Most of us know the parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus told in Luke chapter 11. The forgiving father symbolizes God, the younger son is a picture of the person who lives in open rebellion toward God, and the elder brother is a symbol of the self-righteous, in particular the Pharisees and teachers of the law of that day.
Originating from this parable, the term prodigal has in our culture come to characterize anyone who has ever acted out, be it through addiction, rebellion, or any number of other destructive behaviors, and who has surrendered ownership of his or her life to an external, controlling influence. And by the way, more of us fall into this category than are willing to realize it.
That being said, at a recent conference I attended here in Southern California, Christian counselor Chris Williams had a rather unique and interesting take on this familiar parable that I’d like to share with you in this post. “Like the prodigal, we all have a distant country we go to,” Williams said, “one where we seek life and love apart from the Giver of life and love.”
Williams talked about how we humans – even Christians – so often go searching for happiness outside of God’s presence, in places where it can’t be found. We look for it in drugs or alcohol, in love or sex addictions, gambling, materialism, or the wrong type of relationships. Or we turn to people pleasing, compulsive overeating, excessive television viewing, and a host of other unhealthy behaviors. But it is not until we, like the Prodigal Son, come to our senses and return back home to our Father where we belong, that we’re going to find true love and joy.
“The prodigal,” Williams continued, “returned to his father empty-hearted and empty-handed. This took honesty, trust and humility.” He took the right actions, and when he did, he was restored back to the fullness of life.
Williams then talked about the older brother… He, too, could have received love from his father, but he blocked that love with resentment. He thought the way to get his father to love him was to earn it. Unlike his brother, he had been responsible and dutiful, and he expected to be rewarded accordingly. Now he was upset that his younger sibling was the recipient of such undeserved favor.
Truth is, the older brother was living in bondage to his own pride and sense of entitlement. He didn’t understand or know the heart of his father. And because he wasn’t willing to humble himself and receive his father’s love as a free gift, he missed out.
“We all have both the younger and the older brother in us,” said Williams. We have parts of the rebel in us but also parts of the do-gooder who tries to earn brownie points with God. Of course, we know we didn’t earn our salvation, and mentally we also know there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less. But in our hearts…that’s a different matter. We often act as if we believe God’s acceptance of us hinges of how well we perform in our Christian lives.
What is your distant country? Is it career? Achievement? Travel? Sports? Entertainment? Social media? You may not be struggling with an addiction or pursuing something that is sinful in itself, but any time you go looking for fulfillment outside of God’s presence, giving someone or something else precedence over Him in your life, I can promise you this: You are on the wrong path.
Whatever it is that has lured us away from the comfort of God’s embrace, the remedy is always the same: To realize that our Father still loves us; that He wants us to come home and stay home. “The addict who relapses,” said Williams, “needs to just keep coming home, over and over, as many times as it takes, until he stays there. This is what recovery is: You just keep coming home.”
The Prodigal Son expected judgement from his father but was met with nothing but compassion. It’s the same way with our heavenly Father: There is no shaming, blaming, or even explaining to be done. Our Father is always waiting, watching and hoping for us to come to our senses and come back home. In fact, just like the father in the parable, God isn’t just waiting, He is moving toward us, wanting to embrace us and celebrate our return.
The happiness we crave so much is not “out there” somewhere. No, it is right here, right now, right where we’re at. To lay hold of it, we simply need to open our hands and receive it. There is nothing our heavenly Father wants more than to show us how to live an abundant life at home, in His loving presence.