'Elder-brother lostness'

“...In this parable Jesus wants us to discern another, more subtle, but no less devastating form of lostness...We will call it ‘Elder-brother lostness’. It brings as much misery and strife into the world as the other kind. A closer look at the elder brother helps us discern its features.” (p49)

This fourth chapter of Keller’s Prodigal God gives us a much closer view of the sin of ‘elder brother types’ from the parable of Luke 15. While the elder brother in the parable is indeed lost, and not a part of God’s kingdom, Keller warns us Christians against the ‘elder-brother spirit’ as well. And to be honest, I was really challenged by this chapter. I was challenged by some of the actions and attitudes of the elder-brother spirit because I can see echoes of this in me, and in other Christians I know. And that’s a little scary.

1. One of the characteristics of the elder brother type, is a joyless obedience.
Because the elder brother in the parable works for the father for his own merit and reward, there is no real delight in obedience. p58 “The elder brother shows that his obedience to his father is nothing but duty all the way down. There is no joy or love, no reward in just seeing his father pleased.”
“Slavish, joyless drudgery”.

Sometimes, sadly, the longer we serve God at our church and in our homes, and the more time and energy we put into serving God, the more obedience can feel like joyless drudgery. I think I can say I’ve been guilty of this. There have been times at church when I have served and continued in my roles, merely out of duty, rather than out of a desire to love and serve God. For me, sometimes it’s been because of tiredness, or because of a lack of noticeable growth in the people I’ve been serving. And to be really honest, sometimes it’s because I just don’t feel like doing it.

If I feel this, I think I really need to take a hard look at my heart, and at my motives. Am I acting like the elder brother? Am I slipping into an attitude where I selfishly obey for a reward only? What if serving at church has begun to feel like mundane arduous work. Are there times when serving God is just like that for us (especially when we’re tired), or is there really no excuse? Are we instead robbing ourselves of the love of God at that moment? Are we forgetting our loving Father and slipping into the attitude of the older brother? The lost older brother without salvation!

I think we need to be really careful about this. If we have truly grasped God’s love for us in his Son, if we have really understood His great mercy in wiping out our debt to him, then surely nothing should be able to take away our love in obedience, the joy in our service. Not tiredness, not the mundane nature of tasks, not even my stilted perspective of the growth of those around me. We need to keep praising God for who he is and what he’s done. Let’s keep realigning our vision to the glories of our saviour. This alone will help us serve and live like the apostle Paul demands, “Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).

2. “Elder brothers are under great pressure to appear, even to themselves, happy and content.” (p62)

The lack of joy and love in the elder brother’s heart leads to a false mask of happiness and contentment in their lives. It is sad that this elder brother type has to put on a veneer, has to convince him or herself that they are happy in their ‘duty’. Unfortunately, I think even as Christians, we can see this in ourselves. We don’t want others to see that we’re not going so great. As hard as it is to admit, I think that’s often because we don’t want to be seen as ‘lesser’ than those around us, somehow less holy because of our struggles. The self-centredness of the older brother mentality means we don’t want others to see our brokenness. Yet we forget we’re all broken! We’ve all needed forgiveness. In the honesty of admitting mistakes, we find joy in God’s love and forgiveness, and we find honest and great joy in those who still walk beside us, even though they know the great depths of our brokenness.

Can I encourage you to pray? Let’s pray that we would be bold enough to be honest. To be honest about the great times and the hard times as we serve our living King. Pray that we can extend our hands in support of those who struggle beside us. And pray that everyday, as we love and serve our master, we would find our joy and delight in him.