Trapped On a Dead-End Street
November 14, 1993
I begin with a very simple observation: It is possible to know God and yet be far away from him. Most Christians know what that is like. Perhaps you have had the experience of drifting away from God. You never meant it to happen. You didn’t start intending to drift away from the Lord. But somewhere along the way, you made some wrong choices and one day you woke up to find that God was far away from you.
This is something that happens irrespective of your spiritual pedigree. You might be an elder or a deacon and still be a long way from God. You might be a Sunday School teacher, a youth leader, an usher, a member of the choir, a Moody Bible Institute student, and still be far away from God. You may have been raised in a Christian home only to grow up and reject your heritage. You may have been deeply hurt by someone who claimed to be a Christian and that deep hurt has kept you from coming close to God. You may have decided that no one can truly live up to what the Bible commands. Perhaps you feel discouraged over repeated personal failure. You tried and tried and tried … and finally, exhausted, you gave up.
A Crucial Distinction
So I want to talk to you about what you do when you find yourself out of God’s will. Before I do that, we need to carefully distinguish between two different ways we use that phrase: “out of God’s will.” Sometimes we use it to describe decisions we would like to make over again. You bought that house but now you don’t like it. You bought a Ford Aerostar but you’re having trouble making the payments. You got your master’s degree and then quit school, but if you had to do over again you would have stayed until you got your doctors degree. You blew $10,000 on IBM stock because you thought it was going to go up. It didn’t.
Those examples describe non-moral decisions, defined as decisions about which the Bible gives no direct guidance. You are free to make those decisions any way you like. You can stay in school or quit, buy the stock or not, buy an Aerostar or a MPV or a Cherokee or just keep the Caravan you already have. The Bible doesn’t tell you what to do in situations like that.
There is, however, a second common use of the phrase “out of God’s will.” It also refers to those times when you suffer because you have done that which is wrong in the eyes of the Lord. You are suffering personally, internally, relationally, emotionally and in every other area of your life because you have done that which is wrong.
You committed adultery and now you are out of God’s will. You had an abortion and now you are out of God’s will. You assassinated somebody’s character and now you are out of God’s will. You are nursing a grudge and a bitter spirit and you are out of God’s will. You killed somebody. You lied. You’re a thief. And now you are out of God’s will.
You wonder, “What do I do now?” Somewhere along the way you walked through the wrong door. The only way back to God’s will is back through that same door. You decided to leave God’s will; you must now decide to return to God’s will. You left on purpose; you must return on purpose.
The Greatest Short Story Ever Told
Jesus told a story about a young man who made a wrong decision and what happened to him. We call it the parable of the prodigal son. Many people consider it the greatest short story ever written. It is a story that speaks perfectly to the human condition.
The parable is the story of a father with two sons. The younger son chafes under his father’s rule and perhaps feels put down by his obedient older brother. So he demands his inheritance from his father. And his father gives it to him. Taking the money, he leaves his home and journeys to a place the Bible calls “the far country.” There he spends every dime he has on riotous living. Parties day and night, women on both arms, the good life, the fast lane. Whatever he wants, he buys with his father’s money. Eventually his money runs out. When a famine breaks out, not having any money and being too far away from home, he attaches himself to a farmer who says, “The only work I have is feeding my pigs.” The prodigal son ends up penniless, homeless, starving, feeding the pigs, eating the pods from the carob trees. He who had eaten at the best restaurants just a few weeks earlier now dines with the pigs.
I. Five Steps to the Pigpen
1. He was selfish. His fall began with a selfish act, a disregard for his father. He said, “I want my money and I want it now.” All he could see was the dollar signs. “Dad, give me my money. Forget you and forget my family. Forget my brother. Forget my reputation. Give me my money. I want to get out of here.”
2. He acted hastily. The Bible says that when he got his money he went to a far country. When you hear that phrase, you shouldn’t think of somewhere thousands of miles away. Do you know where the far country is? It’s one step outside of God’s will. You could be living in your own home and be in a far country. You could be working at your job and be in a far country. You could be going to high school and still be living in a far country. You could be in church every Sunday and still be living in a far country. Because the far country is not that far away. It’s just one step outside the will of God.
3. He wasted everything he had. The word prodigal means “to waste.” When he left, he never intended to come back home. After all, he took all the money with him. If he was planning on coming back, he would have taken some spending money with him and left some back there. But, no, he deliberately did what he did. He wasn’t tricked into spending his money. He left home intending to spend it all.
4. He separated himself from every relationship that was important to him. By leaving he broke his relationship with his father and his brother. He also left his family and his friends. He rejected everything that was good and right and holy. All of that went out the window.
5. He made a long string of bad decisions. Sin always works that way. One bad decision leads to another. First you tell a lie, then you have to tell another one to cover up the first one, then another one to cover up the second one, and then another one to cover up the third one. Sin always leads to more sin. Once you start making bad decisions, it’s easier to make them as you go along. But pretty soon you are about 15 bad decisions down the road. At that point it seems like you are so far away from where you used to be that it is just easier to keep going the wrong way than it is to think about turning around.
There was a famine in the far country. Whenever you leave God, there will always be a famine in the far country. It looks so good. It looks like a land flowing with milk and honey. In the far country you enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. But after awhile the money runs out, after awhile the music stops, after awhile the beautiful people get bored with you, and after awhile you are broke and penniless. Sin does that to you.
Famine in the Far Country
Be sure, the Bible says, your sin will find you out. “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows that will he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7) There will always be a famine in the far country.
In the end he lost everything. He ended up with the pigs. This son of a wealthy father has now thrown it all away. He who had it all has lost it all. He who came from a good family now sleeps with the pigs. The prodigal son has hit rock bottom. O, how the mighty are fallen.
God often lets that happen because many of us won’t look up until we start to eat with the pigs. When we finally hit rock bottom, then and only then do we begin to think about returning home again.
II. The Way Back Home
When the prodigal son hit bottom, his life began to change. Five words tell the story.
First, there was an awakening. Luke 15:17 says, “When he came to his senses.” That’s a great phrase—”He came to his senses.” Sin is senseless. Sin is a form of temporary spiritual insanity. Turning away from God is insanity because you are turning away
from that which is good to that which is bad,
from that which is worth everything to that which is worth nothing,
from that which has eternal value to that which has no value.
You are turning away from living water so you can drink out of a sewer. That is the definition of insanity.
What was it that brought him to his senses? He was hungry. His stomach made him come back to his father. That’s not a very exalted motive. Nothing suggests he turned back to his father because he realized what a terrible thing he had done. Why would a father take back a son whose only motive for coming back home is because he is hungry? Because that’s what it means to be a father.
If you’re hungry, I know where you can be fed. If you are tired of eating with the pigs, I know where you can join a banquet that never ends. If you are thirsty and tired of the sewer water of sin, I know where you can get a drink of fresh, clear, flowing, living water. All you have to have is the desire. That’s all.
Second, there was repentance. He said to himself, “I will go back to my father.” Do you know what repentance is? The means “to change your mind.” Repentance is what happens when you’ve been going one direction and finally you hit the bottom, and you say, “I’ve gone long enough this way. I’m going to turn around, and I’m going to go this way now.” Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of life. It means to change the direction of your life.
Third, there was honesty. The young man says, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
You will know that you are really serious about changing your life when you stop making excuses for your behavior. Think what the prodigal son could have said. “It was really my older brother’s fault. He always picked on me, and Daddy always liked him best.” Or he might say, “If Daddy had given me more money I wouldn’t be in this fix.” Or, “Those cheap women seduced me and then stole my money. And that farmer never gave me a good job.” He could have found a thousand excuses. But he didn’t. He simply said, “I have sinned.” Those three little words—simple, so short, yet so profound—mark the beginning of a new life for this young man. When you stop making excuses for your failures, you are not far from a brand-new life.
Fourth, there was humility. While he is still in the pigpen, he mentally rehearses what he will say to his father. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” What a tremendous statement that is. He didn’t make any deals with his father. He came back home with no pre-conditions. He didn’t say, “Dad, before I’ll come back, we’ve got to make a deal.” He didn’t say, “You have to give me exactly what I had. I’m coming back, but I want that fortune I lost. You have to replace it.” That’s not real repentance. This man was so deeply hurt over the way he lived that he said, “Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son. I’ve disgraced you. If you will take me back, I will work like a hired hand. I won’t even call myself your son any more.” Real repentance doesn’t make deals with God.
Fifth, there was resolution. “So he got up and went to his father.” After awakening comes repentance, then honesty, then humility. It all leads to the resolution to go home. That’s where you take the step.
It’s certainly easy to criticize the prodigal son. But I will tell you at least one good thing about this young man. When the time came to move, he moved. He didn’t let the grass grow under his feet. So many people say, “Tomorrow I will arise and go to my father. Next week I will arise and go to my father. Next year, next day, next month. Give me some time to think about it.” Not this man. This man said, “I am going to go.” And he got up and went right then.
How hard is it to come from the far country back to God? It is not hard. But the hardest step is the first step. A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.
As you read these words, you may be living in the far country away from God. You need to do what this young man did—take a first step back home. The hardest step is the first step. And that’s the one that brings you half way home.
III. The Father’s Welcome
How do you think he felt coming home? I think he was scared to death. As he shuffled along that road, one question went through his mind: What is my father going to say? Will he take me back? With his head down, he shuffled along that dirt road, embarrassed and humiliated. One great question plays on his mind: What will my daddy do?
The Bible says that while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. This is a great moment. His father sees him first. His father saw him, and moved with compassion, saw his son in the distance who was dead and who has now come back to life, and he ran, ran to meet his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The word means he smothered him with kisses.
Then we have the five signs of the father’s welcome:
1. The kiss, the sign of forgiveness.
2. The robe, the sign of honor.
3. The ring, the sign of authority.
4. The sandals, the sign of freedom. Why? Because the slave went barefoot.
5. The feast, the sign of a joyful welcome.
How much does God love you?
*He loves you enough to let you go.
*He loves you enough to let you hit bottom.
*He loves you enough to let you come back.
*He loves you so much that he will run to meet you.
That’s how much God loves you.
The way back to the Father is always through the far country. Where is the far country? The far country is anywhere you are outside the will of God. That’s all. The far country may be for you like it was for the prodigal son, deep in sexual sin, deep in wild living, but for most of us it is not going to be that. The far country is any place where your life seems empty and you look up and say, “Is that all there is?” And the Father says, “Of course not. Come home.”
Are you hungry? Come home. Are you thirsty? Come home. Are you weary? Come home. Are you tired of the life you are living? Come home. Have you wandered away from God? Come home.
The first step is the hardest. It’s also the step that brings you halfway back home. Many of us need to respond. Perhaps you are away from God. You didn’t mean for that to happen. But it has happened in your life. So you need to come back. And I give the invitation to you. If you feel that you have drifted away from God, this is the day and this is the place for you to come home.
Maybe this morning you feel a tugging in your heart. And maybe you don’t know who it is. And you don’t know what it is. That’s the Holy Spirit calling you to come.
When I preached this sermon at Calvary, we gave a public invitation—something we don’t ordinarily do. Dozens of people came forward in both service. The front of the church was filled with people getting right with God. Whole families came forward to re-dedicate themselves to Jesus Christ. Seven or eight people trusted Christ. My brother and his wife were in the service. He hadn’t been up to visit us in three years. When we got to the third verse of “Softly and Tenderly,” they came forward and said, “We want to re-dedicate our lives to Jesus Christ.”
I say to those who are reading exactly what I said to those who were in the service that day. It’s time to come home. If you’ve been living in the far country, it’s time to come home. If you want a new life, come home. If you’re ready for a change, come home. Take the first step and the Father will run to meet you.