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  • Writer's pictureMaria Whittaker

The Prodigal God: Part II

"All these years, I've been slaving for You."

In my last blog post, I explored one of the lessons that I learned from reading The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, namely that there are two kinds of people in the world, or better said, two specific ways of rebelling against God. The first was the one we are used to and was represented by the wild younger brother--outright rebellion, a "self-discovery" mindset. The second was represented by the obedient older brother--a disguised rebellion, a "moral conformity" mindset.

In this blog post, I would like to give you a little bit of my testimony and zero in on what it means to relate to God with an "older brother" mentality. Though a lot of what I will describe is negative, the end result of my understanding this was truly life-giving and it can be the same for everyone.

In the book, Keller quotes Flannery O'Connor, a famous writer who "says of her character Hazel Motes that 'there was in her a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin'. This is a profound insight. You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have 'rights.' God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don't need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own savior" (44).

Silly, right? Enter Miss Goody-Two Shoes, as I was actually called by some kids in middle school. It's interesting, right, that someone that does the right thing and tries to be a good person can be made fun of. But then again, I've noticed that truly good-hearted people are generally liked except in extreme circumstances of persecution. What your regular person does NOT like is someone who pursues perfection and moral conformity out of a spirit of pride. Someone who thinks that they are better than everyone else. And that was me. I'm not sure when or how this "deep, black, wordless conviction" formed in me, but I was quick to realize that God was real and there was no messing around with Him. I saw clearly that if I chose to live a rebellious life and cross Him, I have to face the full force of His anger and all the negative consequences associated. No thanks.

But my heart was not converted and it did not love God. So I chose a different route, something more deceptive and more manipulative.

I didn't see it then--I see it now. I chose to obey God, to live as holy and perfect a life as I could. Because that way, God couldn't hurt me in any way. It made me better than other people, and superiority was right up my alley. Lastly, it gave me control. God owed me. I could RELY on His blessing, His support, and on a good future. It seemed the safest route, and I'm all about the safest route. Always.

Besides making a lot of people not like me, because "Elder Brother" types use their clean track record to act superior and judge others, things went pretty well. I went off to college thinking that I was going to have an amazing life, change the world, and finally retire into all the glory I had made for myself. I thought things would naturally go smoothly, because God was on my side.

The problem arose when, in college, things started to go awry. Some of my plans were redirected. Some of my plans blew up in my face. I had a couple of things (a list), that I REALLY, REALLY with all my heart WANTED, and God refused me. I literally had no box for what was happening--not only could I not believe it, but I couldn't accept it. It made no sense. God OWED me. I had sacrificed and endured real pain to maintain a perfect track record and now when I wanted something for myself, He couldn't give it to me? "All these years, I've been slaving for You." God was unfair. He was not keeping His end of the deal. Here followed a period of intense darkness and struggle where I wrestled with God and with my understanding of what was happening. Things were progressively going less and less "MY" way and more and more, my life was morphing into this plan that God apparently had and that I HATED.

Time passed, and I moved on. I accepted, without understanding, God's plan, but my prayer life grew dry and my relationship with Him deteriorated. I basically shut down to God and though I maintained the outward form of "doing the right thing," deep down, I was really cold towards God and just--shut down to Him. This went on for years...I had no idea why I felt this way but I felt spiritually dead and that there was a giant wall between God and I and even when I would get urges to fix it, when I would miss my closeness to Jesus and passion, I would be confronted by the wall, and walk away because I had no idea what it all meant.

I don't know why, but God left me that way. When I was describing the "winter of the soul" concept in earlier blog posts, and I said it is often caused by sin, I meant it. Even then, I was slowly beginning to realize what a bad spiritual state I was in and how much of it was caused by my anger at God over things that had happened in college.

God used The Prodigal God to fully open my eyes.

I came to realize a fundamental truth, the center of Keller's book: "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" (42).

This truth convicted me and turned everything around. Finally, I was forced to face the truth. I'm not holy. I don't love God more than the next person. I haven't had a clean track record. My life has been filled with sin and rebellion, and the fundamental reason is that I have not loved God, but rather myself.

What a staggering truth to face--but it gives such freedom! Freeing myself to admit that I am as equally sinful as everyone else took a huge burden off my shoulders. Freeing myself to admit that I don't truly love God, but myself, that I don't truly seek His ways and His glorification, but my own, was a key turning point. Now, I could start the journey to healing. Now, things that had seemed like just a black tangle of pain in my past finally made sense.

Here's the thing. You can't have a real Savior until you're really a sinner. Really in need of saving.

Humbling myself to admit these things put me down on the level with everyone else--you know, regular people that need the gospel. It took salvation out of my hands and put it back into God's. It was honestly one of the most relieving and unburdening things to experience.

You may be a "younger brother"--you may be an "older brother." Whoever you may be, you and I both need God. We are both desperately sick--our hearts love ourselves and seek our own good rather than loving Him. How different relationships would look if we could get ourselves to believe that and treat everyone as on the same level.

Wondering if you may be an elder brother yourself? In my next post, I will explore the typical behaviors that Keller describes an elder brother as having, giving you the opportunity to self-diagnose. I would also like to take it one step further than the moment of conviction and talk about repentance and what a changed heart, a changed attitude can mean for me and for anyone else struggling with this mentality. Thanks for the listen, and really, just go read the book! It is a gem and explores these themes in greater detail than I am able to do here.

My wish is for all of us to lovingly grow into greater sanctification, together.



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