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About this series
The Prodigal and the Perfectionist
Why We All Need Grace
How often has something seemed confusing until you saw a picture of it and then you thought, "Oh, now I get it!"? Grace is like that -- confusing, until we get a picture of what it is. Scripture tells us that God's grace is available to all who will receive it. But how can we receive it, if we don't really know what it is, or even why we need it? In this series, Chip Ingram explains the meaning of grace that Jesus so clearly revealed, in the parable of Luke 15. Jesus' intention was to help people, then and now, understand God's generous heart and why He is so ready to pour out His abundant grace on all who will receive it.More from this series
So let me give you a few characteristics of older brothers that I have observed from Scripture, and, unfortunately, from my own life and pastoring for about thirty years. Here is an older brother’s relationship to God and, by the way, if you have any older brother tendencies, this is a time not to take notes. In other words, see, part of our personality, Oh, gosh, I need to get this one. I’m going to list these. Why don’t you just put your pen down and lean back and say, Holy Spirit, if there is any of this in me, I would really like to hear it.
Because, see, what we older brothers do is we substitute intellectual knowledge and having things organized and getting everything straight for the actual relationship with God and heart change.
And so here are some characteristics of older brothers with regard to God. They often feel that the relationship with God is about duty and obligation. And especially in the areas of prayer, it’s dry. It’s a transaction. Praying is hard. Praying from the heart is hard.
They think God owes them a good life. They live with lots of guilt because they never really measure up. You pray for a half hour, what if you’re supposed to pray for thirty-three minutes? Then they read a book about someone who says you need to pray for an hour. Then they find that giving ten percent is a good start but you need to…
And it doesn’t matter. And praying and reading the Bible and being generous, all those things are good things, in and of themselves when they flow out of gratitude and a love relationship. But if it’s: This is how you measure up to God, the bar just keeps getting higher and higher and higher.
They only feel deeply loved when they are performing well. But when they are performing well, they become more and more arrogant, more critical of other people who, If everyone served like I serve in the church, if everyone gave like I gave, if everyone at work would show up the way I show up at work…
And there is just this attitude – convinced that this is the attitude and, I’m godly.
Right living is the means of getting what you really want from God. That is what the older son said. “Hey! I have never disobeyed! I did exactly what you said, therefore, I get the estate, I should have a party, my life should work out.”
Or, in the evangelical circles, Okay, I get it, I am going to come before God. I am meeting with God in the morning. I am reading my Bible. Okay, I finally got in one of those small groups that Ingram keeps ranting and raving about. I’m in a small group, I’m even trying to be a little bit more honest. Not only that, I went on a missions trip! I’m giving ten percent of my income and I’m going to add one percent each year until Jesus comes, because I heard someone did that! What else am I supposed to do? Oh, yeah, yeah, integrity at work…
And, by the way, okay, I did this, I did this, I did this! God? You owe me an amazing marriage. Upward mobility. Kids who all turn out right. And the esteem of others.
And when those things don’t happen, elder brothers get really mad at God, because they really weren’t in a relationship trusting God for God. Jesus had simply become like a cosmic vending machine. Hm, quiet time. B7. Prayer. A4. Missions trips. C99. Click, click, click, click. God owes me this. It completely misses the heart of a father and a child in a love relationship.
With regard to relationships, they feel superior, critical, prejudiced, and judgmental. They are legalistic. They focus on, You didn’t do this, you didn’t do that. They focus on the letter of the Law instead of the spirit of the Law. And, yet, the Scripture says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” There is freedom! There is joy!
Elder brothers are joyless people, often miserable people. They are critical of others, they are critical of themselves, they keep it all bottled up. The word grace is charis in Greek. The root of it is chairo for joy. Charismata is gift. Grace is about producing joy and it’s about generosity! It’s about giving, it’s about loving.
Elder brothers are the kind of people when they are going through a financial class, here is their question: “Are you supposed to tithe on the gross or the net?” You think I’m kidding? Well, why would you ask that question? How can I be right with God and give as little as possible? How can I be right with God and have people think I am as loving as possible? How can I have a private life where it is really about me and what I want and my agenda but appear, in my image management, as loving and caring and spiritual and committed as possible?
And we all have some of that older brother in us, don’t we? And so, in our relationships with others, we champion justice and rarely mercy. We repel irreligious people. And often, just doctrine and truth is important, but we can practice it in very unloving ways. That’s how you know if you’re an older brother. Any other older brothers in the room? I see those hands. Yes, I’ll pray for you too.
Well, what is Jesus saying to us elder brother types? Are you ready for this? What is He communicating to these Pharisees, then and now?
He is the Father pleading, “My son,” not just, “come home…” Come close! “I want your heart. Let’s talk. Get honest. Quit performing. It’s not about works-righteousness.” It’s about personal, deep relationship.
By the way, the activities can look exactly the same. Remember Jesus’ story about the two houses? One built on the rock, one built on the sand. The one built on the rock is the person who takes in God’s Word and applies it, and is in relationship. And the one built on the sand is people who hear it all but when adversity comes…
I’m going to be honest with you. There are times in my life I was such an elder brother, Okay, five psalms, one Proverb, Old Testament, New Testament. Tchoo, tchoo, tchoo, tchoo, tchoo, got it. Prayer? Thirty-two minutes. Here’s the list. Every name. Tchoo, tchoo. Man, I’ll tell you, I’m getting really tired. Bless Jane, bless so-and-so, bless so-and-so, help so-and-so, help so-and-so. Whew. I’ve got seven minutes left.
You think I’m kidding? I did this! I went for years, I never missed a day. I never missed a day. And I was arrogant about never missing a day. I would always ask people how many verses they were memorizing because I knew I had them beat. I’m serious. I memorized whole books of the Bible. Haven’t you?
And I became a loathsome jerk who had received God’s love freely, created a bar and standard, and it just swallowed up my joy. Literally, this is an interesting application for a Christian. One of my applications was to stop memorizing Scripture for a significant season because it was so locked into my performance. But I will tell you that if I am not in God’s Word I will never grow. My mind won’t be renewed.
But the difference between, I read my chapters, check! Versus, Father, I know You love me! And I know You love me when I’m good. I know You love me when I’m down. I know You love me every day. I really need to hear from You today. And I want to meet with You. And then when You speak to me, it’s going to be hard. You know I’m going to struggle. But I want to take whatever steps You show me.
And it’s a Father and a son or a Father and a daughter. That’s what Jesus was saying. He actually was offering to these Pharisees… and if you read the context, they have already decided how to kill Him. This is the grace of God! These are the people who, Okay, we are going to take Him out and this is how! And He is offering them forgiveness! “My sons, come in!”
Just, lest you think this is something that happens and then we all grow out of this, I had an interesting experience yesterday morning. And this message, some messages come together really pretty quickly and some just are like I don’t know anything about giving birth but if there is a breeched birth, caesarean section, however you women know about it, giving this message was like, “Oh, God!” You know, I can’t get it.
And so I went out to a little coffee shop different than I normally go to and found a little corner and I was just poring over, How do I do this? How do I do this? And I have studied all this stuff and a guy came in and two cute little girls maybe three and four.
And it was pretty obvious, within a few minutes that this is a single dad with a couple of kids, probably divorced. I noticed he didn’t have a ring. They were daddy hungry. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” you could tell they had missed him and he had his phone over here and trying to be a good dad and checking on the phone and, “Girls…”
And I sat there, I wasn’t eavesdropping, but they were one booth over. And I’m studying all this stuff about grace. And here are the thoughts that went through my mind, the initial thoughts, Phew, man, how come people can’t stay married anymore. I mean, what’s the deal? You’re a man. Step up. Work at it. What’s the problem. You know what? There are so many people getting divorced. It’s just so…
Literally. This is what is going on inside of me. And, man, Shove that phone and pay attention to your daughters! As I study about grace. I’m dead serious.
And then, literally, literally, I’ve got thirty seconds of my judgmental, critical, “Phariseeical,” get with the program. I don’t even know the guy. I’ve never seen him in my life. And I am making up stories about his life and judging the stories that I have made up. Is that sick or what?
But the only reason you’re laughing is what one reason? Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. You do it too. And I get about thirty seconds into it and the Spirit of God goes, Chip? What if his wife died of cancer and here he is a single dad loving these two little girls? And those phone calls are demands on his life of trying to figure out how to make his life work and love his kids?
Or how about this, Chip? How about it’s not what you think at all? What if his wife had an affair and left him and they have split custody and this is his only time with them?
Scenario number one? What is wrong with these people? Pharisee. Scenario number two? Everything in me, Hey, man, do you need some help? Can I buy the donuts for your girls? We have a group. I just wanted to help him. Do you see the difference?
One of the ways that you know you’re an older brother is when your mind and your words and your heart are critical of others and when you have no non-Christian friends.
When you see people the way Jesus sees people, you will have people in your life who you love who are far from God and they won’t be repelled by you because you won’t come off as religious!
People really, really matter to God. And it’s so easy to form these little clubs and cliques and, I come to church and I read my Bible and it’s us four and no more. And I want my life to work.
We are elder brothers. It’s like the quotes that I read. Do we want church to be like what a billboard does for Coca-Cola? Creates thirst but it doesn’t quench it? Thirst gets quenched when authentic reality and life and love of the living God flowing through your veins and your heart and mine out to people who are different than you and different than me, and they can understand why you would care. And the only reason you care is because God cares about you.
Does that make sense? It’s the gospel! That’s why it was so contagious! And that’s why religion is so dangerous. And, see, it’s the grace of God. For some of you who get a little nervous, it’s the grace of God that teaches us to say no to all ungodliness and to live reverent lives that are generous.
Well, the question at the bottom then is: How did the elder brother respond to the father’s invitation to come home? Anybody have the answer to that one? How did he respond?
The answer is: We don’t know. This is very purposeful. This is a cliffhanger. This is like one of those great ones, you’re watching this, maybe it’s one of the serial television programs, [sings a theme song] “Agh!” To be continued. Right? And you go, “Yuck!”
That’s what Jesus does. Because He has given an invitation. We don’t know how those Pharisees will respond. We have a pretty good idea of what happened to one, Joseph of Arimathea. As you read through the gospels, he was a Pharisee who didn’t side with the council. He was afraid to go public for fear of what other people think.
But when it all cleared and the smoke cleared and what is life and what is reality? He went and got Jesus’ body and put it in a private tomb. And I think Nicodemus was yet another.
See, appearances and impressing people are like the number one thing with elder brother Pharisees. I wonder what would happen if we just quit trying to be so cool and people just knew you were a follower of Jesus and that you were generous. And let them think what they think. Because they think something now, anyway.
And we might ask ourselves, Why is it so important what anybody thinks, anyway?
Jesus would say, in the gospel of John, “It is impossible to believe when you seek the favor of man instead of the favor of God.” When our agenda is to please people, it makes it impossible to trust God. “That which is highly esteemed in the eyes of man is detestable in the sight of God.”
As you turn to the back page, what keeps younger and older brothers from responding to God’s grace? What keeps younger and older brothers from responding to God’s grace?
In a word, are you ready? It’s the root of every sin, according to C.S. Lewis, and I think he’s right. It’s pride. The younger brother is lost in his badness, and he’s, I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I can’t. I don’t deserve it. I, I, I, I, I. The focus is on whom? He is lost in his badness. His pride.
The Pharisees, I have never disobeyed you! I always do what is right! He is lost in his goodness and they were equally lost. Humility, for this one, is to go public and admit, “I was wrong.” Humility for this one is, “I know I’m wrong. I don’t deserve. I will receive.”
If you had to check a box, “Older brother or younger brother,” which are your tendencies? What are your tendencies? If you have been a Christian a really long time and you came from a younger brother past, been a Christian more than five or ten years, often you go from younger brother to really committed Christian to older brother.
What do you think God is saying to you? Are you experiencing His joy? Do you feel like you’re His child?
You know what God is saying to younger and older brothers? “I am not down on you. I love you. I want to help you.”
But grace flows downhill. God is opposed to the proud. If appearances matter, if what everybody thinks…
See, I’m always amazed. I had a conversation with a leader in our church earlier this week. And we got talking about something that sort of popped up and I really appreciated his honesty. He said, “You know,” I mean, he’s a leader, he has been around for a long time, been a Christian a long time.”
And he said, “You know, I was baptized when I was a baby, but I have never done adult baptism.” We got talking about it and he goes, “You know, what do you really think about all this?” And I said, “Well, when you were a baby, did you fully understand the gospel and agree with all that?” He looked at me, “Nah.”
I said, “Well, just read the New Testament. What do you think it says?” He goes, “I know what it says.” I said, “Could I take a stab here?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “It’s just downright embarrassing to be at your spiritual maturity and be as old as you are and go get in a tub of water because they are going to be thinking, Wow, I thought that guy really knew the Lord. How come he is just getting baptized now?”
And a big smile, he goes, “You got me.” What do you think we would call that? Pride. I have it, you have it. You know how you really experience God’s grace? What is the next step for you?
For some, you are a younger brother, older brother, you need to come to Christ today. You just need to ask God to forgive you of your sins and say, “Hey, I don’t have it together,” or, “I may be unworthy, but I will receive it.”
And for others, it’s saying, “You know what? I need to make my sonship, my daughtership, the focus of my life. I am going to let Him be sovereign, Him be Lord. And I am going to do it out of relationship.”