Every time I read the story of the prodigal son who returned home, humble of heart and willing to be a servant rather than a son, I think of the surprise he must have felt. He’d planned ahead what to say, and meant every word: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But when he got there and meekly admitted his guilt, his father said, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The son did not expect that. In fact, it had not entered his head. All he could think of was his guilt. All he could hope for was mercy and a little kindness. Instead, his father threw a party.
I wonder how many times I’ve come to God in the opposite way. My own father was told that I would die before reaching adulthood, so my parents spoiled me. They gave all the attention and time they could afford, so when I became a Christian, I thought God would do the same. My surprise was not quite the same as the prodigal son’s lesson about God.
Instead, I had to learn the difference between presumption and faith. When I presumed God would do something, He didn’t. He wasn’t being mean to me, but trying to show me that I needed to trust Him to do the best thing, not presume He was my indulging Father who did whatever I asked.
Those were tough lessons. I had to find out that I don’t know best, that my ideas of how to run my life and the lives of others are selfish at best and destructive at worst. However, after learning those things “in a far country” as the prodigal did, and experiencing the “famine in that land” as he did, and coming to my senses as he did, I began thinking how badly I was messing up my life and how badly I needed the wisdom of my Father.
In a way, the next lesson was more difficult. I’d learned to stop presuming on God, but then had to learn how to trust Him, to ask for things in prayer believing that He would answer me. That meant a long spell of uncertainty. Would He listen? Would He say yes? It also meant learning to ask with the intention that God be honored in the answer, rather than I would be satisfied.
Now, when I ask God’s help or intervention in anything, I’m always surprised when He answers, even when I believe that He will. My believing is no longer presuming, but faith that He is a God who cares about me and will respond as He sees fit.
The story of the prodigal also reminds me there is a difference between presumption and believing He will respond. It has a lot to do with the attitude in which I ask. The prodigal’s story begins with him asking for his inheritance, assuming he would get it. He did, but it led to great disaster. Later, he learned he did not deserve even the least of his father’s mercies, yet he went home and humbly asked, this time for forgiveness. He got it—plus a surprise party.
Two lines reveal the heart of God concerning these things. One says, “But when he came to himself . . . .“ This tells me that I am my true self when I realize that a sinful, selfish, self-controlled life is folly; I belong at home with my Father.
The second is: “ . . . this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” From this I realize that when I presume that God will do whatever I want, I am dead and lost to the marvel of His great love and forgiveness. However, when I repent of my sin and turn my heart toward home, then I experience life and a true sense of belonging, and sometimes a party!