Not the Prodigal: Why Good is Never Good Enough

It was going to be a quick trip. I’d been working on a house project and needed one last picture frame. Ben had stayed home with the boys, so with tape measure in hand, I dashed in to The Salvation Army.

I headed toward the back of the store on mission. One wall was lined with discarded frames and artwork. After a quick survey, I pulled out my measuring tape, making my way down the wall toward a stack of frames piled in the corner. I saw a woman browsing nearby, with one hand on a shopping cart. She was nearing the frames but didn’t seem to be looking at them, so I stepped in front of her cart and started measuring.

Out of the corner of my eye, I realized the cart hadn’t moved. The woman stood there slumped over and staring at me. I quickly jumped up, realizing I must have stepped right in front of where she was headed.

“I’m so sorry!” I said as I stepped aside. “I totally jumped in front of you. I apologize!”

But what came next completely threw me off guard. 

“Who do you think you are?” the woman snarled. “You just think you can walk in here with your tape measure and do whatever you want.”

My heart fell into my stomach, so shocked by her response that I couldn’t quite process what was happening. Why was this stranger yelling at me? I apologized again, but she wasn’t having it.

“You just think you’re a princess—better than everybody else.”

“Ma’am. I’m truly sorry I got in your way. I feel awful.” And then not knowing what to say next, I asked. “Please tell me: What is it you want me to do to make it right?” 

She just stared at me and rolled her eyes—and then started back in again, convinced I was not aware just how selfish I had been.

We had caused enough of a scene that a young woman with short purple hair and kind eyes approached: “Ma’am” she said to me, “I need some help. Will you come with me?” I stared at the kind stranger and then back at the one still yelling. I honestly didn’t know whether to walk away or to stay and let the woman finish unloading whatever my actions had triggered.

My new friend tried again, “I really need some help. Could you come over here?”

I nodded, looked at the angry woman and apologized once more, and then walked away. Once out of earshot, I thanked my rescuer and reassured her I was fine. But the moment she walked away, the tears came. I left the store and made a beeline for my van. The minute I sat in the driver’s seat I began to sob, my knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel. At first, I didn’t even know why. Sure, I felt shaken. Unnerved. The absurdity and unexpectedness of the situation was certainly jilting.

But being misunderstood in this way—and about these things specifically—grieved me deeply. Because if I was being honest, she wasn’t completely wrong.  

Let me explain: I’ve always been a little unnerved by the story of the prodigal son. A father has two sons. Both are given their inheritance early, and the younger one just completely blows it on what Luke 15 calls “foolish living.” Translation: Drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. And of course he doesn’t get a job. So when the money runs out and his fair-weather friends move on, the youngest son finds himself alone and penniless. He returns home hoping for mercy but instead is met with grace. His father runs to him, embraces him, and weeps with joy that his lost son has returned. He even throws him a “Welcome Home” party.

And that prodigal son? The one who fully knew his need for the father? Yeah. That’s wasn’t me.

I always resonated more with his older brother. The good one. The one who stayed by his father’s side, who continued to work the fields and help manage the household while his younger brother was out doing only God knew what. The one who did not understand why his brother—after making all the wrong decisions—was given a party merely for coming home.

I am, by nature, the older brother. For years, especially in junior high and high school, I found my identity in being the one who had did all the “right things”—no sex before marriage and no alcohol before I was twenty-one. I was a youth leader, on the honor roll, and rarely missed a curfew. I was the kid the other kids hated. And looking back, I don’t blame them.

In trying to do all the right things, I somehow convinced myself that good things should follow—that I was deserving. Even though I knew in my head “all have sinned and fall short” (Rom. 3:23), I’d look around and compare and think I wasn’t quite that fallen. My theology sounded more like karma than Christianity.

I wasn’t even aware of my tendency toward entitlement until I didn’t get something—the recognition, the praise, the position. I may not have said something out loud—because “good girls” smile and shake hands and offer congratulations—but inwardly, I snarled. They got it wrong.

Princess, indeed.

It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I finally saw my prejudices, how I had skewed my views not only of God but also following Him. It took the death of my son and all the feelings of “But I did everything right. Why me?” for a gentle, quiet Voice to respond, “Why not you?”

In that moment, God unearthed all the pride I’d buried deep inside myself. Black, rotten, flesh-eating pride. Pride that told me that if I were good enough I would get the life I wanted. Pride that thought others deserved their struggles. Pride that held God at arm’s length as I strived to prove myself. All along, I’d been working alongside the Father, claiming Him as my own, profiting off His goodness, but never really knowing the depth of His love and grace.

I didn’t want to be the older brother another day. 

God’s been so patient and kind with me. He’s helped me see where pride and envy had wriggled their fingers into my soul, creating monsters of self-importance and discontent. He’s pushed me to seek out and understand the stories of others, to see how we are more alike than not. He’s shown me just how much I need Him and how He is more than enough.

But as much as I hate to admit it and to fear how you might see me, the truth is that I still think I am deserving more often than I’d like.

So when the lady in The Salvation Army started yelling, yes I was caught off guard, but what I really felt was shame. It was as if I’d been stripped naked, and there she was, holding a spotlight and pointing out all the things I hated most about myself: “You think you’re better!” And while I wanted to defend myself, to tell her how wrong she was and how crazy she was acting, something deeper told me to be silent. To listen. To let the angry lady—who had clearly been hurt somehow by someone—say her piece.

Because if I am ever going to stop being the older brother, I need to see my sin. I need to stare pride in its ugly face and know the depths to which depravity has wormed its way into my heart. I need to know how far I have fallen. For only when I know the blackness of my soul, all the ways in which I am not good enough, do I seek refuge in the arms of the Father. And only there am I enough.