April 23, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
“Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
Like many, his conversion emerged over time. After 30 years of sitting on the fringe of this fold, he finally broke with his past and took the leap of faith . . . into atheism. A. N. Wilson, a prolific and respected English author and biographer, had once been affiliated with the Church of England. Ironically, after writing a biography of C. S. Lewis, Wilson announced his own personal repudiation of all things Christian.
Sunday ushered us back into Jesus’ parable of the two sons. The defiant younger son renounces all allegiance to his father, which Jesus employs as a metaphor for those who seek their own good without God. Like the younger son, A. N. Wilson thought the so-called heavenly father unworthy of ongoing allegiance. But his choice to disavow the Lord’s authority was not out of disrespect for the deity, but because he considered the whole concept of God a complete sham. To the atheistic cloister he thus committed himself. Among the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Wilson was celebrated and catechized in his new faithless faith, at times reveling in what felt like a new freedom of unbelief.
In time, though, the echoes of his former affiliation grew into gnawing doubts. He began to backslide as certain unassailable truths chastised his seemingly airtight defense of atheism. Observable truths about the very existence of language were inexplicable from a purely naturalistic view of reality. The presence and resonance of beauty seemed to him a complete “aberration” if we inhabited an exclusively materialistic universe: “Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.”
Most compelling to Wilson—and most decimating to his outlook—was the enduring magnificence of love—love demonstrated in believers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had been moved profoundly by the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Renunciation of Wilson’s former renunciation ensued. “As a working blueprint for life,” he says, “as a template against which to measure experience, [the gospel] fits.” Like the younger son, Wilson came to his senses and sought reconciliation with the Father he’d previously denied.
Both the younger son’s and Wilson’s story might seem saccharine in how reconciliation follows alienation—at least until you imagine yourself in the position of the father. How would you respond to being undeservingly despised, maligned, rejected, and abandoned? Would you be as quick to welcome back, much less trust, one who thus treated you? Now imagine someone faultless in every respect embracing the offender; would not He be eminently justified in forgoing reconciliation?
Is this the God you know? Do you believe He will not only receive one who has formerly repudiated Him, but will receive such a one with celebration (v. 24)? Do you believe He can still turn hearts, long callous toward Him, back to Him? Do you believe that despite whatever way, over whatever matter you’ve formerly renounced Him, His willingness to receive you and restore you to Himself is not exhausted?
Is that the God you know? That is the God who is—the God we see most clearly in Christ, the God who came to us and for us in Christ. He came to show us that the only enduring good is found in Him. He came to show Himself as good by extending it to us even “while we were yet sinners.”
A. N. Wilson’s story imitates the parable which imitates the story our God wrote in Christ. How must it become woven into your story today?