Exercising My Right to Fail

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my teen years. I remember some of my attitudes and decisions that made life probably less than pleasant for my mom. She was a young widow, raising five opinionated, energetic kiddos through their teens and college years. I especially remember some of our conversations during my high school years, when she showed me a lot of grace as I was learning how to grapple with my budding independence. When I had run-ins with my teachers because of my attitude of my decision to slack off in my studies, Mom held me accountable for my choices, but also explained that my behaviors were part of the sophomoric season of my youth. At the time, I had to look up the meaning of ‘sophomoric’ and found the definition: “conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature”. 
Of course, at the time, I probably didn’t agree with that assessment, but I sure appreciated her willingness to be patient with me as I moved through my teens. In some ways, I was a prodigal son. I was exercising my independence. I was exercising my rights.
Similar to the parable in Luke 15:11-32, where Jesus shared of the prodigal son who spent much of his youth learning difficult lessons through foolish decisions, I was on a path of hard knocks. I wanted my rights, before I really understood how to exercise them. Even now, as a pentagenerian, I continue to learn how to exercise the freedoms given to me by an incredibly gracious Father.
1. My right to a share of the inheritance. v.12: The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ I recall times where I had a sense of entitlement. I remember wanting my mom to buy things at the store, and her running the old ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ line by me. Sadly, I didn’t care. I wanted what I wanted, the same things it seemed my friends all had, and figured since I was her son, she should provide for what I wanted. Now mind you, I don’t believe that it was my right, but in my sophomoric thinking, it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Truth be told, I’m sure there is some of that entitlement in my relationship with my heavenly Father. I think I should have what others do. Well, that is when I am glancing at the incredibly small portion of the global population that has MORE than I do. I don’t seem to complain about not having the same circumstances of those who have less.
2. My right to choose my own path. v.13: “…the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country.” Like most teens, I couldn’t wait to get out from under parental authority. I wanted to go places, see things, and not be hemmed in by the restrictions placed on me my mother. I made a point of telling her as much, convinced she would miss my joyful presence in the home. Suffice it to say, my 20/20 vision affords me a vastly different perspective. Oh how I wish she was still around, so I could hear her perspective of those developmental years. Sadly, she passed just a couple years after I set out for college. I will have to wait to have that conversation when I join her up yonder. I would eventually realize that life has a way of implementing its’ own restrictions on me, and that these boundary lines (Ps. 16:6) are set in pleasant places.
3. My right to spend as I see fit. v.13b – “and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” If left to my own devices, I am by nature a spender. I remember my first job, and how exciting it was every 2 weeks to get a paycheck. I remember going immediately to the music store, followed by the sporting goods store, spending virtually every last penny on myself. Even at the height of my teenage generosity, (aka ‘holiday shopping’), I would buy a present for a sibling, and then one for myself. One for Steve, one for me. One for Mark, one for me. And so on. (I really scored big-time on Christmas during my first later teen years). While 
I have grown to adhere to a budget out of necessity due to raising children of my own, the inner cravings for the latest electronics gadgetry, or a vehicle upgrade, are still inside me. By the way, I don’t own a smart phone, and my car is deserving of a vehicular AARP membership, since it is 17 years old and approaching 200,000 miles.
4. My right to keep my mistakes private. v.15: – “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country…” I made some bone-headed decisions as a teen. And as a 40+ yr old adult. I could have owned my errors and went for help, but I had the right to hide them and try working them out on my own first. It is the way of my pride, though not usually the smartest decision.
These are my rights. I have exercised them extensively over the years, learning much from the school of hard-knocks. Life is a classroom. It can be a gentle teacher, or a harsh one, depending on my learning modality. Am I an eager learner, or a hard-headed one? Does a gentle reminder suffice, or do I need a harsh dose of reality? The choice is mine.
I’ve also learned that my journey is not solely defined by my rights, but also by how I respond to the rights of others, and how they choose to exercise those rights.
1. Their right to take advantage of my poor decisions. v.15b: – “who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.” As much as I may choose to look at the world through rose colored glasses, there are many out there who will take advantage of our youthful foolishness. The world has plenty of creeps and cretans. Rules and boundary lines are in place for my own protection. When I step out of those boundaries, I choose to walk out of the protection given to me. This is a concept we try to share with our daughters, not as a threat, but as a cautionary reminder that our freedoms must be used with thoughtfulness.
2. Their right to let me figure it out. v.16b “…but no one gave him anything.” Mistakes are a teacher, but not always a kind one. Nobody has a mandate to help me when I fall, or when I knowingly put my foot in the dog pile.
3. Their right to forgive me, or not forgive me. v.18b-19: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” Receiving forgiveness is not a right, but a gift. Granting forgiveness is not a requirement, but a choice. I’ve messed up in my relationships over the years, to varying degrees of foolishness and outright stupidity. I’ve hurt the people I love. I have never experienced greater vulnerability than when I fully own my faults, and ask for their forgiveness. These are transformative moments, restoring intimacy between close friends and family. Fortunately, in this parable, and in my own journey, forgiveness has been lavishly granted by a merciful Father.
4. Their right to resent my choices & question my changes. v.28: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” People are not mind readers. Or heart readers. Even when I have genuinely been transformed from the inside out, others have the right to play it safe. To wait and see before they trust me again. I can’t force my way back into their good graces.
My spiritual journey has been marked by a continual exercising of these rights. It has been a wonderful, taxing, exhilarating, painful, and transformative marathon marked by failures, successes, and the slow, hard-headed learning of this prodigal son.

7 thoughts on “Exercising My Right to Fail

  1. I’m not sure how but your writing always permits me to connect it to my own life. It scares me!!! As the others have shared and I have said myself, your posts resonate with me and I go back and read them again.

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  2. In a way, we’re all still prodigal sons and daughters, way beyond our teenage years, continuing to exercise and abuse rights we think we have and do have. We’re all a little sophomoric in our knowledge and actions because there’s no way to reach the sovereignty of God or understand the impact of our actions on others. It’s a miracle that God is willing to serve up the fatted calf when we in no way deserve it. The fact that He loves us the way He does is nothing short of miraculous. I love how you divided your list into my rights/their rights.

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  3. This is thought-provoking stuff. I’m going to need to read it several more times before I can say anything remotely intelligent. 🙂 But these are my favorite kinds of posts that I return to again and again. Good stuff-I’ve never approached the Prodigal Son this way…

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    • I never approached it this way either. The Spirit moves when you are reflecting – a collision of experiences past and present to bring a new understanding or insight. It seemed like a very long post, but there was so much that felt like it needed to be said.


  4. Greg, this is deep thinking. Such a unique way of looking at exercising my rights and others exercising theirs. I feel like my thinking synopses need time to catch up with my reading speed. At times I was thinking about a conversation that I had today with one of my 10th grade boys at school. We talked about doing stupid things and the consequences compared to doing the right thing. Wow. This post is so honest. I am still pondering…

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