The constant prodigal

I’ve been out of work for a little over a month, and it sucks.

It’s not the same thing as being retired because you have no money to do things, plus my peers are all gainfully employed with (most of them) full families of their own, so it’s awfully lonely for me.

A lot of it is self-imposed, though, as when I get in a funk or in a rut, it proves a challenge to crawl back out.

Hopefully a job I was offered comes through in the near future once background checks are finished, but I’ve had a lot of idle time on my hands, which often translates to a lot of time for me to reflect, which isn’t great because I reflect constantly even when I don’t have time.

As I typically do, I reflect on myself, on other people, on my relationships, and on God.  And the result of these reflections has left me a bit melancholy, which isn’t a shocker given the context of my current state of affairs.

People are weird, man.

Self included.

We’re so particular at times.  So easy to be hurt or to hurt.  So fickle.  So worn out by life that we take it out on those we love.  So affected by the wounds from our past revisiting the present.

All of it just reiterates to me like a screaming voice how much I need God even when I don’t want him.

And I have to admit I haven’t really wanted him for quite a while now, which doesn’t mean what you might think.

It doesn’t mean I don’t value our relationship, because I do, or that I don’t value his desires, because I do, but it does mean I’ve only really been interested in what I want from life when it comes down to it.  And I think for most of us that’s true, even those of us who are most devout, probably at the very best 80 – 90% of the time, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

I don’t want to talk about human nature and the result of the Fall too much because Christians disagree on how much depravity has become inherent to the human condition as a result of it, but to some extent at least, it’s there.  There are parts of me that I know are skewed off from how they should be, I can feel it in my bones, even after conversion and having gone some 20-odd years down the path of sanctification (extreme peaks and valleys though that path has seen).

I’m at war with myself, and so are you.  I quoted this scripture not long ago, but it’s worth a revisit:

I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members (Romans 7:15-23, NIV).

Bear in mind this description is supposedly the state of each of us before conversion and before we live in life according to the Holy Spirit, but, well, if you’re like me, you revert back to this state of being quite a good bit.

The truth is, if we go back to what happened at the Fall of Humanity, we find the same original sin against God is the one motivating most of our continued troubles today: we’d much rather be in control ourselves, thank you.

We want what we want – pride, the primordial sin.

We believed the lie in the Garden that God was holding out on us and decided it’d be better if we took his place, instead, and called our own shots.

It is the root beneath most of my struggles.  And it is the lie that keeps many of us from bowing our knee to him.

One way I’ve ironically been blessed is in coming to grips with how weak I am, and in that weakness I find strength in God.

Many of us believe we are strong, or at the least strong enough, and that we don’t need anything or anyone else – we’ve hit what we think is rock bottom and pulled ourselves up, with help, by our own boot straps.

But that’s awfully presumptuous.  The Christian believes that it is because of grace that we can do anything, and it’s God’s grace going before (prevenient) each of us that allows us to do anything at all.  The assumption that we’ve done anything at all by ourselves is a poor reflection of reality – we do nothing by ourselves; all of life is grace and a gift of God.

Paul affirms the necessity of embracing our weakness in his second letter to the Corinthian church:

To keep me from becoming conceited…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NIV).

And so I confess one of my many weaknesses, that I let pride and lack of trust get in my way quite often, to my self-shame.  And it was meditating on this reality that brought me to one of my least favorite portions of the Bible, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.

Now, you may be surprised to hear I don’t care for this part of scripture given how well known it is even to many non-Christians, but that’s exactly why I don’t really care for it – I’ve heard the blasted thing on repeat most of my life.  I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard on the dadgum lost son who finds his way home to his father, or the older brother who thought he was awesome because of what he did through his own efforts.

There’s much wisdom in the thing, but I’ve heard so much about it already, heard it dissected and analyzed within historical context ad nauseam.  But that’s the thing about scripture and about sermons for that matter, too – they work because there are constantly layers of truth to the same things that can be mined, usually by surprise.

It’s a long parable, but in case you aren’t familiar with it, here it is, not using block quotes given its length:

“Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’  So he divided his property between them.  Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’  So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.  When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in.  So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found'” (Luke 15:11-32, NIV).

A lot to unpack there, which is why there are so many sermons and books on it.  This is one parable in the midst of a few Jesus shares explaining God’s heart, but it says more than that, too.

First, one should note that within the culture, the younger son asking for his share of his inheritance before his father died was a grave insult, akin to him stating he wished the father were dead.  Second, let’s not necessarily assume the younger son reached true humility (as I’d always assumed) when he realized he could return to his father and beg to be a hired hand – the son, being a son, certainly knew the character of his father well, and it’s entirely plausible he knew how the father would react beforehand, knowing that if he returned and showed humility, he would be welcomed back.

It’s these two points among many that get to me with where I am and lead me to look at this parable in a slightly different way than I had before.  I’d always kind of thought this was just an example of a one-off event, indicative of what happens in the singular moment when someone “finds Jesus” for the first time, or however you want to phrase it.

But, man, not necessarily.

How many times have I been the prodigal son?  How many times have I decided (sometimes unconsciously) I’d rather go about this thing on my own and have life my way?  And how often have I come back to God – sometimes not necessarily out of true repentance to begin with, but because I knew I basically had to – after losing myself?

It happens a lot.  [I’ve also been the older brother a lot, but that’s another topic].

I hope it stops happening, but if I’m honest with myself, it probably won’t, unless I allow my heart to become hardened and reject God altogether – which I pray never happens, and leads me to be more cautious with my heart and actions than I otherwise would be.

We are all prodigals.  We are all beggars and ragamuffins at the foot of God’s door.  We are all weak, we are all in need of being saved from ourselves and the darkness in the world around us.

And we all have the same Father whose heart is always ready to embrace us no matter the circumstance of our return.

One thought on “The constant prodigal

  1. Grace, grace and more grace. It’s the only way to live. At some point the prodigal son stops looking at himself, and sees his Father running to him. At some point, by grace, the older brother will also stop comparing himself to his younger brother and come in and join the celebration. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. I’m sorry it has been a hard season. I hope this season of drought brings deeper roots and more joy in the good seasons!

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