Loving My Prodigal
Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert, authors of "Letting Go," describe what it's like for the person living with a prodigal and the fear and shame they likely face. Harvey and Gilbert explain the indicators that tell the person when it's time to release the prodigal and let them go.
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
Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert describe what it’s like for the person living with a prodigal. They explain the indicators that tell the person when it’s time to release the prodigal and let them go.
Loving My Prodigal
Bob: Every child makes bad choices, some more than others. The question for us, as parents is: “Do we let our children experience the pain that comes with those bad choices or not?” Here’s Paul Gilbert.
Paul: If my child is lying, repeatedly, to me, then it’s obvious that paying for their Wi-Fi, their cable television, and their cell phone is probably not going to deliver us to the place that we want to be. We have to begin to think about: “What does it look like to rearrange our relationship in a way where the child has to bear the consequences for that distrust?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday October 11th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. If you’re the parent of a wayward child, you’ve got to learn how to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove in applying rugged love. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Dennis: You know what today is, Bob?
Bob: What today is? It’s Wednesday; right?
Dennis: This is a special day!
Dennis: It is Tonda Nations’ birthday.
Bob: Oh, of course!—our Tonda, who is our researcher for more than two decades—
Dennis: That’s right!
Bob: —she is the one who makes sure—
Dennis: —very ably preparing for the host and co-host of FamilyLife Today. I thought: “You know, we have been doing this broadcast for a quarter century. Have we ever sung Happy Birthday?”
Bob: No; and there’s a reason we why we’ve never sung Happy Birthday. [Laughter]
Dennis: You can turn my mic off—that’s fine—[Laughter]—but I want Keith to join in—Keith?
Dennis: —and everybody who’s out in the / the engineer room—
Bob: Out in the control room.
Keith: And everybody that’s listening.
Dennis: Yes! That’s right!—to sing Happy Birthday to Tonda.
Bob: Here we go!
Dennis: Lead us. [All sing Happy Birthday. During the singing]:
She loves it!!
Bob: Add a little harmony, there at the end. [Singing]: And many more!! [Laughter] Happy birthday, Tonda!!
Dennis: Do you feel special, Tonda?
Dennis: You are turning red as a beet, though. I love it; I absolutely love it! You’re the best! And I wish our listeners knew what a high-quality team we have, here, at FamilyLife Today. And among them is Tonda who has served ably. Thank you so much.
Bob: Well, we can just say: “If you listen to this program and you say, ‘You know, I really get something out of that program’, it’s only partially because of anything that Dennis and I do”; right?
Dennis: That’s exactly right!
Dennis: Tonda gets the credit—no doubt about it!
We have a couple of guests today, and we’re talking about a very important subject—the idea of: “How do you live with a prodigal?
“How do you put up with the nightmare that a prodigal can drag you into and keep you into?” Most of us are thinking, at this point, of a prodigal child.
Bob: Yes; but there can be other kinds of prodigals. There can be a prodigal spouse; there can be a prodigal brother or sister / an extended family relationship.
Dennis: Or a prodigal friend.
Bob: You can have somebody that you’ve been in close fellowship with, who says: “You know what? No more.” There’s an ache that goes along with that.
Dennis: Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert join us, here, on FamilyLife Today. Thanks, guys, for writing this book, Letting Go, and equipping folks to know how to handle tough assignments in life. Welcome back.
Dave: It’s great to be here, Dennis.
Paul: Thank you so much.
Dennis: Dave Harvey is a teaching pastor at Summit Church in Naples, Florida. He’s married to Kim. Paul Gilbert is lead pastor at Four Oaks Community Church in Tallahassee, Florida—home of the Seminoles.
Dennis: He and his wife Susan and their four children live there.
As I have mentioned, they have written a book called, Letting Go.
How would you describe what is taking place in a person’s life who loves a prodigal?—maybe it’s a child, maybe it’s a friend, a family member. Explain the nightmare—what it looks like / where people find themselves.
Dave: Well, the person that loves a prodigal finds themselves living in a tension / living in a very difficult—what some might feel is a nightmare—in that they have these desires to see them moving forward. Much of their time, much of their energy, much of their prayers are occupied with ideas and “How to do it differently,” “How to think about it differently,” “How to approach it differently.” They are seizing every opportunity they can to talk to their prodigal with the unfortunate assumption that, somehow, more conversation is going to produce fruit. That is, oftentimes, the expression of their fear; because they live, day and night, with this fear.
And then kind of over all of that is this shame that they carry—that is imbedded in a question that plagues their soul—and the question is: “Is this somehow my fault? Is their behavior a direct reflection on ways I didn’t love them or ways that I didn’t lead them?” It’s a question, sometimes, that they’ll talk openly about—I hope they do—but, oftentimes, it’s a question they will not give voice to.
Dennis: It can cause them to go underground and not share it with anyone, because they are so ashamed that they’ll get tagged by what is happening.
Dave: No experience drives people underground quicker then shame. It’s the thing that we are most reluctant to talk about—we feel so exposed as we begin to bring out exactly what we are feeling.
Bob: Let’s be honest, though. If it’s a prodigal spouse or a prodigal child, there may be things that we’ve done, as the other spouse or as the parent, that have influenced a child or a spouse to want out. If we do an honest evaluation, should we not bear some responsibility for this other person leaving and becoming wayward?
Dave: And this is, Bob, where it’s so important that we are involved in local churches—that we have pastors / that we have trusted friends—because we want to get the community involved in such important questions so that we never find ourselves just analyzing ourselves for how effective we’ve been in a certain role God has given us.
I think, for me, I want to know whether I’m doing a good job, as a parent—not simply because I feel that way and not simply because Kim might be giving me a good report—but because the people around me have a general sense that they know the rhythm of my life; and I’m, in general, trying to be obedient and trying to please God.
If that’s in place, then I think that gives me something to wage war against the shame with and something to be able to stand on that isn’t simply my subjective feeling.
Dennis: Paul, a part of the chaos and the nightmare of being in a situation in a relationship with a prodigal—especially one that is up-close and personal, like a spouse/ like a child—is that, usually, they are doing things that undermine trust.
Dennis: And there’s a lot of suspicion taking place.
Paul: Absolutely! I think one of the things that we talk about in helping the offended spouse or the parents—or whoever it happens to be—the pastor: “When is it time to release this person? When is the time to let them go?”
What you just mentioned, Dennis, is exactly true. One of those indicators is going to be: “Can this person, on a most basic level, keep any sort of commitment? Can they indicate, at all, in a truthful way that they are going to follow through with what they say they are going to do?”
Dennis: Or “Is their life just one layer of lie on top of another?”
Paul: And it’s kind of like an onion—you keep peeling it back—and it’s just one more lie after another.
Dave and I were talking earlier—there was a couple that we were ministry to. The wife had uncovered a number of things going on with the husband. I remember the day, distinctly, in the counseling office at the church, where I implored him to go ahead and get it all out—whatever the lies were—to do it all at once.
Otherwise, every time he says, “That’s all there is,” and she discovers more, it’s like trauma reintroduced all over again—this sort of progressive disclosure.
I told them there’s a risk in doing that: “You may lose your marriage. It may be so horrific—what’s been going on—that she just can’t remain any longer.” I said: “But I do know that—if you come forward and peel back all those onions / the layers of the onion—this is the only way that you have a pathway moving forward, where she knows: “I’m not going to hear anymore at a later date.”
Bob: As a side note to that, that’s one of the reasons why—when we talk to couples, who are considering marriage / engaged couples—they say: “Well, do I have to tell about everything in my past?” I don’t know if you have to tell every detail of everything in your past; but you certainly don’t want to get into marriage and have something come up that your spouse looks at and goes: “Why didn’t I know about that? Why didn’t you tell me? How did you keep that from me?” When those seeds of mistrust are sown in a relationship, those are stubborn seeds—the roots go down deep and that kind does not come out easily.
Paul: No; I think one of the things you can look for—and this is in terms of pastoring those who are trying to love their prodigals—is simply this: “Do you think you are the one discovering all the information—all the lies / the deceptions? And as you do, the offender / the prodigal has a convenient story to sort of match the evidence that you’ve discovered. Is that the dynamic?” or “Is the prodigal actually coming forward with information on their own / self-disclosure confessions?”
Because if they are not, undoubtedly, almost al—I don’t want to say every time—but almost always, there’s more to know. That’s always a good indicator of a repentant heart: “Am I seeking to bring my sin to light, to confess it, and then to trust the Lord to handle the results of what will happen?”
Dennis: Paul, you mentioned, earlier, that there is a time to let go. Maybe it’s after the onion has been peeled—not by the perpetrator / not by the prodigal—but it’s by the spouse—and you’re feeling like you’re the one uncovering the deceit. Repentance is not clear: “How do you know when you’re supposed to let go?” and “What does letting go look like?”—because it’s not necessarily divorce.
Paul: Right; right.Part of it is something Dave mentioned earlier: “Do you feel like you are having perpetual conversation that continually brings you back to the same point?” There’s simply no move forward / there’s no change—you’re sort of talking things to death.
Dave: Your words have no impact.
Paul: Past behavior, oftentimes, is an accurate predictor of future behavior.
Paul: I think that’s one.
“Is there a sense in which you feel like your words no longer have influence with that person?”—the other person has sort of stopped listening to you. I think that—in order to think about: “What it means to begin to let go”: “How do I arrange my life / arrange the life of the prodigal?” in a way that is commiserate with what they are entrusting to me.
If my child is lying, repeatedly, to me, then it’s obvious that paying for their Wi-Fi, their cable television, and their cell phone is probably not going to deliver us to the place that we want to be. We have to begin to think about: “What does it look like to rearrange our relationship in a way where the child has to bear the consequences for that distrust?”
Dave: And let me just add something that I think can be really important; because, sometimes, when we come upon these situations, it’s really easy to kind of bifurcate the world into sin and righteousness and: “They’re just moving towards sin; and therefore, we have to relate to them in that way.”
But I think getting some kind of physiological evaluation done—encouraging them to see a doctor and to find out whether there are any physiological components that are at work that could be causing or, at least, exacerbating the behavior that you’re encountering—could be a really important piece in diagnosing exactly what’s happening and knowing whether we need to be letting them go, or we need to be trying a round of medication, or we need to be getting our pastors involved in a more deliberate way.
Dennis: I just wanted folks to hear—in letting them go—especially parents, you may need to let your child suffer the consequences, which is what you were talking about a little bit earlier—let them hit the wall and deal with the consequences. That means stopping paying for the Wi-Fi / the insurance—all of that may put them on their own two feet and out of a car; but it may end up, ultimately, causing them to realize: “I don’t want to live this way for the rest of my life.”
Bob: Okay; so let me—in the middle of this, just, again—throw out the kind of scenario that will happen: “A child has left home; become wayward; cut off things with mom and dad. Mom and dad are praying for that child—they have prayed; they’ve reached out; they’ve pursued; they’ve been rebuffed—now, it’s just prayer. They get a call one night; and the child says: ‘I’m in trouble, and I need help.’ And maybe it’s: ‘Can I come home?’ Or—
Dennis: It may be: “I’m in jail.”
Bob: “’I’m in jail. Would you come and bail me out?’ This is the third time in four years that they’ve gotten a call like that.
“The wife says to the husband: ‘We have to help; we’ve got to open the home; we’ve got to go bail them out.’ The husband says, ‘I think we leave them in jail.’ How do you make that decision in that moment?”
Again, I know there’s a context and there’s no one-size-fits-all here. I’m not looking for: “What’s the right answer?” / I’m looking for: “How do you gain wisdom on what’s the right answer in your moment?”
Dave: Prayer is never obligatory when it comes to these kinds of these things. So, we are praying—I don’t want to just jump over that. Not making that decision alone can be really helpful—so soliciting counsel from trusted people, if they are available in that emergency situation.
But again, part of letting them go is to, ultimately, allow them to experience the very thing you are encountering. To respond in a fearful, reactive way is to miss the point—I mean, you’ve really come to this time. It may be that there is some help / some way to express love to them in that situation that alleviates some of the problem but, then, allows them to bear the consequence for it. It may be that—with where they are—it’s better to just say: “You’ve made certain choices. We’ve made our appeals. We love you; we’re praying for you. Call us as soon as you get through this,” or it may be to rush down and to begin to interact and ease their pain in some way, emotionally, without necessarily resolving things, financially.
Paul: There was a family in our church, who had an adult son who was wayward. He found himself homeless. The parents were aware of this and had stayed in touch with him. One night, he either called or showed up on the doorstep and said, “I need a place to stay.” One of the things that they did was—they said: “You can stay here tonight; but in the morning, we’re going to talk about what it means for you to learn to care for and provide for yourself.” In other words, even as he was coming in—even as they were helping him / doing him good—at the same time, they were communicating: “This is grace. We are not starting this pattern back over again.
“We’re going to have a substantive conversation about this.” He knew that, even as he was being allowed back in the home, it was temporary and that there was a larger conversation going to happen.
Dennis: I don’t want to sound judgmental here; but I think the Christian community, sometimes, can almost falsify love in rescuing people, who continually find themselves in desperate financial condition. They ask for the Christian community to bail them out, repeatedly.
Paul: Yes; I think one of the things, Dennis, that you are alluding to there—this is important, I think, for pastors / counselors—others who are working with those who are dealing with prodigals—is to prepare them for the fact that their actions / oftentimes, rugged love will seem unloving—will be judged, by other people, as being unloving; because there’s a misunderstanding about what they are attempting to do.
Dennis: They may not know the whole context of what’s taking place.
Paul: That’s right. Again, this is why this stuff works in the local church, where there’s unity in the leadership / where there’s a biblical framework for things like church discipline, resolving conflict according to Mathew 18.
We have a great example of this in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul explicitly tells the church in Corinth to let this man go / to set him outside the fellowship; because he is having this illicit relationship with his father’s wife. But the goal is always redemptive—the goal is that he will return. The goal is not to hurt, the goal is to love; and by loving them, to see them reconcile and brought back to God.
Dennis: Here’s where I’d recommend that listeners get a copy of your book; because what you outline in here is really how you can spot a prodigal, who is faking phony repentance. You talk about, in here, the person who is a prodigal—does not want to assume responsibility.
He cries out as though “I’m the victim.” If the Christian community can become, I think, conversant and understanding what you guys are talking about in your book, Letting Go, they can begin to, I think, do a better job of church discipline, and of really offering restoration and healing to people, who need the kind of love with boundaries that they need to, ultimately, come clean.
Bob: I think just the idea of rugged love is something that all of us need to be reminded of. There are times when love needs teeth, and that’s not second nature for us. Most of us are swayed by sentiment, and we get soft in the moment, and we want to do the thing that may be the easier thing to do—maybe the seemingly loving thing to do / the thing that will get the approval of our friends. What we need to do is have some love with teeth in it.
Dennis: The love with teeth, I think, is based really upon a heart of courage that says: “You know what? I want to seek the best of the one loved.” It may not be the easy thing.
I want one of you—you guys are both pastors. We’ve been talking, this week, about prodigals. You can look at each other and decide who prays for our listening audience. But we’ve got some listeners, who are facing some very difficult circumstances with a spouse / with a child. Maybe the child’s an in-house prodigal—talked to a friend, who’s experiencing that right now. Maybe the child’s an adult child and has just repeated this situation over and over and over again. Would you pray that God would give them courage to know how to provide rugged love / rugged grace in the midst a rugged life?
Bob: Yes; while you figure out which one in going to pray, let me let our listeners know about how to get a copy of the book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. You can order it from us on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order as well—1-800-FL-TODAY.
There’s also a 15-day Bible study that’s been put together that includes video resources and a discussion guide so that parents or an individual—a husband or a wife—can simply go through this material on their own to help steer your thinking if you’re in the midst of a situation with a wayward individual in your family. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about the 15-day Bible study and about the book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. Again the website: FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also order the book from us by phone at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, L” as in life, and then the word, TODAY.”
Dennis: I think Letting Go, Bob, ought to be on everybody’s bookshelf—not necessarily for the prodigal in your life—but maybe a friend / maybe a friend.
Two pastors have been doing arm wrestling, here, in the studio to see who gets to pray for the listening audience. Who won the arm wrestling?
Dave: I would love to get us started and Paul can finish us.
Lord, we are fallen, wayward people; and we love to do things our own way. We feel these wayward impulses, and we realize that You have broken in—in a way that’s amazing, in a way that’s powerful and transformational. You have saved us and shown us a love and a mercy that we do not deserve. Yet, You have also placed us in a fallen world, where all around us are people that we love and people that love others, where they are making decisions, even though they profess Your name, to run toward the world.
We pray, first, that You would bring them comfort, Lord—that the words that we’ve spoken might be an encouragement to them; might inspire their hope and their faith; Lord, might turn them toward You; might send them to their local church and to their pastors. But Lord, we also pray that you would break loose in the lives of people that are locked up in fear and in shame and that You would grant them the courage, and the faith, and the trust, and the confidence to be able to exercise a love that is rugged—a love that sees beyond the present to the future; a love that sees beyond the present to repentance and is willing to walk the hard road, because they believe that, ultimately, You will be glorified.
Lord, Your Word tells us that, if any lacks wisdom, to boldly approach You to ask—that You are anxious to give us Your truth / to give us Your wisdom from Your Word. Lord, that’s what I pray, right now, for everyone who is listening—Father, that You give them a heart of faith / a heart of wisdom—that they would be able to seek You / that You would draw close to them as they draw close to You. Lord, that You would bring the necessary resources, and people, and counsel into their lives to be able to move them forward on a path that honors You / on a path that is most loving for their prodigal.
Thank You for this time. We commit our prodigals to You, Lord. May all the prodigals, one day, run home. In Your name we pray. Amen.
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