And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. (Luke 15:11-13)
So begins one of the most well-known of the parables of Jesus. It is so well-known that the phrase "prodigal son" has entered into our language as an expression for someone who realizes his foolishness and abandons it. This parable, along with the others that immediately precede and follow, are some of the most joyous of Christ's teachings. All are given in response to the murmuring of the Pharisees against Jesus' association with all manner of sinners. The overall message is simply that Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous. It's a message that gives hope to us all.
There is something else here in the story of the prodigal son that helps my understanding of God's ways. Notice that when the son goes to his father and asks for his inheritance, the father does not refuse the request even though he surely knows this is not in the son's best interest. Although he could refuse and thereby prevent all the son's suffering, the father respects the son's choice. That's not what most religions, as well as secular philosophies, think you should do. If someone is about to do something disastrous, you should stop them. Right? That's the basic premise of Plato's Republic as well as the foundation for a belief in government interference of all kinds. Busy-bodies and do-gooders are all around us and assure us they have our best interest at heart. They then proceed to completely stifle any human freedom under the claim that it is for our own good! But, that's not the case in this parable.
God's ways are not our ways. Just as the father in the story, God respects our choice even when it is wrong. It allows us what we call "free will" -- the right to choose God's ways or something else. Many people like to blame God for man's problems because of this. If God knows that what we are doing will bring about our own pain and misery, and, he has the power to stop us, then why does he allow this? It's typical human thinking -- blame someone else for what we did to ourselves and never admit responsibility.
Many want to blame their misfortune on God. Someone builds a house and then the flood comes and washes it away. Their instinct is to shake a fist at heaven and demand to know why God allowed this to happen. Well, the answer it quite simple. Did they bother to ask God if it was a good idea to build a house on the flood plain of a river? I doubt it. How much intelligence does it take to figure out that someday there will be a flood there? It wasn't God's fault! Likewise it isn't God's fault when man over-farms the soil, removes the nutrients from his food through processing, dumps toxins into the environment and then ends up getting various degenerative diseases. Arrogance combined with ignorance is a sure-fire recipe for disaster every single time.
Yet, God respects our choice and does so for a good reason. Simply put, He wants an intimate relationship with His children and that would be impossible unless we have the right to choose. Like the father in the parable, He allows our choice, doesn't interfere, even knowing the pain we will cause ourselves. So is this fair and good? Most definitely.
You see, we can always turn around and choose Him. Like the father in the parable, He is eagerly waiting for us to choose Him and His way rather than our own selfish, arrogant and ignorant ways. His integrity is such, however, that when man chooses evil and selfish behavior, He judges that evil and delivers righteous judgement. It is not His fault we chose evil, and if He fails to balance that evil it would corrupt His nature with our evil. That is something God will never do. He will always maintain the integrity of Himself and His word.
But there is a good ending to this tragedy. Once you realize that you have a choice, that you can go home again, there is hope no matter how corrupt your situation has become. What is more is that once we have turned back to the Father, we find He runs to meet us, joyous at our return. And, we still have our choice available to us.
I have noticed that many people will not turn to God because they fear they will lose any choice in their life. But, returning back to God is not giving up our right to choose so much as using that free will to make the choice that God wants us to make. We still have an unlimited right of choice but are now motivated to make our choice based on agreement with God rather than against Him. We ask "What is your will, Father?" rather than just running off to seek fulfillment of our carnal desires. The real irony of all this is that if we are one with the Father through Jesus Christ, we can actually do whatever we want. The difference is that what we want is to do what God wants. And, in that intimate agreement with Him, He enlightens our mind, purifies our heart, and empowers our will so that His glory and desires are done in and through us.
We have this choice available to us because of the sacrifice that Jesus was willing to make. He chose the Father's will over his own, even though it meant suffering for Him. That's a tough choice to make sometimes. God's ways are not are ways and choosing His way may mean walking through the wilderness. But with His provision, even that can become a joy and not a hardship. We are not alone but have our Lord with us every step of the way. As He said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
Choose your own way and try to go it alone, and because of limited human understanding you end up with destruction and death. Choose God's way and you walk with the One who has all the understanding you will need. At the end of the road is an eternity with Him. It's your choice.