Struggles of the Good Son

In part two of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen focused on the struggles of the older son. We think of the younger son as the one who was lost. He was the one who left home and squandered his inheritance on wild living. The older son was faithful, hardworking and obedient. The truth is both sons were lost.

The younger son’s sins are easy to see. He was greedy and self-indulgent. He spent money recklessly. The older son’s sins are not as obvious. We know he was obedient. We can assume that he was respected and admired as a good man. When his self-indulgent brother was lavished with a huge welcome home celebration, he became angry, resentful, and jealous. He felt unappreciated.

What does more damage? Sins of the flesh or sins of the heart? Lust and greed or anger and resentment?

Nouwen pointed out that you can be lost while still at home. Even righteous people struggle with sins of the heart – anger and resentment, judgment and condemnation, bitterness and jealousy. This way of being lost is “closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.” Sins of the heart are the dark underside of virtue.

The older son worked hard and did not get what he thought he deserved, certainly not compared to his younger brother. As a result, he became self-pitying and envious. He felt no joy at his brother’s return.

I can relate to the older brother’s response to his father. I’ve often complained and grumbled about unfairness, in my heart if not out loud. I can relate to his feelings. I’ve also felt unappreciated, rejected, and overlooked.

Nouwen noted that in this world, people are compared and ranked as more or less successful, more or less attractive, etc. How much of our sadness or happiness comes from comparing ourselves to others? I know that comparing myself to others often makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

We are so conditioned to measuring ourselves against other people, it can be hard for us to accept that someone loves us unconditionally. God loves each of us completely. He gave us our unique gifts and understands our shortcomings.

Nouwen told a story about a young man who was loved and admired by everyone who knew him. One critical remark from a friend sent him into a deep depression. His self-esteem was so fragile, he believed his friend had broken through the facade and had seen the despicable man he really was.

Even people who outwardly seem to have it all can feel insecure inside. Beneath the self-confidence and arrogance there can be an insecure heart that isn’t as sure of itself as the outward behavior leads one to believe.

Nouwen wrote that for those of us who struggle with sins of the heart, trust and gratitude are the keys to returning home to the father. “Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home.” Trust that God loves us completely as we are. We are worth finding.

Gratitude is the opposite of resentment. When we choose to be grateful, we acknowledge that all that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Gratitude for what we have helps us see that our brothers and sisters belong to God as much as we do.

Nouwen’s reflections on the challenges of the good son remind me to pay attention to my feelings. When I catch myself judging, condemning, or resenting someone else (as I surely will), I should stop and remind myself that God loves each of us unconditionally. He loves me completely even though I am flawed in so many ways. He has forgiven me. His amazing grace is available to all of us! We are not rivals.

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