The agony of loving a prodigal can be unbearable. As I’ve wept and prayed with their family and friends, they’ve taught me valuable insights. First, when someone who walked with God chooses the world instead, life can become a roller coaster. Wee hour phone calls slam you with news of arrests, overdoses or other dire circumstances. Often those with substance abuse problems steal from family and friends. Their new “friends,” are people who can’t take care of themselves, let alone anyone else. They are rarely trustworthy people and often add to the self-destructive lifestyle of your prodigal.
Secondly, your pain is intensified when your wandering soul is a parent who carries children along in their wild current. This complicates boundaries and availability. How often does one offer resources to the unstable parent, for the sake of the child? Complex questions arise in these gut-wrenching situations.
Third, there are many kinds of prodigals. Your prodigal may be a high functioning, productive member of society, yet they want nothing to do with God and his people anymore. This describes my Uncle Donald, a vice president for a large pharmaceutical corporation. He grew up in a Christian home, professed a personal faith in Christ and then turned his back on God for his entire adult life until near the end. His younger sister, my Aunt Mary Lea, chose the same spiritual path, while functioning well in society.
Fourth, parents instinctively want to blame themselves for the choices of their prodigal child, but they shouldn’t. All humans make their own choices to respond to or reject God’s grace and love extended specifically to every person, regardless of home environment. My mother and her sister, Miriam, grew up in the same home as Donald and Mary Lea. They both loved and served God their whole lives. Did my grandparents do everything wrong with Donald and Mary Lea and everything right with the other two? Doubtful.
I include my own family’s story to encourage parents who might be agonizing over their family dynamic in light of a wayward child. Franklin Graham, director of Samaritan’s Purse Ministry, son of evangelist Billy Graham, lived a wild life, until he turned 22. Franklin will tell you that Billy and Ruth Graham were amazing, godly parents. Unfortunately, some children from solid, Christian homes choose sin for a season, for reasons they don’t even fully understand. They break the hearts of everyone who loves them.
Prodigals are featured throughout scripture including the one in Jesus’ famous parable. Manasseh, king of Judah during the prophet Nahum’s season of ministry, went completely nuts for sin. Bible scholars declare him to be the most evil king in all of Israel’s history. The surprise in Manasseh’s story is that his father was Hezekiah, one of Judah’s best kings.
Manasseh’s story is a fascinating one told in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33. To summarize, he became King at the age of twelve and in early adulthood, dove into the worship of Moloch, to the point of sacrificing his own child in Moloch’s fires. Most of Israel followed him into idol worship, child sacrifice and immorality. The Bible is silent on the reasons for his descent into madness. That’s a wise example for anyone judging parents of prodigals.
Before Manasseh’s tale turns for good, it becomes much worse, for him and Israel. God loves his people too much too allow them to continue in sin without intervention. He sends the Assyrian army to brutally conquer Judah and take Manasseh away as a captive. The original Hebrew text indicates that the Assyrians pierced either his nose or his cheek with a large ring attached to a chain and led the humbled king off into captivity in chains, like a pig to market.
As horrific as this is, God cared more about the condition of Manasseh’s eternal soul than his earthly life. That’s why he sent Nahum first, then the Assyrians, when Manasseh refused to repent. The same is true of your prodigal. God may allow excruciatingly painful circumstances into the life of a wayward child to recapture their attention and their heart. During his captivity, Manasseh repented and transformed entirely. He is mysteriously returned to his throne and allowed to rule Judah until his death. The Bible gives no more details as to why the Assyrians did this but the point is that he came back as a very different king.
“He got rid of the foreign gods and removed the image from the temple of the Lord, as well as all the altars he had built on the temple hill and in Jerusalem; and he threw them out of the city. Then he restored the altar of the Lord and sacrificed fellowship offerings and thank offerings on it and told Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel” 2 Chronicles 33:15-16.
God’s grace reaches into the prodigal’s chosen pigpen, although his mercy may be severe at times, like it was for Manasseh and Judah. He loves mankind too much to allow people to choose hell as their eternal home, without allowing them a taste of it here on earth. This is where discernment, wisdom and the leading of the Spirit is critical in your relationship to a prodigal. Only God can instruct you when to help them and when to leave them to the consequences of their own poor decisions as painful as that may be. Only God can redirect a wayward heart back to himself. We serve as prayer warriors against the dark kingdom and as lighthouses on their journey home.
The fifth thing prodigal’s families taught me is not to try and get in between them and their destructive relationships, without a clear directive from God. Although our intentions are to rescue, they are usually not perceived that way. We may find ourselves cut off from our loved one entirely. Take comfort that God sees all evil doers and will deal with them himself. The entire book of Nahum is a judgement against Assyria, for conquering Judah, even though Manasseh and the kingdom were steeped in sin. Read the short book to see how God feels and behaves towards those who mess with his children, even wayward ones.
I’ve watched the endless power of God’s love and provision towards those who love a prodigal. He supplies comfort when everything turns sideways. He grants discernment to determine when to intervene and when to stand back. He sends the Holy Spirit to groan with them during prayer times and weep with them when there seems to be no change of heart in their loved one. He understands our situations intimately and He cares deeply. He is always a source of hope in hopeless situations.