Rugged Love for Wayward Souls
Pastors Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert address the weighty topic of rebellion and expand the idea of a prodigal to include not only our children, but anyone who's straying. They remind us that we are all are born wayward and need God's grace and forgiveness. Harvey and Gilbert give wise advice on loving a prodigal.
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
Pastors Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert address the weighty topic of rebellion and expand the idea of a prodigal to include not only our children, but anyone who’s straying.
Rugged Love for Wayward Souls
Bob: What do you do when someone you love—a spouse, a child, a family member—begins to wander, not only from their faith, but from you as well? Here’s Dave Harvey.
Dave: I think of a guy named—I’ll call him Tom. You know, he was raised in a Christian home / went to Christian school; but, in high school, just began to make foolish choices. His parents would be accommodating him at each step of the way, and so he was never able to experience the effects of his poor choices. That’s a great example of a wayward person; and it’s also an example of how, I think, people that love them accommodate their desires and protect them from the consequences of their choices.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 9th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
When someone you love is pulling away from you and from God, what are the things you should do, and what are some things you shouldn’t do? We’ll talk about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’ve had occasion to talk a number of times here about the issue of parents with prodigal children, but it occurs to me that a prodigal is not always a child. There can be lots of prodigals in lots of relationships in our lives; can’t there?
Dennis: There are prodigal saints. We have a couple of pastors with us, who I have just an inkling of an idea that you guys got part of your passion for prodigals and for those who are struggling / those who are wayward as you wrote a book called Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls.
Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert join us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Dave; and Paul, welcome to the broadcast.
Dave: It’s great to be back.
Paul: Thanks for having us.
Dennis: Paul is a pastor in Tallahassee at Four Oaks Community Church. Dave has gone south into Deep South Florida.
Dave: That’s right.
Dave: Naples, Florida.
Dennis: The church there is The Summit Church. Was I right about you guys first seeing this among Christians / among those who are in the church today—where you got your passion for prodigals?
Dave: Well, I think we probably first got it in the experience of our own lives—just living life—having a family / having extended family—seeing it touch people that we love—and beginning to think about what this really represents—what it represents to God / how we’re supposed to position ourselves and love them.
And then, you begin pastoring—
—you begin walking through churches and you realize that you can’t—you can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting somebody that isn’t profoundly affected by this topic. It may be somebody that’s in their home, who is a prodigal / it may be somebody that they know who loves a prodigal; but everybody seems to be connected in some way to this topic.
Bob: And, Paul, you’re expanding the idea of prodigal. We typically think of it as a child who has become wayward,—
Bob: —but there can be prodigals in all kinds of relationships.
Paul: Oh, sure! We might think about somebody at church in our small group, who decides to leave their family, or a spouse who is discovered to have some sort of secret life. It can really extend to a variety of relationships beyond just the typical parent/child. It’s anyone who’s straying—anyone who is kind of rejecting the roles, and relationships, and the voices that God has put into their lives.
Bob: And the pain that is associated when a friend, a loved one, a spouse, [or] a child starts to wander / becomes wayward—that’s a unique kind of pain. I mean, we have pain in all kinds of relationships, but there’s something deep and profound about somebody moving away from what is core to you.
Paul: It can feel like you’re losing a part of your body / one of your limbs. You keep looking down for that limb, and it’s gone / it’s absent. It’s something that is haunting. It’s an ongoing pain—it’s an acute pain / it’s chronic. And so, as such, it’s very hard to escape from it. In fact, you feel like you can’t.
Dave: Well, we live in this network of relationships, where there are all of these kinds of agreements, and codes, and implied covenants and arrangements, where we feel like we have a certain role / we act a certain way. When you have somebody, who you’re close to that, all of a sudden, says: “You know what?
“That role that I’ve had in your life—I’m going to reject that role. I’m going to back away and reject your voice into my life.” It’s a profoundly unsettling experience, which goes all of the way down to that person’s identity; because their whole world is shaken: “What else can unravel if this can unravel?”
Dennis: I had a friend one time that I had lunch with, just to plead with him about a decision he’d made to divorce his wife and leave his three daughters. I just remember the anguish I went through with a friend. Now, I had a good relationship with him; but later on, I went through that same experience with an extended family member. I’m telling you—the deeper the love, the greater the anguish. It’s back to what you talked about, Paul—feeling like you’ve lost an arm or a leg. It’s a dramatic hurt, because you really care about the person and want the best. You see them headed in a self-destructive way.
Dave: And that’s part of the importance of getting the word, prodigal, and expanding it out so that people understand that this is happening far beyond just what parents experience with kids. It happens with siblings; it happens in marriages; it happens to people that love another person as a friend; and they just see them spin out and embrace this narrative, where they are no longer responsible / they no longer have any kind of agency.
It’s funny—I was just reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance—it’s a new book that’s out. He was talking about the Hillbilly code and how there are two Hillbilly codes. One is embodied in the hard-working person, who will just always get it done.
But the other—he told a story about being in a tile factory, where he had to work there.
There was a man who was hired that had a pregnant wife—who had a great job there / he had insurance; but the guy just wouldn’t arrive at work on time. He would take breaks for an hour rather than just the regular fifteen-minute break. Eventually, the man was fired. What J.D. Vance was reflecting on was just how the man, when he would describe the problem, could never come to terms with his own sense of agency / his own sense of responsibility.
When I read that, I thought, “You know, I think what we’re talking about there is the core of waywardness.” It goes all the way back to Genesis 3: “It’s the woman You gave me, Lord.” So it’s not only “not my problem” but “It’s the woman’s problem. And, as a matter of fact, Lord, You gave her to me—so You are roped into this as well.”
It’s that sense where people—even people who say that they love Christ—can sometimes come to a place where they’ll reject the relationship that they have / they’ll reject the role that they’re in—
—they’ll say, “You know, I’m no longer really responsible for those things.” That can be profoundly unsettling.
Bob: Paul, the seeds of waywardness are in all of us; right?
Paul: Of course!
Bob: This is not something that Christians are immune to or that good people are protected from, but any of us could wander this path at any moment.
Paul: We’re all born wayward. We have a disposition that wants to wander from God—that does not want to acknowledge His authority, His rule, or His care in our lives. Of course, God pursues us through His Son, Jesus, through the gospel. So, we want to be careful here to say, “We’re all wayward.”
Paul: You know, we’re all in need of God’s grace, and His mercy, and His forgiveness.
We would distinguish between that and the fact that the wayward that we are talking about are those who seem to have found a home in their waywardness / they’ve become entrenched.
They’re not only comfortable there, but they feel like they have a right to remain there—as [opposed to] someone, who’s a believer, who’s been indwelt with the Spirit of Christ, who knows they’re wayward, trusts in the Lord—wants to return to the Lord / wants to repent of their sin. The wayward person that we write about is one who doesn’t even acknowledge that dynamic.
Bob: So give me an example, from pastoral ministry that you’ve done, where you’ve been with somebody—maybe either of you if you have an example—you’ve been with somebody, who’s one of these entrenched wayward and: “It’s just the way it is. You just need to adjust to it. This is who I am.” Can you remember conversations you’ve had like that with people?
Paul: More than I would like to remember. I distinctly remember—we’ll call him Darren. There was this pastoral crisis. The wife, named Jennifer, had said, “He’s leaving.” It just came down to the point where he even acknowledged, “I know this is not what God would want me to do, but I’m going to do it; because I think my ultimate happiness is going to be found in pursuing this other relationship,” or “…this other woman.”
Now, sometimes, men or women won’t even acknowledge that what they’re doing is wrong; although, I think, intuitively, they do know. That’s heartbreaking; because they have simply said, “I think that my path to happiness and fulfillment—I know that better than God knows and prescribes for me.”
Bob: Dave, when you’ve got a guy like Darren, who says, “I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway,” is there anything you can do with a guy like that?
Dave: Well, I think the gospel speaks to situations like that; because I think there’s a willful stubbornness that exists within all of us. You know, there’s a point of continuity where, as Paul was saying, we’re all wayward—that’s factory-installed.
Dave: So we can identify with the desire to just want to do our own thing and find a connection with him there; but then, you know, we have to be able to speak truth to that and help them to understand that there is a path that they’re beginning to walk down that has horrific implications and has incredibly bad fruit attached to it; because, ultimately, what we’re talking about is the path of the fool.
We’re not talking about, you know, those sinful patterns, even, that you might fall into—but you struggle back and forth and make a little bit of growth but, then, fall backwards—we’re talking about somebody, who is—willfully, obstinately, in an entrenched manner—electing to disobey what they know to be true in an effort to just move forward in a direction that violates everything they’ve said in the past.
Bob: They’re not saying [quoting Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing]: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love.
Bob: “Here’s my heart; Take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.”
Bob: They’re saying: “Prone to wander; I kind of like it! Get out of my way!”
Dave: They’re saying: “I love to wander, and I’m wandering right now. That’s where I’m going / that’s my destination.”
I think of a guy named—I’ll call him Tom. You know, he’s professed Christ—raised in a Christian home / went to Christian school—but just, in high school, just began to make foolish choices. His parents would be accommodating him at each step of the way, and so he was never able to experience the effects of his poor choices. In each season, he just seemed to be determined to move away from God rather than toward God / away from what he grew up with rather than toward what he grew up with.
That’s a great example of a wayward person; and it’s also an example of how, I think, people that love them can be so tempted—it’s such a strong temptation—to want to define love in a way that we accommodate their desires and protect them from the consequences of their choices.
Bob: And a big part of what you’ve written in your book is: “That’s not real love.”
Dave: That’s not love at all.
Dennis: And I want to go back to my friend—that I went and had lunch with in an attempt to appeal to him, “Don’t do this thing!” I didn’t come with stones in my hand to stone him for being this wandering friend. I came to him, appealing to him; to say: “Don’t do this to your wife / to your daughters. The trajectory of your life will not be good.” And, yet, the reality was then—and still remains today—he really refused to hear the truth and also renounced his responsibilities.
When you get somebody who doesn’t want to hear the truth, and doesn’t want to be responsible, that’s a tough person to appeal to.
Dave: It is. The good news is: “There’s hope—there’s hope in Scripture.”
There are many people who God has reached out to and powerfully transformed, who have walked that road. But understanding the nature of that waywardness, and understanding how to actually care and actually love somebody in the reality that might speed them along the way toward the right kind of help is really an important part of them moving forward.
Dennis: And I think you have to realize you’re not responsible for that other person’s life.
Dave: Which is really hard to come to terms with sometimes.
Bob: Especially if it’s your child that’s the prodigal or if it’s your spouse who is leaving you—I mean, the depth of relationship—you feel, like you said, like you’re losing a limb: “This is a part of me!” It’s hard not to feel responsible.
Dave: Part of the burden—part of the shame, part of the wounds, the weight—whether it’s parents or anybody who loves a prodigal—what they carry is a sense of / that sense of responsibility. It binds its way into their mind every day.
So, it’s not just the worry that they feel; but it’s the crushing condemnation that—somehow, in some way, that they’re not completely aware—they’re responsible.
Dennis: And they caused it. I mean, a parent is set up to evaluate all of the mistakes he or she has made in raising a son or daughter, who has taken a wayward path. It’s sure easy to condemn yourself in the midst of that. Speak to that person / that parent, who’s feeling that.
Dave: A prodigal is a great opportunity to be able to say, “You know, I haven’t been a perfect parent.” If we’re talking about a parent, there may be things that a child’s prodigal behavior does reveal about the imperfections within the home and the imperfections within the parenting, but that kind of response—the extremeness of that response—isn’t typically just that somebody hasn’t been doing something. There’s far more at work there.
Folks that are living in that way need to really understand the gospel hope and gospel encouragement that can come to them so they can position themselves in a way to really care for and love that prodigal.
Bob: I remember coming to terms with the idea that, as a parent, I felt like my child’s behavior was all about me and my parenting—that: “If I’ve done the right things, they’re going to behave the right way. If I’ve done the wrong things, they’re going to behave the wrong way.” Then I started to think about me, as a child; and I thought: “Well, now, wait! I didn’t feel that way as a child. I felt like: ‘I am the one making the decisions about these things. Sure, my parents influenced me in one way or another, for better or for worse; but ultimately, I make my own calls.’”
So when we can stop and think about the fact that our kids, even if they’re making bad choices, they’re aware that: “These are my choices. This is not Mom and Dad pushing me on the wrong path. This is the path I’m choosing to go on.”
And Mom and Dad—again, as you’ve said—we may have influenced it in some way, but the ultimate choice to become wayward is a choice that comes more from the sin nature inside of a person than it does from any external influence.
Paul: Yes; Larry Osborn always talks about how, as parents, we do have great influence over our kids—no one would argue with that—but the one thing we do not have is ultimate control.
Paul: And so, parents or spouses of wayward husbands/wives—what have you—as they delve into the book / as they delve into their own personal situations—absolutely, there’s going to be introspection, there’s going to be examining of the heart, examining of unhealthy patterns, but also recognizing that, you know, we just sow seed. God is the One who makes things grow. No matter what we do, we don’t have control of that.
Bob: So here’s my question: “If somebody is moving in a wayward direction—a child, a spouse, somebody in our small group—like you said, it can be any number—
—“I have an initial impulse, which is to feel betrayed, to feel angry, [and] to be hurt by the choice that person’s making. My initial impulse is not compassion for that person / it is not wanting to help. I feel more prophetic than I do wanting to care for their needs.
How should I be feeling? How does Jesus feel about the person who is becoming wayward? Is He angry, or is He moved with compassion?”
Dave: Well, I think there are a lot of passages that come into play there. That was part of why, in wrestling through this, we ended up coming up with the concept of rugged love, which is not a new way of thinking about love as much as it is just trying to go back and rethink about the part of love that has teeth—
—the part of love that is speaking truth is willing to enforce consequences, is willing to define behavior as it is, is willing to be sinned against and continue to show mercy—you know, the kind of love that is sturdy and rugged.
Part of what we’re advocating is that: “If God is inviting you into that kind of relationship, then you’re being invited into a season—it may be a long season. And you’re being invited into something that isn’t first about that prodigal. It’s probably first about something God wants to do in and through you, as it relates to your own heart; that is, God wants to expand out your own understanding of love so that you can enjoy it more and then apply it to another person, who’s sinning, but relate to that sinner with the kind of love and mercy in which the Savior related to us.”
Dennis: As I’m listening here, I can’t help but think about Galatians, Chapter 6, where it talks about: “If someone’s caught in a trespass…”—speaks to us, who aren’t caught—he says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
I think the nature of someone going off on a prodigal wandering—that’s really impacting a parent, or a spouse, or a close friend—the nature of it is to take it so personally that you want to preach / you don’t want to be gentle—you don’t want to seek to come after them in a way to restore. You want to convince them that what they’re doing is destructive; that what they’re doing is wrong, and appeal to them to come out of it.
I think where the Bible points us is to evaluate our own hearts first.
Then, it says: “Restore that person in that spirit of gentleness,” going as you would want someone to come to you if you were off-track.
Bob: Well, and I think it helps for us to have some coaching as we enter into a process like this, as we try to apply Galatians, Chapter 6, in a relationship with somebody who’s gotten off-track. I want to encourage listeners to get a copy of the book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls, by Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert.
In addition, I want to encourage you to go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. We’ve got a 15-day Bible study, along with a discussion guide and some video resources, available on our website. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You’ll find the link is available there. This Bible study and discussion guide will help you, as parents, or if you’re dealing with a wayward spouse—I think this will help frame your thinking about: “What are the steps you ought to be taking?”
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on the Bible study. And get a copy of the book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. Our website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com. If you’re interested in the book, you can also order by phone. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, it’s during seasons in a marriage or in a family, when somebody is wayward, that an individual or parents will connect with us—they’ll go online at FamilyLifeToday.com / they’ll call us and say, “Do you have resources available?” Here, at FamilyLife, our goal is to have available, to anyone who calls, practical biblical help and hope—whether it’s being able to listen to programs like we’ve heard today, online / through our mobile app; read transcripts of each day’s program / those are available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com; to have books available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center—
—our goal is to effectively develop godly marriages and families—and that means you have to be here and you have to be ready to know how to apply the Scriptures when you’re going through hard times in a family relationship.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to talk about how we apply rugged love when someone in our family is wayward—and that could be a spouse, not just a child. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with some help from Justin Adams. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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