Sometimes the best gift we can offer the ones we love most is to allow them the freedom to fall flat on their faces.
Luke 15:11-32 (New International Version)
“Jesus continued: ‘”There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.'”
In my continued study of Luke this year, I have finally come to what is arguably one of the most beautiful passages of the bible. The tale of the prodigal (or lost) son is has all of the best elements of a good story well told. There is discontent, betrayal, failure, crisis, climax, redemption, resentment, revelation, and resolution. As I have studied it, I have always focused upon my favorite character, the father, whose disposition mirrors that of our heavenly Father. More specifically, I have focused on the father’s reception of his son upon the latter’s homecoming. When I take time to meditate on what it means that a middle eastern patriarch would gather up his robes, reveal his ankles, and run to scoop up and celebrate a wayward child, who had essentially wished him dead by demanding his inheritance, then abandoned the family to squander the very resources he had so insolently requested, I well up with tears. It makes no sense to me that God did this for me, and watches out for every wayward soul to return home, ready to greet and scoop them up with the same eagerness. It is my desire that every human being would luxuriate in this type of soul-stirring, life altering, mind-blowing love.
My focus today, however, is not the father’s reception of his son, but his granting of the initial request. While discussing this passage with the wonderful women who comprise my bible study group, someone brought up the fact that the father gave the son his inheritance, fully aware of what the young man would eventually do with it. We wondered aloud why would the father give in to such a destructive request. Some shared that the father probably wouldn’t have been able to stop the son in the first place. Some believed that the son would have just found another way to get his share and leave, probably causing much more damage in the process. Another woman surmised that had the son remained, his bitterness and resentment would only have grown exponentially. Whatever the reason, we surmised, the author of the parable, Jesus himself, chose to create a story where the father, who represents God, indulged a rebellious and ungrateful son’s self-centered request.
This begs the question: Would God really do that? The answer is most assuredly “yes.” This parable told by the one person who knows God perfectly because he himself is God, confirms that God will sometimes allow us to fully realize the desires of our hearts – even when those desires break his heart. In his perfect wisdom, God knows exactly what combination of good and “bad” events to allow into our lives in order to shape us into the men and women he created us to become.
As a parent of four, a mentor, and a friend, the father’s permissiveness in the parable speaks very loudly to me. I hate to see the people I love make decisions, which I know can have no good conclusion. In other words, I don’t enjoy a good train wreck. There is nothing harder than to watch a friend, whom you have warned about flirting with a co-worker, consummate the affair that ends his marriage. I have watched as young people I love like kin persist at taking spouses I have begged them not to marry only to divorce months later, jump feet first into illegal activities only to land in jail, or engage in illicit sexual activity that renders them HIV positive. I have wept bitter tears over relatives who have turned their backs on God and literally walked away. I have watched my own young, children persist in behavior, which ends in painful consequences.
In the past, in my zeal to protect those I love from making hurtful and even dangerous choices, I have overstepped my bounds and rendered unwarranted judgments, imposed unsolicited advice, pronounced unholy condemnation, and given unwanted help. At the time I told myself that I behaved so out of love for the person. But the truth is fear was also part of my motivation. I feared that the worst would result from any given decision, so I did whatever was in my power to make sure that decision did not get made or to rescue the one who made it so that (s)he would not have to experience the consequences. I have cajoled, threatened, manipulated, guilted, shamed, and harassed – all in the name of doing “what is best” for a loved one. But the truth is I didn’t trust God to take care of my people.
I can never know exactly what is absolutely best for another human being. Only God can. He knows what we think before we think it. He knows every choice, the results of that choice, and all of the unforeseen ramifications of those results, and is already working through them for our good long before we ever see them coming. God is truly amazing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating encouraging sin. As believers we are called to hold each other accountable to godly behavior. I won’t remain silent about sin. But once I have informed a person of what I am convinced is true, I must allow the person to make his/her own choice. Think about it. No being faces more rejection on a regular basis than God. He is perfect, holy, loving, gentle, righteous, and all powerful, yet much of humanity rejects him with every breath. If he in all his power respects an individual’s power to choose, then shouldn’t I? In his case the rejection is personal – yet he “stands at the door and knocks,” because he does not want any to perish.
I am seeing that it does not matter if in many instances my worst fears for a person are realized. God’s got ’em; and I need to trust that. He allows us the freedom to choose even if that means rebelling against him. I am learning, and it is proving to be a very difficult lesson, that sometimes the best thing I can offer the people I love is to allow them to fail and refuse to rescue them from their mess. The old folks say it best, “Ain’t no sense like bought sense.” Wisdom worth having is often hard-earned. There is a huge difference between knowing information and internalizing it to the point where it transforms your thinking and alters your behavior. It is the human condition that we learn best sometimes by failing big. Whatever costs us nothing is seldom appreciated and easily discarded. Surely our all-wise Creator knows this and operates accordingly. My determination is to imitate him in this area – to stay close enough to hear when he says, “Back off. I got this,” but to stand on my porch, watching for the prodigal’s return and to be ready with my track shoes on so that I can be among those who sprint to, scoop up, cover with kisses, and celebrate any number of “lost” souls who are courageous enough to start toward home.
God help me.
Be blessed Family!
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