Looking for love in a world filled with “ifs”

January 17, 2014
Nouwen's book examines Jesus' parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Nouwen’s book examines Jesus’ parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In preparation for a sermon I’ll deliver on a youth retreat this weekend, I’m re-reading one of my favorite books: Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, a deeply personal reflection on both the parable of Jesus and Rembrandt’s painted depiction of it.

Nouwen says that we become “prodigals” ourselves when we stop listening to the voice of our Father, who loves unconditionally, who calls us his Beloved, “on whom my favor rests.” Instead, we listen to other voices, who promise us love—except with strings attached.

This is a lengthy excerpt. When I read it, I feel as if Nouwen can see into my own heart. I know these voices well. They are, as Nouwen says, always there.

These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful. Those same voices are not unfamiliar to me. They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire…

[These voices] have come to me through my parents, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues, but, most of all, they have come and still come through the mass media that surround me. And they say: “Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend. How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own!… These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used!… When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”

At issue is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?”… As long as I keep running about asking, “Do you love me? Do you really love me?” I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with “ifs.” The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will always remain “hooked” to the world—trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.[†]

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1992), 40-2.

3 Responses to “Looking for love in a world filled with “ifs””

  1. Susan McBrayer Says:

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, how about if we say, “Love never fails”? The reason I want to say it that way is because while God never ceases to love us if we are his children, I don’t think it is quite right to say his love never varies to some DEGREE based on what we do. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” “He who loves me keeps my commandments, and if anyone keeps my commandments he will be loved by me and my Father” (I’m sure I don’t remember the wording quite right, but it is a quote from Jesus in John’s gospel). I think of it this way. My wife loves me, and hopefully also will. But I also think that if I become a louse, beat the kids and her, get drunk all the time, quit my job, etc., I would never expect her to love me to the same extent or degree than if I am loving, helpful, considerate, etc. Does that make sense?

    • brentwhite Says:

      It makes sense, but I don’t believe that “unconditional” rules out distinctions in the way God treats us. We can be confident, even when God disciplines us, that this discipline comes from a place of unconditional love—the way a good parent ought to love a child. Even punishment is for their own good, right? I don’t think it calls into question unconditional love: “Spare the rod, hate the child.”

      More importantly, I don’t think you ought to read a parable like the Prodigal Son and immediately qualify it with “ifs” and “buts.” There’s a time for crossing our theological t’s and dotting our doctrinal i’s later. First see the big picture of God’s profound and merciful love.

      If we repent of our sin, God will always, without condition, accept us back. The cross of his Son gives us that confidence.


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