Rediscovering the Message of the Prodigal God

By Casey O Pater

I grew up in a non-Christian home in the town of Newtonsville, Ohio, which is about 30 miles east of Cincinnati. My family wasn’t even nominally Christian, but our parents did love us and provide for us. Even so, there was much dysfunction and chaos in the form of drug abuse by my parents and physical abuse by my siblings.

My grandmother was a professing follower of Jesus, and I can remember times as far back as when I was 6 where she would sit me on her knee and read the Scriptures to me, telling me about Christ. But when I got older, I had lots of questions for her and the pastors at the Church of God-affiliated church that she’d take me to. My questions were never answered and were often shot down as, “You’re too young to understand,” or “That boy has the spirit of legalism in him.” So I pretty much checked out on Christianity after that and into my teenage and young adult years.

Eventually, to escape the dysfunction of the family life I was surrounded in, I enlisted in the USMC as an Aviation Ordnance Systems Weapons Technician for the Cobra and Huey helicopters at the age of 18. It was everything I wanted! Constant partying, traveling all over the world, and most of all… away from my family.

When I enlisted, our country was in a time of peace. I hadn’t actually thought about what might happen if I had to go to war.

But… then September 11, 2001 came… I was on a training deployment in the Bahamas standing guard when we got the news. Quickly we were taken back to the barracks to see the chaos and carnage on the TV screen. I had turned 19 just 3 days earlier. When I enlisted, our country was in a time of peace. I hadn’t actually thought about what might happen if I had to go to war.

I found myself within a few weeks of the catastrophe of 9/11 boarding CH-30 to fly up to NYC and join up with the National Guard and first responders to help dig survivors out of the rubble, set up safe zones and help search for missing people. I was only in NYC for a day. Our Commanding Officer and the C.O. of the National Guard unit there didn’t see eye to eye, so we were asked to leave because our help wasn’t needed. But I was there for nearly half a day assisting…and it was long enough for me to see the carnage. To see entire buildings gone…to see firemen pulling people from the rubble, after so much time…there was little doubt in my mind these were corpses they were pulling out from the rubble. Sometimes it was only body parts. As you could imagine, this was all very traumatizing for a 19 year old boy to see. It impacted me in a way I have no words to explain to this day.

After coming home, there was little time to process before training began to deploy. I found myself contemplating during that time how mankind as a whole could do something so evil and wretched to their fellow man. So many lives lost and so much death and destruction. I found myself constantly wondering, “if this is what men do to one another, then we don’t deserve to live and we should just kill each other off and get it over with.” I began to grow cynical. But I was at that time dating a Christian girl. Her family took me to church often, and the church I went to that particular Sunday gave a hell, fire and brimstone message that scared me out of my mind…so of course I came forward. I didn’t want to burn in hell. And so then I was a Christian they said…but there wasn’t much difference in my life…I realize now I had just sought out fire insurance.

Then I deployed to Iraq in March of 2003. I was in Mosul, Iraq, attached to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. I saw only more atrocities and horrors as one can imagine, along with the constant nagging itch that what we were doing in Iraq was not “just” or “righteous.” To me it seemed the Iraqi people neither wanted us there nor wanted us to go home…and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

After I came home, I was engaged to my Christian girlfriend, who I believe knew I wasn’t a believer. So we began making arrangements and doing marriage counseling with a reformed minister who was a friend of the family. He spent two sessions with us going over the biblical meaning of marriage and he had me pegged. After that session he asked to just meet with me. So, I agreed and once a week I’d meet him at his house where he’d promptly put me to work on all sorts of tasks while alongside me poking and prodding and sharing the gospel with me like I had never heard before. He explained the Bible and the story of redemption God had planned for before the foundation of the world, how Jesus was the better Adam, the better Moses, the better Jonah. I was on the edge of my seat…and then he said, “Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart?” That confused me and he noticed the change in my expression. When he asked what was the matter I said, “If what you just explained to me is true (and I believed it was), then what in the world does Jesus living in my heart do for my sad and sorry state?” He looked at me for a second and then asked me to explain. I repeated, “How does a man living in my heart do anything for me? What does that accomplish?”

He smiled and gathered himself and then asked me, “So you do believe what I’ve just told you? My question is why do you believe it?” I couldn’t really give him a good answer. I just kept saying, “I don’t know, I just do. It’s like a light just turned on.”

My friend said to me then, “Let me rephrase my question; since you said you believe the story of redemption, do you wish to live and step into this story of salvation that the Savior has brought you into…or do you wish to die?”

I immediately barked back, “Do I wish to live or do I wish to die? What kind of question is that? Of course I want to live!”

And as I said that, my own words pierced my heart and the light of the gospel flooded my mind and my soul as I realized I believed in Christ and His work and there was no other obvious reason for it other than Christ revealing Himself to me in this man’s words.

I believed in Christ and His work and there was no other obvious reason for it other than Christ revealing Himself to me in this man’s words.

After I became a Christian, I was married a few weeks later and baptized the day after our wedding. Then we deployed to Hawaii together where I met my spiritual mentor Ray Hauser who discipled me in the faith. He was like a father to me. After my time in Hawaii, I had decided that the Lord was leading me to prepare for vocational ministry. I had an incredible love for the Word, particularly apologetics.

I went to Multnomah University and obtained my BA in Bible & Theology with a major in pastoral ministry and a minor in counseling. While I was obtaining my education, I was also serving as a pastoral intern at a local Calvary Chapel in Portland. I had the privilege of teaching the Bible to the college age kids at the church week in and week out as well as serving on the worship team as a worship leader and guitar player. After I graduated, my pastor in Oregon suggested an associate position up in Longview, WA. After much deliberation and prayer we were offered the position and my wife and I decided to go. It lasted almost a year…eleven months to be exact.

To be brief, I was let go because I didn’t agree with the senior pastor on particular points of doctrine on the end times. To put it simply, he was super dispensational and I’m super covenantal. I didn’t choose this separation but I was forced out without a say.

I went into a downward spiral for about 8 years. I moved from job to job, struggled financially and all the time I questioned why God had let this happen. I cursed God to his face and asked him to never bother me again cause I didn’t need him. And to my surprise…He let me alone…and things got quite easy. We started making and saving up money…and things got very, very…boring. On top of that, I couldn’t let go of the past and I became very bitter. I was stuck in a cyclic prison of bitterness and boredom where I was the victim and God and everyone who had wronged me were the problem.

That lasted until I didn’t think I could take it anymore…and one day I picked up an old Tim Keller book I had read in the past but couldn’t quite remember. It was called The Prodigal God. Maybe you’re familiar with it? In it, the story of the prodigal sons is expounded on. Long story short, through this book and subsequent sermons that I found on Spotify, I was laid low to the dirt, literally. I realized that I was angry at God because I had served him (or slaved for him) like the older brother in the parable and therefore thought that God owed me for my service. When God failed to deliver on what I thought he owed me, I did a pendulum swing and became the younger brother. I said, “Fine. Give me what’s mine, I’m out! See ya!” And so I went. And God was more than happy to let me go…only to find myself in the pig pen.

I can’t explain it fully but it was as if for 8 years I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) hear God’s voice or sense his presence. But when I digested this book and these podcasts, his presence hit me so hard that I was overwhelmed and on the floor in repentance, pleading for mercy for my stupidity. I realized I had made an idol out of being a pastor and when it was taken from me, I reacted like a small child with his toy taken away. I began to converse with God daily and digest his Word again daily and pray and sing and fast. And the prison I had willingly put myself in slowly melted away.

And now, I find myself in a place where instead of seeking God for what He can do for me or give to me…I just want Him…for Him. That’s it. Just Him. Because He is all we really need.

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