back the strays, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. The father of the prodigal son saw his returning son in the distance. This means that every day, as his son was wandering, the father was standing and looking off in the distance, waiting for him to return.
In the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, the return of the lost thing was greeted with joy and celebration. God is not a God who only punishes. He is a God who loves, and whose anger is superceded by His love for us—so much so that He left His glory two thousand years ago, came to earth, and gave His life for us so that we’d have the chance to return to Him.
All of this points to one thing: if we are truly willing to return to God, He will run to us, throw His loving arms around us, and take care of us. His anger is for a moment, but His mercy is for a lifetime.