Love Has Teeth
When you love someone who continually makes wrong choices, what should you do? Co-authors Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert remind listeners that even though you'd do anything to see your loved one restored to the right place, the prodigal mindset doesn't respect the fear or neediness of the person trying to love them. So the offended must exhibit a rugged love that draws boundaries, and must not enable sinful behavior.
About the Guest
Dave Harvey (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Great Commission Collective, a church planting ministry in the US, Canada, and abroad. Dave founded AmICalled.com, pastored for thirty-three years, serves on the board of CCEF, and travels widely across networks and denominations...more
When you love someone who continually makes wrong choices, what should you do? Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert say, the offended must exhibit a rugged love that draws boundaries, and doesn’t enable sinful behavior.
Love Has Teeth
Bob: When someone you love turns away from you, how should you respond? Dave Harvey says you need to respond with rugged love.
Dave: “Rugged love is courageous enough to enforce consequences.” So, the woman and the man—they’re sitting at the table and she’s saying: “Well, no. I’m done. I’m out of here”—but I have these expectations, you know, that: “We’re going to share the bank account, and you’re going to fund some of this,”—and that: “I’m going to maybe live here for a while.”
Part of what love does is: “Love recognizes that there can be a redemptive force in consequences.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, October 10th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How can we practice rugged love with the wayward souls in our lives? We’ll explore that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Like you, Dennis, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with somebody who is headed in the wrong direction with their marriage. They are headed out rather than headed in. Instead of wanting to fix things and pursue oneness, they want to move away.
One of the things I’ve tried to do in those moments is just a little reality check and say: “I want to take you out to five years from now. I’d like to visit where the path you’re going is likely to lead, based on where it’s lead other people.” And to say: “Here’s what’s coming up for you: a wedding in the future, where your daughter doesn’t want you to walk her down the aisle because of the hurt that occurred from this; or an event with the extended family / holiday events, where you’re not invited; or where you get Christmas afternoon for a few hours rather than being with the grandkids,”—
—just trying to paint a picture of the fact that the path you’re on in the moment may feel like a path of happiness, but there’s bitter fruit attached to that.
Dennis: You know, what you’re talking about, Bob, is a prodigal. We typically think of prodigals being children who break out of the family unit and go sow wild seeds, but you’re really talking about a larger group of people—even within the Christian community—that we all know, from time to time, who want to leave that which they’re responsible for.
Dennis: We have a couple of pastors with us who have faced this situation, repeatedly. Together, they have more than 50 years of pastoring the flock of God. Paul Gilbert and Dave Harvey join us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Dave: It’s great to be here.
Paul: Thanks so much.
Dennis: They’ve written a book called Letting Go, which is Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. It’s all about: “How do you deal with a prodigal?
“How do you deal with someone who is headed off for what Bob described ‘a rugged, rugged life’?” You guys say you’ve got to meet a rugged life with a rugged love that has teeth. Explain what you mean by love with teeth.
Dave: Yes; I think we first have to appreciate that there is a tension that somebody, who loves a wayward person, has to live in; and that is you have this person who wants to do the right thing—wants to obey God, wants to apply the Scriptures, wants to love them—and will do almost anything—
Dave: —to see their loved one restored to a right place and in a position where they’re moving in the right direction.
Then, on the other side, you have this wayward person—who is content to do nothing, who has made no investment in the relationship, who has no incentive to move forward—
—and not only that—but the mindset that they’re in / the wayward mindset doesn’t respect the fear or the neediness that it perceives in the person who’s loving them.
Dave: So, you have this set-up where most people, as they’re trying to actually help a loved one, are perpetuating the problem because of—they’re leading, or living, or loving out of their fear.
Dennis: —and they get too soft with them. They actually—instead of bringing a tough love / a love that has teeth—instead, because they don’t know what to say, they say nothing. Or they try to come alongside them and say, “Well, you know, I’ll just long-suffer with you,” and say nothing about the wrong choices they’re making.
Paul: I think part of it is, as we’re defining rugged love, that we’re also defining what love isn’t. Oftentimes, when parents or a spouse is moved—to sort of rescue their wayward person from the consequences of their choices; or they’re functioning in an over-responsible way; or they’re appeasing; or they’re entitling / all those things—
—can feel, in a moment, like its love. But it actually has the opposite effect.
In helping people think through what it means to love, biblically—to have as what Dave said: “love with teeth”—a fully orbed love / a love that desires to see God’s best happen for them—I have to be honest—sometimes, I may not want to confront a prodigal; because I fear losing the relationship; or I fear what will happen if they don’t heed my counsel; or I don’t like the way I feel when they become upset. It’s really a self-protective measure. While it feels loving; in fact, it’s empowering / it’s enabling that wayward person toward a destructive pattern of choices.
Dave: And it’s embracing a lie—it’s embracing the lie that says that: “If I cooperate / if I accommodate, that somehow that display of what I’m calling love is going to help them and move them in a good direction.” That’s where, at the very bottom of this, we have to drive a stake that says that: “Love”—in the biblical sense—“Love does not enable sinful behavior.” Anytime that love begins to enable sinful behavior, we start moving a wayward person away from God and not toward God.
Dennis: It’s why a parent is set up to be an enabler with a child—
Paul: Very much.
Dennis: —because a child, as someone has said, is a parent’s heart walking around outside their body. To hurt that child, hurts the parent. The parent thinks, by letting the child hit the wall and then picking them up / taking them out of a difficult situation and not confronting the behavior, full-on—
—they think, at that point, that’s really love. When in essence, it may be that it’s time to draw some boundaries / some really strict boundaries in how you’re going to relate to one another, going forward.
Bob: Okay; so, let me give you a couple of scenarios. You tell me what the rugged love kind of response would be in these scenarios. A husband and wife are having dinner. He knows that their relationship has been strained / there’s been a distance. It’s been growing for a while. They’re out for dinner—she looks up at him and she says, “I think it’s time we talk about what’s really going on.” She says: “I don’t love you anymore. I’ve felt this way for a long time. I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” He says, “Is there somebody else?” She doesn’t want to admit it, but there is somebody else—she says, “Well, I have met someone.”
In that moment, here’s this guy, who would say: “I’ve let a lot slide in my marriage.
“We shouldn’t have gotten to this point, but I want to respond rightly. I want to respond in a godly way to what my wife is saying to me in this moment. What I’m feeling is: ‘Well, just get out of here,’—or the hurt, the betrayal, or the anger—or ‘I’ll do anything to save our marriage.’” Are either of those the right response?
Paul: Before we kind of dive into this, I think one thing we have to talk about is—all these things are contextual. There are a lot of things that are variable that are at play: “Are these professing Christians? Are they in a local body? Do they have Christian friends around them?”
Paul: And so I think—
Bob: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that scenario. You’ve got to know a whole lot more of the background to be able to answer it well.
Paul: Right; but I do think there’s probably certain things that are really important. As much as there’s an immediate personal betrayal that’s felt, I think that a singular goal, at that point, is to really begin asking questions:
“How do you think God sees this? What do you believe God would have as the design and goal of our marriage? As you’re making this decision, are you bringing God’s Word to bear in this at all? Who have you talked to about this?” Does this person know what a Christian is and, willingly, doesn’t want to go there / doesn’t want to submit their life?
Bob: What we’re really saying is that what is showing up as betrayal or waywardness is really a profound spiritual issue. The bigger issue has to do with this person’s relationship with God than it does with how it’s being felt in our circle; right?
Dave: And the reason we’re calling it rugged love is not because it’s going to feel good. In fact, there’s a lot about how we’re defining this that’s totally counter intuitive, but because it’s a way to apply Scripture in some of those very complicated situations.
For instance, you know the definition we give the first one is that: “Rugged love is strong enough to face evil.” So, there’s a lot of guys, back to your illustration, that might sit across from a wife and just say: “You know, that’s not important. What’s important is that I love you. We don’t even need to worry about that. I just want…”—as if it didn’t happen, as if we can live in denial, as if we can just ignore that and ignore some of the things she’s saying. But a real biblical love / a love that is rugged is strong enough to face evil.
Let me just give you a second one, because it will help to understand some of the applications. Another facet of this: “Rugged love is tenacious enough to do good,”—so, it brings good into play—and the tenacity that is required for somebody, that’s being continually sinned against, to say: “I’m going to demonstrate a love, that even though I know I’m being sinned against, I’m going to meet that with mercy.
“I’m going to meet that with goodness. I’m going to meet that with some action of love.” I think that, when they begin to take those steps, they’re beginning to work with a more biblical / more rugged love.
Bob: When you talk about the tenacity to do good, you’re talking about something more than “I’m going to send her flowers tomorrow and hopefully woo her back with that.” You’re talking about the kind of love that says: “I’m going to put your interest / your good ahead of my own. I’m going to sacrifice so that, ultimately, you can be restored in your relationship with God and, hopefully, restored in your relationship with me. I’ll sacrifice to make that happen.”
Paul: Another way to think about this, in just pressing into this rugged love idea in the same illustration, is that: “Rugged love is courageous enough to enforce consequences.” So, back to the woman and the man—and they’re sitting at the table and she’s saying: “Well, no. I’m done. I’m out of here,”—
—but I have these expectations that: “We’re going to share the bank account, and you’re going to fund some of this,” and that: “I’m going to be able to maybe live here for a while, and you’ll be able to kind of help me on my way.”
There may be good things to do to be a blessing to her; but part of what love does is: “Love recognizes that there can be a redemptive force in consequences.” When we read Scripture, God often uses consequences as a kind of tutorial. He’ll let the people of Israel go down into Egypt / He’ll let Babylon take them captive. He’ll let Adam and Eve leave the garden and live east of Eden, because He’s got a bigger plan. He knows that, even when the prodigal son leaves home with his inheritance, that there’s something far out there, where the world can tutor them in a way that maybe the parent, or maybe the husband, just can’t get to that.
Bob: It did take the prodigal eating corn cobs in the pig sty before he woke up and went: “What am I doing?”—right?
Paul: Yes; it’s an amazing descent for the prodigal.
Dennis: But the problem is—as we talk about a marriage relationship, usually by the time the couple have arrived at this point, where the other person announces: “I’m out of here,”—at that point, that heart is so hardened and so unresponsive to truth that even the most difficult of consequences doesn’t wake them up. What would you say to the spouse, who’s trying to hang in there on behalf of the marriage, at that point?—because they may be dealing with the person who has truly become a fool.
Paul: Yes; I had dinner with a friend, last night, whose wife left him some 20 years ago. You can imagine the father, in the prodigal son parable, standing on the road, even as he’s released his son to go to the distant country—there’s a sense that you get that—there’s an expectancy; there’s prayerfulness; there’s a hopefulness, trusting God, straining to the horizon.
I think that—you know, my friend talked about, for 15 years, he was out there, on the road, looking / making a path available back towards the marriage, where his ex-wife now could repent. The reality is—it never happened / he had to move on with his life.
What we don’t want to do is to say: “Hey this is a formula. If you just follow this formula, your prodigal is going to come running back down the road.” How long did the father have to stand on the road?—I mean, a distant country?—we’re talking months / we’re talking years. I think that’s important; because we can become disillusioned if we put this into an Americanized-time schedule: “If I do this, this is going to happen by such and such time.”
Bob: Dave, there is a reason you titled the book Letting Go. Talk about what it is that we need to let go.
Dave: Well, the letting go concept recognizes that there needs to be a rugged love and there needs to be a rugged love that includes praying boldly. There needs to be a rugged love that includes being resilient enough to forgive and to be sturdy enough to be patient. There are all these kind of aggressively-loving things where we’re doing, so that we’re not just cutting them off. The guy, who’s sitting at the table, is not just saying, “Well, I’m divorcing you then.” There’s a patience; there’s a love; there’s a prayerfulness—there’s a process.
But over time, one begins to realize that there is an entrenched selfishness that has taken hold of this person and that all of the process—all of the praying, the community, the pastors, the different things that have been done in order to serve them—does not appear to be moving them forward.
Simply remaining in the same place is not bearing any fruit. So, we introduce the idea of: “Sometimes, God lets us go”; in other words: “Sometimes, God releases us to go ahead and move forward, and to experience the life that we’re clawing after, that we might be able to experience the fruit of the choices / the consequences of the decisions; because God is big enough to be in them and to use them to turn us around.”
Paul: One of the stories that we talk about in the book that is real—and I can share it openly, because this couple has given us permission; and they have testified, publicly, about this—but a young couple had a young child, and the husband had an addiction to alcohol.
They had dealt with this issue over a number of years. They had reached a point where the wife felt like he was clean and he was living a transparent life, only to discover that, in fact, he had had a secret bank account / a secret credit card—had just really been living a secret life related to substance abuse.
She came to a point of realizing simply restarting this cycle over again—and with apologies and “I’ll never do it again,”—that wasn’t going to take them where they needed to be. So, she had to make a very, very, difficult decision that she was going to move back in with her parents, with this child, while her husband, under care from the church, demonstrated that he was able to keep and hold a job / he was able to go through counseling and rehabilitation. Then, at the same time, keeping the door open that God could change his heart; and if God did, she would be willing to receive him.
By God’s grace, that happened; but it did not happen quickly.
It happened over a course of weeks and months. It was agonizing; but at the same time, she realized, “If I don’t release him now, we may never have an open, honest, transparent, loving relationship.
Dave: Because part of that story was that they had gone through several occasions, prior, where something was uncovered; but she forgave / she just moved on.
Paul: That’s right.
Dave: They thought, “Okay; this time it’s going to be different.” Of course, he was apologetic. She eventually realized: “You know what? This arrangement is not only unhelpful, but it’s anchoring / it’s entrenching him into these patterns. So, we have to have a hard reset. I have to let him go.”
Bob: They were putting Band-Aids® over wounds that needed to be cauterized—
Bob: —and it wasn’t until she said, “Cauterization is hard and painful, but it’s the only way for this wound to be fully healed.”
Dennis: A key phrase you used, as you described that story, was that the church engaged with her and gave her—I think, what I heard you saying—the courage to establish the boundaries; then, the protection to protect her as she waited on her husband to see if he would make good on his promises; and then, be a part of the restoration if and when he was wanting to come back—but not make it too easy.
Paul: The wife, in this case, was willing to do that; but it was scary because she was going to have to relinquish the control she had attempted to maintain. It was the husband who did not want to do this, as you can imagine—did not want to live under that sort of accountable system—but there was a person in the church / a family that took him in. He was able to stay with them during this season—was able to not be his parents but to really walk alongside of him in that process.
Dennis, one of the things you mentioned before—oftentimes, when the wayward person announces their intentions or things come to light, things are so far down the road. Whether you’re in a prodigal situation or not—being a part of the family of God / having a community of people around you—it’s not the only purpose, but a chief purpose is to walk with people through these sort of seasons.
Dennis: And what a person in that situation needs—I’m speaking of the one who is married to the prodigal or the parents who have the prodigal child—they need a few couples / a few friends—comrades with them—in this battle to remind them of the truth, to encourage them to not grow weary, to do good when they are supposed to do good, but to hold to the boundary when they need to enforce the boundaries.
Then, if the person does repent and does want to come back, they’ve got the church there. Again—I want to say this again: “The church is there. A few friends can protect that parent / that spouse from being taken advantage of one more time.
Paul: That’s right.
Dennis: “This thing continues on and on and on.”
Bob: I think one other thing people might need is a highlighter and a copy of the book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls, because what you men have done in your book is given us biblical input to help navigate these difficult situations. In fact, on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, we’ve got a link to a 15-day Bible study that has been created to help you if you’re in the middle of something with a wayward son or daughter, or spouse, or family member. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and find the link for the 15-day Bible study that includes a discussion guide. There is a video resource available as well.
You can also order the book, Letting Go, when you visit our website. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call if you’d like to get a copy of the book.
The number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, what we’ve been talking about today is probably one of the most difficult challenges that any family faces. In all the things you go through, as a family, when someone wanders away from God and from you—and isolation sets in—that can be one of the most difficult seasons in any marriage or family. Our goal, here, at FamilyLife Today is to provide the kind of biblical coaching / the kind of pastoral care that people need when they go through seasons like this.
Let me be quick to say: “We believe the first place you should turn—we were just talking about this—is your local church. You need to be an active part of a local church, where you are surrounded by people, who can come alongside you, and support you, and speak truth to you in the middle of a challenging situation like this.”
But we want to be a resource as well—we have articles; we have books available; we have the Bible study I just talked about. All of these things are available, because we have listeners who have made these resources possible for us to pass along to others. In fact, every time someone donates to the ministry of FamilyLife Today, they’re helping us reach out to more people with help and hope in the middle of challenging life situations.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to continue to look at things to do and things not to do when a loved one is wayward. Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert will be back with us tomorrow. Hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, with help from Justin Adams today. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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