The elder brother (Luke 15)

In his book The Prodigal God that expounds on the parable of the prodigal son, Timothy Keller highlights the signs of an ‘elder brother’ spirit: anger towards suffering and strong sense of superiority through moral performance, joyless, fear-based compliance, and lack of assurance of the Father’s love. I was particularly intrigued by Keller’s description of a symptom of the lack of assurance of the Father’s love, i.e. a dry prayer life:

Though elder brothers may be diligent in prayer, there is no wonder, awe, intimacy, or delight in their conversations with God. Think of three kinds of people – a business associate you don’t really like, a friend you enjoy doing things with, and someone you are in love with and who is in love with you. Your conversations with the business associate will be quite goal-oriented. You won’t be interested in chit chat. With your friend you may open your heart about some of the problems you are having. But with your lover you will sense a strong impulse to speak about what you find beautiful about him or her.

These three kinds of discourses are analogous to forms of prayer that have been called ‘petition’, ‘confession’, and ‘adoration’. The deeper the love relationship, the more the conversation heads toward the personal, and toward affirmation and praise. Elder brothers may be disciplined in observing regular times of prayer, but their prayers are almost wholly taken up with a recitation of needs and petitions, not spontaneous, joyful praise. In fact, many elder brothers, for all their religiosity, do not have much of a private prayer life at all unless things are not going well in their lives. Then they may devote themselves to a great deal of it, until things get better again. This reveals that their main goal in prayer is to control their environment rather than to delve into an intimate relationship with a God who loves them.

It is no surprise that our prayers reflect the degree of intimacy in our relationship with God, but I’ve never performed such a diagnosis of my prayer life according to these symptoms. My prayers are mainly petitions and confessions, but profuse, heartfelt adoration seems to be a rarity. I was just trying to imagine along the lines of Keller’s description of adoration: how many times have I told God that I love and adore Him because of His __________? (Strangely, my memory suddenly harks back to Princess Diana’s TV interview 15 years ago. I woke up at 5am to watch the British simulcast and I still remember her unabashed response to the question on her relationship with an alleged lover: “I adore him.” Such simple, yet such revealing words.)

I know that this is an embarrassing confession, but I thought that someday I would be writing poems to the one I love. But after reading this paragraph, I think I should be writing sonnets to God instead. (But I must first state that after I scored 51 marks for my Sec 1 Sem 1 literature exam, I knew that literature was not for me… But I just picked up two poetry writing books from the library!) But would I be able to write or pray those poems to God if there are little affections for Him in the first place? Then I must pray that I experience a deepening understanding of the salvation of Christ and truly live out the gospel in my life, and that God grant me those affections for Him.

Just give me some time to hone my poetry writing skills 😉

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