A Tale of a Father and His Two Sons
In his book entitled The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Tozer suggests a person’s worship of God will be as pure or as a base as their mental image of God.
For so many people, our thinking about God as “Father” is inextricably linked to our relationship with and our experience of our earthly father, or father figure. Those blessed with a close, loving and warm relationship with their biological father typically discover and enjoy similar qualities in their heavenly Father.
A number of years ago, I had the privilege of serving as chauffeur for The Rev. Dr. Michael Green during an evangelistic weekend in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to being a prolific writer and preeminent Christian evangelist, Dr. Green was one of the most positive, energetic and genuine people I have ever known. So, as the two of us were driving down the road while traveling between destinations and the next event, I asked Dr. Green how he came to be so positive and upbeat all the time. He quickly said, “I had wonderful parents.”
Unfortunately, I would argue Dr. Green’s experience of joyfully serving the Living God based in large part on his positive relationship with his earthly father is becoming increasing atypical in American society. Numerous scientific studies have proven the devastating impact on children who are raised in a home without a father, or in a home with a father - or father figure - who is unstable, unpredictable or uninterested in their children’s lives. As is the case with positive fatherly relationships, negative earthly father relationships tend to get projected onto our heavenly Father.
I believe an antidote to this negative trend is to reflect deeply and frequently on perhaps the most well-known and beloved passages of Scripture in the entire Bible: the Parable of the Lost Son. The story was told by Jesus to a gathering crowd of tax collectors and “sinners” who were intermingled with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. On this occasion, the self-loathing and the self-righteous were gathered in one spot to hear what Jesus Christ had to say.
The story focuses on three main characters: the father, the older son and the younger son, who is often referred to as the prodigal son. But, this story is really about both sons and the unconditional love of their father.
The Younger Son
This character perfectly represents the sin nature dwelling in the hearts of humanity through the expression of his haughty self-will. Demanding. Arrogant. Self-absorbed. Reckless. Careless. Wasteful. All of these characteristics can be attributed to the younger son, who demands his personal rights be acknowledged and honored immediately. By demanding a premature acquisition of his inheritance, the younger son goes so far as to express his desire for his father’s death.
Of course, things don’t turn out well for the younger son, who eventually hits “rock bottom” after squandering his resources and returns to plead for his father’s mercy. No longer viewing himself as the rightful heir of his wealthy father, the younger son serves as a perfect penitent as he expresses to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21b). This is a picture of true, gut-level and heartfelt repentance.
The Older Son
The older son is often viewed as a secondary character in the story. However, the text indicates to us this son’s heart was as far away from that of his father as was the younger son’s at the beginning of the story. The younger lost son came to his senses and returned to his father, which proved too much to stomach for the eternally obedient older son. Where the younger son displayed a sinful heart through his self-will, the older son offers the reader a portrait of the ugliness of sinful self-righteousness.
The older son represents the potential Pharisee in each of us, an attitude toward his father that is distant, cold and eventually bitter. On the surface, the older son is representative of a responsible and obedient child, the “good boy” who does everything right and on time - every time. Looks can be deceiving. Towards the end of the story, the older son’s outer shell is peeled away revealing a seething root of entitlement and rage. When the older son learns of the grace shown by his father to his younger brother, he erupts and flies into a tirade against his father and his younger brother. With defiance in his heart, the older brother refuses to participate in a house party, a celebration honoring the return of his younger brother who “was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).
In the character of the father, we find the true star of the show. There are so many good things to notice about the father in this story. The father, displaying the characteristics of God, is patient, kind, generous and displays a heart full of love toward both of his prodigal sons.
Each day, the father scanned the horizon as he awaited his lost son’s return. Significantly, the father respected his son’s right to be an adult by allowing him to experience the consequences of his choices. When he finally saw his son, the father was “filled with compassion for him” and ran to him to offer an embrace and a kiss. Strikingly absent from the story is any hint of shame or a lecture or an “I told you so!” Rather, the father joyfully receives his son back into his home and honors him with the best robe, a signet ring, the sandals of a son and a fattened calf for the special occasion of his return home. Each of these gifts is a symbol of position and an expression of acceptance.
I pray this image - the image of a loving, warm, compassionate, patient and eternally loving Father - is the one that will present itself to our imaginations when we think about God. Truly, this is and will continue to be the most important thing about us. For some, an updated and more accurate image of God as a good Father will be life changing.
For “the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him” (2 Chronicles 30:9). Here we find the blessed promise to all of us who have wondered away from God and seek to return to our true home.
No matter how far we’ve gone, or how long we’ve been away, the Lord God desires to see the return of His children, his sons and daughters, so that all of heaven might celebrate the return of one who was lost and now is found.