“Please Come Home” (Sunday Recap)
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
He’d owned the boat for less than a day. On a Monday in England, he set sail from a small city just East of London, intending to sail to a nearby port. Having no prior experience, he loaded his small boat with three tanks of fuel and took along a road map for direction. He intended to sail most of the day, believing that if he simply kept the shore to the right side of the boat, he could navigate his way from one port to the other.
When authorities finally rescued him, he had run aground on shore, out of fuel. It was only then that his rescuers informed him that he had, in fact, been sailing in circles around the 36 square mile island of Sheppey.
For most people, this is their experience with spirituality and the church. For all our good intentions, all our hopes and dreams of the journey, all our expectations, it’s not until we run aground, out of fuel, that we look back on our lives and realize just how much time we’ve spent sailing in circles – so close to home, but so very lost.
The parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32 – usually called the story of the prodigal son) teaches us that there are two ways of being lost – told through the lens of both a “younger brother” and an “older brother.”
- “Authenticity” is the end goal. Younger brothers value individuality and “authenticity.” This is the crowd who frequently talks about being “spiritual,” not religious.
- “Self-discovery” is the means to that end. The authentic self must be discovered. Younger brothers must go into the “far country” (Luke 15:13) in order to experience life. This is the person with a copy of Eat, Pray, Love on their nightstand, searching for answers to life’s great mysteries as well as learning clues about their own identity.
- Suspicious of authority. Authority is naturally thought to conflict with the process of self-discovery. Therefore younger brothers tend to reject parental authority as well as that of their church or even their government, all in the name of doing life their way.
- In and out of church. As a result, younger brothers are in and out of the church, and when they do come, they are often critical of “programs” and the external practices of the church community. Faith, they insist, is a “personal relationship,” with no need for such “rules” and ceremony.
- Many friends, few relationships. The cruel irony is that in focusing on themselves and rejecting authority, they have limited their capacity for love. The result is that they have to find “counterfeit” means of community (e.g., Facebook/MySpace friend requests). Younger brothers often use people rather than love them – whether to use them to advance their career/reputation or one-night stands. Younger brothers have trouble committing to any real relationship and are naturally incapable of truly giving or receiving love.
- Anesthetizing behavior. Younger brothers often seek identity through external means. This can occasionally turn destructive. Younger brothers often self-medicate to deal with the pressures of life. This does not simply include the “usual” behaviors of substance abuse, (beer pong, anyone?) but may also include those who use entertainment (tune into TV, tune out of life), career, academics, food or shopping trips to give them the necessary emotional high.
- Credit card debt. While younger brothers will defend their behavior as “necessary,” they often find themselves swimming in credit card debt from spending money they don’t have to buy things they don’t really want.
- “Respectability” is the end goal. Older brothers want to be known for being a “respectable,” upright man of society. The expectation is that God will reward them for their moral character. The result is that many try to “hide,” only revealing those “respectable” qualities about themselves to others.
- “Self-righteousness” is the means to that end. Rather than pursuing “authenticity” through “self-discovery,” the older brothers will build a reputation on rigid morality. These people are everywhere in the church. They’re probably even excellent Bible students – though the Bible becomes a weapon to attack the behavior of others as well as defend their own reputation.
- Alternately depressed/arrogant over how life turned out. Two things will happen to an older brother: (a) Following the rules “works” (they experience success): therefore they become arrogant – insisting that others follow their rule-abiding example. (b) Following the rules doesn’t work (they experience failure): therefore they become depressed – feeling guilty that they didn’t measure up. Note that this is often a day-to-day experience – older brothers are practically bipolar, because they are constantly basing their identity on measurable performance.
- Dislike younger brothers. Older brothers insist on morality to the point that they resent or are even jealous over younger brothers. The perceived success and rewards of younger brothers can be enraging.
- Trouble forgiving others. Similarly, older brothers are so bent on their own sense of righteousness and morality that they can never truly forgive anyone. Wrongdoing is not merely a mistake, but a deep character flaw.
- Ineffective at evangelism. Morality precedes redemption. Older brothers are more concerned with making people “good” then helping people live. Older brothers expect others to clean up their act before they can even talk about the whole Jesus thing.
- Overly involved in politics. Doubtlessly, Christians must be involved in politics. But older brothers are so concerned over morals that politics (of either the left or right) become the primary means of changing society. The sad result is a tendency to see political opponents solely as adversaries and creating unnecessary division between themselves and the culture Christ has called His people to reach.
Which brother are you? Most people are a mixture of both, depending on the day and situation.
The common thread between younger and older brothers is simple: “self.” Younger brothers seek “self-discovery,” older brothers seek “self-righteousness.”
In this world, we will be marked and changed by one of three things:
- The things we do.
- The things others have done to us.
- What Christ has done for us.
The gospel teaches us to have our identities shaped in the finished work of Christ. We may therefore avoid the dry functionalism of “respectability” by resting in the knowledge that “It is finished.” Similarly, we may avoid the fluid insecurities of “authenticity” by acknowledging that the Christian faith is found not merely the “discovered” self, but the transformed self.
THE GOSPEL-CENTERED LIFE:
- Hope and joy replace guilt. Isaiah 1:18 teaches us that sin is washed “white as snow.” The life of Paul teaches us that even a terrorist can find joy in the work of the gospel.
- Free conscience. Martin Luther taught us to “sin boldly.” This doesn’t mean freedom to do what we want, but rest in the knowledge of forgiveness (Rom 8:1, 1 Jn 2:1).
- Wonder replaces doubt. Like Thomas, we find doubt overwhelmed by wonder when we encounter the risen Savior (Jn 20).
- Community/Family. The loving Father offers us a place at the family table (Mk 2:15, Mt 22:2-15, Jn 14:1, Rev 19:9). We find true love and community by becoming a part of God’s family.
- True authenticity. Authenticity comes not through “discovery,” but transformation (2 Cor 5:17).
- Suffering confronted with tears, not clenched fists. The gospel teaches us to deal realistically with the “thorns and thistles” of this world. Rather than blame others for the suffering around us, we weep for a broken world. But the resurrection also teaches us to hope for the next.
- Outwardly focused. Colossians 4:2-6 teaches us to make the most of life’s opportunities and share the truth of the gospel with friends and neighbors.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.