Editor’s Note: How should parents think about their children when they stray away from the Lord as prodigals? Biblical counselor Jim Newheiser answers by turning us to Scripture, giving us hope in the midst of our sadness and struggles. Since this is a problem we often face in our churches and our families, we are grateful for Newheiser’s faithful guidance from God’s Word.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted from the author. It was originally posted online at this link.
Parents of prodigals spend many agonizing hours asking themselves, “Why did my child rebel? Is it because I was a bad parent? Is it because my child got in with the wrong crowd?” Sometimes we may even ask God, “Why don’t you do something to bring my child back?”
The problem of wayward children is not a new one. The very first parents, Adam and Eve, had a wayward son, Cain, who turned from them and from God when he murdered his brother. In the thousands of years since then, many parents have shared in the grief that the first couple must have felt. While Scripture does not offer a formula by which you can get your prodigal back, God’s Word does explain why children turn out the way that they do. Scripture also provides hope for parents of prodigals.
1. Parents Influence Their Children
The biblical instructions for parents are summarized in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Scripture offers hope that God blesses faithful parenting. “Discipline your son and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart” (Prov. 29:17). God’s Word also warns that poor parenting can negatively influence our children (Prov. 19:18; 13:24). Eli contributed to his sons’ ruin because he honored them above God (1 Sam. 2:29). It was said of David regarding one of his wayward sons, “His father had never at any time displeased him by asking ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:6).
2. Parental Influence Is Not Determinative
Many parents are looking for a formula or methodology by which they can guarantee that their children will turn out right. The reality is that raising children is not like baking a cake, so that if you follow the recipe carefully, the desired result will follow. You may ask, but what about Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”? The Proverbs are not unconditional promises. Rather, they are maxims—general statements of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 10:4 wisely states, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” It is generally true that those who work hard are wealthier than those who are lazy. The fact that sluggards occasionally win the lottery does not invalidate the principle of wisdom. In the same way, it is generally true that faithful parenting is blessed, but there are other factors involved in how our children turn out.
3. Our Children Will Be Exposed To Other Influences
The book of Proverbs describes the ungodly influences which will seek to entice our children as they move towards adulthood. Wisdom warns the young person to beware of those who “forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness” (Prov. 2:13) and “the adulteress with her smooth words” (Prov. 2:16). No matter how hard parents try to shelter their children from evil, it is inevitable that they will be exposed to temptation and will have to make their own choice between the way of godly wisdom, as taught to them by their parents, and the way of the world. The first nine chapters of Proverbs are extended discourses pleading with a young adult to make the right choice. In Proverbs 9, both Lady Wisdom and Madam Folly invite the young person to a banquet, but only one invitation can be accepted.
4. Our Children Will Make Choices We Cannot Control
When our children are very young, we exercise a lot of control over them. We determine what they eat, with whom they may play, when they go to bed, etc. Even as they are older, we exercise some control, at least externally, over their use of media, their finances, their education, when they can have a smartphone, etc. But as they grow up, we cannot control their hearts: what they believe, love, and hate. When they become adults, their choices will reflect what is in their hearts.
5. Our Children Are Responsible For the Choices They Make
What is the difference between Cain and Abel? They were raised by the same God-fearing parents. They grew up in a world without many of the evil influences to which our children are subjected. Yet each had to choose between the way of God’s wisdom and the way of the flesh. The LORD Himself counseled Cain, who refused to listen and then chose the way of murderous envy and hatred (Gen. 4:6-7).
The principle that each child makes his own choice is explicitly taught in Ezekiel 18:5-18. A righteous father who keeps God’s law (vv. 5-9) has a son who rejects his father’s ways and lives lawlessly (vv. 10-14). Finally, the wicked son has a child who turns from the evil of his father and pursues God’s righteous ways (vv. 15-18). We also see this illustrated throughout the Old Testament, especially among the kings, where we observe that righteous men often have wicked sons and sometimes vice versa. Jesus also warned that the gospel would divide families because of the choices made by each individual. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…” (Luke 12:51-53a).
6. We Are Dependent upon God’s Sovereign Grace to Save Our Kids
We cannot save our children by our good parenting works. Our children are born with a sinful nature and are spiritually dead (Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:1-3). Apart from God’s grace, the world and the flesh are attractive to them, and the wisdom of God appears as foolishness to them (1 Cor. 2:14). Even if we were perfect parents, apart from God’s grace, they would still rebel against us, just as Cain rejected the LORD’s counsel. And we aren’t perfect parents. If our children were blank slates, our parenting failures (selfishness, anger, inconsistency, pride, etc.) would make a mess of them. While it is good that we strive to be faithful parents, we are totally dependent upon God to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts. But the sovereign grace of God also gives us hope. No matter how long and how far our children have wandered into the far country, our God is still capable of bringing them to their senses and to Himself. This should keep all parents on their knees.
Conclusion – Learning to Love a Prodigal
The much-beloved parable of the prodigal son brings hope to parents whose children are wayward that perhaps one day their prodigal will come home. This parable also illustrates God’s great love towards us, that while we were yet sinners, He sent His Son to die for us so that we could be rescued from the far country (Rom. 5:8). As we better comprehend the love we have experienced, we are able to persevere in loving children who have broken our hearts. We continue to look down the road, hoping to see them returning to the Lord and to us.
Questions for Reflection
- How would you counsel parents who blame themselves for their wayward young adult?
- Are church leaders always disqualified if they have wayward children?
- How can the church support parents of prodigals?
Jim Newheiser is an individual associate member of the Reformed Baptist Network. He serves as the Director of the Christian Counseling program and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He also served in pastoral ministry for over thirty years in Southern California and Saudi Arabia, and has been the director of The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD) since 2006. He is a Fellow and a board member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).