Many times we want the benefits of work minus the suffering, or we want resurrection without crucifixion. In the story of the prodigal son, the judgmental elder brother did work hard, but relationally he was a coward; he dodged familial responsibilities that could have caused him emotional turmoil. Yet because he sacrificed much during his time working the estate, he felt justified in kicking his feet up when it came time to do the hard relational work he was supposed to facilitate.
The elder brother enjoyed the benefits of his little brother’s rebellion. He got to scapegoat him as the bad and sinful one while resting comfortably in his arrogant self-righteousness. The last thing he would have wanted was for his sibling to return home empty handed and be honored with a celebration. He was convinced that he himself was the loyal one—the committed, dutiful, and faithful son—and if he did receive payment of two-thirds of the family estate, as Young suggests, he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to return it. The elder would have wanted to keep his father’s wealth, convincing himself that he earned it.
This posture of expecting God’s favor without confronting our obstacles to right relationship with him and others marks many of our restoration journeys. My clients sometimes desperately look to me to repair what is broken inside them. “How do I get well, Andrew? Can you fix me?” Early on in my practice, I would answer the question with “Well, there are no easy answers or twelve-step programs but a long and arduous journey ahead.” It was true but not very compelling. For the past few years, I have been trying a different approach. When the client poses the question “What do I need to do to heal?” I now simply say, “You must suffer, bleed, and die.”
My clients typically look at me with horror and intrigue. However, despite my propensity for using provocative words to elicit emotional responses, I truly mean it. We cannot taste resurrection until we have drunk deeply from the cup of suffering. The elder brother refused to lean into the suffering that came to him and engage in his family’s relational drama. He wanted the gifts of the father without accepting the cost of remaining in relationship.
We all want to get well, until we know the cost. We like the idea of becoming new and whole, until we realize what it will take. We think that God should spare us from suffering because we have lived dedicated lives. Our entitlement inclines us to think that wholeness will (or should) come quickly, painlessly. But the journey through healing change couldn’t be more different. As Jesus says in John 16:33, “In this world you will have tribulation” (emphasis added). Our work is to learn how to let the suffering arise and enrich our lives rather than resist it. We must not have a sense of entitlement when it comes to our own healing; instead, we must gather the courage to enter into difficult emotional territory, something the elder brother wasn’t willing to do. Healing cannot be inherited or caught from someone else; we must take the death-defying pilgrimage of restoration for ourselves. This involves engaging our stories, telling ourselves the truth about our conditions, grieving our suffering, and choosing to break unhealthy patterns in our relationships.
I am reminded of the story Jesus told of the tax collector and the Pharisee:
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’” Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” (Luke 18:9–14, MSG)
Jesus continually calls us to look at ourselves in the mirror and tell the truth about what we see. Just as it was for the Pharisees, the journey toward humility is difficult. Yet the sooner we can admit to our inner entitled elder brother, the sooner we can let go of the sense of entitlement that keeps us isolated from relationship and the very heart of the Father.
Cover image by John Jason.
Adapted from Stumbling toward Wholeness by Andrew J. Bauman. Releasing September 18, 2018, from NavPress. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of NavPress and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.