“All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”

Two Ways to Find Happiness

Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. Each acts as a lens coloring how you see all of life, or as a paradigm shaping your understanding of everything. Each is a way of finding personal significance and worth, of addressing the ills of the world, and of determining right from wrong.

The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day believed that, while they were a people chosen by God, they could only maintain their place in his blessing and receive final salvation through strict obedience to the Bible. There are innumerable varieties of this paradigm, but they all believe in putting the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfillment. In this view, we only attain happiness and a world made right by achieving moral rectitude. We may fall at times, of course, but then we will be judged by how abject and intense our regret is. In this view, even in our failures we must always measure up.

The younger brother in the parable illustrates the way of self-discovery. In ancient patriarchal cultures some took this route, but there are far more who do so today. This paradigm holds that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention. In this view, the world would be a far better place if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and other barriers to personal freedom were weakened or removed.

These two ways of life (and their inevitable clash) are vividly depicted in the classic movie Witness. In that story, the young Amish widow Rachel falls in love with the decidedly non-Amish policeman, John Book. Her father-in-law, Eli, warns her that it is forbidden to do so and that the elders could have her punished. He adds that she is acting like a child. “I will be the judge of that,” she retorts. “No, they will be the judge of that. And so will I … if you shame me,” he says, fierce as a prophet. “You shame yourself,” Rachel replies, shaken but proud, and turns away from him.

Here we have a concise portrayal of the two ways. The person in the way of moral conformity says: “I’m not going to do what I want, but what tradition and the community wants me to do.” The person choosing the way of self-discovery says: “I’m the only one who can decide what is right or wrong for me. I’m going to live as I want to live and find my true self and happiness that way.”

Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: “The immoral people—the people who ‘do their own thing’—are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.” The advocates of self-discovery say: “The bigoted people—the people who say, ‘We have the Truth’—are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.” Each side says: “Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.”

Are we to conclude that everyone falls into one or the other of these two categories? Yes and no. A great number of people have temperaments that predispose them to either a life of moral conformity or of self-discovery. Some, however, go back and forth, trying first one strategy and then the other in different seasons of their lives. Many have tried the moral conformity paradigm, found it crushed them, and in a dramatic turn moved into a life of self-discovery. Others are on the opposite trajectory.

Some people combine both approaches under the roof of the same personality. There are some traditional-looking elder brothers that, as a release valve, maintain a secret life of younger-brother behavior. Police sting operations, designed to catch Internet sexual predators who seek out young teens, regularly catch highly religious people in their nets, including many clergy. Then again, there are many people, very liberated and irreligious in their views and lifestyle, who regard religious conservatives with all the self-righteousness and condescension of the worst Pharisee.

Despite these variations, these are still only two primary approaches to living. The message of Jesus’s parable is that both of these approaches are wrong. His parable illustrates the radical alternative.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.

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