Engaging the prodigal
New hope for parents of children who have wandered from the faith
Of the many challenges in Christian ministry circles, one of the biggest is dealing with a child who has wandered from their faith. It can make you feel unqualified to share your faith and the practical aspects of the Christian life with others since you have been unable to convert your own child. In her book Engaging the Prodigal,1 Carol Barnier gives some helpful insights for parents of prodigals. Rather than focusing on why children wander from the faith, she debunks some popular myths.
Myth 1: Perfect parenting makes for perfect children
The perfect-parenting myth causes many parents to stumble. The truth is—none of us parent perfectly. Also, your child has free will and may make poor choices despite your best efforts. Accepting these realities will free you from debilitating guilt and make you much less defensive when dealing with your prodigal.
Myth 2: The Bible says it’s my fault
The Bible contains many admonitions about child rearing. Perhaps the most well known is the proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 NASB). This verse is often quoted as a promise, but it is actually a wise saying. And though it is very instructive, it doesn’t guarantee good parenting will produce the perfect kid.
Myth 3: I can rescue my child
Most of us would admit logically that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be rescued. But this truth can be especially difficult for us in ministry to acknowledge. We often have a “messiah complex,” thinking that if we pray hard enough, say the right things, or find the right book, we will be able to help this or that misguided person. This feeling intensifies with our own child. It’s only when we realize that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved that we can properly assess how to best handle our prodigal.
Myth 4: This child just wants to push my buttons
The prodigal isn’t thinking about his parents when he’s acting out; he’s only thinking about himself. But parents often feel their child is trying to hurt them or get back at them. The best approach to dealing with a rebellious child is to remember that this is about them, not you. Drawing clear boundaries on who is responsible for what helps give parents a proper perspective.
Myth 5: If I can say the perfect thing, my child will finally get it
Every parent wishes they could say a magic word that would turn their prodigal around. But these young people need to get to the end of their rope before they’re willing to change. The New Testament prodigal needed to end up with pigs before he was ready to come home. If parents can be released from feeling they have to say the right thing and make every conversation count, they can relax and begin again to have normal conversations with their children.
Myth 6: If I can let her know how badly she’s hurting us, she’ll stop
Young adulthood is a self-absorbed time, even for the most well-balanced person. People this age are using all their energy trying to figure out who they are. People who’ve rejected their parents’ faith may never realize all the pain they are causing. So wise parents don’t waste time or energy on trying to get their prodigals to understand what they are doing; instead, they save their energy for battles they can win.
Myth 7: My mistakes will scar her forever
Some parents have done destructive things to their kids. Hurtful and unhealthy behavior can cause kids to try to get as far as possible from a faulty parent. Have hope. We serve a God who forgives and forgets. Whether our children will be as forgiving is uncertain, but restitution is a good first step. Focusing on a God who can bring good from bad can bring hope to the worst of parents.
In conclusion, life with a prodigal is challenging. And a parent may never know why their child has left the faith. But by debunking many of the myths associated with prodigals, parents can let go of debilitating guilt and gain a new perspective, which will hopefully enable them to build a new relationship with their child.
1. Carol Barnier, Engaging the Prodigal: Clear Thinking, New Approaches and Reasons for Hope (Moody Publishers, 2012).