This article by Mark E. Shaw, D.Min., originally appeared on The Biblical Counseling Coalition November 15, 2017. It has been reposted with permission.
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 passages 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 younger son gathers everything his father gives him and moves as far away from the father as possible. That’s painful. That’s an opportunity to feel 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 painful. In fact, it is a pain that is never completely alleviated until there is true repentance by the child. 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, or the religion of secular humanism, sins of an addictive nature, sexual sin, and more, all of which are direct rejection of the parents’ values and ultimately a rejection of God’s biblical truths.
Some Christian parents I have counseled have been grief stricken and confused because of erroneous thinking. They have thought that because they raised the child in a godly home, with the Scriptures present and the Holy Spirit present in their own lives, that they were somehow guaranteed to see the fruit of repentance and eternal life in their offspring. I have heard a Christian parent verbalize their past sinful erroneous thinking this way: “My child will be raised in a God-fearing home, and they will have the Scriptures that I never had as a child, therefore, surely they will ultimately be saved… or at least have a better chance at salvation, right?” 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.
Mercy Me’s new song Even If comes to mind.
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.
Other Christian parents sink into despair with wrong thinking that they must have done something wrong, pushing 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 in need of God’s saving grace (Rom 3:23, 6:23). That’s our hope! That’s our child’s hope as well! While some parents can be overly critical and poor examples which impacts a child’s thinking, (and yes, we are responsible for repenting of our own sin before God and others) the reality is that the children in these homes will still need a Savior. No parent can “push a child farther away from God” because children are born in sin and as far away from God as is humanly possible until they are born again (John 3:3, 16-18). The range of sinful expression varies greatly. But, the truth remains.
We all need God’s amazing grace.
Parents should do their best biblical parenting 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. Poor parenting fails to glorify God when left alone without repentance of the parents, but it doesn’t negate God’s ability to save a child. Excellent biblical parenting skills glorify God more often if done in and for the glory of God, but still don’t guarantee a child will be saved eternally. God is still 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 so 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). I strongly urge you to listen to all 4 sermons in Pastor Bigney’s series because each one builds upon the truths in the others. Biblical counselors may find that these can be given as biblical counseling homework assignments along with writing down truths gleaned from them as they listen.
- Finally, it’s exciting and encouraging to see that in June of 2018, an entire conference will be dedicated to helping those who have prodigals in their lives. 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.”
Parenting a prodigal son or daughter is a very difficult time. Seek out biblical resources near you. There are lots of biblical parenting resources within the BCC world. They are available. I caution you not to attempt to go through these waters alone. You could even go right now to the search bar at the top of this BCC page you are viewing and simply type in the word “parenting” for a plethora of sound resources within the blogs. We live in a great age for information, don’t we? But don’t go it alone. We have the people relational resources within the Body of Christ.
How encouraging it is to hear is a testimony of a son or daughter repenting and then also being in a right relationship with the parents! This does happen though it is not guaranteed. Just recently, a son told me that he treated his mother in awful ways before he repented, but some time after he had repented he called her at 2 a.m. just to specifically ask her to forgive him. That phone call marked a change in his life that continues now even several years later. Earthly relationships sometimes get restored. There is hope.
I counsel parents of prodigals to never give up hope for true repentance as long as there is life breath in them. Ask the Lord to send messengers of the Gospel across the path of your prodigal. Never giving up might not mean endorsing the sinful behavior of the child. Also, it may mean the parent still says “no” to certain means of support at times (i.e. financial), but praying and trusting in God is possible whether God chooses to lead the child to repentance or not. Each situation is different, so Gospel-oriented, biblical counsel is such a valuable necessity in this time.
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)
One final warning to the parent regards focus. Parents cannot allow the child’s repentance to be the center of their universe meaning they cannot focus every thought of every day on that desire. At some point, parents must learn to trust in God by focusing their thoughts on Him and serving Him regardless of the outcomes for their children. I have seen too many parents become consumed with each of the new behaviors that their child exhibits. If it’s viewed as a bad behavior, it’s devastating today. If today there was a so-called “good” behavior then it’s a good day. The bad ones devastate them while the “good” ones lead to false hope that the child might now be repentant. What an unnecessary roller coaster ride. Put your hope in the One who is in control because you aren’t, and find rest for your soul. (Matt. 11:29) I say that with all tenderness in my heart. I know you want off that emotional ride.
A repentant child will show obvious signs of a growing and repentant heart attitude (remember the younger prodigals’ thoughts in the parable?) The Bible sheds light on what true repentance looks like. Parents desperate for repentance can jump too soon when a child sends a nice text message thinking it is genuine repentance when it is a “good” sign but not true repentance. Guard your heart in such cases.
Christ Jesus is growing us daily. We are to focus on how we ourselves can use this parenting trial as an opportunity to become more like Christ while praying, waiting, and hoping for a prodigal to repent. Practical biblical help is available in the form of solid biblical resources within the Body of Christ to encourage you during these challenging situations. Take heart in the never changing truth that God will exercise His sovereign will as He deems best and that His plan is good and for His own glory.
Previously posted on the Biblical Counseling Coalition November 15, 2017, by Mark E. Shaw.