Elder Brother Sadness

How far would you go to know the reality of unconditional love in your life? Belonging is a basic, human need on par with water and air, something every child must have to thrive in the world, something many adults still hunger for. One survivor of the Jonestown Massacre, where more than 900 people died in a cult-related mass suicide, told reporters that it could happen simply because, “We are all looking for a place to fit in” (interview on The Today Show, 4/4/17). The despair which comes from never quite finding that place can also show up as frustration, isolation, competition and bitterness. I think that’s what happened to the elder brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son.

 

Most of us can bring to mind a mental picture of the angry, arrogant young man depicted in Luke 15:11-32. Moreover, those of us who are familiar with Tim Keller’s eye-opening Prodigal God book and sermon series realize that the older sibling is actually the focus of the story, and we have scanned our own hearts for our elder brother sin. Elder brother resentment, elder brother selfishness, elder brother pride, these we know. But in this post I mean to suggest that those sins grow out of another, hidden problem that you might also find inside your heart: elder brother sadness.

 

The prodigal’s stay-at-home sibling never left his father’s side. He lived in his house, shared his resources, ate dinner with dad every night, enjoying his own inheritance day after day. And yet, when his lost brother returned to the family, his reaction was to accuse their father of favoring the one who strayed. He refused to join the party because, deep inside, he thought it should have been thrown for him.

 

The father’s response to his refusal is often thought of as a rebuke. Yet his words are tender, his tone inviting: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The father seems to be comforting rather than confronting his older child, the child who didn’t realize he always had everything he wanted.

 

How SAD that he lived all those years with the Father and never felt – really felt – that he belonged. And the fear that he never would robbed him of any generosity or compassion he might have shown to others. When I think of the Pharisees to whom Jesus was preaching, it is easy to be judgmental. But when I think of the abiding sadness which drove the elder brother out into the night alone, it gives me a new perspective on his sin and mine.

 

One of the things Keller says the elder brother should have done is to stand beside the Father as host of the party. What if he had understood that all those years of faithful service were never about earning a fatted calf? What if he had spent those years believing he was enhancing the beauty of his own household instead? Might he have taken the same joy as his parent in preparing a huge feast, inviting others to share his table? What would it be like for me to serve with an attitude of giving away what is already mine instead of subtly trying to earn something for myself?

 

The elder brother thought that a party in his honor would have made him feel loved. I often think that, too. (If only I were more affirmed, more noticed, more lauded!) What if he had realized that every day at home was a party in his honor? Might he have lost his fear of never belonging? Every day I live in the favor of my Father, in the company of His family, in the righteousness of Christ, is a party in my honor. O, Lord, let me live each day in light of this sweet truth and never confuse some temporary, superficial affirmation for Your means of grace.

 

Don’t cry too hard for the elder brother; he fled blindly from sadness and fear into sin. But see him with new eyes, as a warning of what we might become if our eyes are not opened and our hearts not grounded in the unconditional love which is ours every day. I have a necklace given to me by a good friend which reminds me, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” I am going to try to believe this harder. No party in the world will ever cast out my sadness, loneliness and fear, but God’s love is able to do it. I want to remember: there is a warm and beautiful place I can never be kicked out of, and I already live there.

 


Some things to think about:

  • The elder brother thought that a big party in his honor would fix his emptiness. What is it that you think would fix your emptiness? Would it really?
  • What are the things God has already given you to show that you belong? Are there ways you could believe those a little harder?
  • How would it be different if your service was never about earning, but truly about giving away something you already have?
  • The elder brother’s fear drove him to pride and selfishness instead of driving him to the Father’s love. What sins do your fears drive you toward?
  • How can we respond in faith to those fears? (Think about things like identifying and embracing your spiritual family, practicing gratitude, creating reminders of God’s love, encouraging yourself with the truth, looking to God for affirmation, etc.) Please share any practical ideas you have!

Who Am I?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a haunting poem called “Who Am I?” from his jail cell in war-time Nazi Germany.  In it he considers the difference between others’ observations of him, as brave and confident throughout his imprisonment, and the way he felt inside, like “a contemptible woebegone weakling.”  His confusion is familiar to me in this season of Lent when we are encouraged to remember our abiding sinfulness and to repent of all its unseemliness before our Most Holy God.  In the process of doing that good work of repentance, I can sometimes get lost in my own shame, scrabbling like a squirrel in a box to find the way back to courage and confidence.  Who am I?  A worthless sinner who even in her best moments can never escape her own failures?  Or the beloved daughter of the King of Everything, a courageous and powerful extension of her Father’s purpose in the world? 

 

Scripture tells me that I am a sinner before I sin, that my humanness is confined by my fallenness, that I will never in this life do anything which is pure or worthy of the great attention which God pours upon me by His grace alone.  When I clothe myself in my most shining achievement, it is, in comparison to God’s beauty, as though I had covered my nakedness with excrement (Is. 64:6, Zec. 3:3). There is a deep and enduring truth here which is dangerous to ignore – I cannot forget my sin nature or the way it works itself out in practical, cunning and consistent corruption.  If I do forget that, it will overtake me.  Even worse, when I devalue my own sinfulness, I devalue the price which was paid to free me. 

 

However, alongside my very real need for repentance and the truth of my depravity, there is also a danger in claiming the name, “Worthless.”  I count myself among those who have taken that name early in life, and we spend much of our emotional capital repeating it to ourselves (Stupid!  Failure!  Worthless!).  We also spend much of our time and energy trying to climb out of that pit, to earn our own freedom, to change our own name, to fill the hole in our hearts with affirmation or accomplishments that we have garnered for ourselves.  I carry a psychic tennis racquet to bat away the compliments I cannot accept, and yet I will work harder and longer the next time around to make sure someone keeps lobbing them my way.  When I live out of my Worthless identity, I am trying to fix my own problem by myself. Real repentance doesn’t try to take its own punishment or repair its own brokenness.  Real repentance throws us passionately, even joyfully, back into the arms of God where we belong.

 

While we take needed time during Lent to recognize and repent of the sinfulness which infects our cells like a virus, it is another part of worship to rejoice in the fact that have already swallowed the cure.  In fact, God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seated with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6) because that’s our truest nature.  It has been accomplished FOR us.  It is still being accomplished IN us.  Our sin nature is falling away, being conquered in slow motion.  Let us not define ourselves by the part of us which is dying.  Let us answer the question, “Who am I?” the way God answers it for us.  It doesn’t matter how much you or I feel that we are putrid pond scum.  God says that we are His bride, His friend, His child, His “Beloved.”  That is who we are and who we are becoming.  At the same time, Beloved could not be our identity or our destiny if Christ had not come to save us from ourselves.  That immense and glorious salvation is what we celebrate with the heartfelt offering of our repentance.


Beads on a String

It was an incongruous place to be stringing pearls. Her hair was a memory, and her face was puffy with swelling, but those beautiful, shapely fingers were quick and steady. One by one she picked out the beads, setting them aside to become an integral part of her latest creation. The others sitting nearby looked on curiously as a slow drip ran varicolored fluids into her chest beneath the collar bone. They, too, had bare metal trees flowing toxic sap, infusing hope. But they did not have the beads, the flashing silver spacers, the diamond-cut glass spheres, and the pearls that ran from her fingertips onto tiger-tail circlets.

 

Her smile was out-of-place, too, in the clinic. Most people tried to sleep the hours away while burning liquid invaded their tissues. But if a cocky beret and an inviting countenance were not enough to induce a conversation from her neighbors, there were always the beads. If you wanted to try, she would let you choose your colors from her box of surprises, show you how to handle the pliers, how to close the crimp beads to just the right tension. So that when you left you would have something to remember: a bracelet, a keepsake, a connection.

 

She gave them to all her friends in those days, a little bit of herself that sprang from the dark hours. A little bit of herself that glittered with life. She let me make my own one day, but I’ve never been very inventive, and she had to help me choose the colors. We picked a handful of blue beads in turquoise, powder and midnight, pearls in white and silver-gray. Some of them looked nearly black to me, dull and uninviting. Others were unusual, with bits of contrasting glass stuck on at odd angles. And several of them were my favorites. I would have made the whole circle of just those beautiful beads: creamy white with soft blue accents and elegant gold trim.

 

She knew better than I, however. Because when I had inexpertly strung all of them together and she had helped me finish off my bracelet, it was a little work of art. I stare at it now, examining each bead and the way they all meld into one eclectic whole. That was her wisdom. Each bead is unique, some dull, others wild, a few lovely. But when the artist has finished, they blend into a satisfying creation that can never be duplicated, a song from the heart of its maker.

 

As day upon day is strung on the cord that becomes a life, it is a gift to hold each one in our hands and notice without rancor whether they are troubling or luminous or ordinary, dull or wild or lovely. The uniqueness and delight of God’s work comes not from a bland sameness of beauty, but from His blending of the light and the dark in a pattern which can only be fully appreciated from afar. And thus the Creator is glorified, taking pleasure in each story which reflects His sovereign artistry. Year upon year, life upon life, like pearls on a string, our days are meant to reflect the heart of God – just as surely as my sparkling bracelet still reflects her love in a world she has long transcended.

 


I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands.  Ps. 143:5