The Pursuing God

July 11, 2016 at 5:20 pm


“Jesus reveals a God who comes after us, who is on the prowl, hunting down his world for reconciliation. And the question we’re left with is not whether we’ve been good enough, jumped high enough, or sought hard enough…The question is, do we want to be found.” – The Pursuing God

I first met Josh Butler at Multnomah Seminary in the early 2000’s. At the time I was working part-time in the admissions office while working through an MDiv. Josh had called with some interest in enrolling but had a number of questions before taking the plunge. We agreed to meet for lunch and talk through his concerns.

I liked Josh immediately. If you have read either of his books then you know how passionate and theologically profound he is. Even in his pre-seminary days, Josh drew me into deep conversations that afternoon about culture, missions, the arts, and even amillennialism. Thankfully, within a few short months, we were studying together.

In seminary, Josh was ambitious and hungry to grow both spiritually and intellectually. He asked hard questions. It surprised very few of us when his first book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet, finally hit the bookstores. With a whimsical and pastoral tone, that book tackled questions of God’s’ wrath, the existence of Hell, and the Canaanite genocide. Appropriately, it was met with applause, and his newest work is sure to receive equally as much.

In The Pursuing God, Butler sets out to make a case for “the hound of Heaven” who is not waiting anxiously for His children to come find him, but is instead, actively pursuing them at every turn. In contrast to popular expressions of spiritual formation that urge followers to engage in a constant “search for God”, Butler pulls back the pages of scripture to reveal a more accurate picture of a Father who leaves Heaven in order to bring his children home.

Along the way, Josh walks us through a myriad of theological minefields including the crucifixion, divine anger, sacrifice, human suffering and the trinity. And he does so in the same manner that worked so well in in his first book. While refusing to back away from the theological issues that many of us try so hard to avoid, Butler invites us into a conversation through his writing voice which is, first and foremost, pastoral. With a combination of excellent biblical exegesis, personal story, and a conversational tone, Josh’s book made me feel as if we were sitting in a coffee shop again, talking about a recent Metzger lecture, or the songs I heard him play the night before in a local bar. Josh isn’t writing to show off his theological chops (which he certainly has), he is writing to lead you closer to the God he knows.

If there was a shortcoming in the book, it would be that the chapters were often too brief. I wanted more. While the brevity often worked well to sustain the pace of the book, much of material felt like I was getting a fly-over. There is enough material to make a clear and effective case for his thesis, but often too little for those who will enter these pages with an analytical itch that needs to be scratched. Defending the exclusiveness of Christ in under 10 pages is a virtually insurmountable task for any theologian.

This is not to suggest that the work is somehow “theology light.” It is in fact, quite the opposite. Josh’s explanation of recapitulation, biblical metaphors, and his understanding of ancient near east culture peels back the biblical narrative and invites us all to see a familiar story with a fresh new perspective. Take a glance at the endnotes filled with names like Wright, Newbigin, and Augustine and you will quickly see that Josh has done plenty of homework, and it shows.

And if there was one more thing that I wanted more of as I read Josh’s book, it would have been a more pointed discussion of the “theology behind the theology.” When Butler pits “us pursuing God” versus “God pursuing us”, he isn’t merely offering a slight adjustment of perspective. Josh’s suggestion is a fundamental paradigm shift for anyone willing to dive in. Those who regularly teach that “God must be found” are not ignorant of the opposing viewpoint, they just fundamentally disagree. If Josh’s book was more concerned about fighting theological battles and less concerned about leading people to Jesus (which thankfully, it is not) frightening words like Arminianism and Calvinism might have appeared between its pages. Admittedly, including those would have been a deathblow to the text, and I am grateful that Josh has chosen a much more whimsical approach to his writing.

To be clear, Josh has written one of the most accessible books on Reformed theology drafted in recent years.  His explanation of covenant theology, the sovereignty of God, the eucharist, cultural renewal and the unified story of God’s redemption are presented without the use of language that has become weighed down by decades of caricature and religious baggage. But it is more subtle than blatant, adding to, instead of taking from, his central thesis that God is radically for his children and on a mission to bring his orphans home.    

In the end, this is Josh Butler at his best. Taking theology from the high shelf and feeding it to the masses in ways that are both attractive and digestible. If you are anything like me, you too are prone to hiding, tempted to spend each day searching for fig leaves that will cover your nakedness, always anxious that God might discover we are all frauds at some level. Josh’s book offers an invitation to step out of the shadows and be found.

It is frightening, but there is freedom to be found. Take the invitation.