Many Christian parents have had the sad experience of seeing a covenant child grow up and wander from the faith. To see one whom you joyfully brought into the world, baptized in the name of the Triune God, sacrificed in love to nurture and provide for, and trained to love Christ and His church, grow up only to reject his inheritance for the pottage of this world is a tragedy whose grief is carried daily by godly parents.
If the Apostle John said that he had no greater joy than seeing his children walking with the Lord (III John 4), then certainly there is no greater sadness than to see a young person walk away from Him.
Without going into all the questions this issue raises in such areas as parental guilt and responsibility, church discipline, election, etc., what exactly should be the response of parents and those in fellowship with them that are thrust into this unwanted situation of having a prodigal? It begins with taking hope in knowing that the story of the Bible is one of God pursuing His wayward people. Just recently the words of Isaiah 29:22-24 were brought to my attention.
Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: “Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.”
What a wonderful promise God makes here and other places in Scripture! Through generations of time He has been faithful to redeem straying covenant children. So how do we actively lay hold of this promise? Here are some suggestions.
Pray these promises. That is what they are in the Bible for!
Make the pursuit a team effort. Too often parents feel the shame a prodigal child’s behavior brings to them. It is compounded when others in the church, sensing that shame, draw back from them instead of drawing near to them. The congregation needs to remember that the child is not just lost to the parents but to Christ and the church. Thus, those in the congregation that have vowed to help other parents raise their children in God’s fear need to get involved in helping pursue the prodigal. Praying and reaching out in the ways encouraged below that seek the reclamation of the wandering young adult should be done, according to relationship and ability, by all in the church.
Work with the parents & support them in their grief. When someone else’s child strays, it is easy to let our own familial pride and a judgmental spirit well up in our souls as we whisper to others in the church the reasons we see for why this happened. Perhaps parental sins of commission or omission were a contributing factor, for who among us is a perfect parent? If this is indeed the case, the parents will need more support, not less, because of their own guilt as their wayward child is being pursued. And if the perfect Father put a perfect child of His in a perfect garden, and even he rebelled, then what guarantee do we have that a prodigal could not arise from the best of parents? Parents of prodigals need words of encouragement, acts of kindness, and reminders of promises and prayers during this time. “A foolish son brings grief to his mother.” Like a funeral that never seems to end, the parent of a prodigal carries a pain that cannot abate until the child returns to Jesus.
Go repeatedly to the wandering young person. Though the prodigal will distance himself from the church and likely blame it for such things as hypocrisy, legalism, and lack of love, the parents and the congregation should not allow the prodigal to become a successful “prophet” with these remarks by withdrawing from him. Instead, in the early and ongoing stages of his separation, people in the church should act as “hounds of heaven” and make contact with the prodigal through visits, calls, and texts in order to check on him, express concern, and remind him of their prayers.
Bring heartfelt, covenant memories before him. So often in Scripture, when the Lord was pursuing Israel, He would recount His history with them. He would use His prophets to remind them of how He had come to their forefathers, rescued them from Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and given them the Promised Land. Similarly, in speaking to a prodigal it can be powerful to remind him of good times together, ways that God made Himself know to him earlier in his life, and the love and affection you and the Lord still have for him. Prodigals have to suppress the truth in unrighteousness to try to forget the faithfulness of the Lord. Let us not let them do this easily.
“Grab him by his baptism.” This is how the godly Puritan father of Matthew Henry described his discipline of his children, as grabbing them by their baptism. He understood that baptism placed the name and calling of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit on his children. So he viewed correction of sinful behavior as his covenantal duty to reclaim them for Christ. In like manner, regardless of the depth of sin into which a young person may have fallen, our efforts should be toward calling to him as a believer to return wholeheartedly to the Lord. Do not prematurely start referring to him as an unbeliever. As the Scriptures show, Christians can do some pretty awful things in their disobedience.
Practice the long-suffering of the Lord. Remember that our God revealed Himself as being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). In representing Him to the prodigal, we must likewise show great patience and a willingness to wait between periods of confrontation. I have seen people confronted with sin appear unmoved, but then days and even weeks later suddenly break due to the kindness, patience, and love they were being shown by the parties confronting them.
Work carefully through the stages of official church discipline. Though again this post is not a treatise on Matthew 18:15-20, the church at the proper times should use acts of official discipline on covenant youth if their sin and separation are serious enough to warrant it. Arguments against using discipline on teenagers or young adults are usually emotionally based, often are covering a neglect of duty, and deny the truth that “the Lord disciplines the one He loves” (see Hebrews 12:5-6). The elders should walk the parents through each step as they take it, and hopefully win their support in so doing. Every care should be taken to be discreet insofar as possible, so the prodigal knows reclamation is the goal. Yet certain cases may make confidentiality ultimately impossible.
If excommunication occurs, let him feel the consequences but keep before him the steps of return. A young person put out of the church, though he is being told his behavior warrants being treated as an unbeliever, should still be the subject of long term prayers and intentional outreach pursuits. He should not be told that the pronouncement of excommunication is an eternal one but a warning of his eternal fate if he continues in his current lifestyle. If interactions take place or he shows signs of wanting to return, the steps should be clearly laid out before him as to what would be expected in order to be restored.
Keep remembering the story is not over as long as your child is alive. Who knows if the pain someone is in right now over a prodigal child is not just the middle chapter in their son or daughter’s life story? In the famous story of the prodigal son that Jesus told, the father spent his days looking at the horizon awaiting the return of his son. We should have that spirit, clinging hopefully to the mercies of the Lord that the day will come when we can likewise proclaim, “Let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”