Bringing Home the Prodigals
Last Sunday morning Marty preached a sermon based on our Step Up in September program, that encouraged everyone to be more faithful to worship and to service, to the church. Something always necessary from time to time, a word of exhortation from our pulpit minister, who happens to also be one of our elders.
He then segued to the important matter of training our children early on to be faithful, and he outlined some simple strategies on how parents can do this thing. Now this sermon was good to hear if you're among those who have finished raising your kids and they are, thanks be to God, faithful Christians, busy in service to the Lord and His church. That was a good sermon to hear if you're among those people.
And it was also a good lesson for young families because it provided encouragement and a strategy to help them raise their children to be faithful Christians, a road map for the future for young families. Marty's lesson was even a benefit to those who have no children because it was a reminder that raising children isn't only about preparing them for a career or marriage, but also about guarding their souls for Heaven.
One group, however, that may have not found the lesson very easy to hear, were those parents whose children are grown and gone from home, and unfortunately are no longer faithful to the Lord. No longer faithful to His church. Parents that are dealing with prodigal sons and prodigal daughters.
And so my lesson this morning entitled, "Bringing Home the Prodigals," this lesson is for you, those parents. Parents of prodigals continually wrestle with the question, "How do I get the prodigal to come home? How do I get the prodigal, my prodigal, to be faithful again?" Well there's no system, there's no surefire way to do this. Sometimes as parents, we do everything right for and with our children. We bring them to church when they're young, we encourage youth activities, we encourage them to get involved with a youth group, go to camp, mission trips, home devotionals, reading the Bible. We even go that second mile and send them to private Christian schools and colleges, and still some of them, with all of that, are seduced away from the safety of home and the security of church into the world and its ideas, excitements and pleasures. Parents become victims of a spiritual rebellion that tears down, in a moment, what took them a lifetime to build with their children.
There are also situations where prodigal sons and daughters are the result of poor parenting. Where mom and dad provided no spiritual teaching, no guidance or encouragement for church, and as a result raised children who, like their parents, have no spiritual dimension in their lives, and the fruit of their lives show it. Maybe they're good people, even successful people in this world, but they have no spiritual life and what's worse, they see no need for one.
And then of course there's the situation, which is one of the great ironies of life, where you have parents who do everything wrong in bringing up their kids to be faithful Christians, but these spiritually neglected children somehow end up becoming more spiritually-minded and committed the Lord than their parents.
I remember a couple of teenagers, a brother and sister, who would get up very early on Sunday morning to catch a ride to church so they could attend Bible class, because their parents slept in and they wouldn't give them a lift even if they wanted to go to church. The really sad thing was that their dad used to be a youth and family minister, who never had anything good to say about the church when he left it. And yet his kids, they were up and at 'em early, attending Bible class, youth group, they were involved. They had zero encouragement from the parents.
Of course, the most painful experience is the one I mentioned before, where parents have done their honest best but still end up with prodigal children, who love the world and its ideas more than they love the Lord and His church. As I mentioned before, this lesson is dedicated to you, the parents of prodigals. And with it I want to offer some counsel from someone who has both observed and experienced what's it's like to see a prodigal leave home and then return.
Now, what parents want of course, is to bring back their prodigal daughters and sons, to bring them home. The question is, how? Talk about a helpless feeling. How? Note in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the father didn't seem to do anything until after his prodigal son came home.
In this parable there are no instructions contained within regarding what a parent is to do while that child is gone. For those parents whose sons and daughters have refused to believe or rejected a faith they once embraced, the situation seems so hopeless and you yourself feel helpless in the face of their disbelief and their disobedience.
Many times you're in a state of shock at first, then grief, and then sadness. However, once you accept the reality of the situation there are some things you can actually do to encourage your prodigal child to come home to faith in Christ and faithfulness to the church. Things that you can do to at least make the best of living your life while dealing with a son or daughter, or someone else in your family for that matter, who has gone away from the faith. What do you do then?
How to Encourage a Prodigal to Come Home
1. Love Them Better
Number one: Love them better than you have in the past. Try to love them better than you have in the past. John teaches us that,
God is love.
- I John 4:8
Seeing God's love up close and personal is usually a better strategy to winning someone back to God than debating doctrine with them. I'll repeat that. Seeing God's love up close and personal is usually a better strategy to win somebody back than debating doctrine with them. There's a time for that. But love reaches out much more powerfully than arguing.
I know that Paul the Apostle says we should disfellowship sinners and trouble makers in the church, First Corinthians 5:11. But this tactic only works for someone who wants to be in the church, but who was acting improperly. The threat of being disciplined by removing fellowship is leverage to get them to change their behavior. This approach however, is not very effective for someone who is gone. It's actually counterproductive because it cuts off the only avenue you have to bring that person home to Christ, and that is communication.
God becomes very real to the prodigal when seen and heard and felt in a kind of love from parents and friends that only Christian parents and friends can show. If you're not sure of how to improve your expression of love, then I encourage you to go back to that very familiar passage in First Corinthians 13 and compare that kind of love to the type that you may have had in the past or may be showing in the present towards your prodigal.
So the first thing to do, to win back the prodigal, is to figure out how to love them better than you have in the past.
2. Become a Better Christian
Number two: Become a better Christian than you have been in the past. Last week Marty said that kids watch to see if your words about your faith line up with your actions concerning your faith. And that reminds me of something that I've said before. Kids don't do what you say, they do what you do. They do what you do. Here's the thing about prodigal sons and daughters, they're still watching you, mom and dad.
Have you ever thought about that? They're still watching you, grandma and grandpa. And they're asking themselves, "Is this Christianity thing the real deal, mom and dad? Why should I change my life if you haven't changed your life? Is Christianity really worth the trouble, mom and dad? If it hasn't changed or improved or transformed you in the forty years that you've practiced it, what can it possibly do for me?" All children are impressed by the continued spiritual growth and development of their parents, especially prodigals.
Here's something to try, imagine you saying this to your prodigal, "Hello, yes, son. Yes, well your mother and I are going on a mission trip to Central America. Would you come over and pick up our mail while we're gone?" "What? You're going where, mom and dad? That's dangerous. That's expensive. That's troublesome. That's inconvenient. You're not at an age where you should be going on a mission trip to a foreign country. What's with you guys? Who are you people?"
How about this phone call, "Hi, Mary. Your father and I have decided to sell the country cottage on the lake and donate the money to the church's building fund for the new activity center and parking area. So you'll need to come and choose the furnishings you want to keep before it's sold." "What? Is this my mother I'm speaking to?"
You see, it's called witness. And to get our prodigal's attention, it has to be powerful. It has to be sincere. It has to be beyond anything we have ever done before. That's, if we're interested in making an impact on them. Because if it's the same old, same old with you, well it's going to be the same old, same old with them. You want them to make the move, right? The secret is you've got to make the move. You go first. They may follow or not, but I guarantee you, you have to make the first move. And that move has to be a witness that's shiny and bright and unmistakable.
Your growing belief acts as an antidote to the poison of their disbelief. That's how that works.
3. Condemn as Wrong the Wrong Things
Number three: Continue to condemn as wrong the wrong things that they are doing. Be aware that in many instances, you are the last line of defense against their sins. Let's be honest here, prodigals usually leave the church and the faith because of sin, not doctrine. Oh it happens. There may be a doctrinal disagreement, but usually they leave because of sin. It may be someone else's sin and cover up and hypocrisy that drives them away in discouragement, but in the majority of cases it's their own sin that separates them from Christ and His church.
I mean, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son Luke writes that he wasted his inheritance on what, loose living? What do you think loose living was? Loose living was drinking alcohol and partying and having sex with prostitutes. That's what the prodigal son did. He didn't leave home because he disagreed with his father over a point of doctrine in the Mosaic Law. He left because he wanted to party. He wanted an immoral life. He wanted to give in to his sinful impulses. And with his father, the righteous father around, he couldn't do that. So he went to a place where he could just do that in peace and quiet.
The worst thing a parent can do is compromise what is right or downplay what is wrong in order to maintain a relationship with a prodigal son or daughter. You can always encourage in love all the good that they do. You got a promotion at work? Awesome! Good for you. I'm happy. You've worked hard for it. You deserve it, son or daughter. You're going on the trip you've always wanted to go on. You're going to Europe. Wonderful! Can I get you something? Can I drive you to the airport? Yes! Absolutely! Congratulate, encourage, support all the good that they do. Absolutely. Celebrate their successes and their blessings, but don't compromise on their sinfulness in order to win their love. Don't do that.
I've had parents call me up and say, "Well, my son has just told me that he's gay." And usually I get those calls because, you know, a long time ago I wrote a book on that topic and so a lot of people write to me or call me because of that. And that's always a shock of course, and it's always a disappointment and so on and so forth. And then there comes a time when, you know, life goes on, right? And I tell them what I've just said to you. Continue to encourage your son in all the good that he does. If he gets a promotion, celebrate the promotion. If he decides to go back to school and get his degree, support him in that. But don't compromise on the thing that he's doing wrong. He wants to come over with his boyfriend. No. You can come over, that's fine. We love you. We'll feed you, but no, we're not in any way going to support what you are doing, which is wrong.
Believe it or not, they're counting on you to hold the line because even if they disagree or refuse to repent, they know deep down inside that you have integrity and will not violate your principles, even to win their approval.
I can't tell you how many times I've been called hateful and all kinds of nasty things because of what I teach concerning homosexuality. I mean, in public, I've been interviewed on the radio, on talk shows, and people call in and accuse me of that to my face- that I'm unloving and hateful and so on and so forth. And my answer to them: What you think is hate is really love, because I'm risking your rejection in order to tell you the truth. I'm risking that you will reject me, in order to tell you what the truth is, in order to save your soul.
If you want to save their souls you have to tell them the truth. You must never ever compromise. They will never repent if there's no one left to call them out on their sins. You have to hold the line.
4. Keep Praying
Number four: Keep fervently praying for them. In the parable after the prodigal decided to go home, Luke writes the following in verse 20,
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him.
- Luke 15:20
The fact that the father saw his son while he was still at a distance, tells me that he was fervently looking for his child's return and had not yet accepted that his younger boy was a goner, lost to the world, never coming back, might as well accept it. Our fervent prayers for our prodigal's return is our way of scanning the horizon for their appearing. Our fervent prayers for their return is our way of not giving up hope.
We have to keep praying for them because no one else has that task and that responsibility.
5. Deal With Your Own Guilt
And then one other: Deal with your own guilt. I can't tell you how many parents that I've talked to in the years that I've been a preacher who have had prodigal sons and daughters who carry a tremendous burden of guilt.
Let me ask you a question: Is there any other activity in life that creates more guilt than parenting? From morning till night, from morning till night, day after day after day, you are made and brought face to face with the things that you do wrong or that you should've done, that you could've done better, blah, blah, blah, all day long.
Let's face it, parenting is the most guilt producing activity that's blessed by God. It's okay to be a parent, but boy does it ever produce guilt. You want to get it right. But eventually, you see in your own child's words and actions some of your own worst mistakes. Have you ever said, "Oh my, she's getting to be just like me. Oh no!"
My advice to parents, especially those with prodigal sons and daughters, and specifically those who know and acknowledge that they have probably contributed directly to their children's faithlessness, with their actions or lack of actions, is this: Just ask for forgiveness. Parenting mistakes are not the sin against the Holy Spirit. They're mistakes. They're failings. They're normal. We all make them. Some make bigger mistakes than others, but isn't that true in life? Ask for forgiveness.
In First John 1, does John not write, "If we confess our sins," which sins? Well, I had an abortion. Okay, ask for forgiveness. Well, I'm guilty, I ran somebody over with my car and I had to go to jail for three years. Well, ask for forgiveness. I failed at marriage. Well, ask for forgiveness. I was not such a good parent. So ask for forgiveness. What does it say?
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
- I John 1:9
Which sins? All of them. This is not just for liars and adulterers and thieves. It's also for parents who have not done a good job of Christian parenting as well. Sin is sin. Everybody sins somewhere. If you're guilty, you need to ask for forgiveness because without forgiveness you cannot move on to joy. You stay on this guilt treadmill your whole life. What a way to live.
You see, parents who feel guilty all the time are not very effective in bringing back their prodigals. Do you want to know why? Because guilty people have no joy. You know what joy is? Quiet, assured, steady happiness. That's what joy is. Joyless Christians are not very effective as soul winners, especially the winning back of the children's soul. Unfaithful children who have joyless, guilt-ridden parents are, as we say in Oklahoma, a twofer for the devil.
He's keeping the kids away from restoration. He's keeping the parents away from the joy of reconciliation with their children. Don't let him win. Sooner or later the prodigals come to their senses, realizing that the sin and disbelief that they have bring them no joy. On the contrary, they bring sorrow and death, Roman 6:23.
The son in the parable knew where not only there was food, but where there was love and forgiveness and joy. They were not found in his departure. They were to be found in his return. The best way to draw our own prodigals home is to make sure that it is a place of ongoing faith, enduring love, and a joy that is free of guilt and regret.
I hope that the things that I've mentioned here this morning will provide parents with a spiritually healthy way of dealing with the unfaithfulness of our children, if that happens to be our experience.
Now, with all of this having been said, remember, there's no guarantee of success. Only the encouragement that in doing these things, you will have done all that one can do to draw lost children to the Lord or back to the church. Also, realize that God the Father lost Adam and Eve; and Jesus lost Judas; and Paul lost Demas. Even God and Jesus and the Apostle could not override the bad decisions and choices made by those who possessed free will.
In the end, don't let the unfaithfulness of a child or anyone you love lead you to compromise or quit the faith yourself. This is usually the result of grief and discouragement. We catch the virus of doubt and disbelief while mourning the loss of others with this malady, who have given up.
Very simply put this morning, if you need the prayers of the church to stay strong as a parent, or you're a prodigal who desires to come home to the lord, to the church, to your family, this may be the morning. This may be the lesson that encourages you to do that. In any case, parents, please know that you are in my personal prayers. I know most of you. Our congregation is growing at such a rate that I can't keep up with many of our new members, but I do know many of you after all the years that I've served here. And I know of you that there are many who have prodigals that are out there. I want you to realize that I pray for you personally, by name. For you, for your children, that your prodigals will one day come home.
And this lesson is simply my way of encouraging you to keep the faith, keep the hope alive, and be ready for that day when on the horizon you'll see your prodigal return home. If you need to answer the invitation this morning in any way, then I encourage you to do so as we stand and as we sing our song of encouragement.