Abandoning the Course of Independence
“‘Return to me,’ is the utterance of Jehovah of armies, ‘and I shall return to you.’”—Zech. 1:3.
1. What kind of obedience does Jehovah desire from his intelligent creatures?
JEHOVAH GOD has never forced anyone to serve him. He desires willing obedience from his intelligent creatures, obedience based on love for him and an appreciation for what he has done in their behalf. (Deut. 30:11-16; 1 John 4:8-10; 5:2, 3) As Moses told the Israelites on the desert plains of Moab: “I do take the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you today, that I have put life and death before you, the blessing and the malediction; and you must choose life in order that you may keep alive, you and your offspring, by loving Jehovah your God, by listening to his voice and by sticking to him; for he is your life and the length of your days, that you may dwell upon the ground that Jehovah swore to your forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give to them.”—Deut. 30:19, 20.
2. How do the angels react when persons willingly subject themselves to Jehovah God, and why?
2 Long before man was created, millions of angels found delight in serving Jehovah God and continue to do so. (Job 38:4-7; Dan. 7:10; Heb. 12:22) Their sentiments are like those expressed by the twenty-four elders seen in vision by the apostle John: “You are worthy, Jehovah, even our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power, because you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created.” (Rev. 4:11) Recognizing that obedience to God is the only right course and the one leading to lasting blessings, the faithful angels take pleasure in seeing humans abandon the course of independence and willingly subject themselves to the Creator. Said Christ Jesus: “Joy arises among the angels of God over one sinner that repents.”—Luke 15:10.
3. How did Jehovah God show that he wanted unfaithful Israel to return to him?
3 The rejoicing of the angels is in full agreement with God’s own feelings in the matter. Time and again Jehovah appealed to the disobedient Israelites to forsake their wicked ways: “Search for Jehovah, you people, while he may be found. Call to him while he proves to be near. Let the wicked man leave his way, and the harmful man his thoughts; and let him return to Jehovah, who will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will forgive in a large way.” (Isa. 55:6, 7) “I take delight, not in the death of the wicked one, but in that someone wicked turns back from his way and actually keeps living. Turn back, turn back from your bad ways, for why is it that you should die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11) “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ Jehovah of armies has said.”—Mal. 3:7.
4. Were opportunities to abandon unrighteousness limited to ancient Israel?
4 Opportunities to escape the execution of divine vengeance by abandoning wrongdoing were not limited to the nation of Israel. Through the prophet Jeremiah, Jehovah declared: “At any moment that I may speak against a nation and against a kingdom to uproot it and to pull it down and to destroy it, and that nation actually turns back from its badness against which I spoke, I will also feel regret over the calamity that I had thought to execute upon it.” (Jer. 18:7, 8) Similarly, the apostle Peter reminded Christians: “Jehovah is not slow respecting his promise, as some people consider slowness, but he is patient with you because he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.”—2 Pet. 3:9.
THE ATTITUDE OF SELF-RIGHTEOUS PERSONS
5. What attitude have humans often taken toward those who repented of their wrongdoing?
5 Imperfect humans, however, have often failed to imitate Jehovah God and the holy angels in rejoicing over those who forsook the course of independence and became doers of the divine will. During the ministry of Christ Jesus and of his forerunner John the Baptist, for example, an unmerciful attitude prevailed among the self-righteous religious leaders of Judaism. When tax collectors and persons having the reputation of being sinners, such as harlots, repented of their transgressions against God and were immersed by John the Baptist, these religious leaders did not rejoice nor were they motivated to believe John. (Matt. 21:32; Luke 3:12; 7:29, 30) Later, when Christ Jesus rendered spiritual assistance to despised tax collectors and sinners, the scribes and Pharisees voiced their disapproval.—Luke 5:27-31.
6. How did Jesus correct the wrong view of the scribes and Pharisees?
6 On one occasion tax collectors and sinners kept drawing near to Jesus to hear what he had to say. “Consequently both the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering, saying: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ Answering their complaint, Jesus gave three illustrations, each telling of the recovery of what had been lost and the rejoicing that resulted from the recovery. (Luke 15:1-10) The last of these illustrations revolves around three principal characters, a father and his two sons. The father represents Jehovah God; the older son, the scribes and Pharisees, and the younger son, the sinners and tax collectors. Being Jews, the sinners, tax collectors, Pharisees and scribes were all brothers and members of a nation that was in a covenant relationship with God. But the Jews had not kept God’s law perfectly and, therefore, all of them, including the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes, needed to repent and come into a right standing with God by accepting Christ Jesus. (Compare Acts 2:38; Romans 3:9-12.) The illustration of Jesus thus reflected actual circumstances and showed what was required to gain God’s forgiveness. With this in mind, we can read Jesus’ words, as found at Luke chapter 15, verses 11 to 32:
7. What did the younger son of Jesus’ illustration do, and how did he fare as a result?
7 “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the property that falls to my share.’ Then he divided his means of living to them. Later, after not many days, the younger son gathered all things together and traveled abroad into a distant country, and there squandered his property by living a debauched life. When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred throughout that country, and he started to be in need. He even went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to herd swine. And he used to desire to be filled with the carob pods which the swine were eating, and no one would give him anything.
8. (a) What decision did the younger son make when he came to his senses? (b) How did his father receive him?
8 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many hired men of my father are abounding with bread, while I am perishing here from famine! I will rise and journey to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he rose and went to his father. While he was yet a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and fell upon his neck and tenderly kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quick! bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fattened young bull, slaughter it and let us eat and enjoy ourselves, because this my son was dead and came to life again; he was lost and was found.’ And they started to enjoy themselves.
9. How did the older son react to the welcome given to his younger brother?
9 “Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and got near the house he heard a music concert and dancing. So he called one of the servants to him and inquired what these things meant. He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father slaughtered the fattened young bull, because he got him back in good health.’ But he became wrathful and was unwilling to go in. Then his father came out and began to entreat him. In reply he said to his father, ‘Here it is so many years I have slaved for you and never once did I transgress your commandment, and yet to me you never once gave a kid for me to enjoy myself with my friends. But as soon as this your son who ate up your means of living with harlots arrived, you slaughtered the fattened young bull for him.’ Then he said to him, ‘Child, you have always been with me, and all the things that are mine are yours; but we just had to enjoy ourselves and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and came to life, and he was lost and was found.”’
THE CONDITION OF THOSE WHO HAVE GONE ASTRAY
10. How are many today like the younger son of Jesus’ illustration?
10 A considerable number of persons today have taken a course much like that of the younger son when leaving his father’s house.* Some, to escape temporary abuse or persecution from friends, relatives or others, have abandoned true worship. Others have preferred the course of independence from God because of wanting to engage in the very things that are condemned by him, including sexual immorality, thievery and drunkenness. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10) Still others, believing that serving Jehovah takes too much time away from the pursuit of pleasure or hinders one from getting ahead in the world, have stopped their study of the Bible. Regardless of whatever other reasons there may be, those who have held back from doing the divine will or who have stopped doing it show that there is something more important or worth while to them than faithfully serving their Creator.
11, 12. What is the condition of those who have gone astray?
11 All such persons are spiritually famished and far removed from Jehovah God, as if in a distant country. They are a part of Satan’s world and in slavery to him, for “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) Compared with the service of the Creator, their slavery to Satan and his world is no more rewarding than the job of herding swine (animals that were unclean according to the terms of the Mosaic law) would have been for a Jew in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Those who have chosen to lead a debauched life as adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, thieves, and the like, are in a state of spiritual ruin and degradation.
12 While many who are no longer associating with God’s people may not be leading a debauched life, they have, nevertheless, lost much. Devoid of spirituality, their life is often one of constant frustration. Not infrequently does their desire to get ahead in the world lead them to adopt dishonest business practices. (Compare Proverbs 28:20.) Often they devote so much time and energy to maintain a position in the world that their children are left without needed guidance and discipline. As a result many eventually have to endure the pain that comes from seeing their children take a wayward course and ruin their lives. The experience of those who become involved with material things to the exclusion of true worship is well summed up by the apostle Paul: “Those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and hurtful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.”—1 Tim. 6:9, 10.
RETURNING TO JEHOVAH
13. What can those who see themselves in the position of the prodigal son do to improve their situation?
13 Those who see themselves in the position of the prodigal son, however, need not remain in this wretched state. But, like the prodigal son, they can put forth efforts to return to the house of their Father and to his service. This includes heartfelt repentance, abandoning their independent course and petitioning God for forgiveness of their sin. This agrees with the words of the prophet Jeremiah regarding those who had experienced, not God’s forgiveness, but his adverse judgment for failing to repent of their transgressions: “Do let us search out our ways and explore them, and do let us return clear to Jehovah. Let us raise our heart along with our palms to God in the heavens: ‘We ourselves have transgressed, and we have behaved rebelliously.”’—Lam. 3:40-42.
14. What feelings may some have about returning to Jehovah?
14 For many who no longer share in Jehovah’s service the way back may seem very difficult. Ashamed and fearing that they might not be accepted in a loving manner, they may dread the thought of having to face persons who have continued to serve Jehovah faithfully. Possibly those who have strayed have not prayed to Jehovah for a long time and, in view of what they have done, perhaps feel that they are not fit to live and could never gain God’s forgiveness. Are such fears warranted? Not at all. Jesus’ illustration and the many historical examples of Jehovah’s forgiving the transgressions of his people prove that his mercy is extended to all persons who return to him with a complete heart.
15. How does the case of Manasseh illustrate that Jehovah forgives in a large way?
15 A case in point is Judean King Manasseh. The Scriptural record concerning his sins reads: “He went on to build altars to all the army of the heavens in two courtyards of the house of Jehovah. And he made his own son pass through the fire, and he practiced magic and looked for omens and made spirit mediums and professional foretellers of events. He did on a large scale what was bad in Jehovah’s eyes, to offend him. And there was also innocent blood that Manasseh shed in very great quantity, until he had filled Jerusalem from end to end.” (2 Ki. 21:5, 6, 16) Finally, when Manasseh found himself a captive in Babylon, he repented and kept praying to Jehovah. Despite Manasseh’s former conduct, Jehovah “heard his request for favor and restored him to Jerusalem to his kingship.” (2 Chron. 33:11-13) Few persons have acted as wickedly as did King Manasseh and, yet, on the basis of his repentance, he became a recipient of Jehovah’s mercy.
16. Can God’s forgiveness extend to spirit-anointed Christians who become involved in serious wrongdoing?
16 Centuries later, a spirit-anointed Christian in the congregation at Corinth, Greece, practiced sexual immorality with the wife of his father. The presence of this incestuous man endangered the spiritual welfare of the entire congregation and, therefore, the apostle Paul directed that he be expelled. (1 Cor. 5:1, 7-13) But this man was not cut off from association with the congregation for all time. Evidently regarding this man, after his having repented, we read: “This rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary now, you should kindly forgive and comfort him, that somehow such a man may not be swallowed up by his being overly sad. Therefore I exhort you to confirm your love for him.” (2 Cor. 2:6-8) That repentant wrongdoer remained a spirit-begotten Christian, with the hope of gaining life in the heavens.
17. Why would it be improper for anyone to display an attitude like that of the older son in Jesus’ illustration?
17 The case of King Manasseh and that of the unnamed Christian in the Corinthian congregation indicate that wrongdoing does not automatically cancel out one’s opportunity of regaining a proper standing with Jehovah God. One who has become guilty of serious transgression can still pray to God and, if he is sincerely repentant, his prayers for forgiveness will be answered. (Compare Isaiah 1:15-19.) Certainly if Jehovah can be so forgiving, no one who claims to be his servant would want to reflect the unmerciful attitude of the older son in Jesus’ illustration.
AVOID PRESUMING ON GOD’S MERCY
18, 19. Why is it dangerous to presume on God’s mercy?
18 Of course, this does not mean that a person can presume on God’s mercy and continue in a wayward course. When the Israelites, in the time of Jeremiah, became so set in wickedness that there was no possibility of their repenting, Jehovah declared: “If Moses and Samuel were standing before me, my soul would not be toward this people. There would be a sending of them away from before my face, that they might go out.” (Jer. 15:1) There being no basis for extending mercy to the unrepentant nation, Jehovah, in execution of his judgment, allowed the Babylonians to desolate Judah and Jerusalem. (Lam. 1:3-5) During this calamity he did not listen to prayers for help. That is why the prophet Jeremiah lamented: “You have blocked approach with anger, and you keep pursuing us. You have killed; you have shown no compassion. You have blocked approach to yourself with a cloud mass, that prayer may not pass through.”—Lam. 3:43, 44.
19 An individual who proves himself to be unfaithful to Jehovah God is in a very serious position, one deserving of death. If he remains in an unrepentant state, he cannot escape the execution of God’s adverse judgment. Hebrew Christians were told: “If we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and there is a fiery jealousy that is going to consume those in opposition. Any man that has disregarded the law of Moses dies without compassion, upon the testimony of two or three. Of how much more severe a punishment, do you think, will the man be counted worthy who has trampled upon the Son of God and who has esteemed as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt? For we know him that said: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will recompense’; and again: ‘Jehovah will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”—Heb. 10:26-31.
20. Why is there no reason for anyone to become hardened in a sinful course?
20 But there is no reason for anyone to become so set in a bad way that there is no possibility of his ever repenting. Just as Jehovah God has not forced anyone to serve him, so he has never compelled anyone to remain on the side of his adversary, Satan the Devil. Instead, Jehovah has made it possible for individuals to appeal to him for forgiveness on the basis of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. Any who refuse to take advantage of this provision and continue walking according to their own standards, rather than those of the Creator, are deliberate wrongdoers. By their course of action, they reject the application of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice in their behalf. Hence their transgressions stand against them, there being no other sacrifice with sin-atoning value. So they must pay the penalty for their transgressions—complete destruction in execution of God’s vengeance.
21. What blessings come to those who repentantly return to Jehovah?
21 Meanwhile, however, by means of his Word, Jehovah warmly appeals to all who have forsaken him to return to him as their God. A person’s responding to that invitation leads to lasting blessings—freedom from enslavement to the world and its god Satan the Devil, an end to a spiritually famished condition, contentment, happiness, pleasant association with loyal servants of Jehovah, and a purposeful life in the service of a loving and merciful heavenly Father. On earth, Jehovah’s servants will confirm their love for any who repentantly return to him and, in the heavens, the angels will rejoice. If you are among those who have gone astray, do not hesitate to respond to Jehovah’s invitation originally addressed to the Israelites: “Return to me, and I will return to you.”—Mal. 3:7.
This applies in principle. For the prophetic significance of Jesus’ illustration, see The Watchtower of August 1, 1965, pp. 467 to 473 and of August 15, 1965, pp. 485 to 499.