Let me tell you the story of two fathers whose families attend the same church in Tennessee. Both had daughters in high school. One day several years ago, Joe’s daughter, a 17-year-old junior, walked into the living room where he was reading the newspaper. She sat heavily on the sofa across the room without saying a word. Her eyes were red and swollen. After a few seconds, he noticed she was in the room with him, and he saw she had been crying. He put down his paper and asked, “What’s wrong, honey?”

She looked down at the floor, “Mom told me I have to tell you myself.” She began to sob.

Joe got up and crossed the room. He sat next to her on the sofa and put his arm around his dear daughter and told her, “Oh, it can’t be that bad. Tell me what’s going on.”

“But it is that bad!” she shot back. “Daddy, I’m pregnant!”

Joe became rigid and tears welled up in his eyes, but not the tears of sorrow and compassion. His were tears of rage. After a long, tense moment, he stepped away from his daughter and growled, “How could you do this to me? You know how I’ve tried to raise you, and look what you’ve done!”

She was crying uncontrollably now, but he continued his tirade. “You listen to me. I don’t want this baby, and I don’t want you. Get your things together and leave right now! Don’t ever set foot in this house again. Do you understand me?”

She nodded meekly.

As he stormed out the door, he added, “You have made me ashamed to be your father.” His daughter left that afternoon.

Joe’s friend Frank was the pastor of their church. Six months after Joe’s daughter announced her pregnancy, Frank told the congregation that he wanted to speak on a personal subject for a minute in church that morning. He swallowed hard and began, “I want to tell you about something before you hear it from anywhere else. I asked my daughter if I could tell you, and she said yes. My 16-year-old daughter, Marianne, is pregnant, and as you know, she’s not married. She told me the other day and her heart was broken. She said, ‘Dad, I’ve messed up, and I’m so sorry. Will you please forgive me?’ She expected me to get angry, but my heart was filled with love for my sweet daughter. I put my arms around her, and I told her, ‘I love you so much. There’s nothing in the world you could do to keep me from loving you.’

“She looked at me through her tears and asked, ‘But Dad, what about your position in the church? What will people say … about you?’

“I told her clearly, ‘Darling, I don’t care if they fire me from the pastorate or if they ask me to resign. I’m going to stand by you, no matter what.’ So I want you all to know today that my daughter is pregnant. We don’t believe in abortion, so she will have the baby. Whatever assistance she needs, my wife and I will gladly provide for her. I don’t approve of what she did, but she is my daughter and I love her.”

Guess which daughter is walking with God today? That’s a pretty easy one, isn’t it? Joe’s daughter is lonely, bitter, and has experienced several failed marriages. She feels far away from her father, who is still ashamed of her, and far away from God as well. Frank’s daughter is a vibrant Christian who has a wonderful ministry to unwed mothers.

Love and bitterness are both incredibly powerful. One has the power to heal; the other has the power to kill. Parents of prodigals are challenged to respond like the father of the prodigal in Luke 15, with unconditional love. We don’t have to approve of the prodigals’ behavior, but we affirm that we love them no matter what they’ve done and continue to do.

Why don’t we love unconditionally?

Many parents are terribly embarrassed by their prodigals. Sometimes after I talk about this subject in churches and conferences, parents come up to tell me I don’t understand. They explain in whispers that their child is a homosexual … or in prison … or living with another woman … or whatever. Then they follow this revelation with the self-evident disclosure, “And I am so embarrassed.”

Let me make this very clear: Just because your child is living in sin, you have no right to love him or her less. You don’t need to approve of your prodigal’s behavior but you are commanded by God to love the person anyway. Unconditional love means we love our children for who they are, not what they have done.

Did God insist that you and I straighten up before He loved us? Paul tells us clearly: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “While we were still sinners.” That’s when Christ made the supreme sacrifice and showed the depth of His great love toward us! Do you think Jesus’ loving actions meant that He approved of our sins? Of course not, but Jesus didn’t demand that we stop sinning before He loved us. If He had, we would be in terrible shape, wouldn’t we?

A second reason we may fail to love our prodigals is bitterness. We become angry with them for acting so foolishly, our anger gradually turns to resentment, and resentment festers into bitterness. The writer to the Hebrews recognized the threat that bitterness poses to relationships:

“Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord; looking diligently lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and by this many be denied”
–Hebrews 12:14-15

Bitterness prevents any closure or healing of pain. It leaves us desiring revenge instead of healing and compassion. We may not think of our angry behavior as revenge, but that’s exactly what it is when we gossip about our prodigal, when we withdraw from her, when we find subtle ways of hurting him by giving a better gift to the “good child,” or when we feel joy when the prodigal experiences hardships. We call it “justice” when he gets what we think he deserves, but “revenge” is a more accurate term.

A third reason we fail to love our prodigals is that we have developed a habit of living at arm’s length from them. In the beginning, we tried everything we knew to do to help them change. When that didn’t work, we felt resigned to a degree of coolness and distance in the relationship. We avoided talking about the real hurts and problems because they were just too painful. And besides, discussions about those things only brought more anger and discouragement. It was easier just to back off.

Steps to take

I’m absolutely sure you want to love your prodigal unconditionally, or you wouldn’t be reading this article. You may struggle with bitterness, and you may be embarrassed by your prodigal’s behavior, but love covers a multitude of sins—yours and your prodigal’s. Let me give you some specific steps to take to begin to show a deeper level of love.

First, be honest with God. If the Holy Spirit has let you know that your attitudes, words, and actions have been unkind toward your prodigal, agree with Him. Maybe your sin is that you have failed to love your prodigal with the unconditional love of Christ. All of us have failed that supreme test to some degree, but some of us have failed it miserably. Let God’s Spirit shine His light on your heart and give you insight about the quality and depth of your love for your prodigal.

Second, spend plenty of time letting God’s grace sink deep into your own heart. Maybe you should reread this article a time or two. It may be a good idea to pray through the passages we’ve addressed. Ask God to open your heart to comprehend His love more deeply than you’ve ever known it before. Focus on your own experience of agape love before you try to express it to your prodigal.

Third, take action. In their excellent book, The Blessing, John Trent and Gary Smalley outline the ways the patriarchs gave blessings to their children. They suggest that all parents can give a blessing to their children that will provide confidence, hope, and strength. I want to adapt their suggestions for parents of prodigals. We can give our sons and daughters a blessing by offering affirming words, meaningful touch, third-party compliments, meaningful gifts, and quality time.

Affirming words: Our words come more from our heads than from our mouths. In other words, what we think about influences what we say. Analyze your thoughts to determine if they honor God and edify the person who hears them. If they meet that standard, keep on thinking them! If not, replace them with positive thoughts.

Many of us think we have no control over our minds, but that simply isn’t true. We are stewards of our minds just as much as we are of our wallets and schedules. You can’t expect to speak words of grace if all your thoughts condemn a person. The battle is fought primarily in our thought-life. Fight hard, trust God, and win the battle.

Look for things your prodigal does well. You may have to look hard to find something positive to say, and to be honest, you may have gotten out of practice after years of bitterness. But learn again how to find and speak affirming words. If you practice diligently and trust God for wisdom, they’ll come.

Be sure you don’t go overboard when you start using affirming words. If you say too much too soon, it will sound phony. It is better to say a word or two sincerely than to back up the dump truck with too many insincere compliments! And when you begin, expect nothing in return. Your prodigal may be caught off guard, and might even get angry because you waited so long to say things he longed to hear years ago. He may even have given up on hearing them, and will feel uncomfortable when you do express yourself. So speak simply and sparingly at first, and always with complete honesty.

Meaningful touch: Psychologists confirm what we know instinctively: physical touch is one of the most powerful ways to communicate love to someone. A kind hug or a pat on the back can mean more than you know to one who considers himself an outcast. Some families are “huggers,” and some aren’t. In the families that hug a lot, not hugging a prodigal communicates that he is an outcast, unwanted and unaccepted. So in your attempt to reconcile, you may need to ask for permission to hug him again. Don’t despair if he refuses out of his deep hurt. Your attempt is the first step toward opening the door to meaningful interaction, including hugging again when the time is right.

In the case of families who never tended to hug much touch is not an option. It is a necessity to show genuine affection to someone you love in order to fill in the holes left by a lifetime of neglect. If hugging seems to be too threatening for the person, try a pat on the hand or the back, or simply a handshake.

Third-party compliments: Have you ever noticed how children beam with delight and pride when their parents tell a friend about their accomplishments in their presence? My children do. Third-party compliments are powerful when wanting to assure someone you are sincere in your appreciation. Tell a friend, neighbor, or family member what you admire about your prodigal. If he’s standing there, fine; if not, maybe he will hear about it later. Either way, you are sowing seeds of kindness and confidence. Who knows when and where they will spring up and bloom?

Meaningful gifts: Some of us have used gifts as attempts to manipulate wayward family members. We have given in order to get something, or we have withheld gifts to make a point or to punish them. Some of us have given our prodigals 348 audiotapes on topics such as “How to Turn Your Life Around,” “Stop Being Foolish,” or “Repent, You Prodigal!” If you’re guilty of such “giving,” stop. Instead, think about what the person values and give a present that says, “I understand what’s important to you, and I love you.” Consider giving a present at a time that doesn’t require one. The gift doesn’t have to be expensive at all, just something thoughtful.

Quality time: Some parents manage to spend lots of time in the proximity of their prodigals—perhaps taking care of their kids or helping out in some other indirect way. Other parents have been so angry so long that they have lost touch with their prodigal sons and daughters. If you already spend time helping them, think about how you might use that time to interact more personally. For example, you might tell your prodigal some good news about a friend of his or hers (being very careful to avoid gossip). If your relationship is distant and strained, begin by writing letters. Later try some phone calls, and as the comfort level rises for both of you, consider face-to-face visits. Make the first personal visit very brief and positive. As your relationship is strengthened, you can begin to spend more time together.

The final step is to take the risk of loving. The kind of love Jesus speaks of in Luke 6 is risky. He instructs us to give sacrificially, expecting nothing in return. If we harbor hopes that our prodigals will change magically and make us happy, we will probably be very disappointed. Genuine love always involves risk: the risk that we won’t be appreciated, the risk that we will receive anger in return for kindness, or the risk that as we move toward our prodigals, they will move farther away.

We also take the risk that others in the community (and even in the church) will criticize us if we display unconditional love toward a prodigal. Their scorn toward the prodigal quickly spreads to anyone who supports him or her. We need to remember that Jesus took a lot of flak from the Pharisees for showing kindness to sinners. If you show love to your prodigal, you may catch flak from the “Pharisees” in your church, too. But if you recall, that was the very reason Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son. He wanted to show the rigid, self-righteous religious contingent that God’s heart was big enough to forgive even sinners.

But the risk of loving is always a risk worth taking. Jesus took that risk with every person on the planet. Some have embraced His offer of love, but many more have rejected Him. Some keep Him at arm’s length, and others are confused by His grace. Yet no matter how we respond. He keeps reaching out again and again to show His love. He is the example we should follow in our relationships with those to whom we desperately want to communicate love and peace.

Adapted by permission of Phil Waldrep from the book entitled Parenting Prodigals, copyright date 2004 by Phil Waldrep. All rights reserved. Find out more about Phil’s ministry at www.philwaldrep.org.