I wonder how the Prodigal Son felt about the party thrown for him?
We hear he had been living in squalor and was ashamed of himself; he came home to throw himself at his father’s feet and beg for a servant’s position, stripped of his sonship. We also know that the father saw his beloved son coming home and ran to meet him, kissing him in his filth, clothing him in the finest clothes, and hosting a massive celebration over his return. The father refused to let his son be punished or perform any penance for his sins, even though the son requested it.
When we tell this story, we assume that everyone was happy and joyful, aside from the jealous brother, but I have to wonder about the Prodigal Son. He’d just been completely forgiven and washed clean in his father’s eyes: he wasn’t punished, and he was elevated back to his son-ship and position of authority in his father’s house—why wouldn’t he be happy? I never thought too much about it before—until I was forgiven.
For years I’ve been drawn to lust and pornography and had many ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’ in that area. When I started seeing my girlfriend, I used that as an extra impetus for reform. Months into the relationship, and I had shut down the temptation every time—until I didn’t. I had never felt as low as I did in the moment that I explained what I had done and asked for her forgiveness. She wholeheartedly forgave me and I swore to myself it would never happen again. Until it did. It seemed like I had fallen into a pattern: several months clean, a seed plants itself, indulgence, and finally overwhelming conviction.
After I had slaked my desire yet again, I was unable to do anything but kneel by her side, head bowed in shame, and explain how I kept hurting her and myself in this way, and she should get out of the relationship for her sake. She modeled the Prodigal’s father, holding me and trying to tell me that I was forgiven and that she loved me, but I would not accept it. After an hour of this, I still couldn’t look at her face; I managed to come to terms with the fact that she could accept and forgive me, but I could not forgive myself. Every time she touched me it felt like a knife stabbing my flesh—acid burning my conscience. I wanted to draw near to her, but I didn’t want to keep hurting her and it was too painful for my guilty conscience to bear. The only thing I wanted to do in that moment was to be punished and pay for my wrongdoing.
Finally, I couldn’t bear it anymore and these words spilled out: “Why won’t you get angry? Yell at me. Hit me. Something!”
I needed retribution. I needed to pay for what I had done. My guilty conscience would not be satisfied until I had suffered somehow and paid for my wrongdoing, and her forgiveness and love would not satisfy that. Ultimately, it took the better part of three hours of constant wrestling with myself and comfort and love from her for me to reach some sort of peace with the situation and my forgiven state without any punishment.
How much more would I have struggled with this if surrounded by people who know all of my wrong-doings and yet were celebrating my return and redemption while denying my pleas for justice?
There is hardwired into us a fundamental need for justice. When a wrong deed is committed, we understand that the perpetrator should pay for said wrongdoing in some fashion, and that the punishment should match the crime. When this does not happen, we grow angry because things are not as they should be, even if it is we are the ones who would benefit—but this cannot co-exist with absolute forgiveness and reconciliation! If we refuse to accept our forgiveness, we cannot be forgiven, nor can we adequately love others or God.
The command to love our neighbor as ourselves is not merely a command to love others—it demands that we have self-love as well. As long as I hold bitterness and anger against myself, I cannot live in such a way that pleases God. The Catholic Church teaches that “In this life, your love for God is bound together with your love of others—and these loves are bound together with your love of self. ‘Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ (1 John 4:20) And by God’s own commandment, you are to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 19:19, 22:39) When if comes to practical real life terms, fulfillment of God’s commandment to love begins with a proper self love. In order to love God as He wills, you need to respect, esteem, and reverence yourself.”
When I finally allowed myself to accept my girlfriend’s forgiveness, first, it brought healing. After the healing came an outpouring of love, affection, and devotion that is still happening today. After experiencing her love and forgiveness and accepting it, my self-hatred and need for punishment began to transform into a love that modeled itself after the love I had been shown. I can love her better now than I could before, and this has held true for everyone that I have gone through this process with.
The Prodigal Son expected to be forced to serve his Father, but upon his forgiveness, he was then free to love and serve his Father and those around him in a capacity that could not exist otherwise. When we allow ourselves to be ravished by forgiveness, our hearts expand and we are better equipped to love ourselves, others, and ultimately God.
Hey guys! I’m excited to be jumping back into writing after some soul-searching, and this is a special post! I was in the process of writing this post when I got in touch with the fine folks at the Re:Write Conference, and we’ve got something for y’all.
Ted Dekker (whom helped me fall in love with stories as a teen) has a new book coming out on March 18th called Water Walker that is all about forgiveness and love, and you can get the first part of it free by clicking here! When I was reading it, these lines really spoke to me:
“You are loved…more than you can possibly comprehend. Forgive yourself for anything you thought you might have done or not done. Forgive the world. Let it all go. Be free now and always.”
It truly is when we can forgive others and ourselves that we become free and can heal.
If this post connected with you, I’d love to hear about it! Comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start a conversation. Subscribe so you don’t miss another post!