The Prodigal Son and That “I Had to Sin in Order to Grow” Thing

prodigal.jpgI’ve heard it quite a few times from young believers.

“I had to go through that tough stage of my life in order to find God.”

They’re coming out of a sinful time in their lives and acknowledging its darkness for the first time. What kind of darkness? Who knows. Our minds jump to the usual suspects – sexual promiscuity, drugs, partying – and it might have been that. It might be petty crime, or embracing of the occult. Or it might just a “crowd” that endowed them with a crass, hurtful personality.

Eventually, all things are exposed to light, and the emerging young wanderer starts getting honest. I celebrate with them in their light bulb moment.

But then you’ll hear some of them tack this on, in some form or another:

“I needed to sin so I’d learn my lessons”.

“I went through the wilderness because it was God’s way to grow me.”

“I wouldn’t have understood sin unless I went through it.”

Record scratch.

Wait, what? Where did that come from?

I can take a stab. In our age, popular culture has glamorized the wilderness. The hardened “guy from the wrong side of the tracks” is the hero from our stories; dirt under the fingernails is more impressive than white cuffs. He seems more real, certainly more relatable. His mistakes drown him and inflict their toll, only for him to somehow rise from the ashes and find an inner heart of gold, while the goody two shoes and the irritable authority figures turn out to be the real villain (how many movies have boasted this plot?).

We let this sneak into the church, too. The more debauched the old man, the more impressive the new. So much that young disciples actually feel diminished for having lived well from the start, because their testimonies are boring.

It’s a crock.

No. 

You did not “have” to sin in order to arrive where you are today. That is a lie. It is the wrong response to your wilderness.

And I plead with you to shake it, for it will also prove fatal to your recovery.

The proof is in the fruits. Usually, when I hear a young believer cite this “I needed to sin in order to grow” thing, it’s not long before they wind up back in sin. Virtually every time. The reason isn’t hard to spot: they’re not repentant. They’re trying to save face, to salvage a scrap of dignity. “I needed to sin” has a ring of justification that’s hard to ignore.

If you can’t hear it, picture the gap between “I needed to sin” and “Lord, forgive me.” Imagine the stark humility of falling on our faces before the Lord in shamed tears. Think of fully admitting that our offense was towards God first and foremost, that he is the one we must contend with, just as the Prodigal Son showed no hint of self-defense when he returned to his father. He was completely prepared to take his place as a mere servant, stripped of his inheritance.

We barely even have a category for this kind of humility in the 21st century. We can’t even let go of an argument; we have to get in the last word. We save face instead of falling on it.

But unless you’ve decided that God and the Bible are truly outmoded, humility still applies.

We also have to deal with the inherent misapplication of God’s sovereignty – the idea that “everything that happens is the will of God” or it wouldn’t happen. The sinner tries to cite the positive lessons they learned as proof that God must have ordained their wilderness and that they had no choice. “I never would have seen the destructive power of sin if I hadn’t gone through that for myself.” A twisting of Romans 8:28 if I’ve ever heard it.

My friends…God did not want you to experience the destructive power of sin, any more than he wanted you to sin in the first place. He is a protective God. Your detour was your own choice. God salvaged what he could, and sure, suffering is always part of life. But there is unnecessary suffering also. You reap what you sow.

Incomplete repentance leads to incomplete deliverance. And we cannot afford incomplete deliverance, for we are up against powers much greater than us. Scripture describes sin as having an addictive nature. It grasps and binds and overwhelms – and loves to return for an encore if it can. We can’t beat it on our own, and we certainly can’t beat what we fail to acknowledge. A person who hasn’t accepted total responsibility for the wrongness of their path is vulnerable to returning. Our power in beating sin lies in the strength of Christ – and the beginning of that strength is confessing our sin.

It is never the will of God for his children to sin. Ever. That is an offense to the character of God.

Neil T. Anderson once wrote, “If you are in the right, you don’t need a defense…if you are in the wrong, you don’t have a defense.” That’s hard to take. In our age of rationalizing, the total degree of repentance prescribed by Jesus is totally foreign. Shedding every scrap of dignity and justification? How stark. Our first instinct instead is usually to scramble for a defense.

But the Father has a better dignity for you.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. Luke 15:21-23

In order to appreciate the mind-blowing generosity of this father, you need to see the symbolism of what he offered. Servants didn’t wear sandals – sons did. The ring denotes authority; the robe, position. The fattened calf for the celebration is coveted by the older brother with his white cuffs and boring testimony. That’s a lot to offer a prodigal, all of it undeserved. And that’s the point.

The son is not celebrated because he was lost. He’s celebrated because he was found.

I urge you to return to this wonderful grace today. Make no attempt to legitimize (or especially spiritualize) your sin. You don’t need to. Release it. Renounce it. It’s a wonderful shedding. The Father longs to see you come home – all the way. He has provided, through Jesus’ blood, all the justification you need.

And you may just find that your path never loops back to that sin again.

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