Help For Parents Of Spiritual Prodigals

By Peter Lord

This Saturday morning in the spring of 1971 started as so many others had, with our family at different stages of wakefulness. Saturday at the Lord house was a day for sleeping late, family togetherness and
catching up on household jobs.

Susan, our 18-year-old daughter, was eating breakfast. My wife, Johnnie, and 10-year-old Ruth Ann were getting dressed. Richard, 19, and John, then a baby, were still in bed. Jimmy had not yet joined our

As I prepared to do some chores, a knock sounded at the door. I answered and found Bill, our church’s minister of youth and music, standing there.

“I need to talk to you and Johnnie,” he said quietly.

I called Johnnie, and we invited Bill into the living room and sat down, a bit puzzled by his serious expression.

“Has Richard talked to you?” Bill asked.

“No,” we replied. “What about?”

Instead of answering, Bill asked, “Is Richard around? I’d really like him to be here while we talk.”

It took a few minutes to get Richard out of bed, but finally all four of us were seated in the living room together.

Then Bill said, “I gave Richard a week to tell you something, and told him if he had not done so by today I would come and speak to you.”

Bill was about to drop a bomb on us, a bomb that would change our lives forever, especially our relationships with God and each member of our family.

“Richard is on drugs,” he said simply.

Richard, our eldest child, had been elected the most popular boy in his graduating class in high school. He had always been a nice, easygoing fellow. We were sorry he had dropped out of junior college, but he
seemed happy working at a local men’s clothing store.

Our Richard on drugs? The shock was heightened by the terrible stories we had heard about drug users – the life-threatening risks and the sullen attitude of rebellion. And I was a pastor, a leader in the
church and community. What would our congregation say? Would the members still want me as pastor if I was a failure as a parent? Worst of all, had I failed Richard?

All these questions raced through my mind as Bill excused himself and left our family to struggle with this devastating situation.

Then I did the only thing I knew to do: I issued an ultimatum.

“Richard, you must promise to stop this now or you will have to leave home. We cannot allow you to stay and deliberately break the law of the land, of this house and of God.” Both Johnnie and I told him how much we loved him, and we promised to do all we could to help him.

It seemed like a lifetime, but only a few minutes passed before Richard replied. “I can’t promise you I’ll break with my friends and quit drugs,” he said, “so I guess I’ll leave.”

A scene followed that caused as much sorrow as I had ever known to that point in my life. As Richard moved all his belongings into his old car, everyone wept, even little John.

I couldn’t have been any sadder at that moment if an ambulance crew had been taking away my son’s dead body. This was a living death. Fear filled my heart, and Johnnie’s as well, as our imaginations ran wild.

Where was Richard going?
What would happen next?
What could we do?

As Richard’s worn Plymouth pulled out of the driveway, a new day began at our house.

Like other Christian parents who have experienced the pain of seeing a child reject faith and family, our initial response was doubt and confusion. But through our experience as parents of a “prodigal” son,
we learned to keep the doors open and to trust in the heavenly Father’s plan for recovering lost children. Though each situation is unique, our experience with Richard and our other children have taught us Bible-based answers for helping parents and children move from rejection to redemption.

Seeking God

Immediately after Richard left, Johnnie went into our bedroom. As she told me later, she cried out to God, “0 Father, my son is gone! What shall I do?”

God is faithful and practical. He answered Johnnie’s prayer by speaking these words to her heart: You have a responsibility to teach Sunday school tomorrow. Do that, then come aside on Monday so we can spend time together.

On Monday Johnnie packed her bags, informing me she wouldn’t be back until she had a word from God about the situation. She headed for a motel where she could be alone.

Johnnie had suffered a faith-crisis in the mid-19505. The resulting nervous breakdown, caused by years of struggling to live a Christian life in her own strength, had prepared her for this moment. Her
encounters with God then and since had taught her that while she was weak and needy, Jesus Christ was adequate for the situation. Moreover, she realized she needed to hear from God to know how to respond to Richard’s needs.

I knew these things too, but my knowledge wasn’t born of experience as Johnnie’s was. She was way ahead of me in the area of listening to-and obeying-the Spirit’s leading. So I knew I could trust what God would say to her.

Johnnie’s obedient action demonstrates four lessons that are foundational for parents who long to hear a word from God about their children.

1. Make Jesus your first choice. Before doing anything else, Johnnie turned to God for help and guidance. In times of crisis we need to make the Lord our first choice and not our last chance. We often try everything and everyone else and then in desperation go to Him. What does that say about the depth of our trust?

God is exalted when we seek His advice and help first-not waiting until we’ve exhausted all human means. Remember, He is the ultimate expert on our children; as well as on everything else in this world. When we turn first to Him, we avoid the temptation to react out of shock or anger, which will only make a bad situation worse.

2. Give God your full attention. Is it always necessary to pull aside as Johnnie did in order to hear God? No, but some situations are so grave they cannot be dealt with casually. We must be prepared to take
whatever time and means are required to get a word from God on which to base our faith.

While it is true that we can contact our Lord in the midst of a busy schedule, sometimes we need to get away from it all. When we have a physical crisis, we stop all regular activities until it’s over. Why not do the same when we have a spiritual problem?

3. Don’t rush God. Notice that God didn’t instruct Johnnie to race around frantically, find a substitute for her Sunday school class and throw clothes into a suitcase so she could drive to the motel that
Saturday night. Notice also that she didn’t require Him to give her a word regarding Richard within a specified amount of time. That’s why she told me, “I won’t be back until God speaks to me in some way.”

Johnnie was learning that she couldn’t hurry God, that she must wait until He wanted to speak. Our Father isn’t reluctant to help, but He knows we tend to use Him to get what we want and then leave Him until we need Him again. Using people is detrimental to any relationship and ultimately leads to the destruction of intimacy.

God desires fellowship with us. In fact, I believe that He sometimes doesn’t answer right away just because He wants to spend time with us.

4. Let God work on you, too. As Johnnie waited on God, she was willing for Him to address sin and problems in her own life. God often wants to deal with our part in a crisis, the things we did wrong because we were wrong. No situation is ever completely the fault of one person, and the sure way not to solve it is to place all the blame on the other party.

Our Lord wants to correct faulty thinking, heal damaged and destructive emotions, refresh our spirits, and strengthen faith, hope and love in our lives, as well as answer the requests of our hearts.

Hearing God’s Word

Prayer is really a conversation with your heavenly Father and includes listening as well as talking. God isn’t impressed by vain repetitions or much speaking (Matt. 6:7-8), but He is very interested in His
children’s sincere cries for help.

When we seek God’ s guidance about a wayward child, we must start by opening our hearts to Him. We should tell Him the burden we have for our child and then silently listen. How can He speak unless we stop talking and give Him a chance?

God will answer with the specific word of encouragement and instruction you need for a particular circumstance. His answer may not be what you want or expect, but it will be the right place to begin dealing with your situation.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit makes a certain verse of Scripture come alive, as if we had never seen it before. Sometimes He whispers a word based on some principle from the Bible. God’s Word says: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, NASB). When we ask for God’s wisdom, His Spirit will never lead us astray.

As Johnnie listened for God in that motel room, the Holy Spirit spoke in the quiet of her heart: Richard is coming back, but I’m not going to tell you when or how.

With this word of faith, our journey began. As we prayed and cooperated with God toward its fulfillment, we faced many difficult days, but we had His promise to cling to. Having received the word of faith, it was time to enter the walk of faith.

Standing on the Promises

A major principle God teaches us in the walk of faith is to stand on the promises He gives for our children, and not to base our attitudes and actions on what they are doing and saying. Faith is a walk based on what He has said, not on what we see.

In dealing with human beings, God works from the inside out. He may be working on the inside of your child or mine-in his character, in her heart. Since these are places and works we cannot see, we have no idea what is going on. Can you trust God to keep His word even when you can’t see any changes? This is a critical challenge.

It may help to remember that until there’s a fundamental change inside a person there’s really no change at all. Inward changes bring about a permanent work.

The condition of the inner life always precedes the expression of the outer life.

If we concentrate on the outward appearance, we will have wrong reactions. When we see no outward conflict or rebellion, we might assume all is well and become careless about trusting God to continue
His work. On the other hand, when we see open sin, we might react in anger or fear, and try to take matters into our own hands. This will hinder God’s work.

So you should take your eyes off your wayward child’s behavior and focus instead on God’s promises, looking for Him to fulfill the word of faith He gave you. But what do you do in the meantime?

Some Tips for the Journey

God has individual lessons to teach each parent on the walk of faith. Johnnie’s lessons were not for me, nor were mine for Johnnie. But we did pick up several principles that can apply to everyone.

1. Keep relationships strong. The devil likes to lure us into neglecting our relationships with God and our families. His plan is to separate us from God and each other and to make us spiritually weak. Then, when he launches a major attack, we are unable to resist in a Christlike way.

Our ungodly reactions or strained relations make bad situations worse. Estranged from grace, and weak in faith and love, we do not respond as followers of Jesus should.

I remember hearing Korean pastor David Yonggi Cho tell how he became so involved in ministry that his relationship with God deteriorated. One day he received a message that his son was dying of food poisoning. He rushed home and began to pray, only to find he had drifted from intimacy with God. It took him six hours of concentration and confession to be able to pray effectively for his son.

If you sense that you are drifting from God or your family, take action to restore any deteriorating relationships. Don’t let the devil capitalize on your weakness.

2. Pray out of faith, not fear. Fear drives us, and driven people are too caught up in their own inner turmoil to relate to God.

When we confronted Richard about his drug use and he chose to move out of our home, we were scared stiff about what could happen to him. It was bad enough that he was gone. But where he had moved-to live with a group of hippies-was worse!

Once Johnnie received the word of faith about Richard, however, we had to learn to pray out of faith, not fear.

For example, after Richard left home, I prayed repeatedly, “Father, do anything to Richard to bring him back except put him in jail.” One day God said to me, Why don’t you want him in jail?

I gave what I thought was the obvious answer. “Father, it would ruin his life!” To my surprise God asked again, Why don’t you want him in jail?

Now, I know that when God asks a question a second time, it’s because my first answer wasn’t honest. So I examined my response and said, “To tell You the truth, if Richard ended up in jail his name would be in the papers. We live in a small town, and the press loves to publish anything bad about ministers. Then what would people think about us?”

God answered kindly, You see, your problem is one of pride.

I realized then that I was less concerned about how jail would affect Richard’s life than I was fearful of having my name dragged through the dust.

Fear blocks us from seeing the root issues that God needs to deal with. When we learn to abandon fear and pray out of faith, the Holy Spirit can continue His work of redemption.

3. Don’t hide your problems out of pride. In years of helping people with family problems, I’ve observed that they almost always want a pastor to promise not to tell anybody. Confidentiality isn’t the issue.
The issue is that we like to hide our problems to protect our pride. And pride, like fear, blocks relationships.

Johnnie and I are fortunate because God gave us a congregation that allows us to take off our masks. We can tell them when and where and how we’re hurting. We know that, instead of using our problem against us, they will pray and support us.

You shouldn’t broadcast your difficulties with your children. But sharing with a pastor, close friends at church or a support group opens the way for the Holy Spirit to speak through them to you. In addition,
the lessons the Holy Spirit teaches you may bless someone else.

The Walk of Faith

When our child is far from God, the walk of faith isn’t always easy. But the difficulty of the spiritual journey doesn’t negate the fact that God loves both parents and children with a tender, patient love.

God was using the situation with our son Richard to get our attention and bring us to greater Christian maturity. Through-out the process, He was correcting our faults and giving us a deeper understanding of our relationship with Him. As we trusted Him on the walk of faith, His presence and teaching sweetened even the bitter pill of watching our child stray.

Throughout the spring of 1971 and on into 1972, Richard was on drugs and not giving a single indication that he wanted to change. But Johnnie and I had received a word of faith from our heavenly Father
that someday Richard would be fine. And we would not let go until our son’s salvation became a reality.

(The above information was published by CHARISMA, May 1993)

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