Confessions of the Prodigal’s Older Brother—the Rough Road To Be Free Of Resentment

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I do not call for the judgment of anyone, but it seems only right that good behavior is rewarded. And yet it is often unruly people who get the loving attention when they do bad and then the accolades when they begin to do what the well-behaved have been doing quietly for years.

The conscientious person feels bound to their duty to righteousness. They are driven by loyalties to people, motivated by moral obligation and take responsibility for the welfare of others. It was not out of a desire to be recognized, it is a burden they’ve been carrying since birth, it is never a choice for them, but rather is something inescapable, a prison and hell.

I’ve been that tortured soul. I’ve always wanted to do everything right and for the right reasons. While definitely wanting to be my own person and entitled to my own thoughts, I had no desire to be a troublemaker or disruption. I tried to be cooperative and compliant, to make the lives of my teachers and authorities easier, because I knew the greater social good was dependent upon this and would not be served by my selfish outbursts.

I could never live this ideal out perfectly. I had a standard for myself, a part of the religious inheritance I received as a Mennonite, that was impossible to live out. My frustration with this reality of my own failure would sometimes come bubbling up. Something would set me off and, in the privacy of my parent’s home, I would rage against this awful predicament and the unfairness of it all.

The carefree (and careless) younger brother…

A week or two ago some resentment returned. This change in mood was likely triggered by two things (or rather two conversations) and one of them being an encounter with David Bercot on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The other thing? I had a run-in with my own Prodigal side.

We claim there are consequences for sin. This is how we convince ourselves that our righteous inclinations are correct and there is really no other way to justify depriving oneself of hedonistic pleasure. If it doesn’t matter what we do, no real score kept for right or wrong in the end, then we might as well just have some fun, right?

I’m friends with one of those “bad boys” who (despite his heart of gold) doesn’t care what other people think and has done things at his age that were unimaginable for me. He is a ladies’ man, he’s that guy the young women (yes, even the ‘good’ ones) feel comfortable playing around with, and is basically my antithesis.

I can’t help but love him. He was my true friend a few years ago, heard me spout venom at those who had hurt me with their self-righteous indifference, and never said a word of condemnation. That said, his recklessness and lack of my seriousness, while I was fighting for all I was worth to stay glued together after a devastating announcement, had also sparked my most violent and evil imaginations.

I can’t hold him accountable, though. I look at his freedom with a bit of envy in that at any moment he could decide to settle down, marry the perfect girl (drawn by his charm) and carry no stigma. Me, however, I was always outside looking in, I wasn’t allowed (by character or circumstance) to partake of that “wild” youth nor given the legitimacy that is his for the taking once he decides to settle down.

I’m not jealous of or bitter toward him. Why should I be? But what I do struggle with is anger towards the religious culture that made me, that fed me a steady stream of false promises and left me feeling completely betrayed in the end. Specifically, I’m still upset with the fathers who dismissed me with their cynical calculations and their daughters who continually rejected my sincerest efforts—while meanwhile crawling all over the reckless and indifferent guys.

It is bad enough to go unrecognized. But we seem to live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, where caring (when others do not) is mischaracterized as creepiness and doing right for the right reasons is often stigmatized. It seems my obeying conscience doesn’t allow me the freedom of rebellion nor does it gain me the approval of those who told me that my conscientious is a good thing when I do what is right in spite of their opinions.

The daddy issues of the Prodigal’s older brother…

The problem with the older brother, in the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal son who returns home, was deeper than his resentment over the celebration for his wayward brother. His indignation was towards his father:

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered 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!’ (Luke 15:28‭-‬30 NIV)

This anger is likely due to a misconception the older brother had about his father. He obeyed. However, he obeyed for fear of consequences rather than purely as a matter of conscience. His motivation, while in some respects a devotion to his father, was also a desperate effort to secure his place in the family and a mistrust of father’s love. He, like the servant who buried his talent for fear of punishment, couldn’t comprehend being loved for anything other than his performance and had lived in fear rather than faith.

Can you imagine having spent years trying to hold up your own end of the bargain, working hard to produce because that’s how your father’s love is earned, only to have the bubble burst?

In my own case, it was not entirely my own fault that I saw God, my heavenly Father, as this sort of vengeful tyrant. As one raised in a fundamentalist setting there is plenty of reason why I would assume that God’s love is based on my own performance rather than something freely shared to all who accept it and that’s because my earthly fathers often did keep me in limbo. Revivalistic preaching undermined any assurance of salvation, my life could never measure up to their purity standards, and their love for me was limited by what I was able to provide for them.

For years my hopes for love outpaced my resentments. I would tell myself that next time will be different, that my fears of always being on the margins of their paradise were unfounded, and eventually Christian love would triumph over my inadequacies. However that paradigm came crashing down in spectacular fashion when a young woman, someone to whom my hope against hopes (in respect for her professed devotion) were fully invested, said “I can’t love you like that,” which was to say that she really could not love me at all, and destroyed that last hope of a way to her or rather her father’s world.

Trying to please the lawyer’s God…

Over the past weeks, I’ve felt whipsawed. That is to say, I’ve felt pulled between two seemingly opposed views that together undermine my peace with God and the ability to live a victorious life. The first being how the Prodigal gets the embrace while I’ve often been ignored or, worse, had those whose love I had desired recoil as if I was some sort of monster. The second being the inescapable legalistic mindset that is at complete odds with true Christian love.

I have nothing against men like David Bercot personally. In fact, I see them as men very much like myself a few years ago, they diligently search Scripture trying to find their salvation, and yet they are far more capable than I’ll ever be. Their dedication and discipline would seem to be commendable and even something enviable. However, their standard is something I’ve found to be out of my own reach and their religious prescriptions often come at the expense of love.

Bercot, like so many others including myself, is law rather than love oriented. By this I mean we prioritize precise legal interpretation and application of law above the loving purpose behind it. In other words, we are like those religious experts Jesus encountered, who do things like tithe spices, are more concerned with the day someone is healed than the fact that they have been healed, remained as dogmatic even when entering the church and had to be put in their place:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:1‭-‬12 NIV)

Paul’s pun at the end does not take away from the serious warning in his words. Those trying to please God through their careful obedience to the law “have fallen away from grace” and are thus obligating themselves to an impossible standard. They will either end up deluded (like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own superiority to others) or desperately trying to cross all the T’s and dot all of the I’s and ending up in despair when his/her effort falls woefully short of God’s perfection.

Where I’ve found God’s love…

My goal is not to be the rebellious Prodigal son or the one whose careful dedication ended in bitter disappointment. Both of them have fallen short in love for their father or in understanding their father’s love for them and have suffered consequences as a result. The story isn’t intended so that we go out to sow our wild oats, enjoying the pleasures we are afforded us as a result of our inheritance, and then come back to our father’s house again. It isn’t just a warning against a superficial closeness either.

The true meaning of the story is for us to be more like our heavenly Father, who is perfect in mercy and loves even when His love is not reciprocated. Yes, there is a law, not the kind of law that pleases a sanctimonious religious lawyer, but a law summed up by Jesus:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37‭-‬40 NIV)

When we love God we do not worry about being stigmatized like Jesus and his disciples were for breaking with the harsh and unloving application of the law. We stop trying to please those impossible to please, stop believing God is some tyrant finger over the “smite” key waiting for us to slip up, and start doing what is possible to do out of love for our neighbors. It is in remembering that Jesus came to save and not to condemn the world—that through his love even the vilest of sinners can find eternal life.

I still struggle with my hurts despite God’s grace towards me. I still find myself trying to please people who have made pretty much zero real investment in my well-being spiritual or otherwise—who absolutely refused to reciprocate my love for them. I could easily become unsettled again, reject the greater blessing I’ve received by pursuing the promises of those who attempt to live by a standard impossible to please.

But I choose to love those whom God has entrusted to me instead and even if it costs me what little remains of my Mennonite reputation. I would rather lose it all for sake of the kingdom than to return to the bondage of fundamentalist expectations. Jesus loved despite the disapproval of his religious peers and that’s the love that will overcome my feelings of resentment as one who followed the rules and got burnt. It is a rough road some days, but we are called to suffer rejection and carry our cross.

Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

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As an idealistic person, one raised in a purity culture, and unmarried, I rarely have needed to question my indoctrination on the issue of remarriage. Likewise, those who are happily married (or who have never been married) have the luxury of easy absolutism on this issue and can draw a hard-line with no need to take a closer look.

However, having been asked my opinion of divorce and remarriage on a couple of occasions, I have been pondering the question for several months. The opinions of modern commentators are as varied as those I have found in the writings of those in the early church and onward.

What do the commentators say about divorce and remarriage?

Some of the conclusions of early church writers differ dramatically from what I’ve been taught. For example, divorce was not only recommended in the case of an unfaithful spouse—it was required. Some taught remarriage, in any case, was wrong for a Christian and forbid all second marriages even if the first spouse died.

Tertullian, however, did make an exception when the prior marriage ended (by death or divorce) before conversion. Menno Simons and other notable early Anabaptists also allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant adultery, but only with the council of the church body:

“In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free–with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood. (Wismar Articles)

That is in sharp contrast to the conservative Mennonitism that opposes all divorce, recognizes the marriages of even unbelievers as valid, and yet allows remarriage if the prior spouse has died. Many teach that a second marriage (besides those ended by death) should be broken up even if there are children involved and it creates a hardship.

That is also in contrast to David Bercot who’s lawyerly approach to Scripture and early church writings led him to believe that remarriage after a divorce is NOT a perpetual sin:

“I have not found any situation in the early church where they ever broke up the second marriage. In other words, they said that it was an adulterous marriage, it was a wrong situation, but they didn’t say that it was just the same thing as living with someone in adultery. In other words, there was a union that had taken place there, and they don’t seem to have taken the position that breaking that up would be something good. Instead, it’s a second wrong that doesn’t make the first wrong right. It just makes things even worse, and we can see that today where there’s a family with children. To divorce a second time, break up a happy home, doesn’t seem to be the way God would normally work.”

That, of course, is Bercot’s opinion…

[Edited 11/2/2018  The quote above, attributed to David Bercot, was taken from a conversation on a defunct website called MennoDiscuss.com.  The person posting the quote, as I recall, claimed to have transcribed it directly from a cassette tape of Mr. Bercot, I copied and pasted because it was an interesting point.  That much is now in dispute, I’m not going to go through every recording to properly attribute the quote, and that’s why I’ve crossed out the quotation.  However, what is not in dispute: There is no record of the early church breaking up second marriages.]

So how does all that above stack up against the actual teachings of Scripture?

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus quoted the common practice and then corrects it. He states “anyone who divorces his wife,” then adds the caveat “except for sexual immorality” and continues with that qualification to describe remarriage as sin. From this one can conclude that remarriage is not adultery if there was infidelity (or “porneia” in the original Greek) discovered in the prior marriage.

In fact, if we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then a person applying his teachings must separate themselves from an unfaithful and unrepentant spouse or they are joined together in the sin:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)

To send an unrepentant sinner packing is NOT hardness of heart (as in what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 19:8) but an absolute necessity and why the church was directed by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) to cast out those who refused to repent of their immorality. It is not hard-hearted, it is something necessary to preserve the testimony of the church.

In the Old Testament, we read various places where God is portrayed as the husband of an unfaithful spouse. When the children of Israel break their covenant with God they are given their divorce papers and sent packing (Jeremiah 3:8) because their unfaithfulness could no longer be tolerated. It was not hard-hearted of God to divorce.

But, besides that one exception given by Jesus for sexual immorality, I see the clear indication in Scripture that marriage commitment is permanent and a change of status not recommended. At very least it seems second marriage (presumably any second marriage) has consequences. We are told a church leader must be “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) and, since all should desire to be the best example of faithfulness, I would conclude remarriage is at least strongly discouraged.

In conclusion…

I believe grace triumphs over judgment and that we should love others as we wish to be loved. It is my opinion that one is to remain committed to their first spouse in every circumstance except in the case of unrepentant sexual sin. I believe death (or divorce of an unfaithful spouse) does unbind the living spouse and give them the freedom to marry again. But, if there is any doubt, it is better to remain unmarried.

For those who have already divorced and remarried, there must be repentance of the broken marriage. I do not feel I have the authority to overrule those who believe it is permissible to remain in a subsequent or second marriage. But, we also should not continue in sin that grace may abound and should obey our conscience when in doubt. That said, I am also not of the position that there is any sin (past, present or future) beyond the grace of God.

Anyhow, is a second marriage permissible for a Christian?

Maybe.

But it is nearly always undesirable, unpleasant and not ideal. Those who have lost a spouse or have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse know that pain all too well. Children of divorced parents often suffer terrible insecurity through life as a result. It is not ideal.

So, to married people, stay faithful if at all possible and don’t risk your own future or that of those who are your responsibility by taking the commitment lightly.