The Prodigal HeartBy Jon Kelly
June 25, 2020
“The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country.” Luke 15:13
At my first day of college orientation at Moody Bible Institute, the admissions department counselor who led our orientation session said to us all, “At some point while you’re here, your Bible will feel more like a textbook. Don’t let your Bible become your textbook.” I remember thinking to myself, “How can a Bible college student become numb to God’s Word?” What she was lovingly trying to warn us is that it is entirely possible to study Systematic Theology, Greek and Hebrew, Apologetics, and write massive theological papers while your heart feels completely disconnected from God.
Sure enough, for a few months in the latter part of my Junior year at Moody, I hit a wall. I was so immersed in the Scriptures for 7-8 hours a day that I became numb to it. I was in one of the most Bible saturated environments in the country and my heart had become numb. The prophetic words of our admissions counselor in orientation had come to pass. What she never told me was that the same holds true for ministry.
I’ve read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 many times and have often applied the story to someone who has physically wandered away from the Lord and his church. On a day when I was reading this story and seeking to mediate upon it, this question came to my mind, Have you ever read this story seeing your heart as the prodigal? I had never thought of it that way before and I was immediately filled with both curiosity and conviction as I began to reread the story with fresh eyes. Wherever I saw the Prodigal Son, I inserted my own heart. After rereading with fresh eyes, I walked away fully convinced that it is entirely possible to serve the Lord regularly in ministry while your heart has wandered away. It is entirely possible to serve weekly in children’s ministry, serve as a small group leader, serve on the worship team, and yes…even prepare a sermon while your heart has gone “into a far country.” I’m utterly convinced that we can have a Prodigal Heart.
Here are three signs that can be indicators that you are heading towards a prodigal heart:
External Production Over Personal Worship
Ministry is extremely demanding. There is always a need and something to get done. Leaders are often out front and working on many tasks and projects that have urgency, deadlines, and demands to them. It is easy to become consumed with external productivity more than internal productivity. If you are more enthusiastic about “getting it done” than how your heart is doing, there is a problem. It’s hard to notice this sometimes since it is easy to connect our heart with ministry productivity and fruitfulness. If ministry is going great, my heart is doing great. If ministry is lacking productivity or fruit, I’m not doing well. Be careful of placing your heart in ministry productivity and not Christ. Matthew 6:21 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If ministry productivity is your treasure, your heart will be there. If Christ is your treasure, your heart will be there. Your heart will be in who or what you treasure most.
Dreaming of Tarshish
In his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson uses Jonah’s desire to flee to Tarshish as an illustration of what many pastors often face when hitting a ministry wall. For Peterson, Tarshish represents everything that we would rather do than what we are currently doing. If you find yourself constantly dreaming of doing other things rather than serving the Lord, it can be a sign that your heart is starting to slide away. There have been many times that I have looked for homes in other states and thought about other occupations that I can do besides pastor. Almost all of those times, my heart wasn’t in the best place.
Burden Over Blessing
When Netflix and Amazon Prime is more appealing than prayer and scripture reading, when skipping church and not desiring to be around the community of believers is a better option, when you groan because you have to lead a devotional or lead your family in prayer and worship, these may be a sign that your heart may have wandered away. When the blessings of personal prayer, the word, and worship begin to feel like a burden it is a clear sign that you have a Prodigal Heart. I have been there. Have you been there? Are you there now?
So how do we guard ourselves from having a Prodigal Heart? Here are three things that we can do to protect ourselves:
Take the Alarms Seriously
If any of the three indicators mentioned previously arise in your life, shut everything down. Meaning, you need to press pause for a day or two, or even a week or two to focus on caring for your own soul. It is okay to pull away from the crowds to seek your heavenly Father like Jesus did. When red flags are present, address them immediately.
Build Regular Rhythms of Rest
Rest is an act of faith. It requires faith and trust in the Lord to rest, especially when you have a busy schedule. Is there something that needs to change in your schedule so that you have a regular rhythm of rest? If you allow the demands and intensity of ministry to determine rest in your life, your heart will be vulnerable to becoming prodigal. Psalm 127:2 states, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Invest in Your Soul
Retreats, conferences, access to good counselors, podcasts, and anything that you feel will help your soul to be refreshed and your heart not to wander away is good and helpful. We all have moments in which we have a prodigal heart. The beautiful thing about the story is that there is a loving Father standing with open arms and who is willing to run out to us. If you have a prodigal heart today, it’s okay to return home.