The Older Brother Syndrome

When it comes to forgiving and being forgiven, maybe you think you’re exempt because you believe there isn’t very much that you have been, or need to be, forgiven of. If this is the case, I can assure you that it is because you have not repented of very much or confessed all of your sin.

And if you have not repented of very much, you will not be forgiven of very much and you will find it difficult to love others. This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 7:47 when he says – “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Often this is a character trait of people like me, who grew up in the church as believers. In many people’s eyes – and especially in our own eyes – we’ve lived “better” lives than the rest of you. After all, there are a lot of bad things that we haven’t done.

But this perception is simply NOT TRUE. In reality, we just sin in less visible ways. We are like the older brothers in the Prodigal Son story….

The Prodigal and The Pleaser
You know the story… the prodigal, the younger brother left home in disobedience, blew all his money, and sinned in every way he could imagine. The “good son”, the older brother stayed home and obeyed his father, was wise with his money, and had high moral standards. And yet, in the end, it was the younger brother who knew he deserved nothing and begged for – and received – mercy. The older brother believed his father owed him for his good behavior.

Many of us who grew up in the church as believers think the same way:

1. We think highly of ourselves
We think so highly of ourselves on the basis of all the bad things we haven’t done. We haven’t pursued wild living. We didn’t do the drugs, we didn’t sleep around, we didn’t end up broke in the gutter… so we’re “better”.

2. Others think highly of us
We have a “good reputation”. We think of ourselves, and are thought of by others as “good people” who do very little wrong and must be on “good terms” with God.

3. We love to have people in our debt
We love to have someone in our debt. We love to make them feel – and let them know – that they owe us something. And they better work awfully hard in our presence to win back our favor! This also draws attention away from our own flaws. Our flaws, like the older brother’s are usually less visible, but from God’s perspective they are no less ugly.

4. We are likely to be punitive
We often believe the lie that we’re better. Other people have done bad things and should beg for our forgiveness for the rest of their lives. Those who have wronged us need to pay for what they’ve done! They need to pay their way up to our status level…. But that’s not the way grace works.

5. We’re likely to be ungracious
When someone wrongs us and asks for our forgiveness, we like to hold it over them for just a little bit longer. We’re don’t act like the father of the prodigal; we’re not out there looking for them and we’re not even looking down the road to see if they’re coming.

Do you see yourself in this description? I see myself.

As a result, our relationships are often characterized by the making of accusations and holding people to a standard of perfection that we ourselves only appear to meet. We must maintain our higher standard, protect our reputation… and so we are often ungracious and punitive.

Instead, our relationships should look like this. In the words of Thomas Oden:

“Where forgiveness pervades a relationship, it is no longer dominated by aggressive charges, counterclaims, and legalistic attempts to recover damages… The Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that we are bound to share with others the forgiveness we have received from God.”


This post is part a series on forgiveness, based on a sermon called “Forgive and Be Forgiven”. You can listen to the sermon audio here (or right-click and “Save As…” to download)

Other posts in this series:

Part 1 – Don’t Be a Hypocrite
Part 2 – A Prayer to Be Recited?
Part 3 – Giving Up the Desire to Punish
Part 4 – Don’t Be Like the Unforgiving Servant
Part 5 – The Older Brother Syndrome
Part 6 – Living the Forgiving (and Forgiven) Life
Part 7 – What Forgiveness Isn’t…

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