"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you....If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. Luke 6:27-28, 32
I've been thinking about the prodigal son lately but not because I really identify with him. In fact, often my sympathy for the wayward can be quickly extinguished by my own feelings about their transgressions. I've always been a rule follower, not perfect, but striving after it and so my sense of justice is high. I want things to be right. I want good to win. I want hard work to pay off. And in my own pompous mind, I error on the side of doing what is right even when it hurts.
No, I'm not the prodigal. I am the older brother.
And I often find myself quite confused at the grace extended by the father. He was mocked. He was cheated and he was used. But, when the prodigal comes home broken from his mistakes and full of regret, he doesn't chastise him. No instead, he has a feast in his honor! He kills the fattened calf and he restores his son to his rightful place in the family immediately erasing all that he did wrong.
Unbelievable. Inconceivable. Totally contrary to how I think and how I am built. Doesn't God say that a man will reap what he sows? Why does this beloved parable, spoken by Jesus, exonerate so much grace? Where is responsibility? Where is honor? Where is integrity? Aren't these things important at all? Doesn't God call us to have these attributes? Doesn't he tell us to stick to the straight and narrow?
And as soon as my mind begins to go there in the story, the older brother steps in and does it for me. "Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!" Luke 15:25-30
Typical reaction for people like me. I've been faithful and I've done it quietly. I've worked hard and had integrity. I haven't cheated to get ahead or stepped on others to get what I want. I've been diligent and I haven't asked much. Why so much celebration for those who have been foolish? Why the bailout? Shouldn't they pay for their bad decisions? While, all the while I've been quietly doing what I was supposed to. Why am I not recognized for doing the right thing all this time? Where is my celebration?? Where is the acknowledgement and love that I'm looking for? Like the older brother, I'm looking for the father's blessing too.
In the midst of such turbulence in my soul, I find myself not only wrestling with feelings of injustice but also intense feelings of superiority. I've been better. They don't deserve that. I've worked hard, etc...and before I know it, this "older brother" has turned into quite the self righteous little brat that the Bible warns me about over and over again.
In fact, my self righteousness is often worse than the prodigal's sins because the prodigal at least acknowledges his wrong. My self righteousness can often blind me from my own sin.
In the end, I may be right about my conclusions but, I am not right about my reactions. And to be honest, God doesn't care nearly as much about the conclusions I've drawn about other people's mistakes. He simply cares about my heart. And when it is in that place, it is not pretty.
There have been people in my life that have been difficult for me. So in typical older brother fashion, I do what's right. I serve them. I love them. I go out of my way to win them. And when they continue to step on me, I get even madder! Don't they understand that I'm doing as God has asked? I've been faithful; why do I continue to get dropped? Why am I not respected? What is wrong with them?
And as this spiral of emotions descends upon my heart, God gently begins to shake me up as my temperature rises with every incident showing me that even though I'm physically doing as He asked, that He never promises that all will be well. He just wants my heart to be right no matter what is going on around me. And he wants the self righteousness that so easily tangles me to be chiseled out of me.
He cares about me. And He wants my heart to be right.
In fact, God says that I will get mistreated by my enemies even when I'm doing the right thing.
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." Luke 6:35-36
These words are hard for me. Not at first, but over time and continual rejection, they get harder and harder and harder. But God Himself is kind to the ungrateful. And I, myself, have been forgiven of many things. Why can't I overlook these offenses and keep persevering?
This is probably the most difficult aspect of my faith that I've ever encountered and one that God has been working me over in for years. "Extend grace, Nikki and do it over and over and over again even to the same people. Not just fifteen times. Do it forever. Let me deal with others. Your job is to learn grace, for this is what you lack."
Sometimes I see it in how I treat my children. I'm much more rigid at times than I need to be and I have to learn to lean into grace. I must be consistent. I must be wise in how I seek it, but I must learn grace's soft side. And I must learn to love it. For God, who is holy, powerful and just, often shows grace. It was God's grace in the first place that saved me. I can't forget that. For it is the very foundation of my faith.
I may struggle in this area until the day I die. I may fight it and wrestle with it and continually ask God why it works this way. But I will continue to try. I won't give up. Because deep down I know, even though I don't always get it, that it is God's way.
And if it is God's way, then that's where I want to be, me, my stubborn heart and all. For when I am doing what God has for me, I don't have to worry about anyone else.
"And he said to him, '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, is alive; he was lost, and is found.' " Luke 15:31