"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More on the elder brother

More from The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller -- see the previous post for background information on this book and the elder brother.

"Elder brothers' inability to handle suffering arises from the fact that their moral observance is results-oriented. The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment" (pg. 50). Thus elder brothers often suffer "confusion and rage" because they expect their very moral lifestyles to equal a good life. However life seldom is this way. The elder brother also has a "strong sense of his own superiority" (pg. 53) which often leads to racism, classism and even believing "God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior" (pg. 54). Their attitudes to people of "wrong" spiritual beliefs is often hostile: "it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth." (pg. 54) On a personal level self righteousness "creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit."

Elder brothers also often have "joyless, fear-based compliance" (pg. 57). They "may do good to others, but not out of delight in the deeds themselves or for the love of people or the pleasure of God" (pg. 62).

The elder-brother spirit is also known by the "lack of assurance of the father's love. . . . As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren't sure God loves and delights in you" (pg. 63).

The author says elder brothers often have dry prayer lives because their "main goal in prayer is to control their environment rather than to delve into an intimate relationship with a God who loves them" (pg. 65).

"Elder brothers have an undercurrent of anger toward life circumstances, hold grudges long and bitterly, look down at people of other races, religions, and lifestyles, experience life as a joyless, crushing drudgery, have little intimacy and joy in their prayer lives, and have a deep insecurity that makes them overly sensitive to criticism and rejection yet fierce and merciless in condemning others" (pg. 70).

Excuse me while I go look in the mirror ... and while I doctor my poor toes.


Carmen said...


Funny that you posted on the story of the Prodigal Son because I was just thinking about that story the other day and how the older son was so busy being angry that he missed the celebration. While the celebration may have been in honor of the youngest, the eldest was still invited and was welcome to party his heart out too. Made me wonder about myself.

Also, I do tend to think good actions should equal good life. I think a often really struggle to wonder "if we've tried to make right choices, why are we still struggling". Hmm. That author sure has some harsh things to say.

Sarah the Seeker said...

Very thought-provoking post!

I always kind of related to the elder brother. I know he was meant to represent the pharisees, but I didn't see him that way. I never thought it was fair that the one who went astray got more blessing for coming back than the one who was faithful all along!

Maybe Jesus just meant it to encourage sinners to repent and know they would be welcomed with open arms by God. There doesn't seem to be much of a message in there for people who live good lives and feel relatively un-blessed. If anything, there is incentive to go off the rails!

I think what you're saying about doing good actions for their own sake, or for love of God, is a good ideal. But I'm not sure how many people ever reach this ideal of selflessness.

From what I've seen, churches often encourage people into Christianity by presenting them with testimonies of how much God has blessed people's lives. It's like a commercial. It's all about what you will get out of it. I've seen a number of people fall for this, only to leave the church when it doesn't pan out that way for them. I don't think I'm alone in feeling like the elder brother. :)

It really shocked me when I thought about it because shouldn't salvation be enough? And if we were really selfless, we wouldn't even care about salvation. It would be enough just to worship God and please God.

I think most of us do need to know we are blessed in some way for our faith and practice though, whether it's through good things happening to us in this life or the next. Personally I've stopped looking at the things that happen to me in this life as being indicative of God's regard for me (or lack thereof). That kind of thinking just made me neurotic and depressed. I felt it was immature in the end. I choose to believe God is fair and that I will get what I deserve eventually, whatever that is.

And I do think that on average, good actions equal a good life. It looked the opposite to me at one point, but with the passage of time, I can see that the person that seemed so unfairly blessed at the time is no better off for it. Good character brings success. Good character brings blessing. Maybe what I saw before was bad character plus denial plus piety and the illusion of blessing, delivered in a convincing testimony.

And maybe the real prodigal son was not like that at all. Maybe he really came good and had to overcome a lot of obstacles to do that and deserved a big blessing.