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Loving the Prodigal Who Seems to Hate You

The way we love sinful people must be patterned after the rugged love God has for us.
By Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert


If you live with a prodigal, you know what it means to love someone. Love is a means of survival. Love is what gets you up each morning and inspires you to serve someone who acts like they hate you. Loving this way means duty, sacrifice, responsibility, and resilience.

But there is a side of love that's difficult to face. You've had a taste of it already if you are persisting in hope that this person you love might change.

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 is enamored with their sin and does not care about the consequences—the pain and hurt it causes others.

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 love that is courageous. They need to have conviction and a clear conscience. To love a wayward rebel, you need a rugged love that is rooted in the hope of God's promises.

Rugged love is the way God engages and reaches sinful people. We are all wayward, dead, and 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;
  • 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 are all connected by a common compromise: Bonnie, Walter, and Zoe are all tolerating evil. If you ask them why, they say they do it all for love.

When someone you love goes wayward, the worst lies are not 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 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 it and put it out of their minds, then 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 that God will do a miracle. But it's a naive 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" (Romans 12:9). True and genuine love abhors evil. This means that we loathe and stand in opposition to it.

Abhorrence leaves no room for denial. It means that we have eyes to see evil and the 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, it's abhorrence in action, an unwavering commitment to eliminating the threat without hesitation or indecision.

God’s response to evil

The gospel does not 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" (Romans 1:18).

God's wrath is His settled and determined response to injustice, sin, rebellion, and evil. He cannot tolerate it, and He will not accommodate it in any way. Christ did not come to earth to paper over our offenses against God. He was not 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 Corinthians 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 this love, 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.

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 and evil. God's law, given to us in the Old Testament Scriptures, 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 us to forgiveness in Christ.

 The key to rugged love

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.

But 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 is not 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 is never loving or gracious to forgive someone simply to accommodate further sin.

Loving like this is not 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 humongous 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 (Hebrews 13:5) and that He is truly with us until the end (Matthew 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?

Let’s face it—anyone embracing rugged love faces huge emotional hurdles. It feels like we are piling on, like we saw a drunk fall down in the street and decided to go over and kick him to teach him a lesson. But if we’re serious about helping people enslaved in deep patterns of selfishness, we will find faith to think honestly and deeply about the gracious grit of real love.

Doing so could make a dramatic difference in the life of the one you love.

On FamilyLife Today®, Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert address the topic of rebellion and expand the idea of a prodigal to include anyone who has strayed. A must-have resource for every believer struggling to love the prodigal back home again, their book, Letting Go, is ideal for parents and siblings, counselors, pastors, and those ministering to hurting families and churches.


Loving the Prodigal Who Seems to Hate YouAdapted from Letting Go, by Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert. Copyright © 2016 by Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert. Used by permission of Zondervan.



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