What is prayer? To me in the past—to me now? When I pondered that question, the story of the prodigal son intruded my thoughts (Luke 15:11-31). If you’ll recall, the son asked the Father for his inheritance—or rather, what he believed his inheritance should be: living life on his own terms, in his own strength. In a single word: Autonomy.
The Father granted the son’s request and let him choose his own path, just as Father God also imbues each one of us with free will. He doesn’t force us along the path of obedience.
But pay special attention to what the son’s request implies: He didn’t value his Father for who He was, only what he could get from Him. (How often are our prayers like that? Do we place our desires on a higher shelf within our hearts than God Himself? Do we let those desires become idols? In the past, I would’ve had to answer, “yes.”)
When the son returned, he came as a beggar. He came as one seeking once more to better his situation by asking his Father to grant another wish, this time to be a servant in His household. The Father denied him. Why? What did the father want instead? Relationship. Very specifically, a Father-son relationship built on His unconditional love.
For any who would ponder this parable in all its beautiful depth, there are many lessons to be learned. Among them is this: God can never give us His all if we don’t seek Him for Himself.
As 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 says, “’Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.”
So what was the prodigal son’s foundational problem? We might claim selfishness, but I’m inclined to declare a spiritual blindness instead. The young man was blind to the depths of his Father’s unconditional love and—if I might be so bold—many of us face this very same struggle.
Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” How does that make you feel? Happy? Numb? There’s not a Christian alive who doesn’t have some conception of this verse—in their minds. But how many of us “get it” on a soul-deep level? On a level that reaches down into our spirits with the very fingers of God’s resurrection power (Romans 8:11)?
If there’s a single reason why the church today isn’t what we think it ought to be—why our lives as “born again” Christians don’t reflect the same transformative power described in the New Testament churches, it’s because we’re blind to God’s self-sacrificing, unconditional love for each one of us personally. True vision of that love would supernaturally transform us from the inside-out because…our ability to love (either Him or others) is only as pure as our perception of how well He loves us: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
And because we don’t grasp the purity and perfection of His personal love, like the prodigal son, we too have a hard time seeking Him for Himself—without limitations. Maybe because deep-down we realize that kind of intimacy entails a complete surrender of autonomy. True intimacy (the “abiding” described in John 15) involves obedience: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” John 15:10 (NASB).
Yes, we are called to obey His commands. But what does the next verse say (15:11)? “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” The One who designed us, body and soul, knows that He alone is our Source of true satisfaction (James 1:17).
In the story of the prodigal son, the Father allowed his son to chase after worldly pursuits which, in the end, failed to bring the desired joy and satisfaction. The son left his Father’s house full of himself and his own desires—and came back empty. Helpless. But the Father was there watching—waiting to fill him.
Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of all. We can either seek Him in faith and thereby grow in our understanding of how good He is and how much He loves us—and perhaps avoid the painful years the son suffered alone. Or else we—like the prodigal son—are destined to find ourselves shamed by the world and our own pitiful efforts, running back to the Father years later with empty arms and hollow souls.
Whatever we choose, Father God is waiting to receive us—to pour His love “into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5)… Because His love isn’t dependent on anything we do—it’s a sure and constant force that “works for the good” of all those He’s in the process of calling home (Romans 8:28+)…
“29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Not if we make the most life-altering decision we could ever make, to come home to the Creator and Lover of our souls.