“I dreamed that God would be forgiving…”
This line from “I Dreamed a Dream” is not isolated to Fantine or any one or all of the characters in Les Miserables. This aching sentence is knotted up in many heads, tied to ankles like shackles, or worn as a scarlet letter. Lives are spent trying to earn a forgiveness that was never meant to be bought. Our waking moments are consumed with trying to be more, do more in the unlikely hope that God will be forgiving. And nights are spent sobbing into the carpet, pacing outside, or pulling our hair—that maybe tonight he will hear the breaking of our hearts.
The past couple weeks, I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, and what an eye-opening treasure to accompany the parable told by Jesus. This book is thoughtful, poignant, and honest. In some ways, it is reminiscent of Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God, but I am not far enough into it to be able to compare Nouwen’s view of God with Keller’s strong theological work.
At many times in my life, I have been the “elder brother”, but hadn’t really seen myself as the younger brother until looking back on this season of my life. I’ve always been rule-abiding, inside-the-lines, dutiful. A measure of seriousness has characterized much of my life and colored things with a grayish hue. If the way to heaven was the way of duty and obligations fulfilled, then I was on the fast track to sliding in the door.
But tonight, I don’t want to talk about the older son. The legalistic son is a topic for another post, perhaps. Tonight, I want to focus on the younger son. This younger son saw life in a wide array of color, believed that life was meant to be felt and experienced to the full, and had no problem going after what he wanted in life. In essence, it was all about him.
This son basically wished his father dead, wasted his life in the far country, and wallowed in sin and brokenness for a time before “coming to his senses.” When that moment happened, he had no hope of being received back into his former standing as a son to his father. No, the best he could dream of was that of being a servant or slave to his father.
Some of us are the younger son in the regard that we recklessly, ruthlessly pursued our own happiness at the expense of relationships, finances, health and/or other things. But there are others of us who can hardly relate to the wild lifestyle of this younger prodigal. Tonight, I want to pose the thought that though we may not have exactly lived his life, there are quite possibly resemblances in this son that we can, in fact, relate to in our relationship with God.
“I will live this life for myself”
This is a sinister, sinuous, slippery, soft statement that we oftentimes live out in the silence of our hearts. Many times, in my own life, I have found that my heart holds the reins to move the head. Essentially, emotions trump logic. God made us to be deeply feeling beings, but the heart can be foolish, deceiving, and selfish if it is not led by God.
God desires for us to find joy in life, but not joy at the expense of Him, his call on our lives, or others. And if it’s wrong, no matter how good it seems at the time, it’s still wrong.
The grace of God should not be used as an excuse for sin. Romans 6 gives a strong argument in defense of the preciousness of Christ’s blood on the cross for sinners. We are to live dead to self and sin lives, and lives that are alive to Jesus to use as he sees fit. We are not our own; we are his.
“I will find somewhere else what I can’t find in God”
The far country is always a trading of what is offered in Christ for what the world, our flesh, and the devil are selling us. For a pretty penny, we will sell our very selves to the slavery and shackles of Satan. We think we can find something other than what is offered in the house of God by leaving his hands of blessing, his arms of relationship, to run to a far off country to find love, meaning, or significance in others or other things.
Relationship with an as-yet physically unseen God less than completely satisfying? Oh well, then, I’ll find a relationship that does satisfy or spend my life trying to find a relationship that will satisfy my selfish demands. (Only it won’t forever still the aching of my soul).
The calling of God feels a bit tight and pinched? I think I’ll just ease up on this whole God, church, following Jesus thing and find a dream that better fits my talents and gifts and passions. (Only, in fact, the most meaningful, significant thing in life is following Jesus).
The depths of my soul are crying out for more of something—it surely can’t be more of God. If God hasn’t satisfied the longings of my heart in my way and in my timeframe, well, I guess I’ll just find the answer in something or someone other than Jesus. (Only I won’t ever find an answer as complete and overwhelmingly fulfilling as Jesus).
“God demands a suitable explanation” or “I have to prove myself before God will take me back”
The young prodigal composed an eloquent explanation to deliver to his father upon arriving home. Basically, he was going to confess his great sin and explain to his father why he could not be anything but a servant. The words are beautiful and heart-wrenching. The onlooker has the moment of suspense if the father will receive his son back, or instead, forever relegate him to the position of slave.
Nouwen elaborated on this idea of needing to give an explanation to our Father in heaven:
Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not fully sure of….I am not yet able to fully believe that where my failings are great, “grace is always greater”.
A detailed confession is a very good thing, but an impressive explanation is entirely unnecessary for several reasons:
- God already knows my sin, failings, and brokenness. Nothing I tell him will surprise him in the least.
- He does not need to be won over to my side. He is for me, because of his Son and my Savior.
- And because of Jesus, I am forever received and loved as an heir and his child.
- His love, grace, and forgiveness are greater than any and all of my sin.
Two things to notice:
- When the son comes to his senses, it is his lack that causes him to remember his father’s house. He doesn’t mention missing his father. This is encouraging for sinners. You don’t have to have it all together and even realize how much you have sinned against or missed God. Our Father is merciful, compassionate, and forgiving, even when we aren’t as repentant or reverent with him as we should be.
- Before the son can even get out any of his carefully prepared speech, his father has already run to meet him, wrapped him in his arms, and kissed his dirty face. That God is that delighted at the return of his lost children is an incredible thing!
This is great news for broken people—our Father loves us before we can explain anything, forgives us when we can’t offer anything to invoke his favor, and welcomes us back into his arms with great rejoicing and singing (Zeph. 3:17). We deserve a severe shaming, no forgiveness, and no love until we prove ourselves to be worthy of a slight pinch of his affection; instead, Father God essentially throws a party at our return.
This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. And it is no fairy tale, as it is told by God himself—Jesus. He is a forgiving God. We do not cry to silent, gray skies, begging an unseen, unfelt God to forgive us. We do not have a God who will only grant forgiveness, acceptance, and love when we have worked hard enough to merit a scant measure of it.
No! We do not dream about God being forgiving. He was and is and always will be forgiving. Our brokenness, sin, struggles, and darkness are wrapped in the embrace of arms that hung on a rough cross for us. Our filthy, tear-stained faces are kissed by a God whose face was bloodied by thorns for us. Our sin-tainted hearts are held in the gentle, nail-pierced hands of our God who died to bring life from the death in our hearts and souls.
No flimsy dreams here. Rather, a rock-solid confidence that we have an extravagant God who has always loved us with an everlasting love and continues to forgive us far past any seventy times seven. And that will never change.