I would consider myself a Bible nerd. That is to say, from a young age, I was the kid who knew all the right Bible answers, and I was very proud of that fact – like in a prideful, judgey way, proud. I always totally identified with the big brother in the story of the prodigal son. Those of you out there who are like me know exactly what story I’m talking about.
I agreed with big bro on every level. Yeah, how come the kid who was lousy gets rewarded with this huge party, while all my hard work apparently goes unnoticed? I’ve faithfully served you all these years, doing the drudge work while this kid’s been out living the wild life with your money, and hegets the party instead of me??
Grace is not initially good news to a rule book-follower.
Benjamin Bratt’s character in Miss Congeniality (I confess, one of my favorite movies!) has a very insightful line: “I like the [rule] book. I like knowing what I can and cannot do.”
I liked the rule book too. I liked the Bible as a rule book. I liked “knowing what I can and cannot do” to make God be pleased with me. And while I was never convinced that He was pleased with me, I certainly felt like He ought to be!
C’mon, God! I’m the good kid! I’m the one who behaves, who keeps the rules! Can’t you see that I’m the one giving you a good name around here?
But as is true for most of us who like the rule book, Bratt’s character really only liked the rule book insofar as it got him ahead in life – only when it came to his job. When it came to women, for example, he definitely did not follow the rule book. Respecting them? Treating them like equal human beings? Loving them, in the true sense of the word? Nope.
And while I didn’t see it at the time, I was just like him. Respecting people, made in God’s image, who partied a little too hard? Treating people like equal human beings who weren’t as knowledgeable about the Bible as I was? Loving people, in the true sense of the word? Nope.
What a picture of the big brother in Jesus’ story. And like big bro, I didn’t love the Father either. It wasn’t love that propelled my “goodness;” it was a desire to not need Him. I just wanted to earn my praise so I could be independent; what was so wrong with that?
I’m sad to say, that independent, I-don’t-need-you-God (or anyone else) person is really draining to be around. But the opposite of living life according to the rule book is not living the wild life of the prodigal. Either of those options are actually a response to the rule book. But what we were made for was to live life in response to a Person – a Person who loves us.
Living in response the rule book is not life-giving. Living in response to being loved is completely life-giving. It’s a night and day difference between the two.
You know what turns the tables? Failure. It’s the best thing in the world for someone who likes the rule book. Someone like me.
Seven years into vocational ministry, I left. I was burned out. I was so exhausted that after my last day on campus, I went to my parents’ quiet house in the country and mostly slept for a week straight. It took me several months to get to where I could function normally again. I couldn’t do ministry anymore. I couldn’t disciple anyone, lead any Bible studies, or share a story that I didn’t really believe – that God loves us so much that He sent His son to die for our sins. It was the “God loves us [me]” part that I couldn’t believe.
I was burned out because I’d been trying for so long to be “the good kid”. I failed. Miserably.
Failure can either make us bitter and angry, or it can drive us to rest and help. If we’re part of the Father’s family, eventually He will lead us to rest and help.
In that season of disappointment with myself, discouragement, and exhaustion, I discovered on an experiential level that big bro was just as much the Father’s kid as the prodigal. In the depths of depression, burnout, and grief, I began to allow myself to love and be loved. I had to quit seeing myself as “the good kid” and realize that I was just His kid – all of me, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I had to stop seeing the Bible as primarily a rule book and begin to read it primarily as a story of love. In that story, the Father said to us big bro-types: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” I don’t have to keep trying to prove myself.
Sometimes it takes a while longer to sink in, but grace becomes just as sweet a relief to the rule book-follower as it is to the prodigal. I’m not “big bro” anymore; I’m just a kid loved by her Father.