What Do I Do Now?
What do you do when your child leaves the faith? Author and pastor Phil Waldrep, who's studied prodigals in-depth, gives parents several practical steps they can take when dealing with a prodigal son or daughter, including: addressing the guilt and shame they feel, seeking God's wisdom with regard to their own behavior toward their child, loving their children unconditionally, and allowing their prodigals to face the consequences of their behavior.
About the Guest
Phil Waldrep gives parents several practical steps they can take when dealing with a prodigal son or daughter.
What Do I Do Now?
Bob: Every parent of a prodigal has spent time praying for that child. Phil Waldrep says some of the prayers we ought to be praying are hard prayers.
Phil: There are several hard prayers, but let me emphasize two because of the two that I discovered God uses the most. The first is—we pray as parents and as grandparents, “Lord, bring into the life of my prodigal someone who has a heart for You.” Then the second prayer is probably the hardest prayer a parent will ever pray. It sounds easy, but it is not—we say, “Lord, whatever it takes, I want You to do it.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, August 17th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Phil Waldrep joins us again today as we talk about how we can tell if a prodigal son or daughter is really turning a spiritual corner or is just looking to get bailed out of a jam.
We’ll explore that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re talking this week about what I think may be the hardest issue parents have to face. In some ways, it would be easier, I think—and maybe I’m wrong about this—but in some ways it would be easier to have a child go into heaven.
Dennis: Yes. I get what you’re saying, Bob. What you’re talking about is being the parent of a prodigal.
Dennis: I tell you what—I just want to say to the listening audience—our churches are filled with families who are grieving around a child in their family that’s not doing well.
Dennis: I mean, it’s just amazing how much shame there can be around this and how kind of underground parents go. When Barbara and I went through a period of time of struggling with one of our children, there was a group that formed—
—it wasn’t called this—but it became a POPs group—
Dennis: —Parents of Prodigals. Those moms met religiously—I mean, every week they would meet and they would get together and pray for one another. I’m going to tell you something—it was—it was agony. It was—I guess, as you were talking, Bob, I was thinking, “What would I compare it to?” It’s like divorce. Divorce is a living rejection of another human being—it’s saying: “I want out. I don’t want you / I don’t want your faith.” Basically that’s what a prodigal—
Bob: Prodigal has said, “I’m out.” It’s a divorce from the family.
Dennis: That’s right. We’ve got somebody with us whose head is nodding right here—Phil Waldrep, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back Phil.
Phil: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: You’ve written a book called Reaching Your Prodigal. You’ve been in ministry for a number of years. You have an evangelistic ministry around the country. Have two children—you and your wife have been married since 1984.
You ask two questions here, and I feel like we’ve addressed the first question; but we haven’t gotten to the second question that’s on the cover of your book. Again, the title of the book is Reaching Your Prodigal: What did I do wrong?—is the first question. The second one is: What do I do now?
What do you coach parents to do when they ask that second question and they’re in the midst of the rejection? They’re talking about what Bob is talking about—they’re hurting—their child doesn’t want their faith / doesn’t want them and may even be hostile and maybe even abusive.
Phil: Well, there are several steps that I think parents need to take if they have a prodigal child. The first one may be the most important—they need to address the guilt and the shame that they feel. They can do that by understanding that no parents are perfect and they realize that even Adam and Eve walked away from a perfect God who was perfect in every way. We sometimes feel shame and guilt.
If we do feel that guilt, then we are going to be manipulated by our prodigal.
The first thing we have to do is get in a position of strength rather than weakness. We ask the Lord, “Lord, reveal to me what I did wrong.” Sometimes the Lord does show us what we do wrong. Sometimes the Lord may affirm that we really did nothing wrong—certainly nothing intentional.
Then we know there are barriers. I encourage parents to have a conversation with their prodigal if it is possible. There are cases where it isn’t possible—maybe the prodigal is so hardened, they refuse to talk to the parents. What if—what if they can have that conversation? They need to prepare for the conversation / they need to think about it in advance and prepare their own heart. Love them unconditionally as they’re going through the process and then make the decision to allow their prodigal to face the consequences of what they’ve done.
Bob: So, if you were a dad sitting down with a son who—let’s just say this son has said, “I’m not going to church.” We’ll say he’s got a decent job / got a girlfriend. You suspect they’re sleeping together—you don’t know. You think your son may be drinking to excess—you don’t know. You call your son and say, “Can we have lunch?” and he’s been a little off-putting; but he says, “Okay. Yes; we can have lunch.” What should that conversation at that lunch table be like, as a dad, with your son?
Phil: I think, first of all, the one thing that I would address is—I would try to find a very convenient time for the conversation to take place. If you haven’t made it a regular habit of eating with your son and having lunch with him, all of a sudden, if you call and ask for lunch, red flags are going to go off in his mind. He’s going to come in very guarded.
Phil: I think sometimes you try to create a situation where it flows a little more naturally. I want to—I understand the intent of your question—
Phil: —but I want to address that. When you start that conversation, I think you need to be in a “listening” mode rather than a “speaking” mode—
Phil: —that you say to your prodigal son in this case: “Son, I sense you’re making some bad decisions. I want you to know I love you and I will die for you. I want to help you understand the consequences of what you’re doing.” Give them the freedom to speak into your life.
Now, I will hasten to say there are two distinct things I think we need to distinguish. There is a difference between a son, who’s living at home under your roof, versus an adult child who’s living away. That conversation and how that conversation may end can go two different directions. I think, when your child is at home, you have every right / in fact, a responsibility to set certain rules and to say to them, “This is the way we do it here at our house.”
Still needs to be a relationship—doesn’t just need to be rules for rules sake.
When that child lives outside of the home, you’re not in a position to set those rules. The conversation will be a little bit different when you—depending on whether they are at home or not. When you have that conversation, let them talk—let them speak into your life. As parents, we’re very quick to try to explain / we are very quick to try to correct. Sometimes, we need to remember our perspective, as a parent, and the perspective of a child—two totally different perspectives. While we may think we were trying to work to get ahead so they have life better than we did, they may sense that it’s rejection—
Phil: —that we didn’t want to spend time with them. We need to have that conversation. We’re honest in it, but we listen. Then, at the conclusion of that conversation, try to bring about some remedies—to say, “Well, why don’t we do this?” Lay it out and give them a chance to respond.
Now I need to be very quick and tell parents—they don’t always respond.
Phil: It doesn’t always end with: “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Phil: It takes a process. It sometimes takes weeks and months to get there. The conversation is a good starting point.
Bob: So we’re having the conversation—I say to my son: “I just got to say I’m watching you make some choices that I’m concerned about / some stuff I’m not sure about; but I suspect that you may be this / may be that. I think these are bad life decisions. I think they’re going to have an impact on you. I want to hear what your perspective on all of this is.” He says: “Dad, I appreciate that. I’m not in the same place where you and Mom are. I don’t think drinking’s a bad thing. I think as long as you love somebody, it’s okay to be intimate with them. I’ve looked at what you and Mom believe—I’m not sure I embrace it; in fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t. But I still appreciate you and Mom, and I just want you to let me live my life and kind of get off my back.”
What do I do at that point in that conversation?
Phil: When a child makes a choice to walk away, they’re the only one who makes the choice to come back into a right relationship with their heavenly Father. We can’t force it nor can we rush it.
Phil: So we have to begin to pray: “Lord, give me wisdom as I parent this child / as I interact with this child. Help me, Lord, to do the right things. Help me to have the wisdom to do it.”
Now one of the things that I will share with you, Bob, that you said is—you said, when you have that conversation: “Son, I suspect you’re doing…” I will be real honest with you—I think it’s healthy when we sit down with prodigals that we give them the opportunity to talk to us before we even make accusations. I think it’s important that we don’t believe everything our friends have told us.
Phil: That we allow our child to speak.
Now, we can ask them, “Son, are you drinking?”—as opposed to, “I suspect you’re drinking.” It might sound like a—little bit of a minor issue, but I think it goes to whether I am accusing or whether I’m listening.
Phil: I think that is a healthy conversation to let them have, and let them speak to you honestly.
Dennis: I would just add this—if you do toss it out—where they can begin to admit some things and they crack open the door—realize that sin has a way of layering up. What you may hear initially is a safe confession around something that you might consider fairly minor / maybe your adult child considers minor. What I think happens with parents—we’re so quick to want to rush in and rescue the prodigal, who’s now come home. We’ve got to realize that they may not be fully home yet.
Dennis: And that peeling the layers of sin back in the child’s life may be like peeling an onion. You may get one layer only to find there is another, and another, and another. They may already have begun to experience some of the consequences of their choices and may be scared and frightened but don’t know how to ultimately blurt out, “I’m hooked on drugs,”—
Dennis: —or “I’ve gotten a girl pregnant,” or “I’m pregnant.” They fear rejection so much that to truly peel the onion back and deal with all of it in one setting / in one interaction is not likely to occur.
Phil: Very true. One thing I would add—when you go to the story of the prodigal son—that I love to reference because it’s a wonderful story of a wonderful father—remember the young man was in the pig pen. Now, in that story, he did have a heart change; but I have discovered that sometimes prodigals, in the pig pen, are hungry.
They go home, physically; but their heart is still in the pig pen.
It’s important to remember that we may see a change in behavior in our prodigal without a change of heart. That’s when it’s important, Dennis—what I think you’re addressing—is that we need to make sure that, as our kids begin to share with us where they’ve been, and the pig pens where they’ve been, and the experiences they’ve had, that we listen without condemnation. It doesn’t mean we’ll approve—in fact, when I research prodigals, I discovered that a lot of them—they know what they’re doing wrong—you don’t have to tell them it’s wrong.
Phil: They already know—their parents have taught them that.
Sometimes, they want the safe zone—where they can say to a mom and dad: “Hey, I’ve got a problem here. I am a drug addict.” As parents, we don’t need to react to that with words of condemnation and say: “I knew it! I knew it! I can’t believe you did…”
Instead to say: “Son—that took a lot of courage to say that to me. You know I love you, and let’s walk through this together.” That’s a whole different reaction from the prodigal as opposed to, “Oh, this is embarrassing Mom and Dad.”
Dennis: At that point there may need to be an intervention.
Dennis: If you’re dealing with a child who has a substance abuse problem, you have to realize, as a parent, you may not be able to pull the child out of the ditch. It may come to a point that the child becomes so abusive / the child is so out of it that you literally have to set up a set of circumstances to ultimately say to the child: “It’s time to go address a very serious problem. This is a life and death issue. We’re going to give you one chance to address it.”
If anybody, who’s been off in the rehab sub-culture that takes place in the drug world, you know that 80 percent of all kids, who get off into drugs go to a rehab unit—80 percent relapse—they struggle with it again.
You’ve got to know, as a parent, when to let out the line / give them more rope, as you said earlier, and when to be there and say: “Let’s keep the boundaries up. Let’s know how to deal with this,” and to rebuild trust one day at a time.
Bob: We are talking about prodigals with Phil Waldrep. He’s written a book called Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now?
You talked about praying for wisdom if a child says, “This is just where I am,” and “I’m going to keep living my life this way,” and “Can I bring my girlfriend home for Christmas?” and “Can she stay in my room with me?” and all kinds of questions that
parents have to wrestle with. You, in your book, talk about some of the hard prayers that you think parents need to be ready to pray. This comes from seeing what God has used to crack the heart of a prodigal; right?
Phil: That’s right. Well, there are several hard prayers; but let me emphasize two because of the two that I discovered God uses the most.
The first is—we pray, as parents and as grandparents, “Lord, bring into the life of my prodigal someone who has a heart for You.” Then, when you find those people, don’t try to manipulate the relationship; but encourage them.
Then the second prayer is probably the hardest prayer a parent will ever pray. It sounds easy, but it’s not—we say, “Lord, whatever it takes, I want You to do it.” When we pray those words, we often think about the brokenness in the life of our prodigal, but what if God wants to do something in our life to get the attention of the prodigal?
When I researched prodigals and I talked with prodigals, who recently had gotten right with God, I asked them, “What was it that caused you to evaluate your life?” The most common response surprised me.
They said, “It was the sickness and death of a parent or grandparent that made me evaluate my life.”
When I heard that from so many prodigals—because it was like, at that moment, they realized—this relationship with Mom and Dad, or a grandparent, sometimes a brother or sister—but there was someone who died or someone who was very ill—I then realized, “Lord, am I willing, as a parent to say, ‘Lord, if You need to take me to glory / You need to take me to heaven, I want You to do it if it gets the attention of my prodigal.’”
Now, I’m not saying to anyone listening to us today, “The Lord’s going to take you home to heaven,” but here’s what I have discovered—when you’re willing to say, “Lord, whatever it takes…”—all the other stuff is easy. When we’re willing to say: “Lord, I come with open hands. Whatever it takes to get the attention of my prodigal, I want You to do it. If I have to walk through suffering / if I have to die, I want You to do it.”
When we can pray that prayer—and mean it—then I think God begins to get our heart into position, as parents, to reach out to the prodigal; because remember—God sometimes needs to change us before He can work in our prodigal.
Dennis: I’ll never forget talking to a young man, who was loved by his grandmother while he was a full-blown prodigal. He said, “My grandmother never preached at me, and she could have!”
Then I recall going to a funeral in the past couple of years, where a grandmother died. She asked her granddaughter, at her funeral, to read Scriptures. Well, this grandmother had been trying to reach this granddaughter and had been using these Scriptures to call her back to her faith; and she had resisted. I knew the granddaughter was struggling with her faith. I was at the funeral; and I sat there, watching this and I thought, “What a genius of a grandmother!”
She assigned the granddaughter to read the same passages of Scripture that she had been quoting to her and calling her back to. Now, at her death, she had assigned the granddaughter to read those passages. The granddaughter wept / cried her way through those verses. You just had to wonder: “What is going on in her life and how will God use the death of her grandmother to perhaps bring her back to the faith that she’d grown up in?”
Phil: I have heard so many stories, where the wisdom of the grandparent—I don’t know if I’ve heard of one where they actually had them read the Scripture—but it’s brilliant because it is the Word of God that brings conviction and brings change. Having her read those words at her grandmother’s memorial service—no doubt in my mind—God was using the death of that grandmother to bring about brokenness in her own life.
I today just want to encourage listeners because you have a son or a daughter / you have a grandchild and maybe you’re willing to say today: “Lord, whatever it takes. I’m willing to do it.” And yet you want to respond: “But Phil, what if it is my death? What if it’s like this grandmother? What if it is my death that causes them to evaluate their life? I don’t get to see them get right with God?”
My response is: “Well, wouldn’t the next best thing—being, one day, on the streets of heaven and the Son of God comes over and says: ‘Have I got news for you! The child that broke your heart / the grandchild you thought would never make it—they stood today and they blessed My name.’”
Dennis: I have to believe, right now, this radio broadcast is falling on the ears of a prodigal or two.
May it be today that you do business with God and decide to do what you need to do to be reconciled—first to God—and then, you know what? Just like the prodigal son—the story that Jesus told—run home! Find a way to beat a path home, and repent, and share with your Mom and Dad: “I’m here. I’m back. I’m ready to do business with you and with God.” That really is what the Father’s love is all about.
Bob: That’s what every parent of a prodigal is longing for—that day / that moment when a son or a daughter comes home and says, “I’m back.”
Phil, I can’t tell you the number of times, over the last decade, I’ve talked to parents who are dealing with this issue. I know you’ve talk to thousands or more than I have. But anytime I’ve talked to somebody—I have said, “I want you to listen to this message from Phil Waldrep.”
And by the way, in addition to the conversation we’ve had with Phil here this week, if you’d like to hear his audio presentation for parents of prodigals, you can go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com and download that audio or listen to it—stream it online if you’d like.
Of course, we’ve got Phil’s new book available as well. It’s called Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now? Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order Reaching Your Prodigal. You can order online, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329, that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
One of the things we have been doing this year is spending time acknowledging important anniversaries—listener’s anniversaries / we’ve even had some staff anniversaries.
Just so happens, that today, we want to say, “Happy anniversary!” to Keith and Jonel Lynch, who are celebrating 31 years of marriage.
Dennis: Oh! Thirty-one years?! Who would have ever thought you’d made it, Keith? [Laughter]
Dennis: Keith is our Chief Engineer / Grand Poobah and the guy who covers a multitude of errors that we make, here, in the studio.
Bob: When did he get the title, “Grand Poobah?!” [Clapping]
Dennis: I—I just gave it to him! [Clapping continues] [Laughter]
Dennis: Way to go, Keith!!—31 years! You’ve got the silver / now go for the gold!!
Bob: We are The Proud Sponsors of Anniversaries™. We think anniversaries matter—they make a difference in a culture. When a couple says, “We’re going the distance together,” that makes a difference.
Dennis: I performed a wedding, not too long ago, and had the grandparents—from both sides—and the parents stand up. We had 275 years of anniversaries—
Bob: That’s great!
Dennis: —being celebrated as this new couple joined hands and hearts to begin their journey.
Here’s what I’d like to challenge you with, as a listener.
If you believe in the message of FamilyLife Today—of covenant-keeping love for a lifetime, of equipping moms and dads to be better parents, of leaving a legacy for future generations—then I need you to help us. We’re a little short of the number of donors that we’ve had in the first seven months of this year. In the month of August, I’m coming to our listeners, saying: “Will you help us and invest in FamilyLife Today? When you do so, you’re partnering with a life-changing ministry that is indeed transforming marriages and legacies for future generations.”
Bob: We do want to be quick to say, “Thank you” to our Legacy Partners and to those of you who have supported us this year. We couldn’t do what we do without your support. As Dennis said, we’re hoping that some of you, who have maybe been listening but have not yet donated this year, would you go to FamilyLifeToday.com—make an online donation—or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate?
Or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today, PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk with our friend, Josh McDowell. He’s going to be here to talk about why tolerance is a good thing but it’s not the best thing. There’s something even better than teaching your kids to be tolerant. We’ll explore that with Josh tomorrow.
Dennis: Don’t miss these broadcasts. It’s going to help you know how to think in this culture but also train your kids too.
Bob: I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch—“Happy anniversary!”—and our entire broadcast production team. 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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