Welcome to Wherever You Are
You open your eyes.
You’re a little disorientated at first; you feel good but you just can’t quite remember where you are or maybe even who you are yet. Light is streaming through a gap in the curtains, a soft, hazy beam lancing its way across the room. A bedroom. The soft furnishings look inviting. A warm wing-backed, cushioned chair sits in one corner of the room, a simple wooden table and chair by the windowsill. Your favourite coat is hanging on the handle to the wardrobe. Did you put that there?
What did you do last night?
You don’t really remember. You can’t even recall getting into bed or changing.
It’s only when you sit up that you realise just how comfortable this bed actually is. There’s comfy and then there’s this. It’s got that feel of an old, well-used mattress, like the kind a grandma puts in the spare room for her grandchild to sleep and feel safe on. Propping yourself up, you gently lean back against the cushioned headboard and pull your knees up to your chest. Your eyes slowly pan around the room.
It’s warm. Feels safe.
It somehow feels familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. It’s unusual, because you don’t recall having a lot of history living in this room… but it has the signs of your life in it. Photos in frames, your slippers by the bed, your favourite mug on the table. It’s even got a candle with the smell you like hidden somewhere in here.
You rub your eyes, half-expecting the scene to disappear and be replaced by something more familiar.
It doesn’t disappear.
This is your room.
It feels good to be here… really good, in fact.
You can’t even rationalise in your head why it feels so good and right, it just does.
Inside you there are emotions bubbling up and neurones firing in your brain. Ideas, confidence, hope, excitement, anticipation, peace, expectancy… you name it. It’s like just being here is uncapping something.
‘What is this place?’ you whisper out loud. ‘How did I get here?’
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories Jesus told. The life-changing message the parable brings us is what this book is all about, but it’s my question about it that we’re really going to spend our time on.
What if there were a sequel to the story?
What if the narrative just… kept going?
What if Jesus had continued, extended the parable and added another chapter in His tale of the two sons and their father?
If you think I’m going to suggest that we start adding things into the Bible, rest easy, I’m not going there. I am wondering out loud, though. What would it have been like if Jesus had kept the narrative going and as Act 1, ‘The redemption’, drew to a close, Act 2, ‘The living of it’, began?
Let’s back up a bit first. The parable of the prodigal son is found in Luke 15. You should open a Bible and read it if you never have. It is exceptional and yet so simple. A son takes his inheritance early, basically tells his dad he wishes he were dead, flees the father’s home, loses everything he has and hits the lowest depths of shame imaginable. Then, one day, after coming to his senses, he takes the long path home that leads to the road to his father’s house, and while ‘still a long way off’ (v20), is met by his father in a collision of grace that he never saw coming. Just when you think it is all done, a third character enters the story. An older brother. He can’t handle his younger brother’s return, or his redemption. He too experiences his father coming out to him to rescue him from himself. Both children receive this love, one accepts it and the other… well, we never find out what his response is.
So much of the Old Testament and the New is found in this one little story. The story has given hope and life to millions of people since the day Jesus told it. There’s something about it, though; even when I consider that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV), this parable seems to stand by itself as something particularly special.
We have a father meeting his sons on the paths of their brokenness. There are tears and hugs, then a cloak and a ring that appear out of nowhere to cover all the shame. We have the same father offering both children a way back home. A walk home, side by side with him. An opportunity to be restored. A chance to talk about every wound and cut and grief. An offer to cross the threshold of their father’s house as fully empowered and renewed sons of the house. It is beautiful, it’s simple and it’s profound.
For so many Jesus followers throughout history, this parable has become personal. It’s not a story about some historical figure, some foolish disciple who should have known better, or some Old Testament king who didn’t get it. It’s a story about me and about you.
This story gets under my skin more than any other Jesus told.
I’ll be honest, this story has always left me feeling so utterly exposed and convicted by the weakness, the pride and the selfishness of those two sons.
They are me.
So completely me.
Their sin-covered rags and masks are mine. The paths they walked down are my paths. The trenches they fell in are my trenches. I’ve hidden down the same alleys and in the middle of the same crowds as them both. I’ve thought the same thoughts and yearned for the same things. I’ve justified the same actions. I’ve walked away from the Father and questioned His way of doing things, just like they did. I’ve needed to be rescued from the world and from myself, just as they did too.
However, even in the midst of all these thoughts, I have found that the story is more than just a means for us to associate and empathise with a human struggle. There’s something far greater going on.
This story is a window into the heart of God as a father.
Unfortunately, for so many of us the window that we were meant to look through as we see Him has been stained and tarnished, and He has been misrepresented for far too long. This parable sets the story straight on who God the Father is. I think Jesus knew full well when He told this parable that He was drawing us, His listeners, to consider the rawest expressions of our human brokenness and our choices, while also side-swiping us with the reality of the unrelenting, unmerited, grace-driven love of God the Father towards us all. For the listeners, for us, we are left with the thought: If the father – representing God Himself – was willing to rescue and rebuild those two boys at their worst, maybe He would rescue us too, no matter what?
I think Jesus meant for us to see it this way. I believe He meant for us to see the real us, before the real God, and for that thought to stop us in our tracks. What we do from that point is up to us. We can shrug it off, we can take a few moments to think about it and then get on with our lives. Or we can get the tent out and camp in it, give it time and allow all that revelation a chance to change us.
As I’ve journeyed with this story and its implications over the years, I have struggled to move past it. There has always been something present in the back of my mind; a question: What happened next? Rescue and redemption are profoundly important moments… but something happens after that, right? The story keeps going, doesn’t it?
So what happened next? Because I’m living the ‘next’ right now; it’s my life. If you’re a follower of Jesus, it’s your life too. If you’re not, I invite you right now to make your own choice about Jesus and the Father He wants to introduce you to. I experienced the loving redemption of the Father when I first really gave my life to Jesus. It was a moment of grace; that means unmerited favour was shown to me, I was given something for free that I didn’t earn or deserve. Mercy was shown to me for everything I had done to hurt God, others and myself. I was forgiven. I was set free. I was cleansed and washed of all the toxic thoughts and choices I’d made over the years. I honestly can’t quite describe the totality of the impact it made on my life; I can only say it changed everything in me forever. I was a redeemed person. My life purchased and made completely new.
Following hot on the heels of that moment, however, was this question, ‘How do I live now that I am redeemed… how do I be that new person?’
What comes next…?
Jesus told a lot of parables, relatable stories, basically, to those who listened to Him. He spoke about feasts, the buying of precious pearls, what to do with the talents you’ve been given, or the vineyard you’ve been entrusted with. He told many powerful stories, but honestly, I’ve never dwelt on what may have come next in them. They felt contained and finished, Jesus’ point clearly made and delivered. This one, however, this tale of a father and his sons, though complete and perfectly presented for its listeners, always felt to me as if it invited us to inhabit it and build on it. The story almost seems to hang in mid-air, because so much has happened, but there surely must be so much more to come.
I needed to hear what the father’s next words were. What was that walk home back to the house like? What did the father and redeemed son talk about on that walk? Did they speak about why the son had left, where the roots to his insecurity lay, or did they just take in the scenery as they made their way home?
What would it be like for the redeemed child to walk back into his bedroom, cleaned and tidied ready for his return? What would it be like to live out the next few days and weeks from that moment as a new person? What more was this incredible father going to reveal to his children to help them believe what had always been true about them and, indeed, about himself?
All of these questions have swirled around my head for years. In the pages to come we’re going to try to answer some of them. Now, the truth is that all of Scripture speaks to each one of these questions, the Bible is not silent on these issues or on my questions. The Gospels of Jesus’ life show us Jesus, the source of all our freedom. Romans 8 speaks of our adoption as God’s sons. Colossians 1 and 3 speak of our oneness with God, our new fused nature with Him. Galatians 3 reminds us that we’ll never need to try to earn something we actually were given as a gift through grace. The entire book of Acts shows us the power and wonders that follow those who believe they are who God says they are. The book of Revelation shows where it’s all heading.
So even though the Bible isn’t silent on my questions, I could see that this parable of Jesus created an opportunity for us all to become a character and member of the cast, and ask our questions from that place. This parable reveals the father heart of God towards us on our worst day, and so the outworking of that revelation is for us to live, no longer as spiritual orphans, but as fathered sons and daughters. It has to be personal.
As I saw myself so clearly in this story, I wanted the questions to be answered from within it too. A soteriological explanation from a theologian’s dissertation about the nature of the sanctified life was not going to speak to my heart. I needed to see Father God turn to His formerly prodigal son with His arm round his shoulder and speak to Him in that whisper of love.
What happens next, after God has met us in a grace collision of forgiveness and restoration, is of supreme importance to each one of us. What we do with it, where we go with it, who we choose to be as a result of that moment, are some of the most important questions we will ever engage with in life.
So as we go forward from this moment, we will be camping around the identity and belonging that gets released into our lives as a result of that grace collision with the Father. This book is about what it looks like to be adopted into God’s family, with all our history and baggage, and yet be treated like a birth child with all the privileges and intimacy that comes with that.
The journey we’re in and the one that lies ahead
Spiritually speaking, before we know God, before we have that encounter with Jesus Christ that changes everything, we are like orphans. We’re just trying to figure out where we came from, what we’re on this planet to do and pretty much making it up as we go along. We don’t know who we are or whose we are.
Identity is probably one of the most talked about issues of our times, and for good reason. We all have a need in our very blood to know who we are, why we are the way that we are and what we are here on this planet for. Four of the biggest questions of any human worldview are: Where did I come from, what does it mean to be alive, how do I differentiate between right and wrong, and where am I going? They are all questions that need an answer.
Many try to figure out their identity questions by allying themselves to a movement or a cultural expression. Many identities are forged based on feelings: ‘I feel, therefore I am.’ Some people root themselves in the family name, or history and traditions. Some of this stuff can be good and can help us – we feel belonging and find our tribe. Some of it is just smoke and vapours and doesn’t have the depth or grounding to actually be useful. Much of it is simply toxic and will take us to a far-off country where no one even knows the Father’s name, let alone cares what He thinks. None of these things ultimately can answer the deepest questions of our hearts, nor provide the truth of who we really are.
One of the primary roles a father often plays in a healthy family unit is to provide identity to the children. Mothers lead in giving the child unconditional, nurturing love, whereas the father imbues a sense of who they are in this world. Growing up as a young boy, when I was hurt or sick at school I wanted my mum to come rescue me and look after me; I wanted that nurture love she would bring. When I started getting older and was trying to understand who I was in the world, it was my dad I looked to and went to. Parents get to play an incredible role in shaping their children.
Now I’m definitely thinking more of Mufasa speaking to Simba on Pride Rock in The Lion King about who he was and his future as a king, rather than Darth Vader in Star Wars revealing to a one-handed Luke Skywalker that he’s actually his dad and he’d like to team up and take over the universe together (although, fun fact, both are voiced by the same actor). My point is, earthly fathers are meant to do this identity-affirming and imparting role because it is a reflection of what our heavenly Father does at a much deeper, more profound level. We all need to hear the words our heavenly Father speaks over us.
The most healed, free and whole people I’ve ever met on planet Earth are those who have experienced fathering from Father God. Regardless of how well they were or weren’t brought up, it is the affirming voice of their heavenly Dad that brings the truest revelation of their identity as son or daughter.
The opposite of knowing and believing you’re part of God’s family is spiritual orphanness. This is what happens when that heavenly fathering is not experienced or known. It is where there is an absence of the good and true Father to tell you who you are, whose you are and what on earth you’re here for. As in the natural, when we spiritually don’t know we have a father who is good and loves us, we act like orphans, trying to seek that love or identity from anywhere that might offer it. Adam and Eve looked for it in a piece of fruit (Genesis 3:6). Their son Cain tried to find it in favour and being the best (Genesis 4:3). The hundreds of Bible pages after their stories tell of so many others who tried to find their identity and belonging in places other than God.
Spiritual orphanness is not something that you can avoid just because you’re a Christian or a godly person. I know, because I thought that being a Christian and a member of the club would fix me overnight of all my dysfunctions. As it turns out, all my worst behaviour, all my abandonment and justifying, the pride, the selfishness, my fleeing and all the people pleasing I’ve ever done didn’t disappear overnight. They all found their root in insecurities around who I was and whose I was. When I made a full commitment to follow God as a teenager, I accepted the gift He offered willingly, but there was still so much I didn’t know about Him. I didn’t believe it yet that this God was a good Dad who actually wanted to get down in the dirt with me. So I spent a long time trying to measure up to who I thought He wanted me to be. I was a Christian but still acting like an orphan.
God is a good father, and that therefore makes us sons and daughters, free and whole in Him (Romans 8:15-17). Jesus, God’s perfect Son, lived His life only doing and saying what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19) and one day, when the time came for Him to answer the reason for all His ministry and purpose on earth, Jesus simply said that He was ‘the way’. The way, not just to heaven. The way, not just to eternal life. Jesus was and is the way to the Father (John 14:6). The Father, being with Him, knowing Him and being known by Him… it is the goal as far as Jesus is concerned.
This revelation was a life-changer for me. Before I really gave my life to God, my life goal was just about making sure I shaped up when I needed to, slacked off when I could get away with it and avoided trouble, and I ended up disappointing everyone. Once I became a Christian I felt much better about who I was and excited to know and experience God, but I was still just trying to make the whole thing work without letting Him down… especially after all He’d done for me. I knew I owed Him, I knew I needed to shape up and work hard. I had been given a ticket to heaven and I needed to show I was worthy of it. Right?
When this life-changer revelation that Jesus was the way to the Father hit me square between the eyes, I suddenly realised how much more there was of God that I hadn’t taken hold of. I’d seen Jesus as the One who gave me my ‘get out of jail free’ card for my sins and that golden ticket to heaven one day. I’d also seen Him as a blocker-type figure, holding the Father back from beating me up long enough for me to get into eternity through the back door. I had a very confused view of God, if I’m being transparent. I’d seen Jesus’ Church and how good it could be, and I’d felt Him move around me and do some wonderful things… but I never knew He came to primarily be the bridge for me to walk over to get to the Father.
My friend Tom Allsop often says, ‘Revelation minus application equals information, but revelation plus application equals transformation.’
Our problem can be that we know the Bible verses and the stories about what God has done for us, but they are not allowed to sink to the places of our heart where we really need to absorb them. Many of us in the Church have known that God is a father, but not what kind of Father He is. So we hold back. We analyse. We draw our own conclusions as to who He really is, usually based on what we have experienced from our own parents, teachers, authority figures and so on.
The revelation Jesus came to bring is simple: God is a good Father (John 17:25-26).
The application is: … therefore He will father me as His son or daughter (Romans 8:15).
This may seem basic, but its implications are huge. If we don’t see Him as a good father, then we won’t let Him father us. If we don’t let Him father us, then we remain orphaned in our thinking and in the way we live. Transformation in us and through us is limited or curtailed, and we never get to be the person we were created to be.
Meeting, knowing, walking alongside and living with the Father Jesus came to reveal is our life’s goal and our greatest need, whether we realise it or not. It’s what we were put on this planet for. When we get it, and start to do it and enjoy it, we actually find it kicks the backside of spiritual orphanness out the door. Knowing who He really is and who we are in Him is the agent of change we need.
The transformation part takes time and it rarely happens without interruptions, distractions or false starts. It does happen, though. Transformation out of orphanness and into sonship and daughterhood happens slowly as we take one step after the other, moving forward on the road alongside Him and towards Him.
The road to the Father’s house
So back to my question about this parable of the father and his two sons. Why is it worth our time exploring? I think I wanted some kind of sequel to the Luke 15 story because even as my journey into God’s redemption life was beginning, I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick one. I knew then, and I know to a much greater degree now, that our intended identities as children of the living God have to be grown into. The revelation of what it looks like, the proof that it’s really real and true, and the wonders that come with it all have to be slowly unveiled in our lives through small moments of trust and small choices of faith, as well as those big one-time miracle moments. The unfolding journey of it all builds our faith and trust in God. It builds securely on truth, not feelings or hype. It builds on an unshakable faith that can handle a few storms. Each one of those small steps amounts to part of a long journey towards Him, but also with Him.
This book, these pages, are written to help you not only to find that Father, but also to journey with Him and into Him. For some, this journey may be for the first time, for others it will be about going deeper and further than you’ve currently experienced. The more we see of Him the more we find of ourselves. The more our eyes open to all He is, the more we understand who we were made to be. The more we do this, the less we do the prodigal orphan thing. As we’ll see, we’ve all been doing that thing far too long already.
So as we go forward there will be two main areas I’m going to invite you into: a narrative and a personal journey. I encourage you to place yourself in the story that’s coming. Be the main character. Have the conversations with God. Make them your own. All of it is written to allow an honest, vulnerable and real conversation with God and your own heart to happen.
I would not presume to invite you to do something I am not doing myself. I’ve poured as much personal, lived experience into this as I can, and with it as much truth and God words as I can too. Nothing has impacted me more in the last ten years than knowing Him as a father who loves me to my core. Knowing this has meant I’ve been able to start being the person He always dreamt I could be… and that person is so much better than who I was able to come up with by myself.
I’ll be honest. It is not an easy road to walk, this road to the Father’s house. I have no intention for you to get to the end of this book and be ‘done’. There is no fix that makes the journey unnecessary. All the shortcuts are traps. All of them. There are plenty of places to stop off and pause on the way there that could have you delayed or trapped for decades. It’s not a fluffy Christian journey of niceness. It rains on the road, there are potholes and ditches and there are as many overcast, cold days as there are blue-skied ones. The difference is, when walking to the Father’s house, you’re never on your own, and the One with you is always good and always able.
Our journey of trust and relationship with Him goes on and on throughout our years. God is not only OK with that, it was His idea that it should be that way. He is invested in our ongoing story of sonship and daughterhood playing out. He knows it will continue to expand and mature long after this book has been put down.
Healthy things grow.
Growing things change.
Healthy change takes time.
Healed-up lives change the world.
Don’t be discouraged, it’s OK, there’s a lot of trust and patience required, but that’s the way it’s meant to work. The long walk home is worth it in every way imaginable.
My hope and prayer is that you and I, through journeying on the road to the Father’s house, will choose to lay down any desire to do it on our own, in our strength or best wisdom. My prayer is that as we go forward we would trust God with our identities and our lives, whatever state we are in. I yearn for us to go deeper in this trust, way deeper than we have ever allowed ourselves to go before.
I truly pray for you as you go on from this point that you would catch the revelation of the son or the daughter that God Himself made you and saved you to be. Adopted and free, healed and whole. Full of life.