When I stumble in my spiritual life, whether it’s a whole-hog wallow or just a baby toe in the dirt, my comeback is the same: I turn around and head home to the Father. And I receive his love and forgiveness. And then I head into the after-party.
Pretty simple, really, regardless of whether it’s just a little trip or a full-on face plant. These pieces of coming back to God come right out of the best Bible story I know about restoring a broken relationship with God, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
Since it’s familiar, I’ll briefly summarize: a younger son asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive, and he leaves home and spends it all on wild living. When the story opens, he’s broke and starving, longing to eat the pods he feeds to pigs. But he comes to his senses and says, “My father’s servants eat better than this! I’m going home. I’ll tell my father I’m not worthy to be his son. Maybe I can work for him as a hired hand?”
So he gets up and heads home. The father sees him “a long way off” and is filled with love. He runs to meet him, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. The son has planned what he will say, but the father hardly listens. He’s so glad to have him back, he tells his servants to bring a robe and ring for his son and to fire up the grill for a party before the son can say “sorry.” They’re going to kill the calf they’ve been fattening up for the next shindig, and this is it, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. So they began to celebrate,” 15:24.
I’ve had experience with a prodigal son. When he finally comes home, you’ve got questions. And you want answers. You mainly want to hear that he sees the error of his ways and has had a change of heart, but you also want to know where he’s been and when did he eat last. What is not intuitive is throwing a party, unless the party games will include Twenty Questions.
So I’m surprised by what this story doesn’t include. The son doesn’t say anything about where he’s been or what he’s done. He doesn’t defend himself or blame shift, “you know those wild friends of mine…” There’s no mention of having learned his lesson. There’s no getting down on his knees and begging for forgiveness or for a job or a meal. There are no words about feeling sorry.
These missing pieces are part of what I’d expect to find in a story like this. But maybe the son doesn’t have many words because the father doesn’t ask any questions. Another surprise—no questions. And the father doesn’t scold or act cold. He doesn’t demand an accounting of the money his son left with. He doesn’t sit him down for a good talking-to. The father doesn’t spend one moment ranting or in stony silence.
He’s actually quite the opposite: he’s genuinely overjoyed, and he doesn’t disguise his delight. When the father sees his son, he runs to meet him. And he’s effusive with his affection. He throws his arms around him and kisses him. He honors him, putting his own finery on him that shows, “This is my son!” And he directs the servants to kill that calf. The son is so taken aback, that while he begins to say the words he’s planned to say to his father, “I’m not worthy…,” he never gets them all said. The father is just too busy rejoicing and directing party plans to listen.
I’ve wondered how the father just happened to see his son a long way off. He had to have been watching regularly to have seen him on this one night-of-all-nights. Maybe it had become a habit every evening, the father thinking, “If he travels all day, he just might be home in time for supper…”
The father isn’t bitter or lost in regret and self-blame. He keeps his eyes and heart open. He watches. He waits. This surprises me, too. It’s an enormously difficult posture to maintain, keeping an openhearted, warm affection for a son who’s rejected you and made foolish choices with your money. And in this case, it’s a lot of money. But there’s not a hint of snarky in the father. He simply hopes.
It’s much easier to lose hope than to keep one’s hope “on.” Hanging on to hope means keeping a soft heart, one that suffers a son’s choices and keeps relationship to him open and friendly anyway. It’s a refusal to give up on him, a determination to keep hope and love, like twin faucets, on.
I’m taking notes.
The son likely didn’t pack a lunch for the road trip home since he was starving before he began. No doubt he was weak with hunger when he got there. The father would have noticed his son’s condition, would have felt his bony frame with that bear hug, so he set about to meet his son’s need to eat.
Maybe this is why the father doesn’t ask questions. Maybe his goal isn’t to have his curiosity satisfied or to find comfort in whether or not the son has figured life out. The father is thrilled, simply to have his son in front of him and breathing. His goal is to give his son what he needs because he loves him. And he does it with a feast elaborate enough to warrant an entire calf on the spit.
And why not? As the father himself says, “…this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” What else is there to do that would make any sense under the circumstances but to celebrate?
Many folks more learned than I have said this parable tells how God receives us back after we’ve sinned. I got stuck this week, though, wondering where the son’s repenting and confessing and asking forgiveness and feeling sorry and answering all the questions comes in a story like this.
Surely, God wants to hear us tell him how we’ve sinned? Surely, he wants us to promise to try harder to do better? Surely, he wants us to at least feel sorry? But a couple of these learned people say he doesn’t want that at all.
And this has been the greatest surprise for me.
They said that what God wants is for us to turn away from our sin and toward him. Turns out, that’s what the word repent means in both of the original languages of the Bible: to turn. Repentance is getting up out of our face-plant, pulling our big toe out of where it’s stuck, and deliberately going to God, right on the spot. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what we say or feel.
It’s what we do.
Repenting happened when the son “came to his senses,” got out of the pigsty, and headed home. It’s not any particular words he said. The father is already running to him and embracing and kissing him before he has a chance to say any words at all. It wasn’t asking forgiveness that makes him forgiven.
What’s more, the father watched for his son every night before the son ever came to his senses and headed home in the first place. The father had already forgiven his son. That’s why the father hardly hears him, because reconnecting with the father isn’t about what the son does. It’s about what the father’s done.
It’s because of the father’s love and forgiveness that the door is always open and the light is on and there’s someone waiting up. The father’s delight is having his boy home, whether he’s gotten himself straightened out yet or not. The father knows that only love has ever straightened anyone out.
God’s not worried about sin. He’s already dealt with sin for us. What he most wants to give us is his love, not his furrowed, disapproving brow. It’s his love that makes us more like his Son, not his judgment. Judgment for sin was satisfied at the cross. It’s over and done.
“Talking it out” isn’t what happens first when we come back to God. It’s saying, “Help!” I love that, because sometimes I don’t have words for what I’ve done—I just want to come home. There will be plenty of time for heart-to-hearts later. As far as he’s concerned, once I’m hollering for help, it’s time to meet me with kisses and find the wine.
And just like that, we’re reconnected, and I’m home.
God’s not like any parent I know. Deliberately indulgent. Foolishly forgiving. Lavishly loving. I’m not sure I approve of his parenting, to tell you the truth. By his behavior in this parable, you’d think sin doesn’t matter much.
But sin does matter to God. Why else would he allow his own son to suffer and die? If sin doesn’t matter, then Jesus died for nothing. God is holy, and sin is intolerable. In order for him to have a relationship with us, Jesus had to die so that our sins were covered. And because he did, we can directly connect to the Lover of Our Souls anytime we think of him.
There’s no need to wring our hands over sin or try making up for it by being really good, thinking we can pay God back. The truth is, we can’t be really good, and we can’t pay him back. And it’s an insult to Jesus’ sacrifice for us to think we can. Do we really think we can add anything of value to what Jesus has already paid for, with blood?
Imagine sitting down to pay your power bill and discovering it’s already been paid in full, for life. You owe nothing. It would be silly to sit down every month and grieve over the fact that you don’t have the money to pay it, or to write a bad check to cover it, or to feel awful about how much it cost the one who paid it for you. None of these options would make sense. And none of them would communicate the gratitude you feel to the one who’s paid it for you.
“Trying harder to do better” is the same sort of silliness. We can’t try harder to do better. If we could, if we could amend our meanness and humble our pride, we wouldn’t need a Savior in the first place. It’s because we need him that we have him.
How can we thank God for the indescribable gift of his Son? Weep and wail over our cancelled debt? Try proving we didn’t need him in the first place by being really good? Or go crazy, praising? I’m guessing God likes crazy praise.
That’s why the father gets the party started as soon as his son is in his arms, because there’s nothing else to do but celebrate. The sin’s already paid for. The father’s love has covered it all. It’s a love so deep and wide, it’s hard to believe, much less receive. Grace is so darn humbling because it requires us to admit we have nothing to offer in exchange for it except our need.
Is God really this extravagant with forgiveness and love, or is this description of grace too good to be true? If you knew that your return to God was this wonderful, if you knew that he was already running to welcome you as soon as you turned to him, and if you knew that what he most wanted was to celebrate your return, would you turn to him more often—or less?
Yeah. Me, too.
It’s the enemy who wants to make us believe that God’s angry with us or that he’s disappointed in us when we sin and that we will have to go through the wringer to confess and repent well. And it will be such a lot of work to get it all straightened out.
In the meantime, sin looks easy and fun. Thrilling. Satan knows how to present it so that we only see what’s glitzy and glamorous, until it reaches in and rips our hearts right out of our chests.
Regret and shame might feel like worthy tools of repentance, but they’re prime tools of the enemy. They distract us from the glory of grace. They focus us on ourselves and our sin, not on the wonder of Jesus. And they keep us from celebrating when we get home. God says, “Party on the dance floor!”
I find a lot of joy believing that Almighty God sees me from a long way off and runs to meet me when I turn to him. I like to imagine that even before I get on the road, God sees me hauling myself over the pigsty fence.
And he’s running.
Those who have informed me this week are
Tim Keller in Prodigal God and
Brennan Manning in The Ragamuffin Gospel.
The meaning of repentance is from
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996.