Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
– Luke 15:11-32
A few years back I was intrigued by a man named, Chris, who coached my son’s basketball team. He is an incredible father to his son and daughter but he is also a great mentor for all the boys on his team. He befriended every parent too. I was so intrigued by his depth of character that I had to get a closer look to learn what made him tick. Behind every special leader there is a great story. So, I invited him to lunch. Over fried fish and chips he told me how he had been reared by a single mom in a small east Texas town. His father didn’t stick around to help rear him. Chris had to learn how to be a man by watching other men closely. Later in in our talk he pulled back the curtain that men so often use to hide the back stage of their lives. He said, “I reconnected with my real father about ten years ago when he moved to this area. He reached out by telephone to try to start a relationship with me. I drove over to his house and rang the doorbell. When my father stepped out on the porch I laid the groundwork for our relationship. I told him, ‘If we are going to have any relationship at all, we start right here and now and we don’t live in the past. I forgive you for never being there for me and I don’t want you to have to explain it or to blame anything on my mother. I don’t want to hear about her faults either. I just want to start with a clean slate.’”
From that day forward, Chris and his dad developed a close bond that gave them a wonderful ten years together. But Chris wanted me to know something else. He said, “None of the boys on my basketball team know this but right now my father is dying in the local hospital. He and I are very close and so after work and then basketball practice, I go to see him every night to spend time with him. I don’t want to lose any more time than I already have. He always asks me why the son he never was there for is now there for him. It’s because I forgave him.” Do you see what Chris did? He created a place in his heart for his dad by forgiving and refusing to ever bring up the past. That made it easy for his father to step in and step up. What Chris did as an adult son, too many fathers are clueless about. As the leader in your house you are to create a home where your wife and children don’t have to live with their past.
In all of the places outside our home our past follows us like a trailer packed with heavy trash. Think about it! Our driving record and criminal record both follow us for life. Our workplaces do “performance reviews” that are kept on file for the length of our careers. Worldly friends hold us accountable by leaving us over stupid sinful, mistakes we’ve made. Schools keep meticulous records on behavioral issues. The list is endless. Sadly, so many families follow suit because the fatherly leader wasn’t there to teach and model forgiveness. Or, even though he was there, he didn’t understand and believe that home is a place where you don’t have to live with your past. God designed the family so that once a mistake or sin is confronted, apologized for and forgiven, then your sin is expunged from the family record. Your relationship and place in the family is based on grace not your performance, no matter how badly you have messed up. This allows you to move forward in every family relationship without having to constantly earn love or make up for your sins. If we must earn love or make up for our sins then relationships amount to nothing more than a job. They are work. Family relationships are supposed to be made easy by grace. The concept isn’t new. It isn’t even a satellite truth orbiting out on the edge of Christian teaching.
Grace and forgiveness are the heart and soul of what Christianity is. In fact, Jesus taught his generation what Chris taught his dad; forgiveness gives us a new foundation on which to build a relationship. Take a look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15. It’s printed above. The younger son was a selfish brat who took half of what his father had earned and squandered it on nothing but trashy entertainment. He disdained the father and his hard work by wasting every bit of it. The hurt that causes a father runs deep. But what did the father focus on? He focused on the fact that the younger son was still his son. He loved him as his own flesh and blood and not as an employee. Jesus was showing us what God is like. He is our father who focuses on us as his child, instead of letting our sins give us an identity in his mind. How can he do that? Well, his only begotten Son freed him from having to think about our sins. Jesus paid for all of them. That frees the father to love us without thinking about justice. All of our mistakes have been made right. All of them.
In Jesus’ parable the father runs out to love and forgive his son long before he apologizes, because he just wants his son back. God put our sins on the cross long before we apologize so when he sees us turn toward his home he’s free “emotionally” to run out to welcome us. God forgives our sin and welcomes us home each time we come crawling back. He just wants us back. Once we are back, he doesn’t want to bring up the past any longer. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) If he did, it would prevent him from having our whole heart. Instead, he wins us over when we understand how freely we have been forgiven. What’s more, since we know that we don’t have to live with our past, we like to hang around God. His love is a safe place. We are in a constant state of starting over.
Many fathers wonder why their sons don’t want to be with them very much as they get older. It might be the allure of the exciting new world out there for them. It could be that they are being like the prodigal son before he repented. But sometimes it’s because the dad is not like the father in the parable. Instead, he reminds his son of his failures far too often. The son in Jesus’ parable knew his father was a gracious and forgiving man. That’s why he had courage to go home when he had reached the end of his rope. Many fathers act more like the older brother than like the father in the parable. The older brother was stuck on the enormity of the cost of his brother’s sins. He couldn’t see his brother as a family member. He saw him as a terrible family employee. He was blind to the fact that he even treated himself like an employee and his father like a boss. He had robbed himself of a real grace based relationship too.
If you are having a hard time not viewing your son in the light of all of his sins, don’t be surprised if he won’t stick around to share his life with you. It hurts too much for him to do that. If he does stick around, he might turn out like that older brother, living under rules and family policies like your family is some sort of corporation. He won’t be too forgiving of you either. His love for you will be conditional. You don’t want that any more than he does.
Sons already have an obsession for their father’s approval. They unconsciously weigh every day whether or not their dad loves and respects them. When a father doesn’t forgive and often brings up the sins of the past, he can make his son lose hope that he will ever experience what he longs for, that is, a safe place with his dad where he doesn’t have to live with his past.
So, why would a father struggle to forgive his son and refuse to remind him of his failings? Here’s the reason: Either he is weak in his Christian faith or he has no faith in Jesus at all.
It’s just that simple. How do we know this is true? Because when we understand Christ and how he has won for us full and free forgiveness from our terrible sins against his father, then we live in a state of unconditional forgiveness. We understand forgiveness. We believe in forgiveness. And we share forgiveness. A forgiving father will refuse to hold the failings of a son or daughter over them.
So, what about you? Do you remind your son of what he has done wrong long after it has been dealt with? When the family gathers around on special occasions do you parade his faults out on stage for everyone to remember? Do you make his faults an object of humor to get a laugh from your siblings and cousins or close friends? Do you keep seething about how much his mistakes have cost you? Jesus never does that to you. That’s why you feel so close and safe with him. Give your son the same place in your life. If you’ve reminded him of sins long past, chose a quiet moment to apologize to him and ask for forgiveness. It’ll turn his world upside down in a good way. He will see in you what God is like and his faith in God will grow as you model God for him.
Oh, and don’t forget this one thing: Your son knows you aren’t God. So, don’t try to be God in your own mind. You are a fallible dad. You are forgiven. God loves you like he loves your son. In God’s mind you are not the “screw up” dad. You are his child too. He has forgiven you for being a crummy father also. Now, forgive yourself. Dust yourself off and get back in the game of creating a home where your son doesn’t have to live with his past.