A lot of my closest friends are addicts.  I tend to really like broken, messy people — people desperate for change and yet terrified of change.  One of these dear friends just spent ten days at my house after a near-fatal overdose on heroin.  He got on an airplane early this morning for Oklahoma City to live in a sober mentoring house sponsored by the good people associated with Clay Crossing Treatment Center and Jim Riley Outreach.  We had some good conversations during my friend’s ten-day stay.  In one conversation we talked about tattoos, and my addict-friend told me that his next tattoo would be scrawled across his chest and read, “Only God can stop me.”  I initially wondered if this sentiment was a dare or a prayer, but then I got to thinking about how God stops us.  When we have a loved one or family member who is making destructive choices, we cry out in anguish, “Why doesn’t God stop them?”  When we are suffering ourselves we may wonder the same.  I think this is what the Psalmist wondered over and over and expressed in Psalm 73: “What’s going on here?  Is God out to lunch?  Nobody’s tending the store.”  I love David’s honesty as he laments about his woundedness and confusion and yet almost in the same breath comes to a place of consolation, “When I was beleagured and bitter . . . I [was] still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand.  You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me.”  I think that sums up how God stops us.

First, He blesses us — even as we head for disaster.  More than any other story in the Scriptures, the parable of the prodigal son reveals how God stops us.  As the younger son leaves for the “distant country”,  the Father blesses him as he goes — knowing the certain heartache that is ahead.  The “distant country” becomes home to many addicts.  Addiction is a two-steps forward, three-steps back sojourn that comes from creating expectations that always fail to satisfy our deepest needs.  We are all like the prodigal when we search for unconditional love where it can never be found.  God stops us by blessing us as we go, because He knows that it is often in the “distant country” that we begin to long for, cry after, and eventually seek deliverance and our true Home.  Henri Nouwen writes of the Father’s agonizing blessing: “Oh, how much would he have liked to talk to them, to warn them against the many dangers they were facing, and to convince them that at home can be found everything that they search for elsewhere.  How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt.  But his love is too great to do any of that.  It cannot force, constrain, push or pull.”

After God blesses us in our comings and goings, He waits.  As Nouwen continues, “Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders.  His only desire is to bless.”   It is impossible to exaggerate the desperation of the father’s daily watch and wait for his wayward son, and yet that is how God stops us.  He waits, wincing with hope.

I imagine that most of us who have wandered toward the “distant country” could tell a story of how God stopped us.  He uses pig slop and poverty, success and accolades, addiction and abuse, getting caught and getting away with things, sin, woundedness, and confusion to stop us.  How He chooses what He will use and how He will stop us is a mystery.  Mike Mason writes, “The moment we start thinking that we can discern some pattern to the ways of the Lord, we begin to draw dangerously close to idolatry.  We come to worship the pattern rather than the Person behind it.”  I think that means that the ways that God stops us are unique and personal and designed to cause us to worship Him. 

If you are lost in the “distant country” or love someone who is, may you believe that God will stop us — that He will break into our personal life stories with His furious love.  Some of my favorite words lately have come from Brennan Manning’s new book, The Furious Longing of God.  I have read these words often.  They remind me of how God loves me and of what to do while I am waiting, looking, and longing for God to do something.  Manning suggests that we learn how to pray — but not to pray for the suffering to stop, the sinning to stop, the wandering to stop — to pray for the furious love of God to break into our personal life stories and not just stop us, but drown us completely. 

“When the night is bad and my nerves are shattered and the waves break over the sides, Infinity speaks.  God Almighty shares through His son the depth of His feelings for me.  His love flashes into my soul, and I am overtaken by mystery. . . . It is then I face a momentous decision.  Shivering in the rags of my seventy-four years, I have two choices.  I can escape below in skepticism and intellectualism, hanging on for dear life.  Or, with radical amazement, I can stay on deck and boldly stand in surrendered faith to the truth of my belovedness, caught up in the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.  And learn to pray.”

To my dear friend — on his way to Oklahoma, may you be stopped by the reckless raging fury of God’s love.  May it drown you and change everything.

“I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me.”  Song of Songs 7:10