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When the One You Love Is Wayward

When people talk about love, they tend to think about feelings of attraction—that joy and excitement of being with someone who makes you feel alive. Yet most of us know this attraction is just scratching the surface. Real love is something deep and powerful, a committed faithfulness that is sacrificial and loyal. Love is keeping your promises, even when it hurts. It’s patient and kind, gracious and forgiving, and willing to speak the truth even when doing so is costly (1 Cor. 13:4–7). We know this love is tough.

For the most part, tough love gets us through the tough times. Every relationship experiences struggle. Yet when two people are committed, reasonable, and willing to work things out, love finds a way through it all.

Loving a prodigal is even tougher.

It’s loving a rebel, someone who isn’t trying to work it out and who doesn’t have your interests in mind. It’s loving someone who’s enamored with sin and who doesn’t care about the consequences—or the pain and hurt it causes others. The wayward often see themselves as the victims, and they’re hell-bent on finding their freedom on their terms.

Rugged Love 

Prodigals need more than tough love; they need a rugged love. A love that’s bold yet redemptive, forceful yet forgiving, gallant yet gospel-based. Think of it as love with teeth. For prodigals to change, those who love them must exercise a courageous love. They must have conviction and a clear conscience. To love a wayward rebel, you need a rugged love rooted in the hope of God’s promises.

Prodigals need more than tough love; they need a rugged love. A love that’s bold yet redemptive, forceful yet forgiving, gallant yet gospel-based.

We offer the term rugged love not to pioneer a new way of loving but to bring fresh paint to the portrait of God’s unrelenting love in the Scriptures. Rugged love is the way God engages and reaches sinful people. We’re all wayward, dead, trapped in our sin. So the way we love prodigals must be patterned after the rugged love of God.

What is this rugged love?

Love is rugged when it’s strong enough to face evil; tenacious enough to do good; courageous enough to enforce consequences; sturdy enough to be patient; resilient enough to forgive; and trusting enough to pray boldly.

Strong Enough to Face Evil 

Bonnie knows Stan is a serial adulterer, but she looks the other way. Walter believes his daughter is on drugs, but he won’t probe or ask her questions because he fears the truth. Zoe ignores the cruel and demeaning comments her husband makes about her in public and in front of the kids, hoping against hope that things will improve. Though each situation is distinct and complex, they’re all connected by a common compromise: Bonnie, Walter, and Zoe are all tolerating evil. If you ask why, they say they’re doing it for love.

When someone you love goes wayward, the worst lies aren’t always the ones you hear from them. They are the ones you whisper to yourself.

When someone you love goes wayward, the worst lies aren’t always the ones you hear from them. They are the ones you whisper to yourself.

Of course, many of these lies stem from not fully grasping the biblical understanding of love. Our own misunderstandings of what love should look like and how to love others affect our well-intentioned responses to sinful behavior. Wayward people tend to pile up collateral damage like a tornado sweeping through a traffic jam. And that carnage of hurt feelings, broken trust, and fractured relationships can be so overwhelming that people like Bonnie, Walter, and Zoe just want to close their eyes and wish it away. They tell themselves that time heals all wounds. If they just ignore and put it out of their minds, surely things will eventually get back to normal. They hope to outlive the evil. This lie masquerades as hope—and perhaps on some level, it really is a hope God will do a miracle. But it’s a naïve hope—one that traffics not in reality but denial. And the unwillingness to acknowledge reality only further encourages sinful behavior.

In calling us to biblical love, the apostle Paul says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil” (Rom. 12:9). True and genuine love abhors evil. This means we loathe and stand in opposition to it. Abhorrence leaves no room for denial. It means we have eyes to see evil and courage to respond to it. Sin and folly are inhabiting the soul of the wayward like unwelcome squatters. If these vices are ever to be expelled, they must be honestly named and exposed, not ignored or hidden.

To abhor evil requires a single-minded devotion to accelerating its downfall. The most diminutive mom will strike with ninja speed and nuclear force if she sees a Nazi-loving skinhead threatening her small child. Her abhorrence in this case isn’t a mental exercise—“I despise when the strong threaten the weak”—but abhorrence in action, an unwavering commitment to eliminating the threat without hesitation or indecision.Lightstock

God’s Love in Action

The gospel doesn’t deny evil. The gospel shows us God’s response to evil—he abhors it! “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). God’s wrath is his settled and determined response to injustice, sin, rebellion, and evil. He can’t tolerate it, and he’ll not accommodate it. Christ didn’t come to earth to paper over our offenses against God. He wasn’t here to spring God free from having to deal with the wickedness of the wayward. The gospel reveals the sinfulness of sin and showcases God’s hatred of evil.

God poured out his righteous fury on the only sinless man to walk the earth, who was stapled to a tree on a hill called Golgotha. And not just any man—his beloved Son, who willingly accepted his role as our substitute to free us from our enslavement to sin and reconcile us to God. Ascribed to Christ was our evil—“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus hung suspended, the sacrificial Lamb tarred by our wicked thoughts and actions, and received in his body the full gale force of God’s wrath.

Make no mistake; the gospel reveals a rugged love. When we look at it, we see our sin and our hatred of God and are confronted by the truth that Christ suffered what we justly deserve. The nails were meant for us; the hopeless abandonment and spiritual separation from the love of God that Christ experienced was deservedly ours. God’s love, displayed for all to see on the cross, was strong enough not only to face evil, but also to act against it. The cross reveals God’s abhorrence in action.

Coming Face-to-Face 

God’s response to evil is good news because it has a redemptive purpose, but the path to redemption requires that we come face-to-face with our sin. God’s law, given to us in the Old Testament, reveals our accountability before God and the rightness of his verdict against Adam and Eve in condemning them to death. Naming our sin and evil is always the first step to experiencing grace and forgiveness. This step cannot be bypassed or skipped. Conviction should lead to repentance, which leads to forgiveness in Christ.

Our love becomes rugged as our motivation moves from ‘peace for me’ to ‘help for them.’

This gospel is good news because if someone you love is bent on evil, there is help. Repentance is the key that unlocks the power of grace and separates true grace from cheap grace. True repentance doesn’t come through denial or accommodation. The pretending must end. The delusion that one can indulge evil behavior with no costs must be exposed. Biblical grace isn’t a license to sin. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 6:1–2, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” It’s never loving or gracious to forgive someone simply to accommodate further sin.

Loving like this isn’t simple or easy. To get here, you need to experience this love yourself, a love so sturdy that it enables you to face your biggest fears—your dread of a loved one leaving you, your anxiety over the unknown, or your unspoken suspicion that this situation indicates you’re one humungous failure. Showing rugged love begins by receiving the rugged love of God and holding fast to the promises of the gospel, knowing that our Lord and Savior will never leave us or abandon us (Heb. 13:5) and that he’s truly with us until the end (Matt. 28:20).

Our love becomes rugged as our motivation moves from “peace for me” to “help for them.” Rugged love faces human messiness head on. Are you facing the evil?

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. Copyright © 2016 by Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert Used by permission of Zondervan.