But he [the elder son] was angered and would not go in.
Some years ago in early November, I found myself extremely angry with my family. I am not sure my family even knew I was angry at them, but I wanted to send a message. I began hatching a plan.
As Thanksgiving approached and it came time for me to go home for the traditional dinner, I would simply inform my family that I would prefer to spend Thanksgiving alone this year. “Don’t worry about me,” I would say. “There’s plenty of food in the refrigerator. I’ll be just fine. I have a mountain of work to do, and I need some time by myself.” In effect, I would be saying, “I’d rather be miserable apart from you than happy in your presence.”
Fortunately, I came to my senses. Let’s think this through, Bernard, I told myself. Suppose you went through with your sulking scheme. Imagine it’s a month from now. It’s time for you to go home for Christmas. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you might be the recipient of a message from your family: “Bernard, since you had such a wonderful time all by yourself this Thanksgiving, we thought we would indulge your taste for being alone. You needn’t come home for Christmas this year. Enjoy the holidays!”
Well, I decided to take the path of least regret. I went home for Thanksgiving determined to have a good time. And you know what? I did have a good time. Try as I might today, I cannot even remember why I was angry with my family in the first place. Looking back, I realize I had had a narrow escape. I was ready to be miserable apart from others rather than be happy in their company, and I cannot think of a better definition of hell.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.
Hell, then, is self chosen. Yet note the double meaning of the words “self chosen.” First, hell is a choice that we ourselves make. In a very real sense, God sends no one to hell. Hell is the consequence of the decisions we ourselves freely choose. There is, however, a second meaning to the words “self chosen.” Hell is the result of choosing self above all else, of making oneself the center of the universe. Remember, all SIN has “I” at its center.
Both meanings of “self chosen” are precisely what we see played out in the elder son in our Lord’s parable. This young man chooses to sulk outside the house rather than join the party inside and share the joy of his father and brother. He no doubt selfishly assumes that his absence from the celebration will somehow sabotage the joy of all the rest. In any event, he chooses self over joy. That’s hell.
The bottom line is that the hell of self is cramped quarters compared to the vastness of heaven. As Ben Franklin once observed, “People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.” Or, as I like to say, “People who think themselves the next best thing since sliced bread may very well end up as toast.”
I’ll tell you a secret. One of my most often-repeated prayers is: “Jesus, bring me to heaven. Save me from myself. Amen.”