The Story of the Prodigal as Therapeutic Frame: Part Two
In Part One of this article, Andrew Bauman introduced the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 as a lens for the therapeutic encounter, discussing how the voices of shame and self-hatred prevent the son from returning home and stepping into his true identity. Read Part One here.
The Elder Brother Stage
The elder brother represents our inner voice of self-contempt, judgment, and accusation. This is the character Evil most utilizes within our story to thwart the healing process. This voice has an edge to it that is condescending and disparaging, but sprinkled with enough truth to bring immense confusion. For example, let’s look at the elder brother’s interaction with his father:
“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
Do you hear the accusations toward the loving father? Do you hear what is beneath the words? The guilt, manipulation, judgment, all mixed with bits of fact? The younger brother did squander, he was with prostitutes—he did all those things of which the elder son accused him. The elder son now wants to make his younger brother reimburse a debt that they all know he could never repay. (The inheritance that was squandered was likely a full third of the father’s current possessions!) There is plenty of truth to justify the elder brother’s resentment and judgment—just as there is sufficient evidence in our own story to validate our shame and convince us that we deserve to remain homeless and apart from the healing love of our father.
The category of “elder brother” requires a wise, kind, and slow engagement before Evil and shame will lose their supremacy. This stage is where Evil most plays, and significant territory can be taken. Be aware of what lies may be whispered to you during this phase by the Great Accuser (Rev. 12:10), the Father of Lies (John 8:44), the Tempter (Matt. 4:3), the Thief (John 10:10). Some helpful questions to ask yourself during this phase are: What is most true of my identity? To whose voice will I be most loyal? How does my own “elder brother” cause shame and judgment in my story? How does my shame and judgment block me from the Father’s invitation?
As we battle with self-contempt and the voice of the elder brother, we must reserve some vigor for our fiercest battle: the confrontation with the Father’s delight.
The Father Stage
“And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’”
The Father Stage is what we are most designed for and, at the same time, what we most fear. It has a flavor of heaven and goodness that reeks of God. As we taste this divine, transformative love from the Father, hope begins to birth, and with that hope come trepidation and dread. The goodness is almost too much to bear, so we hold love loosely, fearing the heartache that will come if the love is snatched away. We usurp hope by trying to avert the risk that hope summons us into. There is no hope without risk, and there is no faith without hope.
Despite our rocky relationship with hope, the Father delights, the Father pursues in spite of the doubt, he bestows his finest blessings. He does not deny the darkness of what the son has done; he fully knows the sin and still chooses to run toward the son. The father chooses to “bless” what the son has historically “cursed.” Does this sound familiar? The same is true for our own journey of homecoming. Just as the father did not humiliate the son, we will not be exposed as frauds as we open ourselves to return.
We must choose to bless our shame as the Father does. We are called to follow the path of Christ through his suffering (1 Peter 2:21). I can think of no greater martyrdom than to submit to the voice of the Father inside you—the Father who knows your depravity and still blesses it. As this provocative grace is offered, will you make it true for yourself? Nouwen writes that the Father’s “true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being.” The Father’s voice is God’s kindness that leads to our redemption (Rom. 2:4). It is the voice that gives life, not death, the voice that has no tone of accusation or curse, rather blessing and the highest nobility.
We must softly invite ourselves and those we work with into the most uncomfortable place of all: their own Father Stage and the voice of God. This is gospel, the moment when resurrection becomes truer than death, when we embrace our full, glorious selves, and when we join the work of our heavenly Father in blessing, embracing, and celebrating our return home.