I can still remember when it happened, where I was, what I wore, and what I was doing when it all went sideways. No time or distance will erase the mark left when everything changed, the moment I came to myself.
The story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most recognized and loved of Jesus’s parables. Countless sermons and life change have hinged on those versus. In strictly theological terms it’s a story depicting God’s infinite grace for repentant sinners. But what resonates most with me is the imagery of that wayward son lying in the filth of pigs, feeding on husks of regret, wishing more than anything else he could turn back to his loving father, that sad moment, and do things differently. Where in his deepest agony and despair, devoid of love and compassion, he finally awakens to where his selfishness has led and, as the writer of Luke conveys, ‘he came to himself.’
We recognize the phrase because most of us have been there. When in a flash of stunning clarity, we wake to the gravity of our present situation. Perhaps it’s that last straw in a relationship held for too long, the final ray of light vanishes from a season of depravity we were convinced was ‘enlightened’, or the last chords of friendship are severed by an addiction we’ve denied. Whatever scales were blinding us finally fall away and we clearly see the landscape; one that isn’t the home we know but that of a far off land, a place where we shouldn’t be and desperately need to leave.
When we unpack this phrase, ‘But when he came to himself.’, we find several surprises. First is the inevitability. We shouldn’t be surprised by this outcome, ‘But when he came to himself.’ Selfish actions historically lead to lonely places. Second, our certainty that what would happen to the prodigal son did happen rests in this – ‘coming to himself’ implies he was not himself. In other words, he was acting as someone else, someone different, someone beneath who he was known to be. He was untrue to the person he really was. I think we all grasp this. How many have known, or have been, someone who acts and behaves differently than what we know them to be; someone who isn’t themselves?
Lastly, this phrase tells us that his squandering isn’t a true representation of who the son really is, because his is more than just a life of reckless living. What earthly parent doesn’t agree? When our children act out, misbehave, or disrespect, we still love them because of who we know them to be, not who they are at the moment. We may judge our neighbors by their vices, but we judge our children by their virtues.
Even before my divorce was finalized, I started a journey to that far off country as so many divorced men had before me. With the foundation stone of all I had known and relied upon suddenly washed away, I was swept off to a distant land on waves of confusion, fear, and anger. My portion was given to me by judicial decree. I started down the road to a land I’d vowed never to visit, till death do us part. When I arrived there I began to recklessly squander; first my character, and when that was exhausted, my soul; giving all away in one erotic escapade after the next. Each night was further vindication for all that had been done to me, and I cared little for what or who was being consumed.
Failed relationships left me insensitive and indifferent. Loneliness and fear fed ravenously on each other. I missed what commitment meant and feared I would never have it again. This created a death spiral as the fear of being alone resulted in relationship miscalculations and overestimations. Each breakup only left me more disillusioned and desperate. My confidence eventually shattered, yet I mistakenly continued believing the right relationship could put all the pieces together. Rinse, repeat and keep spinning out of control.
But that all was about to change. Without knowing it, things would never be the same. That last failure left me devastated, utterly broken, and stranded in what I now call an emotional winter. Like the Prodigal, my rapacious life had finally caught up and I woke to find myself lying in similar filth. I had hit the wall. Lonely and full of despair I cried to heaven that I could not go on like this. Too much was now at risk. I couldn’t love my children the way they needed since I could no longer love myself.
The Divine response was as clear as if spoken by my child. I must return to the Father. To go back to that land where I would be adored and cared for; to the One who knew me and loved me for my virtues, not my vices. The road back was hard. Like that prodigal son the first step was acceptance, of my sin, myself, and my responsibility, all without excuse. Owning up to the fact that I alone was reason I had arrived at this place.
Life change happened that night, as I lie alone there in my bed. Through tearful eyes, I glimpsed the morning sun cresting over the horizon, a bright new day was dawning in whose rays I would feel Godly strength and heavenly motivation. The trip was lonely, long, and difficult. Too often, one step forward followed countless more back. But with time and grace I finally crossed over onto that glorious estate and found a Father, who still a long way off, rushing eagerly towards me, and by grace gave not a ring for my hand or a robe for my back, but a Queen for my blessing.
I’ve never forgotten that far off place. I won’t. I can’t. I need that remembrance should the call of distant lands tempt once again. I mustn’t forget my loneliness and despair, the helplessness and fear that drove me face down in the mire longing for home, while a Father yearned for a son to come to himself.