Feature Article

Double Take: The Prodigal Son

How do we fully inhabit the forgiveness God offers?

Tim Rhodes and C. Lawrence November 1, 2021

Each month we ask two writers to reflect on a quote by Dr. Stanley. For November, C. Lawrence and Tim Rhodes explore the depth of God’s forgiveness of our sins and why it’s so hard for us to accept—much less enjoy. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s book, The Will of God

The heavenly Father forgives and welcomes us home when we repent of our sin and return to Him. That may seem almost too easy to some people—shouldn’t there be a greater price for our sins? But recognize that along the way, the prodigal son lost valuable time and resources—in fact, he lost his earthly inheritance. Those were not restored to him, because disobedience is costly. Thankfully, because of his father’s great love, he still had a future. And so do you.     

Illustration by Adam Cruft

Take 1

By C. Lawrence 

If we read the prodigal son’s story carefully, we quickly recognize that the father had already forgiven his son long before the young man appeared in the distance, penniless—long before he came to his senses and began the journey home. What’s more, understanding the prodigal’s father as symbolic of our heavenly Father, we can safely assume that the son had been forgiven even before he walked out the door with his inheritance in hand.   

“The heavenly Father forgives and welcomes us home when we repent of our sin and return to Him.”

Luke tells us, “But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The father who runs, throws his arms around, and kisses—despite the indignity of it all. The father who has no need to punish a son who had already reaped what he sowed—the natural consequences of his pride in full effect. The father who had never stopped longing to be near his beloved child. This is a profoundly moving and clear portrait of how God is with each of us. 

When we say with the apostle John that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-21), the danger is not usually in going too far in our understanding of what those words mean, but in not going far enough. Many of us have an unfortunate habit of reducing that love to something we can comprehend or, worse, to something that resembles our own limitations. But God’s love isn’t a reward for meeting certain behavioral or theological criteria, though we often live as if that’s the case. And it’s not simply a gift we receive. God’s love is the defining reality of, well, everything.   

God’s love isn’t a reward for meeting certain behavioral or theological criteria, and it’s not simply a gift we receive. God’s love is the defining reality of, well, everything.

 From the breath in your lungs and the earth beneath your feet all the way to the far expanses of the universe, God’s love sustains every bit of it, including every person—whether they’ve chosen to acknowledge Him or not. If God did not will our existence, then it would cease. In fact, regardless of where you’ve gone or what you’ve done, you have never lived a moment untouched by God’s love. The difference, of course, is in the ability to perceive that love and experience it, which has everything to do with the condition of your heart toward Him.   

In actuality, it’s much simpler than we’d care to admit: Do you love Him? That’s pretty much it, though the implications of the question are profound and reach to the depths of our personhood. Do you love the God who is love, or do you prefer someone, some thing, some idea more? Do you worship Him, offering up your life in gratitude for His mercy and kindness? Or have you made yourself into a god? Do you prize autonomy, strength, success, power, relationships, possessions, or even your bitterness, wounds, or judgments more than the One who welcomes you as His child?   

Regardless of where you’ve gone or what you’ve done, you have never lived a moment untouched by God’s love. 

In some cases, the barriers we find in our heart are those we built to protect ourselves from others and the sins they’ve committed against us. But sometimes those barriers exist because of the pride we’ve nurtured in our heart. The Lord in His mercy takes down each wall brick by brick, even as we stand there beside Him with a bucket of mortar and a trowel, putting it up again.  

It’s a stunning, incomprehensible truth—the fullness of God’s unconditional love. When we choose to follow Jesus, we receive total forgiveness and are made a new creation in Him, and yet we will continue to struggle toward holiness all our days. In the mystery of His grace and mercy, God allows us the freedom to choose: To choose love—to choose Him—each day, or to walk out the door once more toward brokenness. Whether we take a few steps or go a few miles in that direction, the invitation to come home is always there—a journey that is never as long as it seems.   

Take 2 

By Tim Rhodes 

In the past when I read about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, too often I found myself taking the side of the older brother.  

As the eldest child in my family (and someone who tends to be more loyal and obedient by nature), I understood his indignation. While the prodigal son selfishly squandered his estate, the elder son remained steadfast and diligent, constantly at his father’s side. To me, his frustration at both his father and sibling made sense—why does the family in the parable celebrate the return of someone who not only forsook his family but also returned only because the situation was immensely dire? To my sense of justice and discipline, something felt unfair. I commiserated with the older brother and understood where he was coming from. 

For all the weight that we give to the death of Christ for the absolution of our sins, all too often we make our condemnation louder than the mercy He unconditionally lavishes on us.

I blame some of my feelings about this on my desire for order and a semblance of control, a trait common in many eldest children. But I also blame my feelings on the rather large emphasis that was placed on sin in my Christian upbringing. For all the weight that we give to the death of Christ for the absolution of our sins, all too often we make our condemnation louder than the mercy He unconditionally lavishes on us.  

When we’re truly confronted with our own sin and finally come face to face with the prodigal in ourselves, it becomes much easier to see the resplendence of unconditional grace in how it eclipses our ideas of what justice should look like. Because I have suffered shame and guilt for past sins and experienced total forgiveness, I understand that all of us are hopeless in sin without God’s forgiveness. His restoration reminds me we’re all flawed—and thankfully all redeemable. 

My prayer now is to see past the “sinner” and “sin” and hold more grace for others as well—as I pray they will do for me. 

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