The Prodigal Son: 2. The Mindset of the Prodigal

The story of the prodigal son:

The son who wished the father would die, who only wanted his money, who left and squandered his whole inheritance, at last came to himself. That’s what it says, “he came to himself.” We tend to think that he squandered everything and then immediately came home, but notice that once he was broke he still did not come home. He still stayed away, he sought employment, any employment, demeaning employment. His estrangement was not merely hedonistic – this is a very important observation! It took more to bring him to himself. It was not until there was famine, and he was starving, that he turned and faced the truth about himself. We cling tenaciously to our mistaken ideas about our lives, our autonomy, our freedom, and it takes a great deal to bring us to a change.

However, there is another factor. We see this in his schemes to return – he fears his father’s attitude towards him. He thinks, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ This was not a sudden or one-time statement; he had on ongoing deep-seated assumption that he could not return to his father because he was no longer worthy to be called his son; we see this in the tenacity of his isolation.This fear was a more powerful motivator than his bankruptcy. Even though the father freely gave him his inheritance, and obviously had a kind and uncontrolling heart, still he feared his condemnation. More than anything, we fear condemnation, we fear the voice of our conscience, and we project this fear onto God. Though He has gone to great lengths to show mercy and grace, though the scriptures are full of it, we imagine Him to be a smiter of the evil, a celestial hater of people such as us. We imagine that He looks down waiting for us to do something wrong so He can judge us. This is perhaps the most tempting and the most harmful and evil graven image we can produce – the harsh and hating God. Just like the son, we imagine many many things about God which prevent us from seeking intimacy with Him until our situation becomes truly unlivable.

So, where his sojourn away from home started out as a hopeful assertion of his freedom and manhood, it sustained itself because of shame and fear. So many times we stay in the place of bad habits, of terrible circumstances, of what amounts to slavery, not just because we are strong-willed, but because we fear to step out of them since we are ashamed of what we have become. And we write that shame onto God’s script, we imagine that He is the source of that shame. We imagine that our own self-judgement is our Father’s judgement. It is actually the shocking nature of this story that it is NOT the father’s judgement.

So our sojourn into self-assertion, our foray into freedom, our squander and failure, becomes not so much a stubborn thing of the will, but a fear of change because of shame. Like Adam and Eve, we hide from God shivering naked under a bush sewing our fig leaves of excuses to cover our guilt and embarrassment. Like them, like the son, we imagine only God’s disappointment, His judgment, His anger, His rejection. We become isolated and shut up to pointless and joyless tasks and work to cover our emptiness, our loneliness, our shame. We sieze on every form of law, the more stringent and hopeless and demeaning the better. We think to cover our shame with pointless fig-leaf promises of repentance and humility, when in reality nothing we do can cover us. Fig leaves do not sew well and do not cover well, and neither do the promises and excuses of the prodigal.

The prodigal thinks it will please his father, it will smooth things a bit, if he says that he is no longer worthy to be his son. How enormously he misunderstands his father’s heart towards him! This is almost the most insulting thing he could throw at the father, to denigrate and belittle the father’s powerful feelings towards him. When we think in a way that projects harsh loveless judgment onto God, we miss the mark so badly. The things we think will please God are often nothing more than fig leaves which cannot be sewn and will quickly rot away. It is not that he hates fig leaves or despises our efforts, it is that He loves us in a direct and powerful way that does not need such excuses or efforts.

In closing, I want to observe that the prodigal son’s motivations were atrocious and infantile. He left with selfish and rotten motives, he came to himself with the same selfish and rotten motives, and he stepped over his shame and returned home because of desperate and selfish motives. He still did not want to be his father’s son, even when he returned! His heart was wrong wrong wrong from beginning to end. In returning the way he did, it was a terrible misunderstanding of his father’s feelings towards him to think that the same father who would not withhold his inheritance would so easily disown him. When we come into bad circumstances and make resolutions and promises to God, it is not from right motives! We do so because we project lovelessness and harshness onto God, as if that is the only way He will take us back, as if He has no actual love for us! But, the father said nothing of this, cared nothing for this, didn’t even listen to the promises and excuses. He doesn’t care that our motives are wrong! He will take us back, with joy, without a single thought of our selfish excuses and motivations and ridiculous wrong conceptions about the way He sees us. Of course our motives are wrong, they will only get set right by being with Him; how else could this work? He loves us. That is the point of all this! He pines for us, He longs for us, He constantly thinks of us, He wants us back in His arms so bad! WHATEVER brings us back to Him, He accepts us! Stop thinking that the prodigal had to go through all of this to come to the end of himself so he could get right motives and then return. He never had right motives. It is too great a burden to tell people that God will take them back once they have suffered enough and have learned right motives. No one has right motives. The right motive is that He loves us, and we never return to Him truly believing this. His love for us does not reside in our motives or our faith. HE loves us. Despite our pointless efforts, despite our stubborn and powerful shame, despite our promises that we can’t fulfill and our false and ridiculous humility, He takes us back, He will in time straighten us out, He loves us greatly. The prodigal returns knowing none of this, and as we each stand now, we are yet in the prodigal’s shoes. We do not know how much He pines for us, how much He loves us, we come making ridiculous excuses and with pointless puerile plans that will be swept away by a great and grand love.

If this all doesn’t get us weeping and crying then what does it take? What a beautiful faith we have as Christians, what an exquisite thing all of this is to believe!

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