One of the ideas that's floating around about God - and especially moreso these days - is that God doesn't really care what you do. If you choose not to follow Him, that's cool; He'll just let you do your own thing. You won't be His people, and you might not go to Heaven, but He's not really going to pursue you or try to convince you that you're wrong. That's what free will is all about, right? God wants you to choose Him, but if you don't....
It's one of the things this world really likes about God. They figure if they reject Him, He's just going to leave them alone and let them do whatever they want. They considered His covenant, chose something different, and now, they are free to pursue life as they'd always dreamt of it. And, increasingly, Christians are affirming this. We actually tell non-believers that God wants them to choose Him, but it has to be their choice. If they choose not...
But that's not really what the Bible says about God, and it's certainly not the God that we see at work in the world from the very beginning. To see what God really thinks about all this, we have to turn no further than the middle of Ezekiel.
Once again, God's furious with His people. They've turned their backs on Him, been unfaithful, stopped worshiping and praying and trusting. Worst of all, they've turned to the disgusting idols of the nations around them. Again and again in Ezekiel 20, God says how furious He is with them. He rails against their unfaithfulness. He's mad. And He's not about to throw up His hands and say, "Oh, well. That's what free will is for."
Now, most will read what happens next and conclude that God is some kind of hatemonger, some kind of irrational, violent, vengeful God.
See, His plan for responding to His people's unfaithfulness is multi-stage. First, He says, He will scatter them. He'll send them out to all kinds of places that aren't "home." Then, He says He will terrify them so that there's no doubt in their mind that He is God. (At this point in Ezekiel, these two things have already taken place.)
Once they know that He is God, He will refuse to let them ask Him for help. They can't just come running back to Him. But He will gather them together, draw them back to the place that He has called them. He will pull them back from the influences of this world and shelter them in His place. And then, He will put them on trial. He will convict them of their unfaithfulness. And then, God says through Ezekiel, "I will make you keep the terms of the promise."
Our world really struggles with this, and for a couple of reasons. They struggle with the idea that God would terrify His people or, in another place in this passage, that He would pour out His fury on them. That doesn't sound like love to them. (But a God who is cool with just abandoning His people because they don't want Him sounds loving.) They struggle with the idea that God would not let His people ask Him for help. But remember, these people have said they are not His people. They've chosen not to be. All God is asking is for them to be consistent - if you don't want to be My people, then don't be My people. This is harsh, the world says. How can this God be loving? (But a God who embraces our inconsistencies and has no standard for relationship sounds loving.)
And then we get to the end and God says He will make His people keep up their end of the covenant, and the world cringes at this, too. This God who was all about free will now requires His people to be faithful? What happened to free will? This doesn't sound like God gave us free will at all or that He even wants love. (But a God who doesn't require us to do loving things is, you know, truly loving.) Again, though, it's about consistency - if you're going to be My people, then you have to be My people. You don't just get what you want out of the deal; this has to be real love. Real relationship. The real deal.
The world balks at this. But it's not the illusion the world says that it is. And it's not at all inconsistent with free will or a loving God. In fact, it's exactly what we'd expect if God truly valued our freedom to choose and if God loved us as fully as He says He does. In this response, He has given us the depths of both.