The following email was written by a HOPE staff member to encourage her brothers and sisters serving with HOPE around the world.
A few weeks ago my husband and I attended a class on Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God. (Keller defines “prodigal” as “recklessly extravagant” or “having spent everything”—so true of our God who runs after us and sent His only Son to die for us.) Keller argues that both sons in the Luke 15 story of the prodigal are lost—not just the younger, irresponsible brother. He goes further, though, and says that the older brother is actually in a more spiritually dangerous position. Keller writes:
Although the sons are both wrong and both loved, the story does not end on the same note for each. Why does Jesus construct the story so that one of them is saved, restored to a right relationship with the father, and one of them is not? (At least, not before the story ends.) It may be that Jesus is trying to say that while both forms of the self-salvation project are equally wrong, each one is not equally dangerous. One of the ironies of the parable is now revealed. The younger son’s flight from the father was crashingly obvious. He left the father literally, physically, and morally. Though the older son stayed at home, he was actually more distant and alienated from the father than his brother, because he was blind to his true condition. He would have been horribly offended by the suggestion that he was rebelling against the father’s authority and love, but he was, deeply.
Let me explain how I’ve had my eyes opened to my older brother tendencies and thus to my very dangerous spirituality. I spent the summer before I got married in Zimbabwe living with children who were orphaned by AIDS. Not surprisingly, during my time there, God grew my heart for the children in Zimbabwe, and I longed to return permanently. To keep it simple, let’s just say that while my husband loves God very much and has a very active and sincere faith, when we got married we didn’t exactly share a passion or calling for living and working in Africa. Not long into marriage we started having hard, impassioned, disappointment-filled, guilt-inducing, resentful conversations about “what we should do with our lives.”
Some of you may be reading and thinking, “Wow, they really should have covered this topic in pre-marital counseling,” but my point is NOT to suggest that, given the chance, we would or should undo our decision so that we could pursue our different callings. Precisely the opposite—read on!
Anyway, it didn’t help matters that as soon as we got married I started working for an incredible organization where I consistently interacted with the executive directors of Christ-centered non-profits. I spent my days being unbelievably spiritually enriched and encouraged. I came home inspired and ready to DO something about what I was learning. Meanwhile, my husband spent his days at work feeling drained and less than inspired. He described himself as spiritually dry and didn’t know how to change it.
As a result, I spent a good chunk of the first parts of marriage in and out of feeling disappointed about what my husband’s faith looked like (and how, in my opinion, he was holding me back from really serving God). It wasn’t constant and there were plenty of things that made us enjoy marriage and each other, but when conversations turned to what I (arrogantly) determined was the way you know if you really love God—willingness to move to Africa—I exploded with feelings of frustration, desperation, disappointment, anger and resentment. Of course I wasn’t the only one hurting; largely because of the way I was treating him, my husband started experiencing feelings of inadequacy, spiritual inferiority, indifference, and resentment.
Now in this email it is easy to pick up on my heinous heart, but I promise it wasn’t so easy to detect at the time. I did a great job of completely ignoring my judgmental heart and somehow manipulated the situation to appear (to myself and some others) like I was the victim. Here I was, (supposedly) wanting to radically live my life fully for the Gospel—wherever God wanted me to do it—and my husband “wouldn’t let me.” Poor me. Like the older brother in Luke 15, I was spiritually in a very dangerous place.
Enter the Gospel.
Over the course of the next several months and years, God began to show me His great wisdom and mercy in not letting us move to Zimbabwe. I was heading down the well-paved Pharisaic road that leads to self-worship and spiritual destruction, and I was completely oblivious to the situation.
There are lots of times we can point to as moments where God graciously opened my eyes to my lostness, arrogance, and judgmental behavior, but the most memorable one was when my husband pretty calmly looked at me and said, “The biggest problem in our marriage is that I don’t think I’m good enough for you… and you don’t think I’m good enough for you.” My heart aches at the memory of those insightful, piercing words. God had been trying to show me this for a while, but my husband’s directness and the Spirit’s work finally began penetrating my hard heart.
Like the older brother, I held feelings of spiritual superiority, entitlement, deep anger, and bitterness because life wasn’t going how I wanted. I thought I wanted to do all the right things. But what were my real motives? I had to ask questions like, why does it make me so mad that we can’t go? Is it righteous anger—because I really want to serve God—or something else? Was I defending God’s glory or was I motivated by other things? With the help of unconditional love from my husband, some good counsel, and community, the Spirit examined my heart about my motivation for all of these ‘radical’ behaviors, and the results were painful and humbling.
It turns out that my radical, do anything, go anywhere faith was deeply contaminated by self-love or self-worship. A lot of the reasons I wanted to do something so extreme were because I wanted people to think well of me (I just happen to have selected radically faithful Christians as the people I want to impress—tricky, huh.) I wanted people to think highly of me—Jesus too—but only if they remembered I was the one who helped them think highly of Jesus. I was threatened (and therefore angry, bitter, and desperate) because, in my mind, my husband was preventing me from proving my worth to everyone, including God.
God is opening my eyes to how sinful my heart really is, and parts of me are dying. It is great. I now assume my motivations for “good works” are at least slightly perverted (which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do anything but I should ask God to expose my sins and purify my motives). Grace is advancing in my heart, Jesus is being exalted more (instead of me) when I do “good works,” and fruit is being produced in our marriage and life. Of course it hasn’t felt good to go through this pruning process—but it is irreplaceable and the gains are immeasurably valuable.
Now let me assure you, it is “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me,” Philippians 3:12. It would be an understatement to say I have screwed up a lot and that I have hundreds of miles to go in learning these lessons (and plenty of crevices in my heart haven’t yet been explored), but I have a matchless partner to journey with (my husband) and a matchless Savior who has promised to complete this work in me.
I have felt God convict me about what one of my major tasks is for my life: to have the kind of marriage that our children will want to have. Two years ago I would have laughed at the notion of that being worthy of “my calling in life.” Because of God’s grace, though, I can pursue obedience in this area without feeling like it is inferior to a more radical calling like living with children orphaned by AIDS.
I know how tempting older brother behavior is for those of us who work for organizations like HOPE. We have exterior lives that look good. We do the right things. But why? So, I invite you, again, to ask God to examine your heart, your motives, your relationships, your attitude, etc. and expose your sin so that you’ll delight more in what your Savior has done and so that you can more peacefully and humbly live with others around you.
I am daily tempted to slip into these behaviors and attitudes, so I hope identifying them (some indicators written below) will help us to better understand the difference between our self-righteously-motivated behaviors and Gospel-motivated behaviors.
Here are some indicators (mostly from Keller’s book) that show you might be struggling with self-righteousness:
• Deep anger or bitterness when life isn’t going the way you want
• Joyless, fear-based compliance
• Belief that you’re a “real” Christian and others “just don’t get it”
• Doing things for others, including God because you’re supposed to (not enjoying it; possibly only doing it to protect the image you want)
• Sense of significance is gained through competitive comparison
• Feel the need to appear happy and content when you aren’t
• Feel devastated by criticism and act defensively
• Dry prayer life
• Think that if prayers are unanswered it is because you weren’t good enough