John (in regard to “spiritual children”) said that he has no greater joy than to hear that his children walk in the truth (3 John 1:4). Inversely, how great is the despair experienced by the parents of a son or daughter who follows the wide road? I have heard stories of godly men and women who have over a half a dozen Bible-believing, Christ-following kids, who have been brought to utter despair and depression over the one that won’t submit to Christ. If you know this feeling, if you have a prodigal, I’m writing to you today.
No defense is needed for the assertion that a foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him (Proverbs 17:25). Not only do the redeemed of God hate sin against their great God and Savior, but they are saddened by their child’s apparent eternal destiny when that child is apart from Christ. The thought of the child you carried in your womb and swaddled in your arms spending an eternity in hell is a lot to bear! When you remember teaching him or her to read, playing ball, and kissing every booboo, it is gut-wrenching to fear that he or she is under God’s wrath.
The child you took to church, taught the gospel to, and sang worship songs with is living a life in rebellion to their Creator. The same Christ who endowed them with all those privileges by giving them parents who, despite many failures, loved them and showed them Jesus, is the one they now rail against with their thoughts and deeds. It grieves you to see the Lord despised this way, and you fear He has no plan to save them. What now? How are you supposed to feel? How are you supposed to go on? What then shall you do? Please keep reading. I am writing this post to all the parents of prodigals. You need to know a few things. We need to know these truths.
Bad Theology Kills
Bad theology will kill your spirit. When you have troubles, you go to the Word of God for help, and that is right. But there are parts of the Word that can sting. What I want you to avoid is mistakenly getting stung. Proverbs 22:6 is an oft-quoted verse. Just from memory, I can tell you it goes something like this:
“Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” For centuries, parents have clung to this “promise” of God. I hear it cited or see it posted with regularity. The problem is that as it is written it just doesn’t seem true, now does it? You don’t have to be around Christianity long to have heard about a parent who did “everything right” and still raised a prodigal child. These same parents may have 4 other godly children, in fact, who followed their parents’ good teaching!
JC Ryle wrote about prodigals and Proverbs 22:6:
“Now how shall we account for this state of things? The plain truth is, the Lord’s commandment in our text is not regarded; and therefore the Lord’s promise in our text is not fulfilled.” Page 10 The Duties of Parents Ichthus Publications, 2014.
Did you catch that? JC Ryle says the reason your kid is a terrible person today is because you failed to keep God’s commandments. Feel better yet? How can you? After a lifetime of sin and self-justification, you finally bowed the knee to Jesus Christ at some point—only to find out that it is through obeying the law that your kids will be justified?
This is abhorrent theology. It’s sheer nonsense and has no place in the church. I lament that many a dear Christian man or woman has no doubt been brought to utter despair because of this verse, even judged by the brethren—all based on a poor translation. Thank God for Dan Phillips and Eric Davis who clear this up nicely. In summary: the fact that you have a prodigal child does not necessarily imply that you failed to train them up correctly.
Reconsidering Proverbs 22:6 click here to read this excellent summary of the problem with this translation.
Please read that post above and be encouraged, rather than condemned. Now let’s consider another situation.
I have read a couple of books about Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. I recall reading a list of the great men that descended from this godly couple. Heads of state, presidents of colleges, doctors, lawyers, etc. I don’t recall the exact list other than it was impressive. Giving credit where credit is due, the Edwards certainly tried to raise the kids as God would have them. I trust their faithfulness has been rewarded by our Lord.
But let me tell you about another parent who also did the right things. Great theology taught from the beginning and all the creature comforts a son or daughter could want. Clear instructions with consequences spelled out for each broken rule. Never could it be said that there was a lack of love or joy. A father with immeasurable patience, astounding wisdom, and utter peace. If ANYONE was going to have kids that “turned out ok,” it was this parent.
But they didn’t. His own children turned away and were afraid to approach him about it. Although he was perfectly loving toward them, they still ran away and hid rather than come to him to seek grace when they sinned. One of his grandchildren even murdered his own brother. That was while things were still “pretty good” in the family. It got much worse.
Are you tracking with me yet? The parent I’m referring to is God. Adam, God’s son rebelled, hid his shame, excused his insolence, blamed his wife, and started off the curse that we are all still under today. Did God not “train him up” properly? Of course not. Adam—the very best of all men—exhibits a couple of things for us. First, that “good parenting” is not the primary mover in deciding whether a person will follow the Lord. And secondly, that the very best any of us could do is fail to keep God’s law.
Your Mission…Accept It…
You are not alone. God Himself looks upon the earth with grief for the state of man. He is a personal God who in Christ has born our griefs, thus He has compassion. You have a mission, and that is to (by faith) grasp the promises God really has made. You are to recall your own salvation. How long did you wait to submit to the Lord? Do not give up on your son or your daughter—since many did not give up on you! You are a product of the prayers of godly men and women who never quit praying for your salvation!
Do not despair, oh brother or sister. For even had you been the perfect parent, that has no effect on the election of God, nor the timing of God’s justification of individual sinners. Do you see that? You are not the ultimate factor in your son or daughter’s salvation, nor in its timing. Oh, I’m sure you “made mistakes.” We all have. But not a single sinner rejects the Lord Jesus Christ and chases a life of debauchery and sin because their dad or mom failed them.
We have good theology when it comes to ourselves. We know that we sinned because we are sinners. We know that we did the things we should not do because that was what we wanted to do and that it was not our parents’ fault. But when it comes to our own children, it seems harder to accept that that’s exactly why they sin, too. You didn’t spank too hard or too soft or not enough or too much. You didn’t love too little or too much. Your kid doesn’t hate Jesus because you messed up and missed church a few times for something trivial you now regret. Your kid didn’t become a homosexual, a blasphemer, a fornicator, a stripper, a man of rage, a drunk, or a liar because you didn’t warn them enough, nor even if they saw you do those things!
And it won’t be your actions that save your prodigal either.
Your kid has left the faith you taught him or her because they are a child of Adam who has not been regenerated…YET. Yet is a BIG word. YET is the stuff parents of prodigals can go to sleep relying on. YET is what should drive us to even more desperate prayer. YET is what causes us to become more interested in our own sanctification than trying to change our child. YET is where we still have hope.
The same God who saved the thief on a cross brought home the prodigal son in Luke 15 and pulled a wretch like you out of the pit of sin you once loved can save your son or daughter. Do not lose heart and do not grow weary. Your prayers are sweet incense to our great God and Savior, and they will be answered at the perfect time, according to perfect wisdom.
It is entirely reasonable (scriptural) for you to experience a wide range of emotions as you deal with your prodigal and the various circumstances. Allow yourself to feel while continually informing your emotions with the truth of scripture, especially irrevocable promises of God to His people. This post isn’t meant to “make you feel better” in a quick fix sense, but it meant to focus your mind on that which will help you maintain the proper perspective. If your prodigal needs anything from you, he or she needs you to let your reasonableness be known, to see you continue to rejoice in the Lord, and to know that you love him or her despite their poor choices.
To those of you who do not have this experience, praise God! I hope this letter is never relevant to you. I also trust you are humbled by the truth that even your “good kids” are primarily that way by God’s grace, rather than by your works: so that no one might boast in the presence of God.