It’s hard not to envy the amoral, especially if you’re dutifully trying to be faithful to God, commitments, family, church, and the commandments.
Nikos Kazantzakis used to say that virtue sits on its high perch, surveys what’s around it, and then weeps for all it is missing out on. When we’re honest we know this is true, at least for our bad days. Duty brings its own kinds of crucifixion and, more often than not, irresponsibility can look very attractive. It’s not for nothing that our society uses the word “cool” to describe the non-committed. Hanging loose outside the circle of commitment can easily pass itself off as the way, the truth, and the life, just as virtue can look and feel like frigidity, uptightness, lack of nerve, nothing but feckless duty.
It’s one thing to be responsible and dutiful, it’s quite another be grateful for living that way. The danger is that, like the older brother of the prodigal son, we end up doing the right thing and then becoming bitter about having to do it. What happens then is that we stand outside the circle of the dance, angry, secretly jealous of the amoral, protesting that life isn’t fair, that God isn’t fair: “I’ve stayed home, done my duty, never seriously strayed, and now the fuss is all about others who have had a fling and haven’t been as faithful as I!”
Piet Fransen used to offer a little litmus-exam to test our attitude on this. His test? Check out your reaction to this, namely, a classical death-bed conversion:
You hear tell of a man who lives his life entirely oblivious to spiritual and moral affairs. He is interested rather in other kinds of affairs. A dilatant, irresponsible, selfish, he deems life only for the pleasure it can bring. He pursues the good life, pleasures of every kind, comfort, luxurious vacations, sexual irresponsibility, without a thought to God, the poor, or duty of any kind. And so he lives from his youth until old age. Then, just before dying, he repents, makes a sincere confession, and dies prayerfully, throwing himself into the arms of God at the last minute in genuine sincerity.
What’s your spontaneous reaction to that? Ah, the wonder of grace! Or … the lucky beggar! He got to have a fling and now he gets heaven besides!
Fransen comments that if we feel even a tinge of envy, and most of us probably do, then, like the older brother of the prodigal son, we have not yet understood God’s grace. If we understood the grace we live in then, like the Father of the Prodigal son, we would be deeply grateful because someone who has missed out on so much of life has finally, again, come back to life (which is exactly what the person who makes a sincere death-bed conversion realizes and admits). What a sincere death-bed conversion reveals is that going the way of the prodigal son does not constitute life, but is a stepping away from it, an abandoning of happiness, an act of despair.
But that is precisely what his older brother and we, so many of us, dutiful Christians, tend to misunderstand. We get upset that someone has had a fling while we remained faithful. Virtue on its high perch weeping! Duty and fidelity, outside of a real understanding of grace, too easily make us bitter and envious.
But God, as the parable of the Prodigal son makes clear, is equally as gentle with the bitter as with the prodigal. The Father’s words to the older brother as just as loving and forgiving (and revealing) as are his words to the prodigal son: “My child, you have always been with me and everything I have is yours.”
Inside God’s house, everything that belongs to God, including the burden of forgiveness and the burden of God’s anxiety for the world, also belongs to all the others. Only those who stay home with the Father get to become empathic with him because they alone are around enough to be aware of the family’s real situation. Only those at home hear the phlegm in their Father’s throat when he coughs in the morning. That’s a vital part of living in grace. Grace makes us empathic with God and that, more than anything else, can trigger a depth of meaning that dwarfs the pleasure of any prodigal fling. When one owns everything, he or she does not become bitter and jealous over someone else’s pleasure.
Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize for literature, but lived most of his life in poverty, once wrote: Poverty taught me that not all was well under the sun, but the sun taught me that poverty isn’t everything!” Grace, like the sun, is free and its warmth and light dwarf all else. Too often we don’t understand this and we find ourselves standing outside the dance, bitter, angry that those who haven’t followed us in duty now seem happier than we.