A group of researchers did an experiment where they read the parable of the prodigal son to groups in various places around the world: Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North America. The researchers then asked people to recount the story back to them. There was one detail that people in the developing world always mentioned that those in the developed nations always left out: the famine.

The son, you’ll remember, took his inheritance and went to the far country where he spent and squandered it. He only “came to himself” and came home after “a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need” (Luke 15:14). Those in affluent contexts didn’t remember this part of the story because it seemed to them a minor detail. For those who lived regularly with the threat of famine, this seemed a major part of the story. It is indeed.

When dealing with those wandering away from the faith, we must recognize that sometimes they’ll not start evaluating the deep questions of their lives until they find themselves in a situation where they don’t know what to do. We must be the sort of parents and grandparents and churches who have kept open every possible connection, so that our prodigals will know how to get back home, and know we’ll meet them at the road, already planning a homecoming party.

Kindness to Prodigal Children

That requires, though, a death to self. The pain over a wayward child is real, and ought to be present in a life driven by the Spirit. Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:42–44). Paul said he wished he could himself be sent to hell and cut off from Christ “for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3).

This pain shouldn’t be confused, though, with our carnal desire to display to the world around us what “blessed” and “successful” families we have. In many cases, the real tragedy in a family with rebellious children isn’t that their parents hurt for them, but that their parents are embarrassed of them. If “good” children were the result of mere technique, then we could boast of our own righteousness through the lives of our children. They’re not.

In many cases, the real tragedy in a family with rebellious children isn’t that their parents hurt for them, but that their parents are embarrassed of them.

The same is true in the opposite situation. If we think something is deficient or shameful about a family with prodigals, then we must conclude something is deficient or shameful about the family of God.

Families, though, aren’t about us and our presentation to the world. Sometimes what it may take for a child to see the cross in the lives of his parents is to hear those parents say: “No matter what you do. No matter where you go. You’ll always be our child, and we’ll always be glad to say so. We may not like what you are doing, but we’re not ashamed of you.”

This is, after all, the same sort of kindness our Father showed to us, the kindness that brought us to repentance in the first place (Rom. 2:4).

Patience for Prodigal Children

Even in such situations with happy endings, rarely is there an obvious, definitive, darkness-to-light transition—no more than for many of us. God forgives immediately upon faith and repentance. He then spends the rest of our lives shaping us and forming us, pulling us away from old habits and affections toward new ones. God is infinitely patient and gentle and kind. We must be as well.

The son or daughter who, for example, has spent time in the far country of substance addiction, might suddenly have no more desire for the drugs he used to do. But this is unlikely. Usually what ensues is a long struggle for holiness, often with some knocks and backslidings along the way. We shouldn’t despair over this, nor should we hold over the head of a repentant child what he did “to us.” If we really believe the gospel of the cross, then all of that is crucified and buried behind us.

We should instead show the patience that God himself has shown to us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us,” the psalmist sang of God (Ps. 103:12).

In the first of the Narnia stories, the brother Edmund commits mutiny against Aslan the king and against his siblings, allying himself with the evil White Witch, drawn along by her hypnotizing Turkish Delight. Eventually, of course, Edmund comes back. The other children see the lion walking and talking with the erstwhile rebel, though they can’t hear the conversation. Aslan approaches them, with Edmund. “Here is your brother,” Aslan says. “And there is no need to talk to him about what is past.”

That is all of our story. We’re all Edmund. May we show the same grace to those who’ve disappointed or sinned against us, even—maybe especially—if they’re our own children.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (B&H Books, 2018).