October 11, 2006

From the Prodigals Among Us

2006 1528 page15 capHEN I EXPERIENCED THE NEW birth in Christ at the age of 29, it was as if my entire world turned upside down. I woke up the next day after a night of being touched through the testimony of a friend, and the Holy Spirit was telling me, “It’s time to live right. It’s time to stop straddling the fence!”
Accepting that voice, I was born again! I’d been given what I think is one of the greatest gifts a person can receive: an inner eye to see my own sinfulness, and thereby understand my desperate need of Jesus. It was as if my heavenly Father had pulled back the curtain and was showing me there was a new life to live. And as He held it next to my old ways, I couldn’t believe what I’d really looked like before!
Suddenly, everything I had been doing for 29 years turned out to be wrong. I discovered that all of my motives up until then had been selfish and displeasing to God. At the age of 29, I’d gone from believing I was an above-average intelligent woman who pretty much had it all together to being a spiritual baby who couldn’t believe how God had saved her from the miry pit of sin! Those who’ve become Christians in adulthood after a life of what Paul somewhere calls living “in the flesh” can understand the daily struggles of relearning how to live—how to live in Christ.
The way I talked, the things I said, the way I dressed, the activities on which I spent my time—all these were now under heavenly review. My old ways now appeared as they really were: ugly, foolish, hurtful to others, and substandard—compared with the beautiful life of joy, peace, love, and service presented through the Bible.
I wanted that beautiful new life. Unfortunately, however, all I knew was how to live the old, painful one. I rejoiced as I read the Bible and saw the beautiful life God offered me. But in the next hour, I’d be filled with frustration as I relived my old, sinful patterns when my mouth, mind, and body followed well-worn paths of sin. It was really frustrating!

Those First Two Years!

2006 1528 page15I remember many situations that first year as a born-again Christian out with my non-Christian friends. I would open my mouth to talk as I would have done before, but nothing would come out. It was as if the Holy Spirit would flash an inner mirror into my mind, letting me see again my worldly ways held up against God’s ways. I realized I had a worldly arsenal of words (coarse jesting, foolish talk, flattery, insincerity, making fun of someone), but very few loving, Christlike words to draw from. I didn’t know how to think on whatever is good, pure, holy, just.

I couldn’t believe how filled my mind had become with hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and covetousness. But the Spirit was ever-present gently to reveal these truths to me and help me. What a relief to read Paul’s struggle in Romans 7 where he also describes wanting to do the right thing, but ending up doing the wrong instead. This warrior for God had gone through the same things as I was experiencing, I thought! Tears would fill my eyes as I read about the war inside his body. How well I understood!
Those first two years of being a Christian were my biggest years of struggle. I felt as if there were two very distinct people inside me: an old and a new. The old was 29 years—worldly, savvy, able to negotiate through the world. She knew how to say the right things, appear confident, and get the results she wanted. But hers was the corrupt life of the flesh—very sad and broken inside.
The new person was a tiny little baby, hardly able to talk without direction, hardly able to dress herself without careful thought, or to eat her spiritual food. Very uncoordinated, she needed to move slowly and with careful preparation, or she was apt to slide into her old sinful ways in seconds. Inside of me was a child that no one could see.
If anyone had followed me those first two years, they would have thought I was crazy, as I would often start and stop what I was about to say in mid-sentence; or would turn around and head for home, without arriving where I was about to go.
Heaven must enjoy watching its “babies” grow up, and smile at all the funny things they do, especially since some of us “babies” live in very adult bodies. I wonder, when we get to heaven, if God will have a series of funny “home videos” to show what we went through!

Learning to Grow Up

How does a baby learn to become an adult?

By being around other adults and modeling their behavior. I was reading the Bible daily, and praying with new joy about my new life, but I needed to see living examples of an obedient, joyful Christian life. Every day I was going out into the world as a new Christian and, like a baby, defenseless against Satan’s snares. I was thirsting to learn how to be the best follower of Christ I could be. I understood that Jesus is my ultimate model for how to live, but I needed human mentors to help me learn to be like Him.
When I went to church and started making Christian friends, I eagerly examined how they lived—especially those who had been Christians all of their lives. I watched them for clues on how to act, how to talk, how to behave. I wanted to learn how to be “in the world, but not of the world.”
Often I would be at a church potluck, delighted to be in the same room with so many people who love Jesus, thirsting for Christian fellowship after my week’s world-versus-baby-Christian struggles. I would eagerly wait for someone at the table to talk about the sermon, or something they had read in the Bible that week. But sadly, so many of those conversations never came.
Instead, the talk would often center around someone’s new house, or their latest trip, or their job. Perplexed, I’d sit there like a little child trying to put the pieces together in my mind. My inner thoughts sounded something like this: Today is Sabbath, and it’s a holy day. God said that we’re supposed to focus on worshipping Him. We’re supposed to talk in psalms and hymns and praises. These people have been Christians their whole lives—why aren’t they doing this? Am I somehow wrong in what I’ve read?
2006 1528 page15I knew the Bible wasn’t wrong, but countless times I didn’t receive a good example from the sources I most needed to learn from—my “older” brothers and sisters in Christ. They seemed unaware of how I thirsted for more knowledge about how to be like Jesus, and how I looked to them for the example.
Fortunately, I did meet some Christians who taught me how to become a better follower of Christ. When I was around them, their love for Jesus was evident in their conversation, their discussion and instruction on the Bible, and the gentleness in how they treated me. They talked about their conversion experiences, and how God had brought them back into the fold. They taught me how to talk about Jesus, how to dress more modestly, how to spend time with Jesus during the Sabbath hours, how to store up my treasure in heaven, and how to leave my worldly habits behind. From their pure devotion to the Word of God I gleaned knowledge, and just like a little child, tried to mimic their ways and make those ways part of me. If you’re a third-generation Christian, you may have never had to go through any of this. But never underestimate the importance of your role in the church.

A Biblical Case in Point

Did the Bible understand that in the church there’d be both lifelong and baby Christians—baby Christians just learning how to make it? Did it delve into the feelings on both sides when we all come to our Father’s house? When the miniskirt and jewelry wearers meet the modestly dressed and the unpainted; when the meat-eaters meet the vegetarians; when the broken and hurt come crawling in from the world, crying to stay for just a few moments of rest in the Father’s house, to meet those who have been tending the home fires all their lives?

The answer is “yes.” And one of the places I find it is Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal—at least, the way I picture it.
The prodigal had left his father’s house to live a profligate life. At last, however, he came home to a big welcome party, and he was exuberant to have returned. He didn’t care about status anymore, or money, or appearance; he just wanted to be back in his father’s house. His older brother, however, was upset, for hadn’t he remained in his father’s house his entire life? But now his younger brother, after living the way he pleased out in the world, had returned to get some of the inheritance that should rightfully be his, he felt. Have you ever wondered what happened the day after the party? I have.
In my imagination, I see these two brothers living in the same house, as opposite as night and day. How would they ever learn to get along? The prodigal, excited to be home, nevertheless discovers he’d been away so long that he no longer knew anything about the workings of his father’s estate. However desperately he now wanted to be a part of the scene and make his father proud, he simply didn’t know how things ran anymore. Though eager to make up for every lost minute because of his newfound love for his father, he has no idea how to go about it.
Then there’s the older brother. Having never left home, he knows everything about how to run the household—as easy as breathing for him! But he notices the reverence of his once careless younger brother—in the way he touches the family portraits, for example, or in the way he speaks to their father. Watching his younger brother, he realizes that he’d grown so used to living in the house that he’d started taking its ways for granted. And without actually saying it out loud, he realizes he can learn to see with new eyes—with the new eyes of his younger brother.
Yet the former prodigal comes to him asking help on how to run the household. “I don’t know anything about this place anymore,” he says, “and everything I’ve learned out there in the world I need to unlearn.”
Now the older brother realizes he isn’t forgotten, after all, that he still has an important mission. Together they learn how much they need each other, how their individual perspectives could help the other. The older brother hears stories about the pain his younger sibling had suffered while away—stories that would help him remain faithful to his father and fend off any temptation to leave. And the younger brother learns how to become part of the family again.

The Lesson

I do not mean to add to the words of Christ, but merely to share how the story has helped me understand where I fit into the church as a “prodigal daughter.” Upset at his brother’s return, the older boy didn’t understand how crucial his own role had become. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ, who have grown up in the church all their lives, to know how much I and all newly converted Christians need them. We need them to model for us the principles we read in the Bible. We need their patience and gentleness. When they look at me, I hope they see, not a woman in her 30s, but a 4-year-old Christian.*

Yes, I need them. But they need me too, to help them see Christ through the eyes of a growing child. They need to hear how excited I am about all of the new things I am learning for the first time. From my spiritual growth, they need to see again that God changes lives. Though there’ll often be starts and stops, misunderstandings and bumps in the road, I believe we can all learn to live together in our Father’s house.
*The author wrote this piece four years after her conversion.
Michelle Sabo grew up in northern California and attended Pacific Union College and Loma Linda University. She currently lives in New England.