Having a prodigal son or daughter can be one of the most heartbreaking experiences for Christian parents. As parents, we pour our lives into raising our children in the faith, only to see them walk away from it all when they reach adulthood. The pain and anguish of watching your child turn their back on the Lord is difficult to put into words. Yet, as Christians, we can cling to the hope and promises of God’s Word even in the darkest of times. What does the Bible have to say about how to respond when faced with a prodigal child? Here are some biblical insights on what Christian parents can do.
Understand the term “prodigal”
First, it’s important to understand what exactly is meant by the term “prodigal.” In the Bible, this refers to the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who demanded his inheritance from his father prematurely, went off and squandered it all living in sin, but later returned home repentant and seeking forgiveness. The essence of being “prodigal” is rejecting the father’s house to live in willful disobedience and sin for a season.
So a prodigal son or daughter refers to a child who abandons their Christian upbringing to choose a lifestyle of sin and selfishness. They may indulge in drugs, sexual immorality, greed, and other vices without any regard for the faith of their youth. As long as they run from God, they remain “prodigal” even if they stay closely connected to their family.
Pray fervently and continuously for them
The first thing Christian parents must do when faced with a prodigal child is to immediately begin praying fervently and continuously for them. Storm the heavens on their behalf, pleading with the Lord to pursue them and bring them back home. Our prayers as parents have incredible power (James 5:16).
Pray for their protection from harm, that their eyes would be opened to their self-destructive path, that godly sorrow would lead them to repentance, that circumstances would drive them back to God, and that God would block all schemes of the enemy set against them. We must passionately intercede for them before God’s throne and refuse to give up (Luke 18:1-8).
Trust in God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and love
Though it may seem their child is lost and hopeless, Christian parents can trust that a good God remains on the throne. God in His sovereignty allowed their rebellion and wayward choice. And He remains fully in control to work all things together for good (Romans 8:28). Parents can take comfort in knowing that God loves their child even more than they do and desires their repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
We may not understand all His ways, but we can trust the perfect wisdom and love of our Heavenly Father. He cares deeply for the prodigal and will orchestrate whatever circumstances are necessary to bring them to the end of themselves. Nothing can thwart His purposes for their life.
Examine your own heart before God
When faced with a prodigal child, Christian parents would be wise to examine their own heart before God. Have we modeled the faith before them as we should have? Have we shown them grace and forgiveness when they stumble? Do they see us authentically living out our faith with joy and passion?
We cannot force our children to make right choices, but we can reflect Christ consistently in our words, actions, attitudes and responses to them. If needed, we should humbly repent before the Lord of any ways we may have failed them as parents and ask Him to work in our own hearts as well. The virtue of our lives speaks volumes.
Avoid harshness; be loving and merciful
When relating to the prodigal child, it is imperative Christian parents avoid reacting in anger, bitterness or judgment. As painful as it is, we must reflect the heart of our Heavenly Father by continually demonstrating unconditional love, grace, mercy and forgiveness to them, just as God has shown us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
Of course consequences for foolish choices may be warranted. But we must refrain from harsh, condemning attitudes, instead seeking to fan the smallest flame of hope in their heart for redemption. Lovingly appealing to their conscience may open a door to draw them back to Christ.
Maintain healthy boundaries if necessary
In dire cases where the prodigal child remains rebellious and hostile to the ways of God, healthy boundaries may need to be implemented. If they are bent on destructive behaviors or negatively influencing younger siblings in the home, they may need to live elsewhere for a season if possible. Any conduct involving illegality or abuse should not be tolerated. Let them know you will be there when they are ready for restoration.
Boundaries show love by not enabling their wrong choices. Our home should be a safe space for those seeking the Lord. Yet boundaries should not be equivalent to abandonment. We must walk the fine line of upholding what is right while keeping the door open for their eventual return.
Remain connected; keep communication open
If the prodigal child chooses to walk away from family and faith for a time, it is wise for parents to try to remain positively connected and keep communication channels open if possible. Send letters, cards, texts, make phone calls, visit when appropriate. Let them know you are praying for them and still love and care deeply as their parent.
Make sure the door is always open for them to come directly to you when in need. You want them to know you will be a safe place for them to turn when life falls apart without judgment or “I told you so.” Pray any walls of pride or stubbornness would come down.
Hopeful expectation for their return
Rather than wallowing in despair, Christian parents can cling to a hopeful expectation that the prodigal child will return to God just like the prodigal son in the biblical account. We must fervently believe what we are praying for – that the day will come when their heart awakens, and they “come to their senses” and turn back home (Luke 15:17).
God promises if we “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). So we can believe the seed of truth planted will one day take root. The grieving parent who never gives up hope has the privilege of witnessing the glorious homecoming celebration.
Shower them with love and forgiveness when they return
There is no greater joy for parents than the day the prodigal repents and returns to a walk with God. Just like the Father in the parable, our response must be full of tender love, mercy, grace, and full forgiveness with no lingering bitterness (Luke 15:20-24). Let no resentment remain, only restore the relationship wholly.
This will require supernatural strength for most parents. But we can call on the Lord to give us the same heart of compassion He has. Our demonstration of total love and acceptance will cement in the prodigal’s heart their decision to return.
Walk in wisdom to rebuild trust and faith
When they return, the walk of restoration, healing, rebuilding trust, re-establishing healthy patterns, and nurturing faith will take time. Parents must seek wisdom from God’s Word on how to have these sensitive conversations and set boundaries if needed. The goal is to facilitate genuine life transformation to stand the test of time.
With patience and grace, keep pointing the prodigal back to Christ and His all-sufficient power to redeem their life. Remind them of who they are in Him. Help them connect with godly community for support and accountability. The fruit of the Spirit will flourish again in their life.
Rejoice and celebrate the miracle of redemption
If we ever had reason to rejoice and celebrate, it is when the lost is found. When the prodigal turns their heart back to God, the angels in heaven rejoice and party breaks out on earth! (Luke 15:7, 10, 22-24). We must celebrate this miraculous work of redemption in their life.
Let them know just how thankful you are to the Lord and how deeply proud you are of them for making the courageous choice to come home. Join their side in celebrating their return to the Father. Your joy will be a healing balm to their heart.
Remember God never fails nor abandons
Christian parents can take great comfort in God’s promises throughout this agonizing trial. He assures us “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). The Lord promises to complete the good work He begins in our children (Philippians 1:6). We never walk alone.
When our human strength fails, we can confidently surrender our prodigal into the safe, powerful hands of our loving Father. He who began a good work in them remains faithful to lovingly pursue them until they are safely home.