An elder brother responds to Prodigal God (Part 1)

While I was on vacation, I read Prodigal God by Tim Keller.  It’s a short book that presents some teaching from Keller’s sermons about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (or, perhaps more accurately, the story of the two brothers).

I had a lot of thoughts as I was reading, and I want to try to get some of them written down, though it’s hard for me to do as my thoughts are always changing.

A lot of the teaching in the book was familiar to me; I think that Keller does a good job of stressing the significance of both brothers in the parable and of explaining how their relationships with the father in the story mirror the relationships between humans and God:

“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.”

“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.”

Keller does point out that people can move from one side to the other at different points of their lives.

In my case, I think it’s always been pretty clear that I see things more as the elder brother does.  I want to have rules to follow, a place to fit, and steps to take.  Whenever I don’t know what I’m “supposed” to do, I usually feel very nervous and lost.

As a Christian, I have known since I was young that one of the dangers of placing emphasis on following rules is that you can become legalistic and self-righteous, trusting in your own ability to follow the rules (of course, choosing to specifically focus on whatever rules you think you’re doing a good job of following!) instead of trusting in Christ to save you.  It can also lead you to look down on other people the way the Pharisees looked down on the people who were coming to Jesus.

Because I know about this danger, I have tried to remind myself that I am a sinner in need of God’s salvation the same as anybody else.  Which is also a rule (“Don’t be legalistic”), but hopefully a good one.

More recently, though, there has been a little bit more of an element of self-discovery in my life.  I used to become uncomfortable with the idea of choosing what kind of clothes I wanted to wear or what kind of music I wanted to listen to.  It wasn’t that I thought God forbade me to have a personality or required me to listen to an “approved” list of music.  In fact, that was exactly the problem– there were no rules to tell me what to do, and the choice was up to me, and I didn’t really know how to make that sort of choice!

When it came time to pick out a new pair of glasses, for instance, I couldn’t see any point in choosing between all of the different styles of frames available.  What did it matter as long as my glasses allowed me to see?  Giving any more thought to it seemed like a waste of time.  Wasn’t that the sort of thing the Bible meant when it said not to set our minds on earthly things?

Over the past several years, though, I’ve begun to realize that God gave me my personality and the freedom to enjoy his blessings as a gift.  And I have started becoming more interested in finding out what sort of person I am.  I’ve used Internet radio to discover songs and bands I enjoy listening to.  (They Might Be Giants!)  The last time I got a new pair of glasses, I actually gave some thought to how they would make me look.  There were some Harry Potter-like frames that would have made me look too childish, and I ended up choosing glasses that reminded me a bit of Doctor Who (who is, of course, an expert in what is cool).  Yeah, I know–  I still have a long way to go!

Of course, it is possible to go to an extreme with “self-discovery” too, if it leads me to think that I’m entitled to try to get anything I want without any thought of right or wrong because it’s being “true to myself.”  Many people have tried that and ended up in an absolutely miserable place the way that the younger brother in the story did.

Anyway, in some ways I think I may be unlearning some of the more rigid ways of thinking I once had.  But I remain an “elder brother” at heart, and that’s what worries me.  More about that in another post.

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