I went to the first session of my church’s Bible study tonight. We’re going through Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, which concerns Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son.
I said here and here that I was looking forward to this Bible study because it would focus on spirituality rather than doctrine. But what I should have remembered was that Tim Keller always ties what he’s saying to Christ and him crucified. In the DVD that we watched this evening, for instance, Tim Keller said that the father of the story gave his son his inheritance at cost to himself, for the father had to sell part of his own property—a piece of himself—in order to give his son the money. Tim Keller also said that, in those days, the elder brother was responsible for the family’s estate, and so the elder brother was responsible to look for the younger son at cost to himself in order to return him to the family. According to Tim Keller, the elder brother does not do what he’s expected to do in Jesus’ parable because Jesus wants for us to long for the true elder brother, Jesus Christ, who went to great lengths to get us back.
The cross of Christ is important to Tim Keller, for it was through the cross that God showed he would love us at great cost to himself. This stood out to me this evening because, earlier today, an evangelical friend of mine told me that I don’t believe in the atonement, and that the cross is central to Christianity. I suppose that I have had a John Hick picture of God these past couple of years—a God who is benevolent and who reveals himself (in some manner) to people of different religions. Christianity strikes me as exclusive, and the corollary of “Christ died for our sins” often, for me, means that those who don’t accept Christ’s sacrifice will go to hell. And yet, Christianity does have a God who loved at great cost to himself, and that does look better than my nebulous conception of God. Tim Keller is far from being a universalist, but I do know Christian universalists who somehow try to combine the best of both worlds: the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, and God’s presence in the lives of every one on the face of the earth, whatever that person believes. (There are other kinds of Christian universalists as well.)
What also stood out to me in today’s session was Tim Keller’s discussion of alienation from God. The younger son did not want to be with his father, but he simply wanted his father’s money so he could go off and make a life for himself. The older son, however, did not care about the heart of his father, for he did not care about his father’s happiness at his little brother’s return. Rather, the older brother was more concerned about how the father was spending lots of money for the feast in honor of the younger son, and how the father did not appear to honor his older son’s obedience to the rules. Both attitudes alienate people from God. Tim Keller believes that Jesus paid the price for our sins, and that this reconciles believers to God, but (as far as I could tell) his focus in the sermon that I heard was not so much on Christ’s role in a judicial transaction, but rather on how our attitudes can alienate us from God.
In the question about which brother we identify with, the older or the younger, my response (after hearing Tim Keller) was both. Like the younger brother, I want to find myself—to make my own rules—since God’s rules appear daunting to me (i.e., don’t lust after women, etc.). But, like the older brother, I think that I deserve God’s favor and the good afterlife because I go to church, read daily devotionals, do my weekly quiet time, give some to the poor, etc. I think that I know how to correct the latter attitude: to tell myself that God loves me whether I do those things or not. But I’m not sure how to correct the former attitude, for I want God to love me, even as I hold on to things (i.e., lust) that Christianity would consider a sin. I don’t believe that utterly getting rid of sexual desire is realistic. But I do think that I should try to see sex as God views it—as an expression of love—especially if part of intimacy with God is sharing his heart on things.