I have just recently finished reading “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller. I thought I’d share my thoughts with you as well as hear your feedback if you have read it. If you have not read it- I greatly encourage you to do so. The basic jest of the book is the parable of the Prodigal Sons and how most people tend to focus on the rebellious, scandalous younger brother and his sinful ways, but do not focus on the self-righteous, prideful older brother and his sinful ways. I find this book extremely applicable to those like myself who have been raised in church from the time they were born. Often I go through my list of- I’ve never done drugs, I didn’t have sex before marriage (ha, and even after marriage up until a week ago. Sorry-sad attempt for humor ;)), etc. etc. and check that all is well and God must be pleased with my life because I am not the younger brother. In reality- I am just as sinful as the older brother who equates his life of self-righteousness to being right with God- when in the end he is just as sinful as the younger brother. I feel often times the church, whether by innocence or intentional, teaches us that we must ‘complete these four steps’ of being obedient to God- then God will accept us and we will live a happy life. And whether innocently or intentionally, I feel this has been my most recent mindset. And that is not at all what the Gospel is about.
If you are new to this particle parable in the Bible, or need a refresher on the parable, here is the scripture below :
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Below I list some specific quotes from the book and my thoughts and perception regarding the quotes.
“The targets of this story are not ‘wayward sinners’ but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them.” (pg. 12)
-This portion majorly socked me in the gut. I am such a ‘rule follower’ and until recently was extremely blinded by my own narrowness and judgmental attitude that can come across to people without me really even noticing. It had become part of my nature and as this quote says- that can destroy the people around me and myself.
“Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.(vs. 28)’ 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 create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral records; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.” (pg. 40-41)
-This portion blew.me.away. I am so disgustingly full of self-righteousness. I am the typical ‘goody-two shoes’ and have always been proud of that fact- with sinful thoughts flooding through my head (e.g. At least I didn’t get pregnant in high school, I never have gotten plastered, I always go to church every Sunday, Sunday night, and Wednesday night-and anytime the doors are open, etc.) and that makes me just as sinful as the non-admitting alcoholic or the adulterous woman.
“If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good example, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving your own Savior.” (pg. 44) and along the same lines “Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don’t obey God to get 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.” (pg.49)
-Yup. So guilty of this. I have reasoned in my head for as long as I can remember- “If I read my bible daily, pray several times a day, obey my parents, not gossip, etc. God will be happy with me and I will live a good life”. And it’s not that I thought I’d live a perfect life- but I thought if I prayed enough dark days of anxiety and vaginismus would go away. If I read my Bible enough-the temptations of dating back in the day would flee from me immediately. If I obey my parents to a T I will live a long and prosperous life with no pain and little trials. This way of thinking and living is self-serving and it is showing that I depend on myself for my ‘life to be good’.
“But Jesus says: ‘The humble are in and the proud are out’ (see Luke 18:14). The people who confess they aren’t particulary good or open-minded are moving toward God, because the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it. The people who think they are just fine, thank you, are moving away from God. ‘The Lord…cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud’ (Psalm 138:6 NLT)”. (pg.52)
“If a group believes God favors them because of their particulary true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile” (pg.61).
-Again, enough said.
“People who are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure persons….Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism to others.” (pg.62)
-I think I mentioned this above that I struggle with being judgmental and critical. And I also feel that I am a rather insecure person. I didn’t connect the two until reading this book.
“Ultimately, elder brothers live good lives out of fear, not out of joy and love” (pg.66).
-Reminds me of 1 Timothy 1:7 “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
“A sign of the elder-brother spirit is a lack of assurance of the father’s love. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you. What are the signs of this lack of assurance? We have already mentioned one sign: Every time something goes wrong in your life or a prayer goes unanswered, you wonder if it’s because you aren’t living right in this or that area. Another sign is that criticism from others doesn’t just hurt your feelings, it devastates you. This is because your sense of God’s love is abstract and has little real power in your life, and you need the approval of others to bolster your sense of value. You will also feel irresolvable guilt. When you do something you know is wrong, your conscience torments you for a long time, even after you repent. Since you can’t be sure you’ve repented deeply enough, you beat yourself up over what you did.” (pg.72)
-Can I openly say I have struggled with all three of these significantly in my life at some point or the other? Especially the last one. I remember a particular summer where I was ridden with severe guilt and doubt. I confessed every sin in the book I could think of. I prayed and prayed and prayed for those feelings and thoughts to go away. I read my bible constantly. Looking back, I think God wanted me to quit trying. He wanted me to simply accept His love and grace and quit trying to ‘earn’ my salvation or His acceptance.
“The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants…The main barrier between Pharisees and God is ‘not their sins, but their damnable good works.’” (pg 86-87).
-Yikes. But true.
“Our future is not ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. We will not float through the air, but rather will eat, embrace, sing, laugh and dance in the kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine” (pg.117).
-I have crazy views of heaven. When I think of heaven, my minds picture is a huge flat glass like floor and everything is gold and eye-hurting bright and we just sit and sing all day long. Everything is stoic and solid. Everyone is all formal- no laughing- just going around shaking hands with everyone. Funny. My thoughts of heaven are very reflective of ‘older brother thoughts’- everything is picture perfect, hardened, and everyone is putting on a fake face. I loved this quote as it shatters that picture in my mind and instead I picture lush green fields and majestic waterfalls with the most delicious looking fruit gardens. Everyone is laughing and dancing and shouting for joy. I can’t wait.
“Younger brothers are too selfish and elder brothers are too self-righteous to care for the poor” (pg. 126)
-Which one are you? I tend to be either, or both.
“Religion operates on the principle of ‘I obey- therefore I am accepted by God.’ The basic operating principle of the gospel is ‘I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ- therefore I obey’”. (pg. 128)
“Human approval, professional success, power and influence, family and clan identity- all of these things serve as our hearts, ‘functional trust’ rather than what Christ has done, and as a result we continue to be driven to a great degree by fear, anger, and a lack of self-control” (pg.129)
-Another, enough said.
And a quote to sum it up “ ‘Wait’ I have heard people object, ‘You mean that in order to grow in Christ, you keep telling yourself how graciously loved and accepted you are? That doesn’t seem to be the best way to make progress. Maybe the motivation of religion was negative, but at least it was effective! You knew you had to obey God because if you didn’t, he wouldn’t answer your prayers or take you to heaven. But if you remove this fear and talk so much about free grace and unmerited acceptance- what incentive will you have to live a good life? It seems like this gospel way of living won’t produce people who are as faithful and diligent to obey God’s will without question’. But if, when you have lost all fear of punishment you also have lost incentive to live an obedient life, then what was your motivation in the first place? It could only have been fear. What other incentive is there? Awed, grateful love.” (pg. 134-135)
Oh- and why is the book called The Prodigal God? According to the Merriam-Websters dictionary-prodigal means recklessly extravagant, having spent everything (Intro). Isn’t that the perfect description of Jesus? He is recklessly extravagant with His love and acceptance and he spent everything- even His life- for us.
Sorry for the length- but bravo if you read it all. Please comment with your thoughts, criticisms, questions, etc.