The difference between sons and orphans


[notice]Jesus came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). In this new monthly column, Jacob McMillen examines what it means for men, young and old, to father abundant life in their families, communities, businesses and churches.[/notice]

Isn’t the prodigal’s older brother an ideal Christian?

“But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’

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And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” Luke 15:29-32

When the story of the Prodigal Son is mentioned, the older son is often regarded negatively as jealous or religious. He is often compared to the Pharisees – the ones who promoted works and couldn’t see grace.

When I look at the prodigal son, however, I see a man of faithfulness and duty – a servant through and through – a man of obedience – a man who has served and honored his father without fail his ENTIRE life.

In short, I see what most of us would consider the ideal Christian.

A question of fairness
If you think about it, the ONLY thing we fault this guy on is his anger and confusion over seeing his fallen brother celebrated. His only fault is that he said, “Hold up dad. I’ve served you all this time and never been celebrated like you are now celebrating this disobedient failure.”

What is so terribly wrong with that?

Wouldn’t most of us react that way?

Don’t most of us react that way when we hear about Christians screwing up?

Don’t most of us feel this way when we read in Matthew 20 about the laborers who all received the same wages?

Some worked from dawn until dusk. Others didn’t show up until an hour before quitting-time. ALL of them received the same wage.

How is that fair?

I’ve spent my entire life serving God. I never had a rebellious phase. I never got into drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, etc. I have friends who spent their entire lives rebelling and sinning, until just recently giving their lives to God.

Do we stand equal before God or has my 20+ years of service and faithfulness accounted for anything?

If it does, than what is the meaning of grace?

If it doesn’t, then what was the point of my faithfulness?

That moment I missed the point
I wrestled with these questions for several years as I struggled to understand how God saw me – how God saw all of us.

And then one day, I attended a church service on the topic of purity. The speaker asked those in the room who had lost their virginity before marriage to raise their hands. I was, to be honest, shocked to see more than half the room raise their hands. I was still a virgin, and I naively assumed most other Christians my age were as well.

The speaker then led these individuals in a prayer of repentance and asked the Father to restore their purity.

As I sat there, I was forced to encounter a difficult question.

What, precisely was God’s grace capable of?

If His grace was as powerful as I professed to believe, then every person in this room who had repented stood before God as though they had never sinned. They stood equal in purity before God to someone like me who had never sinned in the first place.

If that was true, then why had I denied my own sinful desires all those years? If the sinful route could be erased in one moment of repentance, what was the purpose of my faithfulness?

As I asked God these questions, He opened my eyes to realise that this “tension” I had created completely missed the point.

The “point” of my purity had never been a clean record, a badge of faithfulness, or a position of superiority.
The point of it all was found in the father’s words to his eldest son: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

How an orphan thinks
The eldest son’s problem was not that he was angry with his brother’s return. Rather, it was his failure to understand who he was.

He was a son, and as a son, all that his father owned was available to him.

But because he was clueless to the vast wealth available to him, he laboured year after year without ever tapping into his inheritance.

And when his errant brother returned and received a feast, this elder brother mistakenly believed himself to be the one in lack – when in fact, he owned everything.

This way of thinking can also be referred to as the orphan spirit.

It’s a way of thinking that comes from a perspective of lack. It’s a way of engaging with life from ground zero, where everything that can be enjoyed must first be earned.

It’s opposite of how a son thinks.

How a son thinks
A son lives from a place of provision and acceptance. A son knows that he isn’t starting from scratch, but rather, it is his inheritance to receive freely what his father and forefathers worked hard to build.

A son is not threatened by what is given freely to others, because he is so profoundly aware of how much he has freely received.

A son of God understands that everything in the Father’s kingdom is available to him.

As I sat in that service, I realised that God’s call to purity was simply an opportunity for me to tap into the abundant life He had made available.

I could have spent years embroiled in broken relationships, damaged hearts, and unhealthy soul-ties, but instead, by faithfully following God’s instruction, I had been able to live an abundant life, unencumbered by the havoc that sexual promiscuity can bring.

Because of God’s unbelievable grace, every person in that room with raised hands and repentant hearts was free. Every person was washed clean by His perfect grace.

So what was the point? The point was the years I spent living abundant life. The point was the years I spent with unveiled face, beholding the glory of God and being changed into His likeness (2 Cor 3:18).

The point was that, unlike many in the room, I wasn’t now embarking on a lengthy process of inner healing. There are many instant elements to grace, but some things that take years to break can take years to mend.

And most importantly, as a son, the freely given grace of God to those around me in no way threatened the grace given so freely to me. Even from a perspective of cost/reward, the reward of grace so far surpassed what I could do to earn it in a lifetime, that the difference between my own efforts and the efforts of those around me was completely immaterial – magnificently dwarfed in light of the Father’s love.

Can we avoid sin and still miss out?
Like me, the eldest son had spent years in his father’s presence, working alongside him and building relationship with him.

He didn’t have to experience the brokenness of rock bottom. He didn’t show up to the feast with his life in shambles.
And yet, in some ways, he seems to have missed out.


If there is any lesson we can learn from the story of the prodigal son, it’s that we can be faithful and sinless and still completely miss out on enjoying our inheritance.

Up to the point of the prodigal’s return, the eldest son was the ideal Christian. He was a faithful servant who did all that his father commanded.

Yet he missed out on what was available.

And like the eldest son, we too can live our lives as servants, free of sin, and still miss out on our inheritance.
Why is this?

Because Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of making us sin-free. He came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). This inheritance of life is not about what we abstain from, but rather, what we give ourselves to.

When we understand the Father’s heart for us, and we view life from the perspective of sons, we can take hold of everything He has given us. We can step fully into abundant life.

You’re a son of God
As a son, your life isn’t about avoiding sin; it’s about enjoying abundant life.

As a son, you have no lack, because the entire Kingdom of Heaven is available to you.

As a son, who understands the riches of His grace, it’s unfathomable not to extend that grace to all around you.

As a son, you understand what the Father meant when He said,

“All that is mine is yours.”


  1. Peter McGregor

    As A Son of the Living GOD, I believe Jesus did, among other things, come to make us sin-free:”Whosoever abideth in Him,sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known him. We know that whosoever is born of GOD sinneth not; but he that is begotten of GOD keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. 1John 3v.6 and 5 v.18.

    • Hey Peter, my point is that sin hinders us from enjoying abundant life. So yes, when we abide in Him, we don’t sin, but the point isn’t what we don’t do, the point is that we are abiding in Him.

      We don’t need to abide in Him to stop sinning. We can accomplish that, on some level, with willpower, and that’s what many Christians spend their life doing.

      When we abide in Him, as John says in the verse you quote, we don’t sin. It’s not an effort thing. These verses actually imply a mutual exclusion – we cannot be sons of God and sin – those two don’t even mix.

      So why do Christians keep sinning their wholes lives?

      Because we don’t understand what it means to be sons. Because we are so busy serving and laboring, that we have no clue what it means to abide in Him. We don’t understand that all He has (including an abundant, sin-free life) is available for us right now.

  2. Thank you for an honest, thought-provoking article, which reveals the orphan spirit in us that not only stops us from enjoying the abundance of our inheritance as children of God, but inhibits us from being the parents that our children deserve.