by Manuel Schmid
The Prodigal Son and the Uncontrolling Love of God
He let him go.
It was only recently that this detail of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the prodigal son was highlighted for me: the father didn’t forcefully hold his son back when the young man demanded his inheritance in order to travel into what he thought was freedom. Instead with a heavy heart, the father let him go, filled with the hope that his son would one day freely choose to return home.
God’s love will always choose to let us go because it is looking for our voluntary response. It is, as Thomas Oord emphasizes, an “uncontrolling love” which seeks to win people to itself without controlling or ruling over them.
This is especially clear in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus loved people without compromise, accepted them unconditionally and challenged them to become part of the revolutionary movement we call the church. However, in doing this, He never once used any manipulation, control or force. He was ready to let people go, preferring to wait for them to freely choose Him.
The Uncontrolling Love of God and the Church today
For 12 years now I’ve been working as pastor in a progressive evangelical church in Switzerland and, over recent months, I’ve often asked myself the questions: What does it mean for the life and leadership of a church to really take seriously this aspect of God’s love? What does Jesus’ role model mean for us in terms of the way we live out our responsibilities in the church, lead our employees and communicate the gospel?
Here, in short, three thought-provoking perspectives to consider:
1. Preaching the gospel without manipulation
God’s uncontrolling love obliges us neither to push nor to lure people into a relationship with Him, but rather to communicate the gospel in such a way that an encounter with His uncontrolling love is the focus.
Jesus didn’t find it necessary to prove to people how sinful and in need of salvation they were so that He could then convert them with his message; rather He won their hearts through the gospel of the uncompromising, self-sacrificing love of God.
This must also be our template for today. We don’t need to begin our sermons about God by “making hell hot” for unbelievers, in other words, to prove to them that they need salvation. We don’t have to make our proclamations of the gospel more attractive by promising any added-extras either, for example “With God in your life you’ll be more successful, prosperous, protected from disasters….”
No, we don’t have to force or tempt anyone into a relationship with God. Much more we can trust it to the revelation of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ to expose people’s brokenness and awaken their fascination and commitment.
2. Leading people without Controlling
God’s uncontrolling love forbids the sort of leadership that instrumentalizes people and leads them into a spiritual dependence. It sets us free to meet people outside of hierarchical barriers and to build life-affirming community with them.
Jesus met people on their level. Of course He saw Himself as his disciples’ leader or teacher but He didn’t just put them to work as effectively as possible in order to reach His goals. He built a living, life-changing community with them as His friends.
This style of leadership obligates us as pastors and leaders in today’s church: if we take seriously this quality of the love shown by Jesus, then we must let go of all our dreams in which people are just the horses pulling the cart of our vision of church.
Then we will no longer need to surround ourselves with an aura of “untouchability” and superiority but we will be able to make ourselves vulnerable to others, take critique seriously and put our leadership gifts to work to serve a community of friends.
3. Goodbyes without Guilt
God’s uncontrolling love sets us free from the pressure to keep everybody and lose no one – it lets people go free in the sure and certain hope that God’s love will win back their hearts.
It’s so conspicuous in Jesus’ life; He obviously never stressed Himself with the need to win and then keep everyone. In fact, especially toward the end of His ministry, Jesus lost many of His followers; during the final hours of His life even His closest disciples and friends left Him.
As tragic as this is, it also has its liberating side, especially for those leaders and pastors who see every departure from their church and all backslidings into a godless life as accusations against the success of their leadership. Yet these accusations are not necessarily justified.
We can do everything right and still lose people. If we lead according to the role model Jesus gave us, then we’re not binding people either to ourselves or to a church, so rejecting every pressure to perform. People remain free to leave – thus completing the circle and leading us back to the parable of the prodigal son.
Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story.
One day a figure appears on the horizon and the father can no longer hide his excitement: the son is returning! The father’s uncontrolling love had let him go – but he had never lost hope and runs toward the returning prodigal: “for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:24)
The same applies for Jesus Himself. Even in His darkest hour, abandoned by his followers and closest friends, He was far from giving up hope in them. He meets Peter again, after the same had publicly denied him three times. “Do you love me?” He asks him repeatedly; and freely the failed disciple returns the love of his master.
Life as God’s church according to the role model of Jesus means trusting God’s uncontrolling love more than all pressures and attempts at manipulation. It means never giving up hope that God’s love will saturate people’s hearts and kiss awake their desire to enter freely into relationship with this God.
The author would like to thank Nicci Vaughan for the translation from German to English.
Manuel Schmid has been the Senior Pastor of ICF Basel, a young and progressive evangelical church in Basel, Switzerland. He is now working as the theologian of the ICF Movement in Europe and as a teaching pastor in ICF Basel – and he is about to finish his dissertation on open theism at the University of Basel. Manuel is married for 18 years now, and he has two wonderful children with his wife Rahel.