12 Suggestions for Loving a Prodigal Child

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teen boy looking out in distance

The following is excerpted from a previous post (which can be found here):

I recently came across an excellent article from Abraham Piper, the son of author and pastor John Piper. For parents who are currently struggling with a child (of any age) who has either strayed from their Christian faith or never professed Jesus as Lord of their life, this will serve as practical guidance to help you manage what is a very difficult reality.

prodigalson1.jpgDo you resonate with the following sentiments? If you do, I’d like to know what you’re currently struggling with and how you’re managing. I’d also like to remind you that our counselors are available to help you through these tough times.

Here now is what Abraham wrote:

Many parents are brokenhearted and completely baffled by their unbelieving son or daughter. They have no clue why the child they raised well is making such awful, destructive decisions. I’ve never been one of these parents, but I have been one of these sons. Reflecting back on that experience, I offer these suggestions to help you reach out to your wayward child.

1. Point them to Christ.

Your rebellious child’s real problem is not drugs or sex or cigarettes or pornography or laziness or crime or cussing or slovenliness or homosexuality or being in a punk rock band. The real problem is that they don’t see Jesus clearly. The best thing you can do for them—and the only reason to do any of the following suggestions—is to show them Christ. It is not a simple or immediate process, but the sins in their life that distress you and destroy them will only begin to fade away when they see Jesus more like he actually is.

prayer7.jpg2. Pray.

Only God can save your son or daughter, so keep on asking that he will display himself to them in a way they can’t resist worshipping him for.

3. Acknowledge that something is wrong.

If your daughter rejects Jesus, don’t pretend everything is fine.

For every unbelieving child, the details will be different. Each one will require parents to reach out in unique ways. Never acceptable, however, is not reaching out at all. If your child is an unbeliever, don’t ignore it. Holidays might be easier, but eternity won’t be.

4. Don’t expect them to be Christ-like.

If your son is not a Christian, he’s not going to act like one.

You know that he has forsaken the faith, so don’t expect him to live by the standards you raised him with. For example, you might be tempted to say, “I know you’re struggling with believing in Jesus, but can’t you at least admit that getting wasted every day is sin?”

prodigalsonrem.jpgIf he’s struggling to believe in Jesus, then there is very little significance in admitting that drunkenness is wrong. You want to protect him, yes. But his unbelief is the most dangerous problem—not partying. No matter how your child’s unbelief exemplifies itself in his behavior, always be sure to focus more on the heart’s sickness than its symptoms.

5. Welcome them home.

Because the deepest concern is not your child’s actions, but his heart, don’t create too many requirements for coming home. If he has any inkling to be with you, it is God giving you a chance to love him back to Jesus. Obviously there are some instances in which parents must give ultimatums: “Don’t come to this house if you are…” But these will be rare. Don’t lessen the likelihood of an opportunity to be with your child by too many rules.

If your daughter smells like weed or an ashtray, spray her jacket with Febreze and change the sheets when she leaves, but let her come home. If you find out she’s pregnant, then buy her folic acid, take her to her twenty-week ultrasound, protect her from Planned Parenthood, and by all means let her come home. If your son is broke because he spent all the money you lent him on loose women and ritzy liquor, then forgive his debt as you’ve been forgiven, don’t give him any more money, and let him come home. If he hasn’t been around for a week and a half because he’s been staying at his girlfriend’s—or boyfriend’s—apartment, plead with him not to go back, and let him come home.

6. Plead with them more than you rebuke them.

Be gentle in your disappointment.

What really concerns you is that your child is destroying herself, not that she’s breaking rules. Treat her in a way that makes this clear. She probably knows—especially if she was raised as a Christian—that what she’s doing is wrong. And she definitely knows you think it is. So she doesn’t need this pointed out. She needs to see how you are going to react to her evil. Your gentle forbearance and sorrowful hope will show her that you really do trust Jesus.

Her conscience can condemn her by itself. Parents ought to stand kindly and firmly, always living in the hope that they want their child to return to.

connectingpeople1.jpg7. Connect them to believers who have better access to them.

There are two kinds of access that you may not have to your child: geographical and relational. If your wayward son lives far away, try to find a solid believer in his area and ask him to contact your son. This may seem nosy or stupid or embarrassing to him, but it’s worth it—especially if the believer you find can also relate to your son emotionally in a way you can’t.

Relational distance will also be a side effect of your child leaving the faith, so your relationship will be tenuous and should be protected if at all possible. But hard rebuke is still necessary.

This is where another believer who has emotional access to your son may be very helpful. If there is a believer who your son trusts and perhaps even enjoys being around, then that believer has a platform to tell your son—in a way he may actually pay attention to—that he’s being an idiot. This may sound harsh, but it’s a news flash we all need from time to time, and people we trust are usually the only ones who can package a painful rebuke so that it is a gift to us.

A lot of rebellious kids would do well to hear that they’re being fools—and it is rare that this can helpfully be pointed out by their parents—so try to keep other Christians in your kids lives.

8. Respect their friends.

Honor your wayward child in the same way you’d honor any other unbeliever. They may run with crowds you’d never consider talking to or even looking at, but they are your child’s friends. Respect that—even if the relationship is founded on sin. They’re bad for your son, yes. But he’s bad for them, too. Nothing will be solved by making it perfectly evident that you don’t like who he’s hanging around with.

When your son shows up for a family birthday celebration with another girlfriend—one you’ve never seen before and probably won’t see again—be hospitable. She’s also someone’s wayward child, and she needs Jesus, too.

email1.jpg9. Email them.

Praise God for technology that lets you stay in your kids’ lives so easily!

When you read something in the Bible that encourages you and helps you love Jesus more, write it up in a couple lines and send it to your child. The best exhortation for them is positive examples of Christ’s joy in your own life.

Don’t stress out when you’re composing these as if each one needs to be singularly powerful. Just whip them out one after another, and let the cumulative effect of your satisfaction in God gather up in your child’s inbox. God’s word is never proclaimed in vain.

10. Take them to lunch.

If possible, don’t let your only interaction with your child be electronic. Get together with him face to face if you can. You may think this is stressful and uncomfortable, but trust me that it’s far worse to be in the child’s shoes—he is experiencing all the same discomfort, but compounded by guilt. So if he is willing to get together with you for lunch, praise God, and use the opportunity.

It will feel almost hypocritical to talk about his daily life, since what you really care about is his eternal life, but try to anyway. He needs to know you care about all of him. Then, before lunch is over, pray that the Lord will give you the gumption to ask about his soul. You don’t know how he’ll respond. Will he roll his eyes like you’re an idiot? Will he get mad and leave? Or has God been working in him since you talked last? You don’t know until you risk asking.

chickfila8.jpg(Here’s a note to parents of younger children: Set up regular times to go out to eat with your kids. Not only will this be valuable for its own sake, but also, if they ever enter a season of rebellion, the tradition of meeting with them will already be in place and it won’t feel weird to ask them out to lunch. If a son has been eating out on Saturdays with his dad since he was a tot, it will be much harder for him later in life to say no to his father’s invitation—even as a surly nineteen-year-old.)

11. Take an interest in their pursuits.

Odds are that if your daughter is purposefully rejecting Christ, then the way she spends her time will probably disappoint you. Nevertheless, find the value in her interests, if possible, and encourage her. You went to her school plays and soccer games when she was ten; what can you do now that she’s twenty to show that you still really care about her interests?

Jesus spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes, and he wasn’t even related to them. Imitate Christ by being the kind of parent who will put some earplugs in your pocket and head downtown to that dank little nightclub where your daughter’s CD release show is. Encourage her and never stop praying that she will begin to use her gifts for Jesus’ glory instead her own.

12. Point them to Christ.

This can’t be over-stressed. It is the whole point. No strategy for reaching your son or daughter will have any lasting effect if the underlying goal isn’t to help them know Jesus.

Jesus.

message1.jpgIt’s not so that they will be good kids again; it’s not so that they’ll get their hair cut and start taking showers; it’s not so that they’ll like classical music instead of deathcore; it’s not so that you can stop being embarrassed at your weekly Bible study; it’s not so that they’ll vote conservative again by the next election; it’s not even so that you can sleep at night, knowing they’re not going to hell.

The only ultimate reason to pray for them, welcome them, plead with them, email them, eat with them, or take an interest in their interests is so that their eyes will be opened to Christ.

And not only is he the only point—he’s the only hope. When they see the wonder of Jesus, satisfaction will be redefined. He will replace the pathetic vanity of the money, or the praise of man, or the high, or the orgasm that they are staking their eternities on right now. Only his grace can draw them from their perilous pursuits and bind them safely to himself—captive, but satisfied.

He will do this for many. Be faithful and don’t give up.

**

So, do you have a son or daughter who has strayed from their faith? Have you encountered this challenge in the past and come through the darkness? What worked? What didn’t?

I’d invite you to share your reflections.

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Leave a Comment

Anonymous 5 months ago
Raising wayward children is my specialty. I am a recovering drug addict and all three of my kids r addicts too. My oldest son lives with me and he has struggled with drugs. I always let him come home and I havent stopped praying for him. I'm on the prayer team at life church and I have one of the prayer team members write him a prayer card every week. We pray everyday and I do my best to get my kids to church on Sundays. My son gave his life to Christ one Sunday and a few mths later ended up in jail on a warrant. He recommitted his life to Christ again in there. He is also fighting to get his three mth old daughter back. Her and the mom tested positive for meth. The mother lives here with us too. I do my best to love them unconditionally and we pray together every night before bed. The way I see it is, I can't give up Cuz God didn't give up on me. It hasn't been easy but with God on my side, its gonna be worth it. I hope this helps someone in this situation. Its still a back n forth struggle but its getting better.
Leslie Gunby 6 months ago

Watching a child travel a road of destruction is extremely painful.  In their grief and confusion, parents attempt to change the situation by deploying human strategies instead of relying on God.  When they fail, fear increases and the cycle continues.  Hopelessness sets in because their hope is misdirected--centered on their child's actions, instead of God.  


Satan cleverly has captured the attention of both the child and the parents.  His strategy is to immobilize God's children from doing the work God has prepared for them to do.  Why? Because it brings God glory!


The prodigal journey is as much about the parent as it is the child.  Parents need help to look away from their circumstances and focus back on God. 


God has taught me so many lessons through my journey with a prodigal.  I was stuck for many years because I didn’t have a place to share my burdens.  Thankfully, God brought my secret out of the dark.  One of the people I shared it with suggested I contact Focus on the Family for resources.  Focus told me about groups for families experiencing a similar grief (homosexuality).  Eleven years ago this month, and another state away (sadly, no group at that time in my state), I was comforted by other families who understood my pain.  A year later my husband and I began Waiting Room Ministry to help families in our state, and now, throughout the world.  We have witnessed God's transforming power in the lives of families as they discover his ways and apply his truths. Many are thriving in the midst of their difficulties because their hope is in God.  They are engaged in the battle and moving forward with the good work God has planned, and, God is glorified!


I am grateful to Focus on the Family, who faithfully points hurting families back to God and connects them to resources across the country. 


Suzy Bos 6 months ago
Just be very careful not to enable their sinful, rebellious choices. There is a very thin line between welcoming a searching, repentant child home and letting them think you are OK and even supportive of their disobedience to God's Word and the wrong choices that stem from their unbelief or rebellion against God. I know parents who have done the welcoming home thing and messed it all up to the point where they have enabled all their children to continue to live the way they want without any negative consequences. The Prodigal son was repentant and had a change of heart and wanted to go home to be his father's servant and his father was just waiting for his son to be at that point of complete loss on his own and realization of needing forgiveness. The father didn't say, while his son was still off partying and squandering his life away, "Sure, son! Come on home whenever you want! Go ahead and bring your girlfriend to Christmas and we will just pretend your life is hunky-dory and your living with her is fine with us. Oh, and I'm sending some money for the flight since you don't have a job because you're too busy doing drugs and can't keep down a steady job. Alright, see you then! Wait until you see what we got you for Christmas! We went a little overboard again this year, but just couldn't help ourselves. We just love you so much and can't wait to see you!" I have watched this lived out for years among certain families. Let me tell you, the love them home philosophy doesn't always work well. "Showing them Jesus", as this article suggested, might also including saying to them, "Go and sin no more", as Jesus did. Children who are brought up in a Christian home, and have spent the majority or all of their childhoods learning about the Lord and His Word, definitely know better and you as the parent need to stand firm on the Word of God and let them go. Yes, cover them in prayer, and meanwhile trust God's perfect timing for their lives to find their need for Him as Savior and Lord. Everyone's faith timeline is different.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Suzy, I believe you are right. The only thing I would say is that if you've never had a prodigal you have not experienced the heartache of watching them hurt themselves. It is this heartache that prompts parents of prodigals to cave in to their fears and allow their children back home. Prodigals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes so-to-speak. Some have great jobs and friends while their backs are turned toward Jesus and "party-it-up" with their friends on the weekends thinking that they don't need God. Others however, don't have jobs, or friends, are sometimes homeless, hurting, depsondent, and still, for whatever reason haven't turned to Christ yet. As a human being it is difficult enough to see anyone in this situation, how more so one's child. Please continue to give your great advice, but ask God to give you a heart of compassion, if not for the prodigals, for their parents who suffer wondering if their child will ever be safe and well.
Suzy Bos 6 months ago
First of all, I wish the "Anonymous" option wasn't possible for comments because then anyone can post and comment freely without taking responsibility for their opinions and words.  I am not ashamed or scared of stating the truth as I see it or my opinions on issues.

Secondly, I pray none of my children will ever stray from following the Lord personally, as they are now. But I was once one of the prodigals myself, and so are my 3 siblings to this day, so I can and do speak from experience how parents who are too welcoming and "too loving" can be guilty of not only confusing the wayward child, but also of enabling the child's rebellion against God and making it worse.

I have watched my parents make mistake after mistake in enabling the wrong choices and paths my siblings are still taking and the 2 years I was angry at God and went my own way.  I do have compassion and grace for all involved, since I was once one of them myself.  But it wasn't my parents' love and acceptance of my life, regardless of the negative consequences that led me to turn my life back to total submission to Christ. I gave my life to Christ, IN SPITE of their bad parenting style.

The mistakes and poor decisions of my parents' parenting which I have experienced and continue to watch them make have led my husband and myself to do many things differently with our children.

Therefore, my above warning is, once again, for parents to be very careful in how they "show Christ" to their children.  My parents have erred on the side of being "too loving", in that they are scared to stand up for God's Word in keeping their children accountable to God because they are terrified to pushing their children away even more and losing their relationship with them.  They constantly enable their children's rebellion against God by choosing to ignore and look the other way, deflect and even bury problems under the carpet so no one has to see or deal with the family's dirty laundry.

I am afraid this blog post can be taken the wrong way by such weak parents, who are scared of giving "tough love" to wayward children.  It starts at birth.  Loving, firm boundaries and discipline, suited to each child's needs and personality.  It must continue through childhood into the teen years.  When teens and young adults choose the wrong path, yes, they know exactly what they are doing.  But it is extremely important that the parents remain loving, yet firm in not enabling their child's rebellion against God.

I so desperately wanted my parents to be firm with me. To not look the other way when I was choosing bad friends, boyfriends, and unhealthy activities.  I know I would have not chosen rebellion and anger at God if my parents had had a close, loving, caring, but spiritually firm relationship with me.  I rebelled because I could.  There were no healthy boundaries for my behavior.

Parenting is the hardest job in the world.  No one does it perfectly.  Pray that the Lord will show you and help you daily maintain firm, loving boundaries and a close relationship with your child(ren) and that you will trust His perfect timing for Him to work out salvation in their lives.
Suzy Bos 6 months ago
Also, I should add that I helped raise my baby sister who is 12 years younger. When she chose a life of rebellion against God as a young teen, I felt exactly like one of her parents (for that is very much how my role was to her while she was growing up) and so I can also speak from experience on how hard it is to watch a child reject a life of following Christ...and also on how extremely painful and frustrating and worrisome it is to let them go their own way, despite many pleadings to come back to Christ.  Not come back to the family like we are OK with her rebellious life choices, but come back to a right relationship with Christ.  I know I have a very different situation than most, which has given me a very different view of the problem of a rebellious child.  I am happy for the wisdom I have gained from my experiences, for I do not want to continue in the generational mistakes of my parents and the generations of dysfunctional families before them.