Prodigal Children (Part 3) – Helping Parents

Prodigal children. They seem to be more plentiful these days. Time after time I am seeing children from solid Christian homes rupture their relationships with their family and the God who loves them. They are not just leaving for a couple months. Many of them have been gone for years. The broken hearted parents are struggling to have hope their prodigal will ever return.

A prodigal can sap all the energy from a family. Their misdeeds are emotionally and financially draining. The physical toll on parents can also be substantial. The stress can cause physical illness.

How do we respond? How should we respond? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Don’t quote Proverbs 22:6 to them. I don’t know how many times people told me. “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” They meant it as an encouragement. ( I hope) What I heard was an accusation. “I must not have done it right.” You need to remember that Proverbs is not a book of promises. Proverbs is a book of life principles. It consists of guidelines for wise living. There are many promises in scripture. Proverbs 22:6 is not one of them.
  2. Don’t tell them you know their child will turn around. They just need to be patient. The hard reality is you don’t know if they will. There are prodigals in my own family who never did come to faith. Certainly the hope is there, but some prodigals never repent. Our job is to pray that they do, but we can’t promise someone they will.
  3. Do ask the parents how they are coping. Often there is concern for the child in trouble when the parents are the ones who are bearing the brunt of all that is going on.
  4. Tell the parents you are praying for them and for their child. Don’t ask a lot of questions. Most parents would rather not review the latest trouble with you. If you ask them they will either answer “fine” (which isn’t true), answer vaguely or won’t answer at all.
  5. Give them an opportunity to tell you what their latest struggles are, but don’t ask them a lot of questions. Don’t be offended by silence. They simply might be unable to vocalize the trouble to you. Just that you brought it up can be a comfort to them.
  6. Listen when they talk about their child. That they are talking at all is good. I once had a woman ask me how I was doing. When I told her “It’s been a very bad week” she responded by nodding her head, turning around and walking away. She never asked me that question again.
  7. If they have to meet with law enforcement or their child has to go to court, offer to go with them. To have a familiar friend sitting beside you can be the difference between hope and despair.
  8. Tell them you are sorry. They are grieving the loss of their hopes and dreams for their child. Grieving what might have been. They need to know that others are grieving with them.
  9. Don’t be afraid to cry with them. I once had a friend who lived in another town call to ask how I was doing. When I told her the awful things that were going on she didn’t offer advice, she wept with me. Those tears are still precious to me.
  10. Don’t make a point of telling them how well your children are doing, or how proud you are of each one. If they do ask about your children, however, tell them the truth. When I was going through the worst of it with one of my children I often called a friend with charming children. I would start the conversation with, “I need to hear about some kids that are doing well.” I mean it, but I was the one to ask. She never brought it up.
  11. Don’t tell them what they did wrong. Most people who give advice have no idea what parents are going through. They see a very different picture in public from what goes on at home. Prodigals tend to be very charming with the outside world. They also are very good at twisting reality. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with a nineteen year old who was explaining to me what we were doing wrong. I responded with one or two comments and then silently listened. He obviously believed one side and I didn’t have the strength to explain it all to him. Thankfully he left after about 30 minutes.
  12. Continue to include them in things. They feel isolated already. They assume people don’t want to be around them. Even if they decline your invitation, they will be thankful that you thought of them.
  13. Above all, pray for them. Pray that they wouldn’t become utterly discouraged. Pray that their focus would shift from their own lack to God’s amazing grace. Pray that their child would turn their heart back to the God who loves them and the family that longs for reconciliation. Pray for the family as they go through some of the hardest days, months or years they will ever know. Pray that they would learn day by day to cling to the God who loves them in spite of their imperfect parenting skills. Most importantly, pray that their joy would be found in God alone, not in their children.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:10-12, 15, 16 NASB)

When Miracles Don’t Happen

It has been a difficult decade. There have been many sleepless nights. There have been many tears. I have prayed believing. I have prayed even though I didn’t believe. I have prayed when i didn’t feel like praying. My prayers have been whispered, spoken and shouted. They have been written down on my laptop, leather journals and scraps of paper. Often my prayers have been wordless. Having said all I could think of to say I left the words to the Holy Spirit who promises to “intercede for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

We are instructed to pray, and yet what is our response when we don’t see an answer? We want to hear about the miracles and the happy endings. We don’t want to hear about the financial struggles, the sexual abuse, people dying of cancer, prodigal children or broken families. The church speaks loudly in its silence. Like Job’s silent friends who sat and watched. (Job 2:11-15) When they finally did speak it was to blame Job for the trouble he was in. (Job 4 etc.)

We delight to look at Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. It is full of miracles. God doing great things through ordinary people because of their faith. The words “by faith” are used 19 times in that chapter. But there are others mentioned in verses 35-38 that we tend to ignore. They were tortured, stoned, sawn in two, put to death etc. They were not living the miracle life. Their situation was more of a nightmare variety, but in verse 39 it says “all these, having gained approval through their faith…”

I was startled when I read Genesis 15 the other day. It records a conversation Abraham had with God. God was again repeating his covenant promises to Abraham. Then comes verse 13. God wanted Abraham to know something…to know for certain…

Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”

That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing anyone would want to know for certain. Yet, I believe that we need to know for certain that life will be hard. Things won’t always go as we planned. Sin will continue to corrupt this world and our lives. We need to prepare for the ugly in our life so we don’t loose our hope. Someday it will be different. Someday the trouble we have gone through will be over. The trouble is not an indication of our lack of faith. The trouble is not an indication that God is mad at us.

The good news is we have a God who promises to always be with us in the midst of that trouble (Matthew 28:20; John 16:33) As we learn to cling to Him we understand His worth. He is a God that walks through the darkest of nights with us. I believe that those dark nights reveal more to us about who He is than the perfect ordered life, we long for, ever could.

So the next time you hear people talking about the miracles in their life remember that God often does the most amazing miracles in the dark. Some of us will have to wait until we get to heaven to see the miracles revealed, that we so longed for on earth.

(Originally posted January 5, 2015 at Lytroo Retreat.)