The Prodigal God: Part I
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
prod-i-gal / prädəɡəl - adjective
1. recklessly extravagant
2. having spent everything
So begins Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God, a book centered on Jesus' famous parable of the prodigal son. Now, I and every other born-and-bred in the church Christian know the parable of the Prodigal Son by heart. I've listened to various sermons and expositions of this parable and felt that I have a more than surface understanding of the layers of this story. I know that in granting the younger son his inheritance, the Father had to halve his current estate. I know that the part about the older son is also important; that it is representative of the Pharisees and hypocritical Christians in general. I know that the older son was evidencing a lack of love for his Father showing himself to also be lost. I did not approach this book expecting to learn too much. I would never have picked it up except for the fact that my husband kept prompting me to. "This book is for you," he kept saying. "It's explaining things that I know you are struggling with."
So one evening, I picked it up and read it. It's a short, powerful read, and I was done in 2 or 3 sittings. I highly recommend every Christian read it. I know that is a strong statement but it is one I will attempt to substantiate later on. That said, hoping everyone the Spirit moves will pick up a copy and read it, I know many won't, simply because we can't read every book everyone recommends. Consequently, I would like to give you the top things I learned from this book, things that blew my (confessedly narrow) mind and pushed me closer to God. Drawing on current circumstances in my life, He sent me this book at the right time and used its message to radically change my perspective on a few things, break some barriers between us, and jumpstart some repentance that needed to happen...yesterday. Of course, my spiritual journey is not necessarily the most interesting or most unique, but I truly believe that as a church we grow together and I hope some of these revelations can be used by God to speak into your own life.
Because I'm discussing a longer work and because learned multiple lessons from it, I will probably be dividing my posts up and have a separate post for each point.
The first amazing thing I learned is this: There are two basic kinds of people in the world. Keller writes, "there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven" (9). Essentially, there are the "younger brothers," people who encounter God and respond to Him with rebellion, and the "older brothers," people who encounter God and respond to Him by deciding to hold on to the "traditional morality of their upbringing. They studied and obeyed Scripture. They worshipped faithfully and prayed constantly" (10). Even in secular society, this divide can be observed. You have the liberals and then you have the conservatives. You have people who push boundaries and people who try to keep them in place. You have free-living druggies, hippies, etc. and the moralistic, environmental, do-gooders.
Now, many people hate being put in a box and this is obviously just an ultra-broad generalization. Keller spends time explaining that you can move between the two or be a blend. But the main point that he strives to make is summed up in the first sentence of chapter 3, where he writes "Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery" (34). We are more familiar with the way of self-discovery. We all know, or are, that person that rebelled against the way they were raised in the attempt to find themselves, find meaning and happiness. What is less discussed and a pervading problem in the church is...get this...the problem of people LIKE ME. The Moral Conformists. The God-pleasers. The ones that are obedient and stick close to what they were told. And judge the others who don't.
This next part of Keller's book is so powerful I want to let it stand on its own. He writes, "Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformist say: 'The immoral people--the people who 'do their own thing'--are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.' The advocates of self-discovery say: 'The bigoted people--the people who say, "We have the Truth"--are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.' Each side says: 'Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us'" (37).
Here's the thing. There is a lot of judgement being passed on both sides. But, at the end of the parable, the lost son has entered the feast of the Father but the "obedient" son has not. The surprising thing is that the "elder brother is not losing the father's love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that created the barrier between him and his father, ti's the pride he has in his moral record..." (41).
The truth is this "Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently" (42).
It was probably at this point that I had to put my book down in shock. Keller writes, "It's a shocking message: Careful obedience to God's law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God."
The bottom-line message is this: we think that the definition of sin is breaking God's moral law but Jesus is redefining it here. Breaking God's moral law means breaking the commandment that sums up the law and is the first and greatest commandment, per Jesus. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Both sons did not love God above all else and sought their happiness apart from Him. Their rebellion was equal and absolute. But while the younger son was honest and upfront about it, demanding his inheritance, packing his bags, and taking off, the older son was quieter, more clever, more deceptive. He chose to remain by the Father and obey.
By this point, I was clearly identifying with the older brother. I'm a goody-two-shoes. I do the right thing and take a lot of pride in it too, thank you very much. But at the same time, I will freely admit that God is most often NOT my source of delight and happiness. So I was deeply interested to understand how this stance is sinful, what motivation people like me might have to obey. Keller writes, "At the end of the story, the elder brother has an opportunity to truly delight the father by going into the feast. But his resentful refusal shows that the father's happiness had never been his goal. When the father reinstates the younger son, to the diminishment of the older son's share in the estate, the elder brother's heart is laid bare. He does everything he can to hurt and resist his father" (45).
You see, elder brothers seek to control God through obedience.
They try to manipulate God into blessing them, giving them the things they want. Keller writes, "Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don't obey God to get to God himself--in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him. So religious and moral people can be avoiding Jesus as Savior and Lord as much as the younger brothers who say they don't believe in God and define right and wrong for themselves" (49).
When God proves beyond their control and they don't get the things they rightfully deserve, elder brother tend to become extremely angry, bitter, resentful of God. They are filled with self-loathing when they fall short of their own standards and if they find themselves in negative circumstances or encounter failure, they "swing miserably back and forth between the poles of 'I hate Thee!' and 'I hate me'" (57).
Safe to say, I identified fully with this diagnosis of an elder brother type of rebellion. Reading this description, I was forced, in a spirit of honesty, to self-diagnose as someone who has used moral conformity and obedience to God to try to manipulate God into giving me everything I desire. In my next post, I'll try to give a few more details into what that has looked like specifically for me, and how God used this description of the elder brother type to convict me, humble me...and lovingly draw me to Himself.
I'd like to end with a challenge at self-diagnosis. Are you an elder or younger brother? All have fallen short--what type of rebellion have you fallen into? Perhaps you have swung from one to the other. Regardless, I promise that the end message of this book and of what I learned is EXTRAORDINARILY POSITIVE and I can't wait to share it all. The good, hopeful, happy news so far is that I, for one, was unaware I was in any rebellion at all. God used this revelation to move me one step further to obedience, and He can do the same for you.
I invite you to prayerfully contemplate your life and ask God to reveal to You where He can bring change and a heart that truly seeks Him. Carpe Diem!
(To Be Continued)
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