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Mable was like this. She was a carefree teen who lived in a world that catered mostly to her. She was somewhat spoiled in that she never really lacked for anything. Life was good. As she moved into her twenties and began engaging in the adult world, she found people less accommodating than her parents. Authority structures had a lower ceiling than she expected, and right and wrong were narrower than she realized.
It seemed Mable was continually bumping into trouble. She drove too fast and got a ticket. She smarted off at her employer, and he fired her. She ran up her credit card debt, and the creditors came looking for her. The seeming end came when her boyfriend of seven years dumped her. From her perspective, he did not want to love her anymore. From his perspective, she was a greedy well of selfishness who consumed his life.
They were living together, so he left her in an apartment she could no longer afford. This last straw was the one that broke the camel’s back. Mable was devastated: she was head-over-heels in debt, had no place to stay, her boyfriend had rejected her, and she had no job. Mable ran hard into life, and life smacked her in the face.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17).
When she came for counseling, one of the first things I wanted to know was if this was the end for her. I’m talking about the “actual end” that we see portrayed in Luke 15:17 with the prodigal son. It’s hard to tell with some people if they have come to the end of themselves. There is a difference between being at the end of your rope and the end of yourself. If she is at the end of her rope, there will be discouragement, but she still has a few options at her disposal to sustain her self-centeredness.
Authentic brokenness characterizes a person at the “actual end” of themselves. It is genuinely a no más, no más of the heart. I could not tell with Mable. She looked broken. She looked to be at the end of herself. It was still hard to discern if the discouragement and signs of desperation were about her limited options and frustrations or if there was genuine brokenness before God. There are two forms of repentance: worldly sorrow that leads to more death and godly sorrow that leads to more life. (See 2 Corinthians 7:10.)
It’s like when you make your seven-year old say, “I’m sorry,” to her brother. She mouths the words, but you have an uneasy feeling that there was no change of heart. She was only at the end of her rope (but had options), not at the end of herself (truly broken). If repentance were only about appearances, we wouldn’t know if it was genuine, which is why the template in Luke 15:17-21 so valuable to us. It gives us a way to think about how real change occurs by observing this case study.
Assess: Are you really at the end of yourself?
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18).
Here we have the story of a son who had a lot of stuff, but he was not satisfied. Mable is like him. She was living the good life but was not content. When she struck out on her own, things went downhill fast. The prodigal, too, had plenty of benefits with his daddy, but he wanted to do his own thing. The problem was his immaturity and delusional thinking that he could do what he wanted to do. You know the story—he did a big belly flop in a hog lot.
If we were only left with “he came to an end of himself,” it would be a cliffhanger. What does a person do after experiencing brokenness? The next thing the prodigal did was make a plan. The young man plotted a course of action for his repentance. The process of change begins by coming to the end of yourself, affirmed by a plan for restoration with those you hurt.
The broken person who is at the end of their rope will create a plan to get out of their mess. The prodigal was serious about change. Though he was perishing with hunger, his main concern was restoring his relationships. It’s like the seven-year old throwing a tantrum: Is he more interested in repairing a relationship he broke, or is he more interested in changing his adverse circumstances? More than likely, the seven-year old is more interested in getting out of the mess he created.
Assess: What is your plan to restore the relationships you’ve broken?
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19).
Let’s imagine the seven-year old saying, “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like a slave.” I think this kind of response would clue you into the condition of his heart. It would be a marvelous thing to experience this kind of repentance from someone. It would be great if I repented this way. It is total, complete, and unconditional surrender. We see this kind of repentance in David after his friend Nathan confronted him regarding David’s adultery with Bathsheba. When David came around to writing how he felt about his infidelity, he said,
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51:4).
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11).
The white flag was waving in David’s mind, and it was clear to everyone how the Lord mercifully brought him to an authentic end to himself. In his case, the only thing that mattered was God restoring him. David was dialed-in to what he had done against God, and there was no pushback. You didn’t hear him talk about Bathsheba’s role in their problems or anybody else’s. This tidbit is a clue when trying to discern the brokenness of a person. Is there still blame, justification, or traces of stubbornness in their lives?
If there is, there is a good chance the person has not come to “the end” yet. There is still some fight left, but not so with the prodigal. The white flag was waving, and the next thing on his schedule was to restore what he had broken. It didn’t seem to matter that he was dirty and probably reeked of hog-freshener. A person experiencing genuine brokenness thinks less and less about himself and more and more about others. Self-esteem is gone, and other-esteem has returned. The prodigal made the switch from all about him to all about others.
Assess: Have those whom you have hurt experienced your authentic repentance?
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).
Everything said thus far happened before he ever moved a muscle. Up to this point, the prodigal has been all talk and no action.
It is only now that he is activating his plan. Once he knew what he was going to do, how he would do it, and why he would do it, he got up and began implementing his steps of repentance. By the time you get to this place with someone, you’ll know if there is brokenness. When they come to you for help, and you help them with a plan, but they do not follow through with the agreed-upon plan—you have your answer.
The prodigal was all in. He wanted to change, and he was humble enough to do whatever it took to change. The big key is whether the person you’re trying to help will listen to what you’re asking them to do, and they are eager to learn and implement the things you share. If you begin to negotiate with them like you’re bartering over an item in a pawn shop, the person is probably not broken. Some of the characteristics of the broken person are listed here.
Humble, easy to help, courageous, inquiring, teachable, non-resistant, repentant, eager, learner, grateful, unselfish, hope-filled, engaged, encouraged, unconditional, positive, responsive, noncritical, motivated, inquisitive, proactive, easily satisfied, hungry, willing.
Assess: Do the words above describe your attitude regarding your plan of repentance? Explain.
And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).
The story of the prodigal had a happy ending. It ends well because God favors the humble. If he were proud, he would meet another side of God, which would feel like a warring army against him (James 4:6). My hope for Mable is that her story will have a happy ending. It will depend on her attitude and what she wants. If she is after God’s glory and will unconditionally give up her life for His worthy cause, it will end well for her.
If she is only lip-syncing “I’m sorry” to get out of trouble, she’ll be back in the hog lot again. Transformative restoration is finding satisfaction in God. Genuine repentance does not mean you can repair all your messes. In David’s case, he did not experience deliverance from the consequences of his sin. He took some of them to his grave. The most vital heart check for the genuinely repentant is whether a person wants restoration with God or is getting a personal craving met.
For David, it was more about being restored to and satisfied with God. He did not get everything he wanted, but he did experience restoration and satisfaction, and that was enough. You will see the evidence of Mable’s full repentance when she experiences restoration and satisfaction in God alone while humbly seeking to repair those relationships which she had broken (Romans 12:18). Here is the sequence to restoration:
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Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).