“My son (translates “beloved”), the father said, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” Luke 15:31
When we accept Jesus as Savior, our status as spiritual orphans and slaves to sin immediately changes. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us that we have been chosen by God, the Father, to be adopted as sons through Jesus (1:4) and that our inheritance as sons and daughters is completely guaranteed (1:14). We are actually invited into the very same relationship Jesus shares with His Father with all its benefits! But does this knowledge really impact how we live and experience each day beyond our attempts to “just be good Christians”? While we may intellectually agree with this statement, our ability to live like we believe it is the challenge we face for the rest of our lives. This is the heartbeat of sanctification: the divine exchange of growing more and more secure in the love of the Father as his children, and as a result, becoming more and more like Christ in our hearts and minds and the way we live our lives.
Most of us are privately aware of our own shortcomings and failures, even if we successfully hide them from others. We may avoid God because we are still secretly afraid of him. We may not fully trust him. We may continue to hide in shame, especially if some hidden sin still has a grip on us. Or, in the good old American way, we may work in an attempt to earn God’s approval and love through our own efforts.
Far too often, we want to get from God what we think we need, so that we can do with it as we please. This was the independent attitude of the prodigal son when he demanded and then squandered his full inheritance (Luke 15:11-31). Like so many of us, this young man was looking for love in all the wrong places- looking to wrong answers to fill a right need. We can all relate- the sports car in midlife, “retail therapy,” immoral sex in the quest for love and belonging, drugs, alcohol, pornography- there are countless activities we use in an attempt to fill our needs for comfort, security, value and belonging, and to numb our pain. Indeed, all addictive behaviors, (even “respectable” ones related to things like work, exercise, shopping, and food), when used to fill the God-shaped void in our identity with something counterfeit, are evidence of our slavery to sin and an orphan based mindset.
We can also find ourselves thinking and acting like the elder son in Jesus’ parable, believing that our good works should earn us a place of belonging. As the story continues, the elder brother is fuming outside his father’s house, unwilling to put aside resentment against his father for granting undeserved mercy to his wayward little brother. The elder brother’s wrong motives become evident as he exclaims, “all these years, I’ve been slaving for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” How often do we believe we are owed for our hard work and then blame God when others are rewarded or life does not go as we planned? As long as our sense of worth is tied to our performance, we will be only as secure as our fleeting last success, with comparison and jealousy as our close companions.
Our image of God is affected by many aspects of our culture and upbringing, particularly the kind of parents and family environments we had. Words like “father” and “mother” dial up strong associations and emotions for all of us. Why? Because we all have parents! Every parent since Adam and Eve has failed in some way. Martin Luther said, “I have difficulty praying the Lord’s prayer because whenever I say, “Our Father,” I think of my own father, who was hard, unyielding, and relentless. I cannot help but think of God in that way.” Charles Stanley’s father died when he was a very young child and he struggled for much of his life with a view of God as distant and unavailable. My own father, a lovely man, failed to take action in a critical period of my life and for many years, that failure impacted my ability to trust that God would be there for me at crucial junctures.
Other authority figures such as teachers and pastors also influence us for better and for worse over the course of our childhoods. Satan wants to use these realities to embitter and demoralize us and and we often project these views onto God. These early experiences can cause unintended distortions and beliefs that work like a software system in our lives until they are brought to the light and revised. As young children, we are great recorders and often terrible interpreters of the events that happen to us. Thus, we draw conclusions about ourselves, others, and God that are often incorrect and negatively influence our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors until they are exchanged for God’s Truth. These childhood experiences damage our identity as beloved children of God, and are real wounds that need healing.
Negative self judgments such as believing we will never measure up, projections of blame and lack of trust with people, and even entitlement, all find their way into our belief systems. We also build in survival systems as children to protect ourselves from emotional and relational pain. We may make inner vows that put us on a path of excessive self reliance. We build walls of self protection that actually wall in our pain and make us resistant to help because vulnerability is too risky. Today’s social media amplifies and reinforces the false self we want to project to the world, one in which we are always happy, always popular and successful. The problem is that hidden pain cannot be dealt with and hurt that is unacknowledged cannot be healed. We don’t even have to be aware of our pain for it to be present and negatively impacting our lives.
The story of the prodigal son shows us that we are worth being found because the Father searches for us and invites us home, whether we vainly try to earn our worth or rebel and then anesthetize our failures. Jesus said, “we love because we were first loved.” That must mean that we are loved just where we are- as lost sons and daughters. With the assurance that nothing can ever make God love us any more or any less, we no longer need hold back the very parts of us that feel most unworthy and unlovable.
Sanctification is simply a lifelong journey of moving from orphan to sonship, from self reliance to God reliance, from striving to earn love and acceptance to humble surrender and gratitude that we are loved and accepted into the Father’s heart just as we are. It is a painfully wonderful, ongoing divine exchange of being found, known, and loved by God in all of our imperfections.
In such safety and love, we can become free to flourish and become more like Jesus in the way we love and care for ourselves and others.
Article previously published in the June 2017 edition of The Carolina Compass.