Prodigals All

When I've experienced seasons of depression in the past, I didn't feel very spiritual, mainly because I had maintained a warp sense of what spirituality is in reality. The past six weeks has been particularly trying for me, as loneliness and an insatiable longing for a partner has fueled my depression, and instrumentally causing me to barely utter even a paragraph to the God and Savior whom I love. One would think that I would turn rather easily toward the Lord during such times. However, when I can barely drag myself out of bed and into the shower for daily routine, the faithful spiritual exercise of prayer seems a burden too heavy to carry. During such times I trust the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:26).

Henri Nouwen, in his book The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God, mentions third-century monk St Anthony, who, having spent time in the desert and away from society, experienced a terrible trial: "The shell of his superficial securities was cracked and the abyss of iniquity [his own iniquity or sin] was opened to him."1 He emerged through his darkness by submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ, notes Nouwen, meaning that Anthony sought to live his life in complete absorption in God.

A certain old man, writes Nouwen, asked God to give him a glimpse of the faithful Church fathers and God granted the request: he saw all except for St Anthony. When he asked his spiritual guide where was St Anthony, the reply was heard, "[I]n the place where God is, there Anthony would be." Nouwen concludes: "The goal of our life is not people. It is God."2 But this goal is not an easy one -- especially during seasons of darkness, hopelessness, and drudgery that seems as though it will never end.

During Nouwen's darkest season of his life, he confessed, "I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss."3 He faced the reality that he had begun to rely on a special male friend as the center of his emotional state rather than God. Christian couples come to understand that, though their love for one another is deep, immense and unique, their partner cannot be Sovereign to one's emotional or physical or psychological or spiritual well-being.


Nouwen was enamored with Rembrandt's painting Prodigal Son. He was particularly fascinated with the warmth of the father's hands upon the back shoulders of his repentant son -- hands that embrace rather than shun or judge or harm. Many tend to the think of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as the Repentant Son but this is not the meaning of prodigal: "to lavish in abundance; to be rashly or wastefully extravagant." (link) The younger of two sons asks his father for his share of his inheritance, which in itself was an insult, like confessing to his father: "I wish you were already dead so that I could have my (entitled) inheritance." But the father relented to his son's wishes.

We are prodigals all.

We want all the blessings of God, all that our hearts desire, without any regard for God as a Person who genuinely loves us, provides for us, and cares about our well-being. What of disease? We brought about disease, and every other ill that befalls the human race, by our own free rebellion from God's glorious standards. We, fallen as we are, choose pain over joy, destruction over life, and rebellion over obedience every day of our lives. When we choose to live selfishly, when we choose oppression and power over justice and equality, we, tragically yet inevitably, prove ourselves to be prodigals all.

So we test ourselves by asking if we love God more this year than last, or if we are reading our Bibles regularly, or any other number of "Christian duties" that might grant us a glimpse of spiritual growth or formation. Nouwen comments: "In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement, the spiritual life becomes quite easily performance oriented: 'On what level am I now, and how do I move to the next one?'"4 But is God looking at performance or at the heart? Too much of my former spirituality -- my former evangelical Christianity -- was based on doing instead of being. Understanding that we are prodigals all, and that our relationship with God and our ultimate salvation is one of grace and not our performance, frees us from works to embrace the Spirit.


1 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981), 19.

2 Ibid.

3 ________, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Image Books, 1998), xiii.

4 ________, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird (New York: HarperOne, 2010), xv.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.