There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism.
I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.
Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.
That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.
Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.
We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:
“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)
And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:
“The Lord gave me a message. He said,  "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.
The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.
God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).
Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:
“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).
That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”
The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.
Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.
The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives.
There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.
The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.
Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city.
One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”
And Christina went home.
God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it.
It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.
It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!
Until next time, keep looking up…