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!

In the Aftermath of Trauma

Many people in my hometown of Orlando, Florida are feeling the effects of trauma right now.  Some of them are victims or relatives of victims of the two shootings which occurred here in recent days.  Others are first responders, police, fire or ambulance personnel who witnessed the carnage or its aftereffects.  But others are experiencing symptoms of trauma at more of a distance – those called upon to counsel victims or first responders, relatives and friends of those involved, maybe even the community as a whole.  We are struggling to wrap our brains around the idea that such massive evil and bloodshed could occur in our midst.  We are shocked, frightened, grieving, trying to “fix it” or to escape. 

 

Of course there have also been some lovely examples of heroes and helpers giving blood, offering prayers, providing food and comfort.  This reminds us of our role as God’s children, entering the scene of tragedy as Jesus did to bring the hope of redemption. We cannot not lose sight of God’s goodness, but, at the same time, we should not use that truth to dismiss others’ pain, jumping too quickly to a hope that many cannot yet feel.

 

Part of the healing that needs to be done is to allow ourselves and others to talk, to grieve, to feel our own feelings, whatever they may be.  Be kind to yourself and others right now.  We won’t always feel this way, but part of moving forward is living in the present, acknowledging whatever may be, telling the stories and validating the pain.  To that end, I offer the following handout which you can download, print or copy for others.

 

Trauma Recovery Handout

 

May you struggle well and heal in God’s time.

What Are You So Afraid Of?

Scared toddler covering his faceWhile stopped on the highway during a violent rainstorm, a shadowy movement in the rear-view mirror caught my attention. It was an onrushing tractor-trailer with no room to stop. Long before that incident, I was stalked through a deserted construction site by a stranger with malicious intentions. And I’ve also heard my doctor say, “Stage 4 cancer” (don’t worry – that was 35 years ago). But none of those things are among my scariest moments. All my worst fears have been about things that haven’t happened. Many times I’m not even sure what I’m afraid of. What really is my worst case scenario? What is it that I am so afraid of?

 

Depending on your source, you can read that humans share three, five, eight or more basic fears. Let’s take a look at a few of them. 

 

Pain and suffering – “I am not safe”

 

Are you afraid of the dentist or a car accident or heights? Then this might be your core fear. Pain and suffering concern the physical realm. If one of our fundamental needs is for safety, then this fear represents its absence. We depend upon others to provide security and comfort from our first days on earth. When that need is met consistently, we begin to believe the world is a safe place. When that need is met inconsistently, we are left with worry and doubt.

 

Abandonment – “I am alone”

 

Have you ever been freaked out by a silent, lonely landscape or thought you couldn’t survive a break-up? All humans (and many animals) need a sense of belonging, the assurance that we are loved, that there is a community which will never kick us out. Someone who struggles with the fear of abandonment may need multiple relationships or constant reassurance in order to soothe a gnawing dread of being left alone, rejected and isolated.

 

Shame – “I am unlovable”

 

Do cocktail parties or final exams make you tremble?  Then you may struggle with a fear of failure, a fear of shame. Developing a stable awareness of our own identity is one of the major tasks of young adulthood. We need a sense that there is something unique and beautiful in our makeup, that we are lovable. Yet, we are also seemingly born with deep doubt about our worth – and sometimes those doubts get confirmed by life circumstances. It doesn’t take much to make shame bloom, bringing an exquisite pain which can be worse than anything physical. 

 

Other fears

 

Psychology texts sometimes list the dread of commitment or confinement as another basic fear, and all of them will mention the fear of death. But in my view, underneath both these fears is really one of the other fears above. A lack of freedom to make one’s own choices means that pain, rejection or humiliation can happen to us at any time, without the ability to escape. And what is death but the ultimate suffering, abandonment and failure?

 

Fear of the unknown

 

Knowledge is power. If we know what’s coming, we can prepare for it. Our mind likes to paint the awful possibilities so that we can be ready for them. That’s why all my worst fears are about things that haven’t happened and probably never will. It can help to ask yourself, “What am I so afraid of?” For example, if I’m afraid of getting in my car, driving to my friend’s graduation and hobnobbing with strangers, what is it I’m so afraid of? Is it a fear of suffering (a car accident), a fear of shame (I will make a fool of myself) or a fear of abandonment (no one will talk to me)? 

 

The Remedy

 

There is a remedy for each one of our fears. Will it mean an instant cure?  Probably not. Will it help? Certainly.

 

  • Am I safe? Nothing can touch me which does not first pass through the Father’s hands. I am secure in the One who is both good and sovereign. He may not spare me all suffering, but God will give me what I need to walk the road He maps out for me, including His comfort, protection and courage. (Psalm 16:8-9; Romans 8:28; Phil. 4:13). 

 

  • sunset in heart handsAm I loved? No human being can be the basis for my confidence, but I have been chosen by God, and nothing can ever separate me from His love. (Rom. 8:38-39; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 John 4:10).

 

  • Am I lovable? I have only to look at the cross to know how much I am worth. God created me for His glory, seated with Christ in the heavenly places (seeing me NOW as I will be when I am perfect), and He is making me more beautiful every day. There is no shame in Christ. (Psalm 34:5; Matt. 6:26; 1 Cor. 6:11; Songs 4:7; 1 Peter 2:9).

When I am in close relationship with the King of Everything who has already proven His undying love for me, then I can never be outside His redemptive plan, I can never truly be alone and I cannot judge myself unworthy when He has pronounced me holy. 

 

What is it that you are so afraid of? After you nail it down, apply the remedy.

 


Related Material

Fear of Death, Abandonment and Failure by the Stenzel Clinic

What We Worry About, The Huffington Post

You Are Loved, Father’s Love Letter

No Shame in Christ, John Piper

Journal Your Anxiety, guided journaling