Apart from the death of a child, one of the deepest hurts a Christian parent can experience is that of having what is often called a “prodigal child.” In Luke 15:11-13, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son – the younger one — who exhibits a rebellious and hurtful attitude toward his parent:
And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
Interpreting these verses in their historical context, John MacArthur explains that this younger son is essentially saying, “I wish you were dead, Dad, so I could spend my inheritance.” What a painful event for any parent to experience! Then, to add insult to injury, the son gathers everything his father gives him and moves as far away from the father as possible. It is easy to imagine the father’s rejection, hurt, disappointment, grief of the loss of relationship, sadness, anger, and all kinds of other emotions, all mixed together.
Modern Day Prodigals and Their Parents
For Christians, the child who walks away from the faith of his or her parents is no less agonizing. In fact, it is often a pain that is never completely alleviated until the child truly repents. Rebellion manifests as a product of a hard heart toward God and a heart that wants to pursue what is right in the child’s own eyes. Today’s prodigal child can easily be drawn away by his own lusts into a world of new age thinking, secular humanism, sins of an addictive nature, sexual sin, and many more. All of these enticements demonstrate a direct rejection of the parents’ values and ultimately a rejection of God’s biblical truths.
Some Christian parents I have counseled have been confused because of erroneous thinking. They incorrectly believed that because they raised the child in a godly home with the Scriptures taught and the Holy Spirit present in their own lives, they were somehow guaranteed to see the fruit of repentance and eternal life in their offspring. I have heard a Christian parent verbalize past sinful erroneous thinking this way: “My children will be raised in a God-fearing home that I never had as a child and that will ultimately be what saves them.”
Correct theology helps Christian parents anchor their soul in the truth that only God by His Spirit rescues the sinning soul and that no formula exists to guarantee that someone will be saved by Christ. Our hope must be in Christ alone, not in what He is going to do with our child’s soul. A parent’s thinking must become similar to the lyrics written by the music group, MercyMe, whose song Even If says:
I know You’re able and I know you can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if you don’t,
My Hope is You alone.
On the other extreme, some Christian parents sink into despair with inaccurate thinking that they must have done something wrong and pushed the child away from Christ by their own sin. Again, correct theological thinking assures us that all children are born with a sinful nature and are in need of God’s saving grace (Rom. 3:23, 6:23). While some parents can be overly critical or poor examples to follow, the reality is that the children in these homes will still need a Savior. Yes, being critical impacts a child’s thinking (and yes, parents are responsible for repenting of their own sin before God and others), but no parent can “push a child further away from God” because children are born in sin as far away from God as is humanly possible until they are born again (John 3:3, 16-18).
Parents sin. Children sin. We all need God’s amazing grace. Parents should do their best to parent biblically, while confessing their sins and failures in parenting both to God and to their children. However, parents need to recognize that salvation of a child’s soul ultimately is determined by God and the child. Poor parenting fails to glorify God when left alone without the repentance of the parents, but it doesn’t negate God’s ability to save a child. Excellent biblical parenting skills glorify God if executed for the glory of God, but still don’t guarantee a child will be saved eternally. God is sovereign over the salvation of every soul. A parenting experience with a prodigal is a stark and painful reminder of this truth, but it is good for us to know God’s grace in a deeper way.
Resources to Help during Difficult Times
Fortunately, there’s a plethora of practical biblical help available for parents of prodigals. Shirley Elliott’s new book, From Heartbroken to Hopeful: Gospel Hope for Parents of Prodigals, encourages parents to turn their focus upon trusting who God is during a painful parenting trial. Pastor Brad Bigney, who writes the foreword in Elliott’s book, has a sermon series called “Hope + Help for Hurting Parents” that he began preaching on July 20, 2008 (search for it at graceky.org/sermons/ if the direct link above is not available). Biblical counselors may find that these resources can be given as biblical counseling homework assignments along with writing down truths gleaned from them as they listen or read.
Another group of resources to be released in June of 2018 is an entire conference of material that will be dedicated to helping those with prodigals. The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD) is the host of the 2018 Summer Institute, which is entitled “Loving Wayward Souls: Grace for Our Prodigals.” This conference will help parents learn how to become more Christ-like in their thinking and how to solicit the prayers and help of the body of Christ.
Parenting a prodigal son or daughter is very difficult. I caution you not to attempt to go through it alone. Seek out biblical resources. In fact, the BCC website has a search bar at the top of the page where you may simply type in the word “parenting” for many sound and encouraging resources.
I counsel parents of prodigals to never give up hope for true repentance as long as they are alive. Ask the Lord to send messengers of the gospel across the path of your prodigal and to enliven the heart of the prodigal by His Spirit. Each situation is different, so gospel-oriented, biblical counsel is a valuable necessity for parents of a prodigal child. Find a biblical counselor to walk with you and point you to Christ and His Word as an anchor for your soul (Heb. 6:19).
Questions for Reflection
How can you encourage someone to grow during a difficult time? What Scriptures provide a balance of truth and grace during times of suffering?
Mark E. Shaw, D.Min., is Vice President of an addiction ministry called The NewDay Center in Indianapolis, IN, and the author of 20 publications including The Heart of Addiction, Addiction-Proof Parenting, and Divine Intervention: Hope and Help for Families of Addicts.