“If only I could build an exit ramp. Something that would allow me to escape the rules and the never-ending expectations. Why doesn’t he realize that I’m just not cut out for this kind of life? That he and I would both be happier if I were on my own?”
Sound familiar? It should. Thoughts like that are repeated daily, as people try to define freedom in their own terms.
We all long for authentic freedom – the power to make choices yourself, and joyfully live with the consequences. The good news of our relationship with Christ is that He came to set captives free! Unfortunately, many believers fail to experience that freedom because they pursue a counterfeit form of it in one of two directions.
In one of the most often-repeated stories in the Bible, Jesus reveals God’s heart toward His children. It’s the story of a father with two sons – an older one who served faithfully for many years, and a younger son who longed to be “funky and free.” Each son pursued and believed in his passion. Neither understood the life of joy and abundance their father wanted to give them because each pursued passion in his own terms. One sought it through pleasure, the other through outward performance. To the younger son, freedom meant license to do what he pleased. To the older brother, freedom meant legalistic obedience to the rules.
At any given time, you, too, can be a Prodigal or a Pharisee. All it takes is a desire to find freedom apart from an intimate love relationship with God.
False Freedom in a Far Country
Two words say it all: personal gratification. A Prodigal wants what he wants, when he wants it. His passion is for control over his own life.
What’s interesting about licentious people is that many of them came from a very strict background. Often they vowed those famous words: “When I get out of this house….”
The problem with licentiousness is that it drives us to become slaves to impulsive and irresponsible decision making. Imagine the brash arrogance of a son who said, in effect, “Dad, I’d really rather not wait until you die. I have some plans, and I’d like to go ahead and take my inheritance now.” And yet, to Prodigals, the size and power of their passions leave them refusing to take “no” or “wait” for an answer.
Prodigals measure their self-worth in terms of satisfied desires. As long as they are able to get what they want, right on time, all is well and life is good. But when the party ends, when the money runs out, and when the friends evaporate, suddenly sons begin thinking like hired servants, and people become jealous of the pigs. The Prodigal becomes a loser in his own eyes.
“Freedom” that ruthlessly avoids restraint or authority only leads to more bondage. From the time of the patriarchs to the present, Prodigals are eventually forced to face the fact that they’ve been deceived. In Paul’s words, they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Ultimately, they don’t break God’s law – they break themselves on it… all the while pretending to be free.
The Other Brother – The Other Ditch
Far from the pigpen, another son was engaged in his own passion – what he perceived as trustworthy obedience to his father. But he knew no more of his father’s love than his wandering sibling. Little surprise, then, that when he heard the sound of music and dancing, he was offended. You killed what? For who?
Throughout the history of Christendom, many well-meaning people have missed the heart of the Father, all the while surrounding themselves with religious trappings. Legalists search for a uniform code, expressed in clear behavioral terms, to define how life should be lived by everybody. If the rules aren’t spelled out in the Bible, they make up some standard for interpreting the Bible.
Legalists keep their rules, follow the directions, and expect everyone else to do the same. Life is a checklist, and the solution to any problem is simple: work harder, do more good, do less sin.
Many legalists were once quite the rebel, having spent some time in their own spiritual pigpen. But in the wake of their conversion or repentance, they sometimes go from one extreme to another. Legalists are either hot or cold, all or nothing, no middle ground. That’s why, prior to the burning bush, Moses could only conceive of himself as either Israel’s saving deliverer or Israel’s failed reject. Heaven help the legalist who’s blown it and knows it! His entire life and identity can be measured by that failure.
Legalists measure their worth (and yours) by performance. Good people are those who do good things. They often carry a mental resume that, when pressed, they can repeat back to God or whomever. That’s what makes this a more hideous form of bondage, because appearances are deceiving. How can I be wrong when I’m acting so right? How can I be in bondage when I compare so favorably to the pagans, or to my former life? How can I be deceived when everyone around me tells me how awesome I am?
The ultimate tragedy of the older brother is that he was willing to sacrifice fellowship with the Father in order to maintain his life of calculated Christianity. Judgmental, unforgiving, his life littered with broken relationships, he was passionately religious, but miserable.
A New Birth of Freedom
There in a pigpen, humbled but hopeful, a wandering son made a life-changing decision. “I will set out and go back to my father,” he said. Until then these brothers had one in common: neither of them understood the heart of their Father. And that is what the parable is all about.
Jesus reveals Him as a Face in the window, watching, waiting for His son to return.
He is an Embracer of the wanderer, who runs to meet us when we make the first move toward Him.
He is a Redeemer of our lost identity, who clothes us with the robe of sonship, in spite of how we may have abused it in the past.
He is a Musician and Dancer, who throws a party for us with revelry and singing.
He is a Boundless Giver, who said to his jealous son, “all I have is yours.”
The freedom was there all along. Neither son experienced it – nor will we – until one was willing to leave his self-deception to find it. The greatest investment you can make in your happiness and freedom is to invest in trusting that kind of God.
The pardoned son had some lessons to learn. His brother did too, but never quite got it.
He learned that sons don’t have to live like slaves, no matter what they’ve done in the past. The kingdom has no cheap seats, no second-class citizens.
He learned that you can’t earn forgiveness. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be forgiveness. That wasn’t good enough for the law-abiding brother. As a result, he never knew the truth, and it never set him free.
He learned that your worth is measured by a Father who will kiss you on your homecoming day, and sacrifice his choice possession to throw you a party.
So how do you find freedom without being trapped by religion? By humbling yourself and facing down the self-willed rebel you’ve become.
By receiving again the identity you possess as God’s child.
By rediscovering the role of celebration worship in revealing the heart of God.
By learning to live as a forgiven person.
And by realizing that all your longings are, indeed, longings for Him.