What Did We Do Wrong?
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If a child has strayed from the faith of his parents, it’s tempting for parents to question what they did wrong. Phil Waldrep, Bob Lepine, and Michelle Hill offer hope for families of prodigals.
Michelle: Have you ever been tempted to think that there’s a formula for raising perfect kids? So what if you did everything right, but your child is still rejecting the gospel?
Phil: I found prodigals come from every kind of family you can list. I don’t think there’s any kind of correlation that I found between those who were strict and those who were not. Now, I will say this: I did see a little bit of a tendency in my research, that where there are rules without relationships, there often are more prodigals.
Michelle: Do you have a family member, [who’s] breaking your heart?—someone you long to help? We’re talking about prodigals, and we’re going to offer you some hope today on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. There’s a story in the Bible about a man who had two sons. The younger one asked for his inheritance early; he left home with all of his money. He went off to a far country, and there he blew all of his money. Is this story starting to sound a little familiar? It’s the story that we all know as the Prodigal Son.
That is an old story, but prodigals still happen today. We still hear theses stories. And maybe your story—well, maybe it sounds something like this.
[Like Arrows Excerpt]
Mom: You know, your dad and I keep thinking that Dunwood is a mistake. You had your choice of a dozen schools; I don’t see why you had to pick the most extreme.
Son: Mom, look. I know this is hard for you—letting go—but you’ve done your job. You’ve raised me; okay? I stayed out of trouble; I got the grades; I got the full scholarship—tuition, room, and board—you did good; okay?
Are you looking through all my stuff?
Mom: I’m just looking at your baby picture, and…
Son: It’s just a book; okay You can’t really know what you believe until you’ve read all the sides.
Mom: And he teaches at Dunwood? [Traffic noises]
Son: I’m not going to do this again with you!—okay? The decision is made! Classes start on Thursday. Would you let it go?!
Mom: Ronny! What are you…
Son: Mom, let it go!
Mom: Do you have your registration and everything in your glove compartment? [Compartment opening]
Son: That belongs to Matt. He put it there the other night; he asked me to keep it for a few days.
Mom: And you were just going to drop it off by his house on your way out on Monday morning?
Son: Exactly, so….
Mom: You are not leaving this driveway with drugs in your car! Do you have any more of this stuff in here? [Rummaging sounds]
Son: Are you done?
Mom: When your father finds out about this…
Son: Yeah; okay; whatever. [Mom breathes deeply]
Hey, you guys know where to find me; right? Look me up sometime—Reed Hall,
Room 517. [Car starting] Bye, Mom. Close the door! [Door slams]
Mom: Ronny; Ronny! [Car pulling away]
Michelle: Ugh. That was hard to hear; wasn’t it? That’s from FamilyLife’s® recent movie, Like Arrows. We heard Ronny and his mom, Alice.
Basically, it was the breaking point in their relationship. Can you imagine what’s going through Alice’s mind? She’s probably sitting there, thinking, “How did we get this far? This is our sweet little Ronny! This is the child, who I raised and who I poured all my energy into! Will I see him again? Is he going to be okay?” Or maybe it’s the classic question, if you are the parent of a prodigal, the words that haunt your mind: “What did I do wrong?”
We’re going to talk about prodigals today. That movie that we just heard a clip from is Like Arrows. And that film follows a story of a young couple. You see them get married, have children, walk through the daily struggles, and eventually celebrate their 50th anniversary. One of the themes is the story of Ronny. He’s the oldest son: he’s bright; he’s talented; and he’s a prodigal.
Prodigals affect the entire family. Of course, the parent’s heart is smashed and broken; but so is the grandparents’, and other family members, and friends, and even siblings. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the movie’s producer, Bob Lepine; and we talked about how this film, Like Arrows, affected me.
Bob: So seeing the film as a single person—not married, without kids—what was your takeaway?
Michelle: My takeaway, as I watched probably the first three-fourths, I sat and watched, and I was thinking, “I wish I would’ve had that. I wish I would’ve had a family, a spouse, a family,”—that sort of thing. There was a little bit of the emotional build up.
But also, at the end, with the prodigal, I remember a little bit of weepiness that was happening. The instant that one of the siblings called the prodigal, and left a message on his machine, that’s where it broke for me. I have a prodigal in my life: I have a sibling, who’s a prodigal, and has basically walked out on the family. We have no idea what’s going on.
For me—hearing that sibling calling and saying, “You know, we really want to see you; we really want to hear from you. Mom and Dad’s anniversary’s coming up,”—for me, it was almost like the Holy Spirit was convicting my heart and saying, “You’ve stopped praying for him. You need to continue to pray; because even though there has been no contact, you don’t know what God is doing. You don’t know how He is going to continue writing this story; it’s not done yet. Hearts may be hard now; but He will continue working, and they could soften in time.”
Bob: When parents or siblings [of] prodigals go for years, or sometimes decades, praying with no visible response, it is easy to go, “You know, is this making any difference?” But as long as a son or a daughter, or a brother or a sister, has life—there’s hope—we can continue to pray, and reach out, and love them.
I remember talking to John Piper. One of his kids had a season away from Christ/a season in the desert. John said, “I sent him an email every day.” Often, didn’t hear back for weeks or months from this child; but every day sent him an email, saying, “Thinking about you,” “Love you,” “I’m praying for you,”—just wanted to be that dad, just saying, “This is what my heart is…”
I know that sometimes families—there’s anger—or things got sideways; and somebody says, “I don’t want to hear anything from you,” and “I just delete your emails.” I understand how that can be the dynamic in a family. But I think to reach out with love—that’s the heart of the Father toward us; even when we kept rejecting Jesus, He kept reaching out to us—so let’s hope that this movie will inspire moms and dads, or brothers and sisters, who have prodigals, to say, “We need to keep praying.”
Michelle: I think, in our family, we’ve gone through five years of no communication; or if we’ve had communication, it has not been positive. It has continued to break my parents’ heart. How they have consoled themselves is: “We have tried everything we can.” Now, it’s almost like there isn’t any hope. I remember, at Christmas time, we stilly share stories; but it’s almost as if there’s no hope.
That was what the Spirit was—I just really felt impressed—that there still is hope. There is always hope.
Bob: Yes; I have a friend of mine, who was watching his mother in her 80s/watching her health fail. He had, for decades, tried to share his own faith with his mom, with no response. In the weeks before her death, my friend’s daughter/the grandchild went in and sat down with grandma, and said, “You know, Grandma, death is coming. I want to see you again,”—and had a time of prayer. The grandmother responded and came to faith in the weeks right before her death.
I think the point is we don’t know God’s timing in all of this. But as long as there is life and breath, there’s hope. We can still be reaching out with kindness, and love, and concern.
I hope folks, who get a chance to see the movie, will remember that scene, where the voice mail’s going off in the future, with a little futuristic device; remember?
Michelle: Right; yes.
Bob: Kate, the sister, who’s talking to her brother Ronny, and saying, “Ronny, you don’t want to hear someday that Mom and Dad are gone, and you never made it right with them.” Hopefully, some of these scenes can help prompt change in families.
Michelle: —and a reminder that God’s timing is perfect.
Bob: That’s right. Thanks for sharing the memory from the movie.
Michelle: You’re welcome.
As I talked with Bob and received encouragement in my own story, I want to remind you that—if you are walking this prodigal journey, remember that the prodigal story—it’s a long game. As you hope and pray for your prodigal—remember that everyone grieves: moms and dads, siblings, grandparents—and you’re not alone. The devil wants to isolate us, but share that lost hope; share that grief—you know, the lost years—share that together with your other family members. I can guarantee that it will strengthen your bond together. Whether you’ve been praying for six months, or six years, or even sixteen years, don’t give up praying and hoping for them and, especially, praying for their heart.
Hey, we’re not done talking about prodigals. We’re going to talk with Phil Waldrep. He’s going to give some help and hope encouragement for those dealing with prodigals. We’ll be back in two minutes. We need to take a break.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Today, we’re talking about prodigals. If you’re the parent of a prodigal, I’m sure that there are many times you sit and say: “What did I do wrong?” “Could I have done something better?” “Should I have been more of the disciplinarian? Did I give them too long of a leash?” or “Was I way too strict?” Whatever question it is, I’m sure that it’s churning inside of you; and you’re trying to figure out, “What happened?”
I’m hoping our next guest can give some answers to you. He is Phil Waldrep. He’s a speaker and author; but most importantly, Phil’s life message is around the topic of prodigals. Here’s Phil talking with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine.
[Previous FamilyLife Today® Broadcast]
Bob: Do parents bear some weight when a child becomes a prodigal?
Phil: That’s a very good question. I think there are two aspects to that question. One aspect is: “Yes, parenting does affect our children.” However, you can be the perfect parent and still have a child, who walks away. When people look at me, and they say, “I find that hard to believe. I think if you do it right, your kids always grow up right,”—which I find, by the way, I hear that more from people, who have no children, than I do from people, who do have children. [Laughter]
I look at them, and I say, “Let me ask you this: ‘What did God do wrong with Adam and Eve?’ and ‘What did Jesus do wrong with Judas?’ ‘What did God do wrong with the children of Israel?’” You can be a perfect parent and still have a child who walks away.
But then we feel guilty, as parents, we feel shame. The very first thing I want parents to understand is, if they have that burden of shame and guilt, you must stop and ask the Lord, “Lord, what did I do wrong?” And if the Lord says, “You did nothing wrong,” then walk in victory; don’t walk in guilt. Because if you feel guilty, your prodigal is going to manipulate you. I go so far as to say that the devil’s going to manipulate you; he’s going to destroy your joy and your effectiveness.
Once you feel guilt—especially when you have no idea what you did wrong—the prodigal, especially if they’re in addictive behavior, will begin to manipulate you. You will make decisions, as a parent, that is making the situation worse instead of better.
Bob: All of us, as parents, when our kids were born, had somebody point us to the Proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he’ll not depart from it.” We clung to that; so now we think we must have done something wrong, because he’s departed from it.
Phil: One of the things that I find interesting about that particular verse is, when I began to research it, there are very few Bible scholars, especially Hebrew scholars, who told me that that was a reference to parenting in general. I’m not taking away from that interpretation, because many people have it. But instead, it really referred to a child having an interest, and we train that child in that interest. For example, if a child loves music, you train them in music; and they will pursue it for the rest of their life.
Even if we take it as a promise, I tell people: “Back off for a minute and look at what the Scripture did say: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,’—could be rendered—‘It will not depart from him,’ which I believe means that, if a child becomes a prodigal, and if they walk away, there will be a constant conviction in their heart.
Every prodigal, who had wonderful Christian parents, [whom] I’ve ever interviewed, without exception, said to me, “I know what I’m doing wrong. My parents taught me different.” I did not have one single prodigal that I interviewed blame their parents; not one.
Now, others I have interviewed since have blamed parents. But the initial 30 I interviewed did not blame their parents at all. Their parents weren’t perfect, but they didn’t blame their parents.
Dennis: There’s a lot about parenting that appeals to a parent’s pride, thinking he or she can do a better job than his or her parents did when he was a boy or when she was a girl. I can tell you this—once you have a child—who doesn’t do well for a period of time; that pride gets stripped.
Phil: It certainly does. One of the things we forget, even as Christians, is that our kids are prone to sin. We all are; we’re fallen. Because of our tendency to lean towards sin, the real miracle in a family of five kids—and four are serving God—is not: “Why is one a prodigal?” The real question is: “Why are four of them serving God?”—that’s the real miracle.
Certainly, God uses our parenting skills and what we teach. At the same time, we must remember, when we deal with our kids, that they’re prone to sin; sometimes they wander. When you go to the story of the prodigal son—which I like to call “The story of The Wonderful Father,” in Luke’s Gospel—remember, there’s nothing in that story that says the father did anything wrong. The son just, one day, decided, “I want to go live in a far country. Give me my inheritance. Let me go.” The father did nothing wrong in that story; and yet, the son walked away. You can be the world’s perfect parent and still have a child that walks away.
Bob: As you talked with prodigals, Phil—I’m just curious—some parents tend to be strict and authoritarian; some tend to be a little more relational, permissive/they let the boundaries out. Is a prodigal more likely to come from one or from the other?
Phil: I found prodigals come from every kind of family you can list. I have prodigals I talk to, and people say, “Well, they’re a prodigal; because they come from a divorced family.” No; I don’t necessarily think it’s any higher among single parents than I do among two parents. I don’t think there’s any kind of correlation that I found between those who were strict and those who were not.
I will say this: I did see a little bit of a tendency in my research, that where there are rules without relationships, there often are more prodigals; let’s make that clear. Yet, at the same time, I don’t know, if you can say: “Well, this type of parenting produces prodigals, and this one does not.”
Bob: I think what I keep looking for here is what our listeners are looking for, which is: “Is there a preventative. Is there something I could do to minimize the risk?”
Phil: Be who you are; be authentic. Don’t try to be one thing to your kids that you are not in private. One of the things I discovered was, a lot of times, what does cause barriers to be erected in the lives of prodigals that keep them away—I don’t think it causes them to walk away, but it keeps them away—is a parent, who cannot admit a wrong. Maybe we need to ask our prodigal: “Did we do something that wounded them?”
If they tell us, “Yes,”—and I’m talking about a legitimate concern—then we ask for their forgiveness. I’ll give you an example. One of my friends has a son, who’s a prodigal. He went to his son and he said, “Son, I want to have this conversation as your father. Did I ever do anything to wound you?” He was prepared for him to try to bring up this long list of sins. The young man looked at him and he said, “Dad, when I was younger, and played Little League baseball, you traveled with your job; and you never were at my games.” Then he looked at him and said, “Dad, I don’t know if I ever can forgive you for that.”
At that moment, he wanted to justify and say: “We had bills to pay,” and “This was a great job, and it was a time when the economy wasn’t good.” But instead, he looked at him and said, “Son, you are right. If I had it to do over, and I knew how it was affecting you, I would’ve taken another job.”
He said it was amazing in that moment. His son looked at him and said, “You admit that?” He said, “Sure, I admit that. Because, when I look back now, if I knew it had that kind of effect on you, I would’ve never taken that job/certainly, wouldn’t have kept that job.” He said, at that moment, the relationship changed to the better; because his son realized the father was willing to acknowledge he made a mistake.
One of the things I strongly suggest to parents, who have prodigal children—it may not be a healthy conversation—it will be healthy—it may not be an easy conversation to have. They may bring up things you haven’t even thought about. Some things maybe they misunderstood—maybe there’s a time for explanation—but I think [authentic] is the one thing that we must be, as parents, with our prodigal children.
Dennis: And it may not end in a sweet story like you just shared.
Dennis: That’s a remarkable story that that son, in that moment, turned away from a hardened heart and was softened by his dad’s response. There are some kids, who aren’t going to forgive their parents; they’re going to hold onto it, because it justifies their behavior.
Bob: But you have to think that—that humility and that acknowledgement that: “What I messed up here, I’d do that [change if I could].” Even if the child is stubborn and stiff-necked in the moment, that doesn’t go way; they’re going to remember mom or dad saying, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” They might not do that instantly; because of bitterness, or anger, or pride of their own. But I don’t think that moment goes away in a child’s life.
Dennis: All I was doing, Bob, is cautioning parents for one of those moments that it all works out. As you just said—
Bob: —adjust your expectations as a parent.
Dennis: Yes, they may hear you; and it may be months/years before, ultimately, that relationship is reconciled. What I want the parents to know is, sometimes, the race is cross country.
Phil: That’s true. We don’t get there overnight; and sometimes, we don’t have the relationship restored overnight. What I do believe happens, when parents do go and sit down with prodigals—and they’re willing to be honest and not defensive—it does remove excuses. They may not see it at that moment; but in the mind of that child—up to that point, in their mind—they’ve been able to associate a parent, who refuses to acknowledge wrong with their spirituality.
Dennis: That’s good.
Phil: When a parent is willing to say, “I’ve made a mistake, and I ask for your forgiveness,” now the excuse for staying away from God is taken away. They may not forgive the parent; but I tell parents: “Give them time, and be authentic,” and “Don’t go back to being the way you were.” It has to be a sincere conversation.
Michelle: That’s Phil Waldrep.
One thing that we all have in common with prodigals is that we all have rebellious hearts. We’ve all sinned against God; and in order to be granted forgiveness from Him, we need to repent. That’s what we need to do: is model repentance with our prodigals. Even if you got 90 percent of your job as a parent right, still go and repent of that
10 percent that maybe you did wrong. Model that for them; and show them what it is to ask for forgiveness, and be willing to grant forgiveness.
Your prodigal may be thinking of you as the enemy right now; but when you treat them with kindness and respect, it’s like as Scripture says, you are heaping coals of conviction on their head, and ultimately, on their heart.
Maybe you’re listening right now, and you’re the prodigal. Just know that, no matter what has happened to push you away, there are people, who love you and are grieved by that lost relationship with you. I know it won’t be easy to mend those fences—and you’ll never get back those years that were lost—but God can, and will, restore what the locusts have stolen. And then the end of the story of the prodigal son in the Bible, the father was waiting expectantly for the return of his son. That’s probably what your family is doing right now: waiting expectantly for you to return, and praying for you.
Coming up next week on FamilyLife This Week, we are going to talk about the gospel. Bob Lepine is going to join us. If Bob’s in the chair, and he’s sharing the gospel with us, it will be some good, gold stuff; so please join us for that.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the co-founder of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, the president, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch; to our producers, Marques Holt and Bruce Goff. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator. And Raven Simmons is our production intern.
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