Tim Keller has a real gift in speaking so clearly and relevantly into our modern lives – he is indeed a C.S. Lewis of our age. Every time I read Keller, I really do feel like I walk away having a better, sharpened understanding of the world I live in. He is so good at getting to the heart of the issue. Earlier in the year, I received a copy of his book ‘The Prodigal God’, and I only got around to reading it recently. Little did I know that this short book would turn out to be one of the most encouraging and influential reads in my Christian walk so far! It is concise and simple, yet rich and thought-provoking. Tim Keller could talk about anything, but in this book, he gets to the heart of the Christian gospel and presents the most important truths that we can hear – truths which transform our heart and shape our lives.
Let me share some of the lessons I learnt from this book, and some of the reflections I’ve had along the way.
‘The Prodigal God’ is all about a single story that Jesus once told, known as the parable of the prodigal son. And in this story, there are lessons for every single person no matter who you are. For me, one of the biggest lessons was redefining what it meant to be ‘spiritually lost’. Often, when I thought about people who were ‘lost’, I would think of people who went out and lived their lives chasing after things – money, success, other people, whatever it may be – people who were selfish and unkind and every other negative quality you might think of. Or, you may have heard the classic ‘lost person’ backstory, where they drank heaps of alcohol, was a hardened criminal with a deeply broken past, and so on. This is what often comes to mind when we hear think of spiritual ‘lostness’, and this captures the younger son in the parable. But there is another son – the elder son – in this story, who also teaches us something really important.
Jesus’ parable presents the elder son as a lesson: that there is a second way to be spiritually lost – one which is subtler but no less devastating. This is the lostness of self-righteousness. Elder brothers are not like the younger brothers, seeking after whatever they want. Rather, elder brothers pride themselves on their own superiority – their own moral record, their hard work, their service. Whilst everything on the outside is rosy, the elder brother is as equally alienated from his father as his younger brother. He finds himself in anger, slavishness and burden, emptiness, insecurity and lack of assurance.
And I realised.
Hey, this is me.
This was the turning point for me. Yes. I realised that I was a deeply self-righteous person. I really am an elder brother. And reading Jesus’ parable explained by Tim Keller actually really hurt. But it was a good pain – a growing pain, as I was diagnosed and rebuked. I look at my life – and it’s true, I’m not quite like a younger brother. But in contrast, I do try really hard to live in a way pleasing to the Lord. I work hard, serve in as many ministries as I can, try to love the people in my life as best as I can, and so on. Yet, lately, all I have been feeling is burden and guilt and exhaustion and emptiness. And I realised that this was all due to a deep-set self-righteousness which animated my life. I did these things because I thought my identity and life depended on them. What I thought was living for God was really living for myself… and I was deeply lost as an elder brother.
As much as it hurt, this was liberating. Things finally made sense, and I could see where the issue was. And the lesson doesn’t end here. See, we have the problem. Now, we need the solution. We need to escape this elder-brother lostness, and thank God that he saves us from it. What’s the solution then?
The solution is to gaze at what God has done. We need to look at something so beautiful that our hard hearts are melted. Otherwise, we’ll fall back into our elder-brother (or younger-brother) ways. So, Jesus is the one who extends his hand and invites us into the feast – at his cost, on the cross. The more we look at his selfless love, the more our hard hearts melt. It is beautiful. It attracts us. Everything we’ve been seeking is here. We don’t need to work hard or do anything to receive this, and all fear and neediness is driven out. We won’t change by trying harder or wallowing more. We can only change as we take this gospel truth more deeply into our hearts, and let it seep through every single thing we think, feel and do.
I have been so encouraged by this book. It really has let me taste the goodness of God’s grace. And it is so sweet. I now know my own self-righteous tendencies – yet, I know the sweeter self-sacrificial grace of Jesus, which drives away my self-righteousness. This is a truth which gets to the heart of the issue, and it’s something that has already started to genuinely change the way I live out each day. I am more joyful and secure. I am at peace. I have a deeper understanding of what Jesus is really saving me from.
Tim Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God’ has been an exceedingly helpful read. I would greatly encourage you to pick up a copy and have a read, whether you are a follower of Jesus or not. I think there is something here to be learnt for everyone.