Am I Lost in Perfection? (Pt. 1)

This post is based on excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” 

Whenever I think about the Elder son in the Prodigal son bible story – an uneasy sensation comes over me. I feel the envy, judgment, righteousness, anger and bitterness radiating from his character. I ponder and consider the sobering truth: I am more like the elder son than the prodigal son. “The hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home” (Henri Nouwen).

The elder son has a dilemma when encountering his brother: should I show mercy or apathy? Tension exists between father and elder son as the latter yearns to exclusively possess his father’s heart. A sense of entitlement and possessiveness reigns in the elder son’s heart. How many times do I feel entitled to God’s love? For all the prayer, ministry and Masses I attend, I begin to wonder why I don’t get more blessings. I deserve it. I’m one of the “good” ones.  I do what I am told, I am obedient and follow God’s commandments. But I realized something: by making my faith a to-do list with things to check off, I make virtue an obligation. Exteriorly I am following my duty as a good daughter but internally I have gone far away from the Father without even leaving home.

How have you left the Father? How are you lost? Are you consumed in envy? In anger? Comparison?

I am the eldest in my family and I always wanted to be dutiful and “perfect” to make my parents proud. I couldn’t shake off the obligation I felt – I received praises for what I did and felt validated by other’s complimenting my character. My sister got to make her own choices and enjoy being a happy, care-free kid but I didn’t get that luxury. I experienced a subtle fascination and jealousy towards her – she could get away with things that I couldn’t and my parents loosened the reigns with her so she bypassed many of the strict rules I had to follow. “Rebels” fascinated me and I wondered what it would be like to be them. “Obedience became a burden and service became slavery” (Nouwen). 

I became less free, less spontaneous and less playful, causing others to label me as a “heavy” person. “This lostness characterized by judgment, condemnation, anger, resentment, bitterness and jealousy – is pernicious and poisonous to the human heart. Outwardly the elder son is faultless but the return of his brother causes a darkness to boil towards the surface. Over time a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person emerges from years of festering, hidden anger. Judgment, condemnation, prejudice and frozen anger are so rampant among those who are so concerned with avoiding sin. Our humanness is closely related to the desire to be good, acceptable, likable and worthy example for others" (Nouwen). The fine line between saint and sinner is thinner than a piece of paper.

Without joy, the elder son complains that he didn’t receive what was due – this complaint subtly expressed through the years, builds thick walls of resentment. Why wasn’t I invited to her party? Why didn’t he ask me out? I tried so hard. I worked so hard and still I don’t get what others attained so easily. Why do others not thank or affirm me for my works?

We desire validation but when others receive it, we succumb to self-righteousness, self-rejection, condemnation of ourselves and others, all reinforcing each other in a progressively vicious cycle. "Every time I allow myself to be seduced by these feelings, I spiral into an endless cycle of self-rejection. As I let myself descend into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more lost and in the end, I feel like the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected and despised person in the world. Joy can no longer evoke joy in us as joy and resentment cannot co-exist” (Nouwen). 

Ask yourself these questions: am I willing to confess that I also am a sinner in need of forgiveness? Am I willing to acknowledge that I am not better than others? Do I trust in God’s all forgiving love? “Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return if I am lost in resentment, caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?” (Nouwen).

Take these questions to prayer. Sit before God and tell Him what is on your heart. He is waiting to listen. Stay tuned for Part 2!