Returning to God :: Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

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Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Oil on canvas; 1668.

One of the strangest things about us as people is how much we want to be close to people and also how easily we run away from relationships with others. Why is it that we both want to be known but also want to be free from being known? We are relational beings made in the image of our God who is a relational God (see Genesis 1:26-27). But Scripture tells the story of how human willfulness chose against God’s guidance (sin), resulting in ruptured relationship with God and others due at least in part to the influence of shame. Shame is that little voice telling us we are not enough, a deep sense in our selves that there is something wrong with us. Shame leads us to hide from God and others. We see this in Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God: “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). Just as God called out to them to be vulnerable and reenter relationship, so God continues to call out to all of us. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about lostness and hiddenness. The third, and most detailed, of these stories is about a father with two sons, one of whom leaves home and loses his way in life (Luke 15:11-32). Squandering his money, dishonoring his family name, and leaving like a beggar, he finally decides it would be better to return home in disgrace than to live the meaningless way he now lives. When he finally gets up the gumption to return home, his father sees him in the distance and rushes to embrace him. It is a fantastic picture of the astounding grace and love of God that overcomes our shame. Rembrandt’s beloved painting based in this story depicts the lavish embrace of the father, whose hands hold the son with a quiet stillness seeming to reverberate through time. The younger son is a tired train-wreck, his tattered robe in shambles and worn out shoes crumbling off his feet. In the shadows on the right, the older son looks down on this embrace, bitterly resenting both his father and brother in this moment. He’s maintained such faithful service to his father and thinks he deserves so much more than this faithless, shameful brother. The painting and the parable leave us wondering: “Where am I in this story and how might I need to return to the Father’s embrace?”

Sin’s Disruption and Disordered Love: Insights from St. Augustine

image 1 - Adam and EveWhen Adam and Eve turn from God and His will by choosing for themselves and their own will, they were in essence choosing to love themselves over God. Sin can be both the decision for and experience of disordered love.

Saint Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria, described this reality when he wrote: “virtue is nothing other than perfect love of God” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, XV.25) Augustine is telling us that the good life – the virtuous life – is formed around well-ordered love of God. 

In light of that well-ordered love of God we learn to love everything else, whether people or things. He writes:

though [something] is good, it can be loved in the right way or in the wrong way – in the right way, that is, when the proper order is kept, in the wrong way when that order is upset. (City of God, XV.22)

This helps us to understand what happens to our love through the Fall.

It is dislocated from its proper center in love for God, and then, being out of order, it leads us to love people and things in wrong ways. And so, impacted by sin, we try to love things in ways that do not give us life:

  • A father tries to feel love and acceptance in life through others’ acclamations of his child’s athletic accomplishments 
  • A daughter tries to receive love from her mother by always doing the right thing or pursuing goals her mother likes but the daughter does not
  • A man tries to feel loved through serial sexual experiences with others but finds intimacy and love elusive
  • A woman escapes an unhappy marriage through an emotional affair but still fees empty

The catalog of ways we experience disordered love could go on and on. It is because love is disordered that the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 are so powerful and praised: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast.” The very fact that this passage is so revered tells us just how special – and perhaps rare – ordered and right love truly is.

But it is not only that we love things wrongly in our Fallen state. We also, apart from God, evaluate love wrongly in ways that reveal our utter disorder:

  • someone’s love for sports overruns their priorities and ruins their marriage
  • someone’s love for their work becomes obsessive, ruining the family they are trying to support with that work
  • someone’s love for interacting with others on social media loses all bounds, ruining their actual face-to-face friendships 

As Augustine writes elsewhere, real love knows how “to love things…in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28).

This attention to disordered love is foundational to our discussion about the ways in which we experience disorder in our sexuality and our bodies because, as Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). That is, our outer life of action flows from the inner life of the heart and its related desires. Or, as Jamie Smith says, “you are what you love.”

We were made by God for loving relationship with God and others, but the Fall sunders that relationship and creates disorder in love.

God made us with the creational good of love to sustain and hold together every aspect of our identity, including our sexuality and bodies. But sin dislocates us, leaving us confused and muddled in the way we love things. All of this has tremendous impact for our bodies and our sexuality.

[This blog post is excerpted from my message, “Fall and Embodied Sexuality.”]

Image and Idolatry

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A quick search online reveals that a lot of us have image problems. Not only do you and I have image problems, but it seems like every category of person, career, human activity, and individual has an image problem.

The Satanic Inversion of the Image of God

As I mentioned in my message this past weekend, “I am More than My Image,” the deepest root of our image problem is the Satanic inversion of how God created us in His image. In Genesis 3:1-7, we can see three aspects of this inversion within the dialogue between the serpent and Eve:

  1. Satan questions the truth of God (“Did God really say?…”) – something which humans in original innocence took for granted as true and good
  2. Satan questions the motivation or rationale of God’s truth (“You will not certainly die…for God knows…”) – something which humans in original innocence took as in their best interest
  3. Satan questions the human relationship with God (“And their eyes were opened”) – the original harmony (shalom) or relationship is no disrupted

The opening of eyes gives more than humanity bargained for as this taints the image of God within humanity. That image is still there – an amazingly good reflection of God in our lives – but it is fogged over and cracked like a damaged mirror.

Human Dissonance about Image and God’s Guidelines

As we look at the story of the Bible after Genesis 3 we see that humanity tends toward putting the self at the center. Not only that, but we construct the world in a way that lifts up images outside of us and inside of us that are contrary to God and His ways. This is a direct reflection of the dissonance we experience as a result of the Satanic inversion of the image of God in Genesis 3. Read More »

I Am More Than My Image

With our current series at Eastbrook Church, “Who Am I?”, we are exploring biblical answers to questions about finding our identity in God.

This past weekend, in my message “I Am More Than My Image,” I spoke to the ways in which we are  tempted to live according to false images of ourselves instead of living into the image of God and the restoration of that in Jesus Christ.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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I Am Not Stuck

With our current series at Eastbrook Church, “Who Am I?”, we are exploring biblical answers to questions about our identity as human beings.

This weekend I  addressed the ways in which we feel stuck in life, and how a deeper level of being stuck – or existential dissonance – is the underlying cause of that. I talked about two great truths that pin us in their grip, and how the work of Christ opens a doorway into a new way of living out of an unstuck identity.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

Read More »