My grandfather’s favorite hymn was Children Of The Heavenly Father, a Swedish hymn by Karolina W. Sandell-Berg. The 1st and 3rd verses (translated into English by Ernst W. Olson in 1925) are:
Children of the Heavenly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever
Unto them His grace He showeth
And their sorrows all He knoweth
While the English is forced at best, it’s one of my favorite hymns, too — though I doubt I’ve sung it since I was a child, perhaps at my grandfather’s funeral. Through six short verses, it emphasizes that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”
It perhaps goes without saying that the father in the story of the Prodigal Son represents God, who always welcomes back prodigals with joy. As a small child, it was always reassuring to hear that no matter how “prodigal” you may be, the Heavenly Father always loves us, and there’s always plenty of grace to go around. As an adult, it seems we still need to hear that. There are way too many elder brothers hanging around to tell us we aren’t deserving, and that there’s no place for us here. We are, in fact, surrounded by voices calling us to “more” — more holiness, more commitment, more striving — with the goal of spiritual “maturity.”
Very few voices echo the father’s invitation to his two sons to more grace: “Here’s some more money, here’s a fatted calf, let’s party!” Neither son deserved a party. Neither son really knew their father or understood his values. The point was, it was enough that the father loved his sons. That was the only motivation for the father’s extravagance.
The plain truth of the matter is that we really don’t deserve God’s grace. To think we have to somehow qualify for grace is to miss the point entirely. Martin Luther, in a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon, tried to explain this. Phillip was trying to find the limits of grace, trying to sift through the critical voices challenging him about what was permissible and what was sin. Luther wrote: “God does not save people who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” In other words, live boldly, do not be afraid to make mistakes and fail. We will fail, at times. But know this: the Father’s grace is more than sufficient.
There is no such thing as the proverbial “fall from grace.” If grace is undeserved, as one definition puts it, then how can we possibly do anything more to “undeserve” it to the extent it is taken away? Likewise, we are not “restored to grace,” we are restored by grace. Grace is, from one perspective, God’s love in action. And — here’s a little math lesson — as God’s love and grace are infinite, so there is never any love or grace wasted. All of the money that the prodigal wasted did not diminish the father’s bank account whatsoever; an infinite amount minus anything is still an infinite amount.
This is what the elder son failed to grasp. He had become stingy with this father’s money — with God’s grace — because he failed to see that grace is never wasted, and the supply can never be diminished. Grace is not a finite resource. When you see God pouring his grace out on someone else, it doesn’t diminish what is available for you. Rather, it just illustrates how much grace is actually available for you!
This is how the father can give the prodigal a huge chunk of money, then give him access to the whole lot of it, and still say to the elder son, “All that I have was always yours. You could have thrown a party whenever you wanted, but you were too stingy. Come, now learn to celebrate.”
Jesus never tells us what the elder son decided, or what happened to him down the road. From the father’s comments to the elder son, we can learn one important lesson: We can’t take advantage or enjoy God’s grace unless we are willing to splurge a little. We need to learn the joy of extravagant grace, whether it’s spent on us, or on someone else.
- How does God’s extravagance make you feel?
- How do you think someone can overcome the belief that grace is a finite resource?