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God Loves a Loser - Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

God Loves a Loser

by Waitsel Smith

Why success and winning should be a benefit - not a goal

I still have not decided if I like the idea of "Christian Filmmaking." On the one hand, I want to see God glorified in film as I want to see Him glorified in all things. On the other, I have seen what "success" does to Christians, as it does to most people, and I would not wish that on anyone. There are some sayings the world puts forth: "Nothing succeeds like success," and "Everyone loves a winner." I think Scripture teaches just the opposite. In the Beatitudes, Christ says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." I have heard teaching pastors variously interpret "poor in spirit" as "broken," "humble," "those at the end of their rope," "those who realize their need for God," and "those who depend on God." God wants us to need Him. There is a reason Christ hung out with publicans and sinners rather than scribes and Pharisees: they needed Him.

On the other hand, the world touts and pays homage to the great successes: the movie stars, the athletes, the wealthy. That's what television and magazines are full of. That is the glory of this world. Christ says that those people get their reward in this life. We get ours in the life to come.

When I read the Bible, I don't see too many examples that the world would call "winners." I see Joseph; but he was in the place God wanted him for "such a time as this" - to save the world from famine - not because God wanted to make a success out of him. And I see Solomon, a man who started well, but ended badly because of his worldly success and the sin it bred in his life. Everyone else in Scripture, for the most part, seems to have been what the world would call "losers."

I had a friend in college that was something of a wit. Whenever he wanted to put someone down, he would call them a loser. It was funny at the time, because we knew that judgment was based on nothing but his dislike of the person. But the truth is, we secretly, if not openly, despise losers.

Even Christians despise losers. We take every "success" course that comes along, read every book, praise those who make it big, feel disappointment when someone we care about doesn't "make it," boast about friends' and relatives' salaries and the sizes of their homes, etc. We are as worldly as any unbeliever. Yet, the people we say we admire in Scripture were all losers, by those standards.

People talk about who they want to meet when they get to Heaven. Typically, they name the most famous people. But the ones I want to meet are the ones that seem like the biggest losers. I want to meet the thief who was crucified with Christ, who confessed who He was, and to whom Christ said, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." I love that guy. I want to meet the publican who was praying in the Temple next to the Pharisee, who beat his chest and said, "God have mercy on me a sinner." I love his heart. And, I want to meet the forgiving father of Christ's story of the Prodigal Son. (I know it's an allegory of God, but there may have been a physical father behind that story - someone Christ knew.)

I love the heart of that father. I recently heard a teaching on him by a well-known Egyptian pastor in our city (Dr. Michael Youssef of The Church of The Apostles), who pointed out to us Western Christians all the Eastern customs that made the father's actions so incredible. Yes, we all know how wonderful his forgiveness toward the younger, prodigal son was. But do we realize how equally wonderful his sacrifice for his older son was?

In Eastern cultures, the eldest son always presided over a social function for his father. Yet, this eldest son refused to go in to the celebration of his brother's return, let alone preside over it. A man never left his guests in the East, yet this father left his to go out to speak with his eldest son. A father in the East never begged his children for anything, because that would be humbling himself before them, and they were the ones who were supposed to humble themselves and honor him. Yet, this father begged his son to come in to his brother's celebration. That is how great the love of that father was, and how strong the pride of the older son was.

The younger son was a loser. That is obvious to anyone. But is it just as obvious that the older son was a winner of sorts, at least by the world's standards? Most of us think it would be better to be the older son with his pride than the younger son with his obvious sinfulness - if for no other reason than that the older son still had his inheritance, and the younger son did not. But I would rather be the younger son for five minutes, in order to enjoy the presence and love of that wonderful father, than that older son for the rest of eternity.

I feel the same way about the lost sheep. I would rather be that lost sheep on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd for five minutes, than one of the remaining ninety-nine sheep for the rest of eternity, even though they are "safe." The blessings of God are with the lost, the broken, the poor in spirit - not with the safe, the self-righteous, the rich in spirit. Yet, how often we strive to be in that latter group.

If we've ever found ourselves in the position of the younger son, how hard we work to be the older son again. We want so much to be accepted. We don't realize that our acceptance is not due to our good works, but to our need. The more we need God, the more He wants to be with us. He wants to be with us when we're losers, not when we're winners.

The reason for this is because He wants to be the success in our life. He wants us to succeed in His strength, in His wisdom. If we succeed as Christians, even though we may say, "I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for making this possible," we're still the ones that get honored and receive the glory. God doesn't want us, as Christians, to succeed or to be successful: He wants to do it.

It wasn't Moses that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, it was God. It wasn't Noah that saved the world from the flood, it was God. It wasn't David that was sovereign over God's people, it was God. It wasn't Paul or Peter that were head of the Church, it was God. Christ is the Head, we are just the Body. Remember?

God fights for His people. He is the warrior. He is our success. He does it.

"The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is His name." Exodus 15:3

"Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain." Ps. 127:1

On the other hand, He says that the only way He can be strong in us is when we are weak. The only way He can be wise in us is when we are foolish.

 "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." II Cor. 12:7-10

"Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are," I Cor. 1:26-28

That doesn't mean we don't always do our best. We do; but, in doing our best, we depend on Him. More often than not, that will mean that He will allow us to fail. But the silver lining is that in our failure we will turn to Him. And in turning to Him, we will enjoy Him. That doesn't mean we won't have victories in our lives, but, more times than not, those victories will be in the areas of character, heart and relationship, rather than career and finances.

We all dream of being a success. I have friends who have defined their lives by their desire to follow in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling and be the first Christian author to be called, "The J.K. Rowling of Christian authors." There are members of the Chrisitan filmmaking community that would love to be called, "The Christian Stephen Spielberg." But that's not what God wants. He doesn't need a Christian version of J.K. Rowling or Stephen Spielberg. What He wants is a heart to occupy, a mind that's open to Him, a voice to speak a forgiving word, and a hand to reach out to a helpless person.

That's who Jesus was. He didn't aspire to be the World's Greatest Carpenter, because He had a higher calling. Well, so do we. If, in the process of fulfilling our calling, we happen to be able to make some good films, write some good books or paint some good pictures, that's icing on the cake. But it's not the cake - not by a long shot. It's not why we're here. We're here to relate to God on a personal level, and to relate to others on that same personal level.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself."

That's why we're here. Everything else is just window dressing.


Waitsel Smith, June 30, 2007

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Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Image "Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt. All Rights Reserved.

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