Prodigals in All Shapes and Sizes
About the Guest
Phil Waldrep explains the motives behind the various types of prodigals.
Prodigals in All Shapes and Sizes
Bob: If you have a son or a daughter, who has abandoned his or her faith, you know you have a responsibility, as a follower of Christ, to love that child unconditionally; but what does that look like in practical terms? Here’s pastor and author, Phil Waldrep.
Phil: Unconditional love is a love that says: “My love is not dependent on your performance. If you’re good, I don’t love you more. If you’re bad, I don’t love you less.” Now, it’s followed up very quickly, I think, by understanding unconditional love does not mean I rescue the prodigal every time they get in trouble. Instead, unconditional love says, “I’m going to let you face the consequences of your decisions, but I’ve made the choice to love you regardless of your actions.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, August 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
We’ll spend time today focusing on how we, as parents, can love and pray for a child who has wandered from his or her faith. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have heard you over the years talk about two different kinds of prodigals. There are those who say, “I’m taking my share of the inheritance”; and they leave home, and they go live in the far country. But there can be prodigals, who still have a bedroom upstairs and are at the dinner table every night; right?
Dennis: Yes; we basically had two kinds of prodigals—an in-house prodigal / the one who’s still living at home—and an out-of-house—
Bob: Not outhouse.
Dennis: Not outhouse—[Laughter]—but an out-of-house prodigal.
Our guest today has got more than two—though I want him to go through these—let me just introduce to our listeners today, Phil Waldrep, who joins us again. Welcome back, Phil.
Phil: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: He has two children and two grandchildren. He’s been married to his wife Debbie since—when?
Phil: Well, thank you.
Dennis: I want to talk about your book, Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now? I want you to go through—and I’ll feed these to you.
Dennis: And you can just explain each one of these. I had two—you’ve got like half a dozen here. Just really quickly explain what the “embarrassing prodigal” is.
Phil: Well, an embarrassing prodigal is a child who has walked away from their faith and walked away from any kind of moral standard. They’re engaging in behavior that is embarrassing their parents. That could be—you know, a child who’s constantly being arrested / it could be a child who is having a child out of wedlock. They are doing something that is embarrassing us, as parents.
Dennis: What about the “defiant prodigal”?
Phil: I see that as a prodigal who maybe an embarrassing prodigal to a greater degree.
They are intentionally trying to embarrass and hurt their parents. The embarrassing prodigal—just to make a distinction—may not necessarily be motivated by trying to embarrass their parents, but the defiant prodigal wants to embarrass their parents. I find that, a lot of times, when a parent is in ministry, for example, that their child wants to be so distant from them that they engage in behavior that is calling attention to their behavior because they want to hurt their parents.
Dennis: One would be more like a naïve person that the Proverbs speak about—
Dennis: —that could be the embarrassing prodigal. And the defiant one could be the fool—
Phil: Right; very good distinction.
Dennis: —who is just choosing a wrong way.
How about the “intellectual prodigal”? I want to hear what this one is.
Phil: Well, sometimes, kids go off to college; and they decide that they no longer want to believe the Christian faith or Christian worldview.
They may be morally good kids, but they have intellectually rejected Christianity. The parents are proud that their child is off at the major university, and making great grades, and finishing their PhD; but privately, they know they have abandoned the faith. So they may not necessarily be engaged in behavior that is embarrassing them, but their child has walked away at the intellectual level.
Bob: Not going to church any more.
Bob: And may even be blogging at this point and saying: “I grew up in a Christian home but came to a point where I realized that there is no God.
Bob: “I just don’t—I’ve rejected it. My life is happier now than it used to be.” That can, like you said, be embarrassing for a lot of parents to see that online.
Phil: And the one thing that separates them from the first two is—there’s a sense where the parents are very proud of the intellectual prodigal—they’ve done well in school / they’ve succeeded—but, privately, they’re [parents are] hurting because they’ve [child has] rejected the faith.
Dennis: This next one, I would say, was me in high school and early college—it’s the “religious prodigal.”
Phil: The religious prodigal can have various forms. We’re living in a time when people have kids who go off and join a cult. I recently talked to a mother who was heart-broken because her son, who was reared in a wonderful church, came home and told his parents one day that he had decided to become a Buddhist. And even though he, outwardly, has behavior that we would applaud; he had abandoned Christianity. He still believed in God / he still didn’t consider himself an atheist, but he certainly was a prodigal in every sense of the word.
Dennis: The way I would describe myself—I wasn’t a part of a cult, unless it was the cult of self-ism / self-worship—[Laughter]
Dennis: —I just basically suffered from nominal Christianity, which is where, I think, the majority of prodigals find themselves. They’re playing church and they’re playing with God and the Scriptures, but they’re not all in / they’re not committed.
Bob: You were still going to church at that time, from time to time.
Dennis: Sure; right.
Bob: And if anybody had asked you, “Are you a Christian?”—you’d have said, “Yes.”
Dennis: Sure; right.
Bob: But you were also kind of looking around and going, “You know, there is a lot about how the world does things that look appealing.”
Dennis: Yes; I was like the Proverb says—and what I mentioned earlier—I was a fool, and I was choosing my own way / not God’s way. We’re all just a step away from doing that.
Phil: One of the things that I noticed about religious prodigals, in particular, is they know all the answers. They don’t try to argue with their parents / they agree with them. I find that parents sit down and say, “Well, you need to believe in God.” “I do.” “You need to love Jesus.” “I do.” It becomes very difficult sometimes, especially when the religious prodigal, Dennis, is a reflection of where you were in those days is—
—you knew all the answers / you could fill in the blanks—and you sometimes knew where your parents were going in the conversation before they got there. So it makes it a little difficult when there is that kind of complacency.
But when I speak of a religious prodigal, I really primarily focus on those who have walked away from the Christian faith and have joined themselves to another religious group or they’ve embraced a different religious philosophy, if I could use that phrase. There are a lot more of those than we think—than probably we think exist.
Bob: Whether your child is religious, or complacent, or defiant—or whichever category this child fits in—I’m guessing that parents watch a child move toward becoming a prodigal—some of them with slow steps. Mom and dad could kind of feel, “It feels like we’re losing our son or daughter, but I’m not sure what to do.”
If you sense a child is slipping away from what you’ve taught them, are there things you do, early on, to try to bring them back?
Phil: Well, there are two things that I think are very important when you’re dealing with a prodigal. Number one is—you must always extend unconditional love. Unconditional love is a love that says: “My love is not dependent on your performance. If you’re good, I don’t love you more. If you’re bad, I don’t love you less.” Now, sometimes that’s a little harder to do than we really sometimes say in church; but it is the love God has for us.
But let me tell you how, as a parent, you can tell if you have unconditional love. Does the behavior of your child ever make you angry? I don’t mean it upsets us / it bothers us—does it make us angry? In fact, when I wrote Reaching Your Prodigal, there’s an illustration I give of two men who faced very similar situations.
Both were men whom I knew very well. One was a man—one day he’s home. He’s a leader in the community and a leader in his church. He is just a great example. We would applaud him as a great father and a great leader. But his teenage daughter came home and said: “Dad, mother will not tell you / I must tell you. I’m going to have a baby.” Of course, the girl wasn’t married. The father looked at her and, by his own testimony, he got angry and he started pounding on the coffee table. He said: “How could you!? You have ruined my reputation! I just can’t believe you did this!” And, in his anger, he told her to get her things and get out—he never wanted to see her again.
Phil: He bragged about what he did because he said he was taking a stand against sin. In the church that man attended, about six months after that happened, on a Sunday evening, the pastor stood up and, with tears flowing down his cheeks, said: “I need to share something with you, as my congregation.
“You’re going to hear it, so I want you to hear it from me first. We’ve learned this week—my wife and I—that our daughter is going to be an unwed mother. We’ve cried a lot / we are heart-broken, but we’ve made a commitment that we are going to support our daughter because she has chosen to give this child life. If that means I need to resign as your pastor, I will. We’re hurting / we are ashamed of what she’s done, but we’re not ashamed that she is our daughter.” In front of the congregation, with the other man sitting in the pew, walked over to his daughter—the pastor did—and embraced her and said, “I love you.”
Now, I tell that story because here are two men, who both would argue they love their daughter; but one extended unconditional love when the other did not. It doesn’t mean we approve the actions of our prodigal / it doesn’t mean that we’re approving their sin; but it does mean, “I’ve made the choice to love you regardless of your actions.”
That, I believe, is the most important thing we can do. Now, it’s followed up very quickly, I think, by understanding unconditional love does not mean I rescue the prodigal every time they get in trouble. Instead, unconditional love says, “I’m going to let you face the consequences of your decisions.”
So the father in Luke 15 loved his son unconditionally; but when his son went to the far country, there were some things the father didn’t do. He didn’t send him money / he didn’t send a servant with soup and a sandwich. Sure, it would have gotten him out of the pig pen—
Phil: —but it wouldn’t have gotten him home.
So I think—to your question, Bob—that the thing that we must do, as parents, is love our kids unconditionally. They need to know that their performance and our love are not related. But, at the same time, our love says, “When you make bad choices”—especially when we’re dealing with adult prodigals, who are away from home—
“When you make bad choices, I’m going to love you; but I’m going to let you face the consequences of what you’ve done.”
So that means, as a parent, I go see them in jail; but I don’t get them out of jail. Now, I believe you can extend grace the first time. Sometimes, prodigals understand and they learn. But you go to them and you say: “I love you. I’m going to come visit you every day, and I’m going to support you; but I’m not going to get you out of jail,” / “Son, I will help you get into a program for your gambling addiction, but I’m not going to go take out a second mortgage to pay the gambling debts.” Because one of the things we do, as parents, when we have prodigals—especially when they are embarrassing prodigals and they’re doing addictive behaviors—is that we must say to them, “I love you so much I’m going to let you face the consequences,” because the son in the story of the prodigal son came to himself in a pigpen. If he had never gotten in the pigpen, he would have never gotten home.
Phil: Sometimes it’s hard! I think that’s the hardest thing, as parents, we do—is to let our kids spend some time in the pigpen / to come to themselves as a result of their choices—not because we force them to the pigpen—but their choices / their decisions—they get to face the results of those decisions.
Dennis: I want to unpack just a little bit more because I think you’re on target here. I think a parent is set up to be a rescuer.
Dennis: A number of years ago, I was talking to a dad—I ran into him, and he was weeping. He said: “I just got a phone call from my son. His girlfriend has broken off their engagement.” I started talking to him about his son. I said: “How’s your son doing spiritually? How’s he going to handle this?” “Well, he’s not been doing well for a long time.” I continued to unpack it and found out—well, his son was co-habiting with the young lady—he had been living with her for some time. I said: “Can I say something to you? Don’t rescue your son.”
Phil: Good advice.
Dennis: The father—I’m convinced—the father would have delighted in finding a way of rescuing his son from the pain of this girl breaking up with him.
Bob: We’re talking to Phil Waldrep, who has written a book called Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now?
I’m just curious—in a situation where you’ve been able to have a hard conversation with a son or a daughter, who’s been drifting away, and you think you’ve got them back where they belong, do you put extra rules and boundaries around that child to try to keep them safe; or do you just let life go on?
Phil: Are you talking about when a prodigal comes back and says, “I want to get my life straight”?
Bob: I’m talking about one who was kind of drifting—
Bob: —you’ve caught them before they were a full-blown prodigal, and they come back. Do you ground them? Do you do those kinds of things, as a parent?
Phil: I think there are always consequences to decisions. It’s okay to say, “As a result of what you’ve done, we’re going to have to set some rules; and you will earn our trust.”
Phil: One of the things that a good friend of mine uses as an illustration—he said to his daughter—“Now, think of it like this—we have a rope tied around you. How much rope you get is going to be dependent on how much trust we have.”
Phil: “So when you demonstrate to us that we can trust you, we’ll give you a little more rope.
Bob: Let the rope out; yes.
Phil: “And once you violate that, we’re going to have to pull the rope back in.”
I think it’s a good illustration for parents to kind of think through: “Yes, we can have rules and guidelines.” By the way—kids want guidelines. One of the things we were talking about earlier about enabling our children—we often think of that when they’re older; but I want to give a word to parents who ware listening, who have young children.
One of the things that I discovered, when I was researching prodigals, is enabling your children often starts when they’re young. Let me give an illustration from my own life.
When I was in—I think it was the first grade, the teacher accused me of something that I can sit here today and tell you I did not do. I got in trouble at school for it. I came home and I told my father, who was a godly man—I said, “Dad, I got punished at school for this; but I didn’t do it.”
My father sat me down and he said, “Well, tell me your side of the story.” I did. He said: “Well, son, first of all, we’re going to respect the teacher. Even if your teacher made a mistake, we want to support her. I’m not saying I believe the teacher / I am not saying I believe you.”
My father never allowed me to think the teacher was wrong. Now, I found out years later, that he went and had a meeting with the teacher and discovered that what I was telling him was the truth. He wasn’t angry with the teacher—he addressed it with the teacher. But he never let me know about what he had done because he wanted me to know that he was not going to come rescue me every time I got in trouble at school.
Now, in that case, I was innocent. There were other times, I must admit, I was guilty of things I did at school. But if I knew my father would go get onto the teacher, I would have been very quick to come home and he could have rescued me.
The same is true even when kids start getting to be teenagers and they become young adults, and they’re still at home. If we’re not careful, we will start the enabling process of rescuing them every time they get in trouble. If we do, then—when they’re 25, and 30, and 35—they still expect us to come do it.
Dennis: I remember a speeding ticket—actually, it was for going around a corner on two wheels, as I recall, as a teenager. [Laughter] I got caught. It was back in the days when they had red lights on police cars. They pulled me over, and I was ticked off—I was ticked at myself because it was going to cost me money.
I walked in the front door, and I kind of tossed the ticket at my dad. I said, “You need to be proud of your son—I just got a ticket.” I was full of shame that I had disappointed my dad. Do you know?—my dad did not offer to pay that ticket.
Dennis: He just absorbed my little pity party and anger tantrum—like a three-year-old, which was how I was acting, frankly. He let me go pay the bill. It was interesting—I had saved a lot of change. I remember paying—I forget what the fine was / it was like twenty bucks—I paid it in quarters. I think I was trying, actually, to get back at the judge just a little bit in my arrogance, as a 16-/17-year-old. But, to my dad’s credit—the very thing you’re talking about—he did not step in to take the force of the pain / remove it from me.
I’ll tell you—Christian parents are notorious for this. We are so gullible and kids know how to manipulate us. They know how to play our strings.
I don’t want to pick on moms here, but moms are a set-up—they are! There’s a mother’s heart, I’m telling you, that just wants to keep her child from ever experiencing pain. She’s got to be tough! That’s why you need to be one, as a couple. If you’re facing something like this with a prodigal—before you go down to the jail / before you go find your child down with the pigs—decide what you’re going to do / decide what your game plan is because your child needs you to be the parent and to really set the high road before them in terms of how they need to be restored.
Phil: Very true—one thing I would add to that, too, Dennis—you were talking about your father, and the speeding ticket, and allowing you to face the consequences of those decisions. I would add that you probably thought twice before you went speeding through town the next time. Yet, you know, one of the things that happens to a lot of parents—and prodigals do this—this is something parents need to understand:
Prodigals will tell us anything to get us to enable them or to fix their situation: “Mama, I promise, this will be the last time I will ever do it,” / “Mama, I promise; I’ll never do this again.” “Well, that’s great! I’m encouraged by those words, son. I’m proud of you. Now, go pay the ticket.”
You see, because they’re willing to tell us anything to get us to fix their situation—I would especially add that’s true if you have very addictive behavior. If there are drug addictions, especially, I would caution parents: “Don’t rush to the rescue because, when you do, you’re enabling and they’ll tell you anything. That’s very important to remember: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’”
Dennis: The best measure of what a man can do is what a man has done. If your child has been lying to you and has earned the label of being distrustful, the most important thing you can do is to not give the trust they’re going fishing for.
Dennis: They’ve got to earn it back.
Phil: That’s right.
Dennis: They’ve got to show you and demonstrate that they are worthy of regaining your trust, as a child.
Bob: Now, these are tricky waters for parents to be trying to navigate; and I’m grateful that you offer guidance in the book that you’ve written. There’s not a formula you can follow / there’s no recipe that guarantees that you’ll reconnect with your prodigal son or daughter and that everything will turn out okay; but you have given us biblical wisdom and some best practices in the book that you’ve written, which is called Reaching Your Prodigal.
It’s a book that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy of Reaching Your Prodigal by Phil Waldrep. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; and you can call to order at 1-800-358-6329.
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