“But he was angry and refused to go in” (Luke 15:28).
The elder brother in the story of the prodigal son (which should be called the story of the wonderful father) illustrates what we do not want to be. He separated himself in his attitude and in relationships because he disapproved of his father’s response to his brother’s rebellion. He may have thought his issues were with his brother, but they were really with his father.
The symptoms of the elder brother mindset are:
- Anger and resentment at perceived unfairness
- Performing for love and approval
- Seeing the blessings of others as a threat to his own blessings
- Misusing the gift of discernment to primarily identify what is wrong
- Perpetual reluctance to rejoice or to let go and celebrate in life
- Withdrawing from relationships because of fear and the need to control outcomes
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him” (Luke 15:25-28).
The default of the elder-brother mindset is to first see what is wrong with a person or place. This greatly limits influence because it constantly magnifies the problem. The default of the father-mindset is to first see what is right with a person or place. It values heart connection and encouragement above whether someone has obeyed all the rules. It rejoices in what is flourishing instead of fixating on what we lack. The elder brother tendency toward judgment and perfectionism often reveals more about our self-perception than it does about the Father’s assessment of us. The elder brother was convinced that work, service, and performance would gain his father’s approval. When he didn’t feel it, he lashed out in anger, frustration and hurt. The elder-brother mindset has a hard time receiving unconditional love and acceptance. Where the Father lavishes love on the prodigal, the elder brother sees permissiveness and a lack of regard for his own hard work. As we reflect on this, we can ask two questions: 1) Where does our own judgment give clues of hidden pain? 2) Where can we receive love and not delay rejoicing?
The Father is pleading with us, “Come into the party.” We might think, “But I already am at the party.” Maybe, but we all probably have areas where the elder-brother mindset wants to have us simply in the door of the party, rather than right in the middle of it. Disappointment, pain, and rejection attempt to keep us at a distance from the joy that is our birthright. We have full access to the party; we need only to say yes. The key indicator of how far into the party we are is revealed by how much we have embraced joy in our lives.
When I recognized the importance of joy and laughter, I did not realize I would have to let go of the following in order to fully rejoice in God’s party:
- Excessive introspection
- Victim mindset
- Impulsive decision making
- Being easily offended
I realize it is scary to let go of these, but they keep us out of the Father’s party and ultimately out of many aspects of the kingdom and of our destiny. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Joy and childlikeness are the antidotes to elder-brotherism.
And, yes, I know we need to have brave communication and boundaries in our lives (and that there is a time for mourning), but if the above responses to life regularly keep us out of God’s joy party, then something needs to change.
There is no convenient time to walk in joy. Today, let’s move deeper into God’s party by valuing joy like never before. If you would like to understand the biblical foundation of joy and keys to walk in joy, read my book, Possessing Joy: A Secret to Strength and Longevity. Also, for much more on this blog’s content, listen to my podcast here.
ABOUT STEVE BACKLUND
Steve Backlund was a senior pastor for seventeen years before joining the team at Bethel Church in Redding, CA in 2008. Steve is a leader developer, joy activist, a revivalist teacher, and as Senior Associate Director, is a key part of the Global Legacy (a ministry of Bethel Church) leadership team. He travels extensively throughout the world encouraging churches and leaders and has authored a number of books.