The Heart of the Prodigal's Dad

     We find meaning and purpose in life when we do something to benefit others, especially if it involves giving up our own comfort and well-being and gaining no recognition for doing so. When driven by our commitment to fulfill this intention, we get an extra boost of energy and determination to persevere through fatigue, resistance, and disappointments. Having the opportunity to speak for those who do not have a voice, listen to those who feel unheard, sit beside those who have no one, and give hope to those who have none, motivate me and give me reason to take on life full throttle. Unfortunately, the rush from serving others can be addicting and sometimes, we unconsciously end up seeking the rush itself and forget what the real goal is, which is to please God. If we are not careful, this selfless act of serving others can ironically become a selfish indulgence of the ego. This is the reason why some of us still feel empty and without peace despite living a life filled with selfless endeavors.

“… if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13: 2-3

     Presuming we truly serve others out of pure selfless love, which is the highest form of purposeful living, our lives can still feel utterly incomplete. We may find meaning in our existence, but we will still struggle to find lasting inner peace. The kind of love that we give when serving others is limited and does not involve the different facets of the all-encompassing love that pleases God; the love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); and the love that Jesus said is the most important commandment of God (Matthew 22: 38-40). In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, St. Paul said, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” He laid out for us what love is and what it is not. He gave us the different levels of the comprehensive love that God wants us to have, and the kind of love that reflects God’s true nature. We may be patient and kind to the people we are serving, but we can also be boastful, condescending, proud, envious, and easily angered towards the people we serve with. One negates the other, leaving us feeling empty and unfulfilled because partial obedience to God is disobedience just the same. Consequently, we are unable to experience peace and contentment because our incomplete love is not aligned with God’s will. At one point in my life, I thought serving God by serving others will put me right with God and earn me the stable kind of peace I have always longed for. I found meaning in my life, but I did not consistently experience inner peace. The times when I was impatient, unkind, selfish, short-tempered, held grudges, and judgmental robbed me of that peace, and revealed to me what I lacked. I have not loved enough, and I still do not have what it takes to love adequately. As a result, my circumstances and other people’s behaviors controlled how I feel about them and how I act towards them. My love was merely transactional.

     We are always a work in progress. Ultimately, our lifelong goal is to learn how to truly love. We need to experience love, to know how to love. Fortunately, God loved us first and showed us how to. Seeking to love perfectly is not the goal. It is not possible and is not necessary. Our goal should simply be to have a heart that strives to love better each day. We should be unrelenting in pursuing this and constantly challenge ourselves to do what we must, even if it is uncomfortable and difficult.

     In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son. There was a man who had two sons, and the younger one left his father’s household and misused his inheritance in reckless living. He lost everything he had and was desperate. He returned to his father seeking forgiveness and an opportunity to work even as a hired servant. His father not only welcomed him back with open arms, but he also celebrated his return with a lot of fanfare. The older son was upset about his father’s underappreciation of his model behavior and what he perceived as favoritism of his father towards his brother who was rewarded despite his recklessness. But the prodigal son’s father remained unfazed and did not mind his older son’s ridicule. He was just happy and thankful that his wayward son had returned home.

     In this parable, Jesus illustrated for us the kind of heart that pleases God through the father of the prodigal son. The way he responded to both of his sons demonstrated pure and unconditional love. It is a heart that gives and forgives, and one that is willing to give up being right in exchange for the opportunity to love and make peace. This encapsulates all the characteristics and facets of love that we should strive to learn to give. Whenever we are called to give, given an opportunity to give, or have it within our power to give, we must give. Whenever we are called to forgive, even when the offending party does not ask for it or recognize the need to ask for it, we must forgive. When someone asks for forgiveness, we must forgive even if we do not feel we want to or do not feel the other person deserves it. This mindset and attitude of reflexive giving and forgiving take time and practice to get better at doing. We can learn to do anything if we spend time and make the effort. It does not matter how long it takes for us to get there. We should welcome each opportunity and challenge to give and forgive. Soon, our ability to muster the strength to do it becomes second nature. We should not live in fear of failing to live up to our intentions; perfection is not the goal. Making mistakes or falling into sin are unavoidable despite our best efforts. We should commit to always do our best and persevere in making incremental progress towards transforming ourselves into someone who can give and forgive at will.

     We were commissioned by God to love, not to be right. It does not please Him if we are right but fail to love. It is not worth it to demand what we deserve or what is due us, if the tradeoff is losing our peace or giving up an opportunity to be kind. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 9), Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” When people formulate incorrect opinion of us or make unfair judgment about us, giving up our right to defend ourselves yields an unfathomable satisfaction within. When we say “I’m sorry” even if it was not necessary, but we say it anyway for the sake of peace, we gain more gratification than the pride we lose. When others want to take what is rightfully ours, consider just letting them have it, if we have allowances; God gave us extra provisions for contingencies like this. When people mistreat us despite our good will, give them time to come around and realize their mistake on their own, even if we are justified to write them off as they deserve. We should not wager our peace on seeking what is right in the eyes of man. Rather, rest assured in knowing that we had the strength to deny ourselves and dared to love others radically without counting the cost to us.

     The issue of loving others is less formidable when we refer to those who are disadvantaged or are in dire need. We serve these people, and we are usually patient and kind to them without exerting much effort. Most of the time, we also do not expect anything in return. It makes us feel good and noble to have the opportunity to be useful to them. This is possibly because we somehow feel more blessed than them, and perhaps, superior. The real challenge is loving the people close to us where familiarity breeds contempt, and the people we casually encounter in our everyday lives whom we do not know well enough to feel obligated to love beyond the bare minimum human decency. The people we work with, acquaintances, and ordinary unnamed people we interact with superficially in our mundane existence, are the ones that really test our ability to love unconditionally. Succeeding in being giving and forgiving in these circumstances is what will likely satisfy the most. These are the private moments when we answer the call of God to truly love, when no one is watching and there is no recognition or reward to be gained.   

     In all matters big or small, complex, or ordinary, the example of the prodigal son’s father will teach us how to love unconditionally. He is most likely imperfect like us, but he is always willing to give and forgive. He seeks the things that have eternal value and chooses to love while giving up the need to be right. This is what pleases God. Consequently, this leads to lasting and true happiness, contentment, and inner peace.