This is a topic I have wanted to preach on for years, but I have not known how to. You see, I am aware that many Christians feel great pain about children who seem to have walked away from the faith. Indeed, it might not be one of your children who is prodigal—maybe your husband or wife has lost all interest in Jesus; maybe it is a brother or sister that you weep over; or even a parent. I have not known how to speak into your pain. I don’t want to naively promise you that everything is bound to turn out all right, and yet I am desperate to encourage you not to give up hoping, loving and praying.
If you are the parent of a prodigal you are in good company. I was reading Billy Graham’s autobiography when I was struck by how his son, Franklin, had left his childhood faith to chase after women and drugs. More significantly, you stand alongside the gracious father in this parable, a man who pictures the Father-heart of God.
I don’t want you to feel shame about the fact that your child does not love Jesus. Not that you haven’t made mistakes! Indeed, your child may point to you as the reason that they consider Christianity unattractive. Jack and Rosie Miller write of the fact that they spent so much time focusing on their daughter’s outward behaviour—that she would conform to the image of a Christian girl—that they forgot about her heart. However, shame has no place in the Christian life—you are an accepted, forgiven and adored child of God. The truth is that all have messed up in countless ways as parents, whether or children love God or not. Indeed, if you sit here, the parent of children who love the Lord, don’t think you have reason to boast or look down on the parents of prodigals—it was grace that saved your children; it was God’s work not yours; and he did that work in spite of all the ways you got it wrong as a parent.
What is a prodigal? I heard a great description of a prodigal being someone for whom the good news has stopped being good news. Like the younger son they have departed to find their pleasure somewhere other than with his. However, remember that there are two lost children in this story. The older brother may not have been lavish in wastefulness, but he was proud and self-righteous, and he didn’t care about his father’s love. You could have a child who is respectable in every way, but whose idol is their own self-worth, and who does not realise how sinful it is to spurn the forgiving love of God.
We read that the younger son ended up in dire straits. ‘There was a severe famine … and he began to be in need.’ While this son was partying, he gave no thought to his father or his home. It was only when he was reduced to the pigsty that he began to realise how foolish he was. Many people come to faith during times of crisis. It is natural that you want your child to be happy; but God may need to make them miserable to wake them up. Ask God to do whatever it takes to grab their attention. Your prodigal may need to be deserted by friends and brought to a place where they feel utterly alone. They may need to experience failure and loss. Pray that they would come to their senses quickly and not experience more pain than they need.
Bryan Chapell tells the story of a sincere mother who once told him that she did not want to pray that God would do whatever was necessary to cause her son to lean of Jesus because she feared the pain God would have to bring into his life to turn him from sin. Sadly, because the son did not turn from sin, the pain he caused his family crushed them all.
Pray that God would enable them to think clearly. ‘He came to his senses.’ Spurgeon writes, ‘That young man went from his home, though it was the best home in the world … It was a happy home … yet he quits it to go, he knows not where, among strangers who don’t give a straw for him and who, when they had drained his purse, would not give him even a penny with which to buy bread to save him from starving!’ ‘The most reasonable thing in the world is to spend life for its true design and not to fling it away as though it were a pebble on the seashore.’
There is a madness is being a prodigal. The young woman wanted the comfort of being touched so she went to bed with her lovers; but they weren’t lovers, they didn’t care about her, and she ended up feeling alone and used. The young man wanted fun, so he partied all night; but he couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness. The older son wanted to show his worth by making the team, and somewhere along the way, as he strove towards that goal, the way his life stopped being centred on God. The older daughter spent all her time trying to make the grade, but when she got her results she thought, ‘there must be more than this!’
There is more than that! Pray that God would remind them of his abundant provisions. ‘How many of my father’s hired men have bread enough to spare, and I am starving to death.’ Spurgeon says that ‘bread enough to spare’ might be taken as the motto for the gospel.
Don’t try to nag them to come home to God. Nagging gives the impression that coming to God is some sort of joyless obligation. Don’t try to shame them into coming home—telling them how disappointed his mother would be with him, for that will not change his heart and cause him to rejoice in God. Pray for them, and also for your own soul, so that they might see the beauty and satisfaction that God can bring to life. He has bread enough to spare, and he is lavish in grace and goodness. Ask God to produce such joyful godliness in you that they might see that life in Christ is something to be treasured.
However, don’t fake it—as if you are always happy. Read the psalms and you will see that God’s people often struggle in hard times. Your prodigal will see through you if you are acting. Instead, let them realise that God’s people hold on to him even when life is hard, and that his presence comforts them even as they grieve.
‘I’ll set out and go back to my father.’ You don’t want them to simply become a respectable pagan. You want them to come to the heavenly Father. I wonder if that young man remembered how kind his father was. Pray that they would not have a skewed vision of God. Some fail to see the holiness of God and don’t see that they will face his judgement if they don’t repent. Others, however, ‘imagine God to be a severe being, angry and fierce, very easily to be moved to wrath, but not so easy to be induced to love’ (Spurgeon). They might see him as indifferent and uncaring. Let the gospel you share with them be the good news of the cross—where wrath and mercy meet, and divine love is supremely demonstrated.
I will say, “I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am not worthy to be your son.’ This is one of the most important things your prodigal needs to realise. There is no true faith in Christ without an awareness of being spiritually bankrupt. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict them of sin. Ask the Holy Spirit to give them the godly sorrow that leads to repentance. This may be most difficult for your child to understand if they have built their identity of respectability. We live in a society that does not realise that the vilest thing any person can do is spurn the love of God. Pray that they would discover that while they are more sinful than they ever realised, they are more loved than they dared dream.
John Piper is a famous pastor in America. When his son, Abraham, was nineteen, he stopped pretending that he followed Jesus. Abraham writes, ‘At first I pretended that my reasoning was high-minded and philosophical. But really I just wanted to drink gallons of cheap sangria and sleep around. Four years of this and I was strung out, stupefied and generally pretty low; especially when I was sober and alone.’
‘My parents, who are strong believers and who raised their kids as well as any parents I’ve ever seen, were heartbroken and baffled.’
But one morning he received an email from a girl that mentioned a verse from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. So, with beer in hand, he started reading. By the time he got to the tenth chapter, the beer was finished, and he had become a Christian. ‘The best way I know to describe what happened to me that morning is that God made it possible for me to love Jesus. When he makes this possible, and at the same time gives you a glimpse of the true wonder of Jesus, it is impossible to resist his call.’
Looking back on his years of rejecting Christ, he offers some advice to those who are trying to reach out to their wayward children. He says, ‘your rebellious child’s real problem is not drugs or sex … The real problem is that your child does not see Jesus clearly … The best thing you can do for your rebellious children … is to show them Christ … the goal is not that they will be good kids again … The ultimate reason to pray for them … is so that their eyes will be opened to Jesus Christ … when they see the wonder of Jesus, satisfaction will be redefined ... Only His grace can draw them from their perilous pursuits and bind them safely to Him—captive but satisfied. God will do this for many. Be faithful and don’t give up.’