Why Good Behavior with Wrong Motives is Destructive

Two months ago, I started my first year of residency. 7 years prior, I got rejected from medical school and thought my dreams of becoming a doctor were over. I remember opening the rejection email very vividly. It was late at night, I was alone, and I cried myself to sleep feeling like a huge failure.

MY plan had not worked out the way I wanted it to, and I was angry at God for allowing this to happen to me. I felt like I was living the Christian life and that I should be rewarded for that. I wasn’t partying, drinking, getting high, or sleeping around. Shouldn’t I have been rewarded for my good behavior? I remember thinking to myself, “God, why did you let so and so in when they don’t even trust in you and definitely aren’t living for you?” “What did I do wrong to deserve this failure?” The questions I should have been asking myself were, “Why was I so destroyed by this failure, and what was my heart behind living in a way I thought was pleasing to God?”

During this dark season of mine, God revealed a book to me by Tim Keller called The Prodigal God that completely shifted my outlook on how I was living my “Christianlife. Most people are familiar with The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. From my experience, when people hear this story they focus on the younger brother who takes an early inheritance, separates himself from the family, loses it all, and then returns to his father awaiting him with open arms. I do not fault anyone for focusing on that part of the story because it is a pristine picture of how Christ is awaiting with open arms for all of us sinners to return home to him. Here's how the Bible paints this picture of the reuniting of the younger son and the father:

I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. [Luke 15:18-24]

You can see why this is such a popular passage and why so much emphasis is put on the younger son. It feels good to know that I can be a sinner and sin and know that Christ has forgiven me and is waiting with open arms. In this story, the younger brother represents tax collectors and sinners. People that were far from Christ and did not proclaim to be Christ followers or Christians. So, what about the people that claimed to be Christians and were following Christ on their own terms with their own motives? That’s where the older brother comes into the picture, and this is where my perspective on my life was changed. Let’s dive into Luke 15 verses 25-30 and meet the older brother: 

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 

What the heck, Dad?! I stayed here and worked for you and this is how you repay me?! You reward your son who left, partied away his inheritance, and you welcome him home with open arms and kill the fattened calf to celebrate his return? Has everything I have done for you meant nothing?! 

In this section of the parable, the older son represents the Pharisees. Both groups would have been listening to the parables, but the Pharisees were probably the primary intended audience of this parable. The older brother protests that the welcome extended to the returning younger brother is not fair. He even refuses to acknowledge him as his brother by calling him “this son of yours”. The picture of the interaction between the father and the older brother offers a sharp contrast between, on one hand, the mercy and grace extended by the father, representing God the Father, and, on the other hand, the self-righteous resentment of the older brother, representing the Pharisees.

The older brother’s mindset was, “I never disobeyed, yet you never gave…” Ouch, that hit me hard when the story of the older brother was dissected for me. “I never disobeyed, yet you didn’t get me into medical school.”

“I never disobeyed, yet you still haven’t provided me with a spouse.”

“I never disobeyed, yet I just got fired from my dream job.”

Plug whatever you want into the blank, the list could go on and on. 

The older brother stayed home to serve his father for his own personal gain, not out of a servant heart. Like I said before, I truly thought I was living for Christ. Making the right decisions, trying not to be influenced by worldly temptations, but what was my motive? I was doing it to be rewarded by God for my good behavior. To receive what I wanted to receive. The root of it all was selfishness. I was not doing it to bring glory to God or spread His love. I was doing it to get my way, and when I didn’t get my way, my life fell apart. 

I was the older brother and selfishness and self-righteousness are always a sin, even if it makes you look like you are following Christ. 

But wait, let’s look at the father’s response to the older son’s outburst. Here are verses 31 and 32 to finish off the parable: 

And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’

This is an affectionate appeal by the father, showing that he still loved the older son and wanted him to join the celebration. This is also the perfect picture of Christ. Jesus is still inviting the Pharisees to repent and accept the good news, and He loves them no less than the tax collectors and the sinners. 

Every person can identify with one of the characters in this story. Are you a non-believer that recognizes you are living a life of sin and are far from Christ, ready to repent and accept the forgiveness that was achieved through His death on the cross? Guess what, He’s running towards you with open arms ready to embrace you. 

Have you been a believer for the majority of your life, but have never really experienced a true relationship with Christ? Does your faith feel lukewarm? What are your motives for making the decisions you are making? Are you serving Christ for your own personal gain or are you serving Him to serve and love on others?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have this figured out. I still struggle with characteristics that the older brother portrayed in this story, but now I can recognize when these traits are taking over and point my intentions and motives away from myself and back towards Christ and others. 

Are you the younger brother or the older brother? That is for you to meditate on, but I want to leave you with this: which ever one you are, the result is the same. Christ loves you and is running towards you with open arms, waiting for you to return home, or waiting for you to realize you have been home the whole time.

Sharable Quote: 

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