The "Older Son Syndrome" from the Prodigal Son Story

Most normal people will side with the Older Son of the Prodigal Son Story and think that the Father is unfair. That is because we subscribe to the same philosophy of life as the Older Son. That philosophy is "Everything must be earned". The value of a person is in how much he can contribute. If we fully subscribed to this and this only then while we may be very hardworking, setting high standards and successful, we actually live a very stressful life. We tend to be very critical, unforgiving, self-righteous and proud. Our critical and forgiving attitudes apply not only to others but also to ourselves making us internally very insecure, unhappy, worry and grumpy!

The Prodigal Son Story can be found in Luke 15:11-32. Much have been said about the Prodigal Son and the forgiving and loving father. Some new insights can be found in New Insights From the Prodigal Son Story - Comfort to Parent with Wayward Child. In this post, we shall be looking at the Older Son.

The Behavior of Older Son
The mind-map below captured the acts and sayings of the Older Son.

It tells us much about his philosophy of life. To be honest, when I first read this story, I actually sided with the Older Son. Their Father while loving and forgiving was overdoing his forgiveness of the younger son. The Older Son has been faithful and hardworking whereas the younger one has been wasteful. He should have very rights to be angry. In the eyes of the Older Son, the Father was really not fair to him and seem to be very strict and over demanding on his children. That was because I also subscribed to the philosophy of the Older Son.

The Older Son Syndrome - "You Must Earn It - Your Value is dependent on Your Performance"
The mind-map below show the philosophy of the Older Son.

It should be familiar to us. We use terms like "There is no free lunch", "Meritocracy", "I earn it", "I am a self-made person" etc. Not that performance by itself is no good. On the contrary, performance is good and desirable. But life does not consist of performance, or self-independent performance alone.

True Life is not just about self but about relationship of love, joy and togetherness with others and with God. We are created to have fellowship with God and others. Thereby we must have love and harmony with others.

Hence, while the world may teach us that, acceptance=performance= must earn it or else,
In God's view, acceptance comes not from performance but from relationship, as between God and man, Parent and Children, and among Friends. True Love, the foundation of relationship, is unconditional and you do not need to perform to earn it. You just have it and you will not loose it by your lack of performance. That's the kind of love that God has for us. Rom 3:20 while we were yet sinners (very very bad performance of disobedience and rebellion), Christ died for us to save us. God want us believers who received this unconditional true love to extend to others too and break free for gaining acceptance by performance (1 John 3:23).

If we believe in Acceptance or Value = Performance, then our starting state is 0, no acceptance and we work hard to gain it. This is what the Older Son fell for. He thought he needed to earn his father love by being obedient and hard working. Starting at zero acceptance, he is insecure and dare not ask for goat to celebrate with his friends in case his father disapprove. It is not that his Father is not loving, it is only that he believes wrongly. His younger brother has no worry about his father love. The younger son boldly ask his father to give him the money prepared for him. The younger son does not at first believe in performance. He only believes in it after he has lost the fortune that his father has given him. Then he revert back to worldly logic for working as a servant. But this wrong belief was blown away by his Father upon his return. His father makes it doubly clear by giving him Ring (besides the cloths and shoes) and have a big installation as son party. The emphasis is , relationship of acceptance comes not by any performance but by the love of the greater one.

When we truly know that we are loved and fully accepted before any of our performance, then we are secure and we can do even better. We do it with joy and excellence. We are not jealous of other or of their performance. In fact, we will even help them to perform better than us. We are loving, forgiving and encouraging and in short, we are joy filled.

Here is a 2x2 Matrix on Acceptance vs Performance that summarize the different worldviews. Choose the worldview you want to operate in:

Let start and live life this way --- from the position of acceptance and we perform to bring joy and glory to God and others. We will be happier and a nicer person to be with. May God bless you with this understanding of His love for you.

Lim Liat(C) 18 Sep 2012


Sean said...

Thanks a lot for posting this article. I believe it gets right to the heart of an issue that a lot of people face! Also, I had not taken the time to think that deeply about the way the father behaved toward the older son, except to think that it did seem a little unfair. I thoroughly agree with you when you say that we should start from a position of acceptance, which we can have confidence in as believers, and then let our efforts be to the glory of God! However, one thing I must say is that the world today does put a lot of pressure on us to live by the older son's philosophy. It seems to say that we should "earn the right to feel special", or rather to prove it through our success. However, no amount of worldly success can please God, only faith in His son!

Sandra said...

You know what is the moral of the Prodigal Son story? That your sacrifice is worth nothing and in fact it will be crapped on! Those who sacrifice their lives and put blood sweat and tears to serve God and obey his commandments are apparently not worthy God's attention, and they are only wasting their time. Apparently, everyone will be much better off living sinful lives and mocking God. The more they hate him, the more he will love them! It's about common phenomenon of chasing those who reject us, and rejecting those who chase us. And God sets a perfect example for this with all his love and attention directed towards the son who abandoned him, while undermining the faithful son. What a terrible and discouraging story for everyone who wants to be a Christian!