To the Parents of Prodigals

There we were, standing at the back of the church building after Sunday morning services, her hand clutched in mine as she told me of her oldest son’s sins. She told me about how he had made a new friend at work who had convinced him to have a drink at a local brewery and play a game of Office trivia with a bunch of coworkers. One drink turned into several and one night turned into several more. Before she even saw the pictures pop up later on Facebook, he had become a regular on the local scene.

He had even met a girl there, too. While she seemed nice, she said, she also knew she had been married before (twice) and was not able to married again, according to Matthew 19. That didn’t matter to her son, who was so wrapped up in “love” that he didn’t care about the consequences. After numerous attempts to reach out, her son, who had once called every Saturday afternoon like clockwork, had essentially shut her out.

“What am I supposed to do?” She said through watered eyes. “I love my son so much. This isn’t the man I thought I raised. I just wish there was some way I could get through to him. I’ll take anything at this point, even just a smile and a hug.” I shook my head, unable to find the words as she turned and walked to her car.

I’m only 32-years-old. I have three children – a three-year-old son, a two-year-old girl, with another one on the way – and the biggest battle I’m facing with the two oldest is to get them to not power bomb each other off the couch. I have no ability to personally relate to what this mom is going through, but I know I very well might someday in the future. What will I do? How will I handle it? Will that be me someday at the back of the auditorium, shaking and fighting back tears?

I only see these situations from one side: the parents of prodigals. Rarely ever do I even know the son that they’re talking about, much less get to make contact, and in the rush of a post-service scramble, it’s nearly impossible to have a few quiet moments with that parent to try and offer comfort. Never mind the fact that the right words rarely come to mind in those moments anyways.

But if I did have a few moments of peace and I did have a few years to think about what to say, here’s what I would tell that parent – and all parents of prodigals. 

Point, Don’t Scold

An adult child is different than a toddler. When they’re in your house and eating your food, it’s (relatively) simpler to discipline them by controlling curfew, taking away car privileges, etc. When they’re out of your house and making their own money and paying their own bills, it gets substantially harder. Screaming at them like they’re still nine won’t – and shouldn’t – have the same impact as it did when they were younger.

I have seen some parents try to scold their 27-year-old for his/her actions. Sadly, it almost always ends up driving the prodigal child farther away.

Instead, show respect to where they’re at in life. Don’t minimize them, their life, or their friends, necessarily, but point to what the standard should be, which is Christ. In the back of their mind, they remember all those times that you took them to Bible class, prayed with them at home, and told them Bible stories when they were little and couldn’t sleep. Somewhere, deep down inside, the lamp of God’s light is searching their soul (Proverbs 20:27).

Reach Out to Their Christian Friends

I have friends in the church that I grew up with that I haven’t spoken to in 20 years. And yet, I know that if one of them showed up on my doorstep, I wouldn’t hesitate to let them in for a cup of coffee. Even if we never talked about church, just seeing them would open up a flood of memories of times at Olsen Park church of Christ, circa 1992-2004. The time we tried to see who could say books of the Old Testament fastest, the time he led singing and convinced me to try it.

The time he was baptized and showed me that it was the best decision I would ever make.

Those are the memories that will come spilling back into your child’s memory when they see their friends from church. Reach out to a few of them and see if they wouldn’t mind reaching out. I’m betting they would jump at the chance.

Pray, Pray, and Pray Some More

If you have a wayward child, your knees are most likely raw by this point. I’m reminded of David’s plea for his son Absalom; though he led a coup against his own father, David’s love for his oldest superseded even sanity. To Joab and every other onlooker, David’s sadness made absolutely zero sense, but to anyone who has had to watch their child leave the Lord, it’s completely understandable. David loved his son no matter what he did; you love yours the same way.

You’ll do anything to have your prodigal child return to you, but when it comes to turning his heart back to God, the sad reality is that it’s not a matter of your willpower. If a hurting parent could turn their child’s heart back to God by walking up Mount Everest, there would be a ten mile line at base camp year-round.

The only thing you can do is also the most powerful: pray. Pray that God helps him to remember the truth. Pray that He steers Him away from evil (Matt. 6:13). Pray that your son comes home.

Keep Those Arms Open

It’s impossible to write an article like this without mentioning the story of the Prodigal Son, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll just focus on one scene in particular. When the prodigal returns down the road to his father’s house and his father sees him “from a long ways” off, then runs to meet him, showering him with hugs and kisses and interrupts the son’s prepared apology along the way.

What a beautiful, heart-wrenching scene. It’s the type of ending that all Godly parents want to have someday. What parent wouldn’t open their arms to a son that has returned like that?

Objectively, as the older brother later points out, the father shouldn’t have accepted him at all. If he really knew what the son had been doing with his life, he should have refused the son’s entry back into his home. The punishment NEEDED to fit the crime.

Good luck trying to convince the father, King David, or any parent of a prodigal, of that little fact. Those realities go completely out the window. As the father points out, “We HAD to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” They can deal with the particulars in the morning.

So keep those arms open, mom. You never know how long it may take for your wayward son to wise up; in some cases, it may be years or even decades. But never stop praying. Never stop reaching out.

And never, EVER close your arms.

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