Hugging the Prodigal


I recently spoke with a friend and discovered that he’s bitter about things from a long time ago. He was in ministry, and felt that the church took from him without giving back, helping, growing, working, etc…

I get it, because I was in ministry at the same church at the same time, and it often felt like I cared much more than the rest of the church cared. About the church. About people outside of the church. About everything. I did a lot of things that went unnoticed. I repeatedly put myself in situations to be hurt, spent, etc… so that someone else could have something he or she needed or wanted.

So I get feeling used.

I get the thing that happens in the back of a person’s mind when he’s talking to someone who cost him something weighty. I get not being able to think of that person without remembering the hurt and considering the person’s flaws. I get the need to keep a mental list of everything he did for them and another list of everything they did to him.

However, being bitter is obviously toxic to everyone involved.

I’m not bitter. About that particular piece of ministry or much of anything right now.

That was a pleasant and surprising discovery for me this week, as I’ve tried to figure out how to help my friend. I’ve spent the past several years, considering my own older brother tendencies – I sometimes can’t stand that my Father would slaughter the fattened calf for that prodigal asshat when I’ve been oh-so-very faithful. I think my upbringing predisposed me to keeping records of wrongs and believing that I’m somehow superior to the rest of the world.

I’ve been publicly corrected for unforgiveness, and discovered that those closest to me forgave and forgot. They let me not talk about things when I didn’t want to or couldn’t… and instead showed me that life was the same as it was before I screwed up. Our friendships were the same as they were before I screwed up. We could still talk and they still listened without discrediting what I said, or me, because of my errors.

In the quiet after that, I studied my Timothy Keller and his Prodigal God as well as my Bonhoeffer and his Life Together. I tried to teach my heart to right its inclination toward hate and judgment. I said and did good things that I didn’t want to do, hoping and praying that my heart would follow – that I would eventually learn to hug my brother who returned after being lost, without thinking of all the work I’ve done in his absence. Work that should have been his. I’ve prayed that God would teach me to hug him violently, with genuine care for him and his plight, no matter what that damn plight cost me.

I’m pleased to see that, in many ways, I’m becoming the woman I try to be… but, as I think, I’m at a loss for what to say to my friend.

How do I remind him of what he’s already learned?

I discovered that he counts me among those who used him during that time, and while I’m more confident that he’s wrong than I’ve been about much of anything before, I’m not sure how to be what he needs rather than seeking what feels like justice to me. Correcting his opinion of me won’t actually help him very much. It would make me feel better, because I’ve got a long list of good works from that time, predominantly of services to him… quiet services that I intentionally allowed to go unnoticed. Services that everyone except for him seemed to see.

So I’m confident that I could change his opinion of me with one, well-written email. He’d apologize, and I want that apology, but I’m left with the reality that he’d still be bitter. I don’t want for him to be the kind of man who is bitter, but only at people who deserve it. I want him to be the sort who runs outside to meet the prodigal, violently hugs him, puts a robe on him, and wholeheartedly celebrates his return. Being the kind of woman I want to be requires that I can’t seek the apology I want (and probably even deserve) when I should be seeking his sanctification and peace of heart.

While I will pray for the Holy Spirit to shape his heart and suck out the bitterness, I will also pray for the right words, the selfless ones that seek mercy rather than justice for myself. I will pray for opportunities to show him what our friends showed me, in rebuking my unforgiveness, talking with me about normal things while my heart was crumbling, and giving me time to grow. I will pray for comfort for him while it hurts, and that those people for whom he harbors bitterness, hurt and resentment will each receive the apologies they deserve… and that he’ll see how the people who he hates are the ones who taught me the lesson he needs to relearn. I will pray that I relearn how to forgive someone who has hated me without cause, and hasn’t asked for forgiveness.

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