Had breakfast this morning with one of my brothers who lets me bleed all over him. I’m incredibly thankful for the handful of people I have in my life like that, especially since the last couple of weeks have been such a wrestling match for me.
This guy and I have both taken our “younger brother” turns, and were discussing today how ruthlessly the Father persists in running down the road and dancing at our welcome home parties … over and over again. The degree to which we have pressed against the limits of God’s mercy and grace has failed to find an end to them. The exuberant, nonsensical, sin-forgetful joy with which we are embraced and celebrated wets our eyes and begins to strengthen our resolve to please Him and chase after Him.
We were also, however, bemoaning how quickly after our returns we tend to turn into the older brother.
Yeah, I’ve just stopped running and I know the party’s still swinging, but I’m back now. I’m back and I want some credit for the fact that I could’ve been away longer/could’ve run farther/didn’t do it as bad as that one guy did that one time/etc. The stench of the pigpen is still on me, and I’m posturing already. I’m trying to revamp my reputation and standing by appealing to my track record.
My buddy captured it perfectly this morning when he talked about catching a glimpse of Joe Christian* through the press of people at the party the Father had thrown for me. Joe’s got that sheen about him, that Jesusy glow of churchy accomplishment. Maybe he’s a deacon or an elder, even. His kids are always perfectly turned out, and seem to sit very still and to listen very attentively. His ESV study bible probably has just the right amount of wear, and he carries a highlighter with him to every Sunday service. His handshake and his smile are practiced and smooth, conveying just the right amount of familiarity without really welcoming too much intimacy. He likely says things like “Better than I deserve” when you ask him how he’s doing, and peppers his small talk with the stuff of Spurgeon, Piper, and Keller.
All of a sudden, it occurs to me that I’m the center of attention at this party for all the wrong reasons. All of a sudden I want to be Joe.
Being celebrated is great, but it’s kind of embarrassing to be celebrated for how recently you were a really, really bad sinner. Wouldn’t it be better to be one of those holy folk standing around the fringes dutifully lending their contented, head-nodding approval? Wouldn’t it be better to stand in the middle of a group of admirers and talk softly about how great it is that the Prodigal is back, and how long you’ve been diligently praying for him? Joe’s the kind of Christian I want to be. How do I get to that side of the room? How long will I have to work, how many hoops will I have to jump through, to whom will I have to prove myself in order to get to where Joe is?
That’s the moment, for most of us, where we’re introduced to (or reminded of) the game.
See, Joe doesn’t exist. Joe is a construct. He’s an avatar, a personality created for the purpose of participating in an elaborate diversion and hoax. The person hiding behind “constructed Joe” smells of pig slop, too. He’s in just as much wretched need of unilateral salvation as I am. He’s in just as much need of a proactive and loving Savior. Joe’s just been doing this longer than me. Joe was once the center of the attention at a party to celebrate his return from rebellion and selfishness. Maybe it was his fourth or fifth time around. He was getting tired of failing, tired of going back to the same old sins. It was humiliating, his Father repeatedly weeping tears of joy, putting the ring on his finger, inviting all His friends for a dinner and a dance … again … it had to end.
There are really only two ways to end that cycle. One is by throwing myself, naked and helpless, on the ever-new mercies of my Father, and to let the joy of His everlasting, never-changing love begin to melt the belligerent rebelliousness of my heart into a real desire to follow Him. The other is by joining a conspiracy of plasticity that exchanges one form of brokenness for a less honest one, one that makes me think I might one day bring something to the table and impress my Father with the work I do around the place.
*All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any similarity between Joe Christian and any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (But you’re lying if you say it didn’t make you think of someone.)