I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings. — Hosea 6:6
We all want to feel seen and understood. Seems obvious, right? But what is it in us that drives that desire? If we know that we are created in the image of God, then it’s not too far a stretch to say He wants us to see and understand Him too.
But to see and understand God it is important to understand His character and only then can we love Him because He first loved us. I believe this is one area where I have sorely missed the mark. And so did the Prodigal Son.
Let’s revisit that story back in Luke 15:11-31. Here’s my simple summary.
There once was a wealthy family which had two sons. The younger son decides he wants his half of the estate now and the father gives it to him. He packs his bags and over the course of time squanders everything on wild living which results in, you guessed it, destitution. He is living amongst the pigs, working for a farmer, starving, as a famine had swept the land.
In a moment of clarity, he remembers where he came from. He envisions his father’s servants, who have it better than he does, and decides to humble himself and go home. He is heartbroken and ashamed, ready to beg forgiveness in hopes that his father will show mercy on him.
Does he? As the story goes, the father, who has been waiting patiently for his return, notices his son off in the distance down the dirt road. He runs out to welcome him back, full of love and compassion, and seeing the son’s change of heart, commands the finest robe be brought and a feast to take place in his honor.
What a happy ending! EXCEPT…out in the field the older son is hard at work. He hears music and dancing in the house and asks what is going on. He is insulted! A party, in his rebellious brother’s honor? This cannot be! He is angry that the father had never once thrown a party for him. After all these years! To which the father replies, “All that I have is yours. We must celebrate this happy day.”
To be honest, I used to hate this story. I had two large misconceptions about it. First, if God will always accept you back after you party and ‘sin’ you may as well do whatever you want anyways. Why try to obey all the time? Isn’t that pointless?
And secondly, of course the older son would be angry. I would too! The little disobedient brother is off partying and wasting our family’s money and I am here obeying and doing what is right. Now my father is going to celebrate him and he hasn’t done anything for me? No one has noticed how hard I’m working. This is hogwash!
I would imagine the older son saying, “Give me my inheritance now. I’m outta here!”
The reality is that the underlying belief of those two misconceptions is we have to earn God’s love. And when we believe that, this story makes absolutely no sense. How can one son be ridiculously disobedient and in the end have a party thrown in his honor, and the other does what is right every single day, never straying, and then get reprimanded by the dad?
It’s confusing. Or at least it was to me.
Now I see it differently. The truth is, neither son understood the father at the start of the story. The older son was set on earning love by obedience. The younger son never accepted his love at all, and thought it would be better doing life his own way. Isn’t that true for most of us? It’s easy to fall into one of these two categories. Constant obeyer. Or consistent stray-er. I know there have been seasons of my life when I have swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other.
When we are overly focused on obedience we become judgmental and rigid. We don’t want others to receive compassion when they stray and return and we have a hard time celebrating the success of others. Why? Because they didn’t earn it and we feel it’s unfair. We’ve been doing the right thing all along. Who is celebrating us?
As my father-in-law, who is an M.D. says, we have PLOMs disease. Poor Little Ole Me. You can see the resentfulness seeping through the brother’s words when he discovers the party.
“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!”
The brother felt unseen, unrecognized, unappreciated for all he was DOING. He didn’t understand his place as a SON of The Father, owner of the estate, and had relegated himself to slaving away as a servant.
Most of my early life I was set on earning approval from God and everyone around me. I wanted to be pleasing. I was the perfect people pleaser. I carried this thinking into my adulthood. I was trying to earn my love. I was focused on doing more. And I never felt appreciated or recognized.
That mindset eroded my relationship with God and my husband and I eventually got lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had kids and a house and my health but I felt unworthy and unloved. Like nothing I did was enough. I tried to cope with life with alcohol, and denial, and striving for almost a decade and ended up in the rooms of recovery.
Back to the older son…the father doesn’t apologize for not throwing a party for him, he doesn’t try to make it equal, as parents so often try to do. He helps his son understand where his thinking was wrong. He shows him how he had missed the mark by trying to earn His love.
“Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’
I can remember being asked in a therapy appointment once, “What do you think of moms who take care of themselves?”
“I think they’re princess-y. Like they can’t handle enough. They’re babies.” Revealing right? I was doing more and I was resentful of them. And yet, I was the one in the chair!
The younger son, lost and trying to find his way out in the world, desperate and dying of hunger, has a change of heart. It wasn’t because the father was chasing him down, but he knew where his father was and he decided to head back home.
It’s funny how a rock bottom moment can bring that gift on it’s wings. It’s that split second when you say, “What the heck am I doing? How did I get here?” and you wonder if there’s any way your father would ‘take you back’. You don’t expect much. You’ve been humbled by life’s beatings. For life out there is hard without God.
Have you had those moments? Where you have gotten yourself into a tight spot or a desperate situation and it was the catalyst for change? Was that day different from any other or was it a moment of clarity?
Whatever the reason HE decided to come back home.
Weary and downtrodden, remorseful and regretful, he trudges down the dirt road. The father, seeing him in the distance, runs to greet him and celebrates his return. The son could have never predicted that!
I believe the feast highlights the true character of the father. It wasn’t about the son. It was about the nature of God’s unconditional love being revealed, not to those who have earned it, but to those who understand that it cannot be earned.
Today I am trying my best to relax into the reality that nothing I do or don’t do can make God love me any more or less. He is an ever-present help in time of trouble. He will allow me the freedom to make mistake and He will wait until I have a change of heart to come running back to me. He is patient and kind. He does not punish us. He is tender and compassionate. Who can understand it?
Day 22 Lenten Love Prayer:
I can’t understand your love for me. My human brain is incapable of grasping the depth and breadth of it. Why me? What did I do to deserve it? Nothing. That’s what. You created me in Your image and you said “It is good”. Thank you for seeing the good in me even when I falter. Thank you for believing the best in me when I stray. Thank you for watching out the window for my return. Help me to guard my heart against resentfulness that can creep in when I mistakenly believe I am doing something to earn Your approval. Help me to see it is your grace that is sufficient for me. Also help me to stay on the path and not manipulate Your love. It is tempting to want to ask for the inheritance and then squander it knowing You’ll take me back in. May my heart be pure and may I take delight in all that You have promised me is mine. It is not ‘out there’ and you are not ‘with holding’ anything from me. Let me ask for those things I need knowing that you will give them to me, not because I am deserving, but because you love me and it delights you to give me good things. Thank you for releasing me to freedom in your love.
Day 22 Scripture:
— Psalm 103:8-13
8 The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
9 He will not constantly accuse us,
nor remain angry forever.
10 He does not punish us for all our sins;
he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
12 He has removed our sins as far from us
as the east is from the west.
13 The Lord is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him.