What is the most important question in the world? That’s hard to say, but one weighty contender has to be the question, “Who is God?” Whether you’re Richard Dawkins or a Bible-thumping KJV Christian, how you answer that question is of great consequence.
In Prodigal God, Tim Keller argues that, in a set of three parables in Luke 15:
Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book.
Even after outlining the book into nine crammed pages and facilitating discussion groups on The Prodigal God, the central claim of the book continues to shock me. Is God really “recklessly extravagant” in His love?
The three parables of Luke 15 revolve around a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons. In each instance, respectively, a shepherd, a woman, and a father make sacrifices to find what has been lost and restore it to its proper place. Simple enough, right? God loves the lost and offers us salvation.
However, the mastery of Keller’s approach comes from his in-depth explanation of first century Jewish culture, his provocative insights about the original audience of the Pharisees and the scribes, and the unsettling way he explains that God really, really loves us.
Non-religious people can enjoy The Prodigal God because Keller understands and affirms their critique of religious people. It is satisfying to hear a respected pastor admit what you’ve always believed: religious people can be really self-righteous, stuck up, and judgmental towards everyone else. See, even Christian pastors say so!
Religious people are likely to appreciate this message as well, since we are typically prone to feeling guilty and will respond to these critiques by furiously working to patch things up with God through a new and improved religious devotion.
However, The Prodigal God goes deeper: more religious activity isn’t the answer. It is actually part of the problem. But wait: how can ‘being good’ be such a bad thing?
As Keller explains, some people know they are living life by their own rules – and not God’s. Other people pretend to be living by God’s rules, but essentially, they are trying to use the rules to make God work for them.
On the outside, the younger son who ran away from home and the elder son who labored in the fields look completely different. But on the inside, their hearts are similar: they both want to remain in control of their lives, proudly rejecting their Father’s authority when his rules don’t suit their purposes, and they each harbor a harsh critique of others.
Whether you are a free-spirit or live in a religious straight jacket, this is a convicting diagnosis: what celebrity in Hollywood wants to be compared to an administrator at Bob Jones University? And, I imagine, vice versa.
This message is also devastating news. The first time I heard Keller make these points, I was listening to one of his sermons during a run. When I realized how much my good deeds were really about me and my self-advancement, I nearly collapsed. The run was over. Why?
Because it was simply excruciating to have my self image as a very good person so threatened and then, even worse, to honestly acknowledge the painful extent of my sin against God.
However, the good news is that God loves us in a prodigal way. The reason I was trying to save myself through such labored religious devotion was an uncertainty, an anxiety, a hesitant fear that God might not love me.
Upon reflection, I think these worries are basic to the human condition.
So the importance of The Prodigal God (and of Jesus himself, let’s be honest) becomes clear: when you get its message, you will grasp that God really, truly, absolutely loves you. When this sinks in – all the way in – it changes everything.
The Prodigal God is available at Amazon.com (with over 179 five-star reviews).
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