by Mike Fitzpatrick | July 28, 2017
Generally, there are two errors people fall into regarding their relationship with God: a perverted freedom or a perverted obedience. Both are exemplified in the story of the prodigal son. A lot of times we forget there are two brothers in the story, and they are both in error. They are both broken and incomplete because they don’t understand the love of God.
Of course we remember the prodigal son, who takes his inheritance and spends it in wild living. This is a perversion of the freedom that we should find in our relationship with God. He thought he was free in his self-expression. But he ends up in the muck with the pigs, where everyone who heads down that path ends up eventually. That’s the way it is with the flesh and Satan. They offer an imitation of the real, promising pleasure and freedom but instead deliver discontent and bondage.
We also have the older brother who dutifully carried out all his responsibilities. But when he saw his father’s generosity and mercy toward the younger son, he complained that the father never gave him anything. So what was wrong with the older brother? He was doing what he was supposed to do, but he did it with the wrong motive, which in the final analysis makes it wrong. This brother was trying to gain the father’s love through his works. This a perversion of the obedience that we should find in our relationship with God.
In a healthy relationship with God, we have a proper understanding and implementation of freedom and obedience. When we pervert these, we either end up with the pigs or embittered. There are many in the Church who are the older brother and don’t know it. They go to church whenever the doors are open. They don’t smoke, drink, cuss, dance (or whatever combination their group bans). They may even be involved in religious activity (witnessing, praying, leading a Bible study). All that stuff’s good, right? Well, if they’re doing it because they want to stay “inside the box” to make sure God loves and accepts them, then it’s insidiously WRONG and over time they will break! I think that’s why most preacher’s kids break at some time. The emphasis is so much on performance that the acceptance and love of God gets lost.
Let’s look in this story at the father’s response to each of the sons.
He knew the son who ran off would experience pain and heartache because of his actions. But he let him go anyway, because that’s what love does. Then every day he looked down the road for the son’s return; he knew the consequences of that lifestyle choice will be disastrous, and he hoped the son would return home. When the son did return home in realization of his sin and in repentance, the father gladly received him again.
How about the son who stayed? He basically said to his father, “I’ve been working and working but haven’t gotten anything from you.” The father had to remind him that everything the father had was already his. He could have had a young goat to celebrate with his friends at any time, but he didn’t ask. The brother was so focused on performing and earning approval that he needed to be reminded everything he was looking for was already his. It’s very easy for people who are faithful in church and involved in ministry to get so focused on the mechanics of making everything work that they forget the promises and relationship of the Father.
Responsibility vs. Performance. They look the same in implementation, but the motivation behind them is totally different. If you’re responsible, you are doing what you are. If you are performing, you are doing so that you can become. God doesn’t want performing. It’s very unhealthy.
Mike Fitzpatrick is a worship leader, a board member for TPMI, and a former NASA Space Shuttle flight coordinator.