Dealing With the Pain of a Prodigal

Jacob’s friends are sitting in the car, honking the horn, and yelling obnoxiously, “come on Jacob, let’s go! You don’t need that garbage anymore.” 

Jacob stands literally on the threshold of the home where he has grown up, his bags under one arm, his other arm around his crying mother. Dad is in the foyer, his hands on his hips, with a look that shares anger and hurt. You KNOW this is wrong, Jacob. You’re going to get yourself killed with those crazy people. “They’re not crazy, they’re my friends.”

Jacob pulls away from his mother, gives his father one last desperate glance, and races—as unsure of himself as he’s ever been, but unable to stop—toward his carload of buddies. “The rules at home choke me,” he thinks as he throws his stuff in the trunk.  “I’ve got to make my own way, I can’t be what they want me to be.”

Jacob jumps in the back seat. “All right! Good move,” Jacob’s new friend, Brian says as he pulls a beer out of the bag. “This one is on me.” And they drive away.

I’ve heard thousands of stories like these over three decades of working with parents around the world. Routinely parents ask questions like this one: “We have listened to you and others teach parenting from God’s Word…while we haven’t been perfect parents, we certainly have been genuine in modeling our faith and applying Biblical principles for parenting. Yet, we have a child who is rebelling in major ways and has walked away from his or her faith in Christ?”  They usually continue with this final question: “What about God’s promise in Proverbs 22:6?” One of the most misunderstood references in God’s Word is Proverbs 22:6. It reads, “Train up a child in the way he ought to go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

This verse has been misunderstood for two reasons:

1. Proverbs is a book of wisdom expressed in the form of probabilities. When we do A and B…C is the natural result. Proverbs 22:6 is a probability, not an ironclad promise. It means that when parents train up their children in the way they ought to go, that overwhelmingly, 95 times out of a hundred, when their children are old they will not depart from their heritage. Were Proverbs 22:6 a promise, then our children would have no choice in responding to the claims of Christ and choosing to win in life. Their future would be entirely determined by the great choices of an amazing set of parents.  

2. Proverbs 22:6 says, “…when they are old…” Most teenagers and young adults go through a period of questioning and even rebellion. In many cases, this period of questioning results in their childhood beliefs becoming their own faith. God can use poor decisions to teach lessons at any stage of life. Many young adults emerge from rebellion knowing their belief in God is no longer based on their parents, but on genuine faith.   

If you have a prodigal and feel like you have failed as a parent, please remember the rest of the story is yet to be written. Just think---Dr. Billy Graham experienced the pain of a prodigal son. His son, Franklin Graham, rebelled for a time, yet he emerged on the other side as a champion for Christ. He now is President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. Jim Cymbala, best-selling author and pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, also experienced the heartache of a prodigal. However, his daughter became a strong Christ-follower and pastor’s wife. If you are experiencing the agony of a prodigal, remember you are not alone and your child’s story is far from finished.