Read about one parent’s struggle with a prodigal son. As a student minister, you may have a unique opportunity to minister to prodigal students, as well as their parents.
My wife and I were privileged to be asked recently to lead a conference on “Biblical Parenting” at a church. Our setting was a Sunday morning and the room was full of parents who maybe expected us to be a lot wiser than we really are. We began with a discussion that tried to get our minds around biblical parents. Our goals for the morning were to 1) encourage parents on our journey as disciples who wish to launch disciples, 2) provide biblical perspective and practical strategies for parenting, and 3) affirm that all of us must depend on God for His guidance and grace on the journey. We started in the Old Testament, working our way through the following:
• Noah? So godly God saved only Noah and his family, but then he got drunk and embarrassed his sons. (Gen 9:20-27)
• Abraham? Called a friend of God, but then lied about his wife to save his own skin (Gen 12:10-20). Oh and he also had kids with the maid.
• Eli? A priest … a church leader … set apart for service, but he was not known as a very good father (1 Sam 1:3b, 2:12, 2:22-25)
It wasn’t long before we gave up trying. Even in the New Testament, we thought we got close with the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15), but that was a parable. The point emerged that there aren’t many great examples of parents in the Bible who had it all together. I felt a great sense of hope that over and over I could find parents who probably wondered, “where is God in all of this?” Samson’s parents might have said, “what did I do wrong” and Isaac might have wondered what he did to get such a deceitful son.
I have felt that way too. My wife and I are the parents of a prodigal. Our son made a series of poor decisions in his late high school and college days and we wondered what we had done wrong. The hardest conversation a father can have with a son is the one I had with him when I told him his option was a faith-based treatment program called Teen Challenge or to pack one duffel bag and tell me where to drop him off. I had already sold his car and liquidated any savings he had in order to pay legal bills. He chose Teen Challenge. He chose life.
We are now 24 months past that day and he has made some promising strides, but we have memories of some very dark times. I related more than ever with the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. I waited on my son. I prayed that the phone calls at 3am would not be the coroner. I went around to various courthouses in South Louisiana and paid his fines so that if he made it through the program, he would not have arrest warrants attached to his license. I made mistakes as a father in not allowing consequences to follow his choices early on and I did some things right as I taught my son biblical values from the time he was born.
During those dark times, I wondered about the sovereignty of God. Why couldn’t He “make” my son choose wisely concerning friends, lifestyle choices, and faith? I would beat myself up and replay every trip that took me out of town and away from my role as a dad. I would wonder what I could have, would have and should have done differently. I came to the realization that God was no less sovereign because my son made poor choices. He was no less in control because I tried to “fix” things, and in so doing I became anxious rather than restful in my faith. I know that God was and is sovereign because of what He taught me.
The thing that was most poignant to me was the realization that I loved my son no matter what. I never gave up, never believed he was lost, and when I had to send him away, I cried more in those weeks than I had cried in my entire life. Even more poignant was the realization of the parallel between my love for my son and God’s love for me. The point of the prodigal is not the son but the father who waited. I realized that in spite of all of my sin, failing, and imperfections, that “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In my son’s wandering, I discovered the fidelity of the Heavenly Father.
I circled back around to a truly biblical parent. In Mark 9, a father brought a sick son (described in verse 17 as “possessed with a spirit”) to some of the disciples. Jesus was not there at the time and the disciples tried to help but could not. Jesus came on the scene and in the midst of the chaos the desperate dad cried out for help.
They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:20-24, NASB)
Help me in my unbelief. I embrace God as all-powerful, all knowing, and all-loving. I wondered why He did not deliver my son from himself. He didn’t and the journey was painful and confusing. Yet when I was honest in confessing my faltering faith, God always provided a reminder of His presence. I realized that the outcome of our situation could be a wonderful blessing or or it could be a horrible tragedy and God would be no less God.
I am still learning. I hope you draw comfort from my story. There is an awesome and sovereign God who loves us with the steadfast love of the father of the prodigal that His Son described in a parable.
Dr. Allen Jackson is the founder of the Youth Ministry Institute. He is a professor of Youth and Collegiate Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.