Praying for Your Prodigal

Ephesians 1:18

I received an email with a heartrending question:
I have a daughter that I don’t believe is saved. I pray for her but often times I can’t. I suppose that I’m angry she isn’t responding and feel incapable of helping her. What can I pray for on a daily basis so that she will come to Christ? At times I feel such sorrow, thinking she might go to hell.
This parent speaks for mothers and fathers everywhere who pray for their prodigal children, often for years, with seemingly no results. I do not doubt that praying parents must at some point feel like giving up, and it must be hard not to get angry when you see your children repeatedly making bad choices or showing no interest in the gospel. What do you do then? How do you keep believing for your own prodigal son or daughter?
How do you keep believing?
When I use the word “prodigal,” I’m referring to anyone who has drifted away or run away or totally rejected their Christian heritage. It could refer to a college student who simply stops going to church or to a man who thinks he doesn’t need “religion” or to someone who becomes an atheist. It could refer to a son raised in the church who calmly tells his mother, “I’m no longer a Christian.” A prodigal could be a husband who one day walks out on his marriage and simply disappears. A prodigal could be someone who gets so busy in their career that they have no time for God.  In all those cases, the prodigal was raised in a Christian home or had a Christian background and for some reason no longer lives for the Lord. In thinking about cases like this, we often wonder if the prodigal is saved or lost. The answer is, only God knows because only he can read the heart. We don’t need to answer the “Are they saved?” question because for the moment we don’t know the answer. It’s usually not profitable to spend time wondering, “Were they ever truly converted?” Those questions, while important, go to matters of the heart known only to the Lord. Because we see only the outside, it may be easy to conclude that the person we thought we knew so well was never saved in the first place. But our knowledge is limited. While the prodigal may appear to have totally rejected his background, and he may give all the appearances of being lost, only God knows for certain.

The Problem We Face

In thinking about hard questions, it’s crucial that we start in the right place. Nowhere is this more important than when we pray for our loved ones who are away from the Lord. Because we have so much invested in them, we may be tempted to give up because the pain of praying when nothing seems to be happening finally becomes overwhelming. After I wrote about this topic on my weblog, I received the following email from a distraught father:
What about prodigals who have been saved and walk away from everything they know to be true? Our daughter has been drifting and living a sinful lifestyle for the past two years. She has recently chosen to totally walk in the ways of the world. She is involved in an abusive relationship and has turned her back on her parents/brothers. This is a young lady who is musically gifted, loves people, and has served the Lord since she was 3 years old.
We are a Christian family and have always been close knit. She and I have always had a strong relationship emotionally and spiritually until she got involved with the abusive boyfriend. She has given up everything she loves and has lost her identity. She continues to cut off all communication with us. It is breaking our hearts and we try our hardest to trust the Lord and believe He alone can rescue her from herself. I guess I am just looking for some words of wisdom and encouragement on how we can be the “hope givers” in her life.
Stories like this could be multiplied. And not just about our children. A prodigal may be a pastor who ran off with a woman in his church and now has rejected his family and his faith. It might refer to a brother who used to be an Awana leader who now refuses to go to church at all. It could refer to a Bible college graduate who now lives an openly homosexual lifestyle. You may have learned about Jesus from someone who now rejects the very faith they once taught you. Very often prodigals start out as people who, having been deeply hurt by the circumstances of life, feel abandoned or cheated or mistreated by God. These things do in fact happen, and they happen more often than we like to admit. If we could go behind the scenes of the “best” Christian families we know, most of them would have stories of a prodigal son or daughter or of a prodigal husband or wife. As far as I can tell, there is no way to guarantee that it won’t happen to someone close to you. For that matter, I know of no way to be certain that you yourself may not become a prodigal someday. That’s why we have warnings in the New Testament to pay attention to how we live and to take nothing for granted (1 Corinthians 9:27 is a good example).
Prodigals happenIn stating the matter this way, I don’t believe I am a pessimist. I am simply drawing conclusions based on a sober reading of the New Testament and a lifetime of dealing with hurting, confused people.
The story we call the “parable of the prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-32) is universally regarded as one of the greatest short stories ever told because it speaks truth about the human condition. Prodigals happen. This is the problem we face. My sermon is not about how to bring them back. They won’t come back until they are ready. We can’t argue them back or shame them back. If we force them back too early, they will still be in the “far country” on the inside. So my sermon comes down to this. How should we pray for our prodigals? To answer that, we first need to get our theology right.

The Theology We Need

We need to be reminded that an astounding miracle lies at the heart of our faith. We believe something absolutely incredible–that a man who was dead came back to life on the third day. We believe that God raised him from the dead. Now if God would do that for his Son, indeed if God has the power to raise the dead, who are we to question God’s power to change the hardest hearts? After all, if you go to the cemetery and stay there waiting for a resurrection, you’ll wait a long time. There are lots of people going in and no one coming out. You will see plenty of funerals and no resurrections. What are the chances that a man who had been tortured and then crucified and then buried in a tomb would be raised from the dead? The odds would seem to be against it. You can’t start with what your eyes see or what you can figure out. You can’t trust your feelings in something like this because your emotions can play tricks on you. We must therefore start with God who can raise the dead, not with the person who is spiritually dead.
Our focus must be on God alone
If it is God alone who can raise the dead, then our focus must be on God alone. Here are three verses that will help us as we think about praying for our prodigals: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1 NKJV). “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18 NASB). The heart has eyes. Did you know that? When Paul speaks of “your heart,” he’s not referring to the organ in your chest that pumps blood throughout your body. The term “heart” refers to what we might call “the real you,” the place inside where the decisions of life are made. The heart is the place where you decide what values you will live by and what direction you will go and how you will live your life each day. Every important decision you make starts in your heart. And your heart has eyes that can be open or closed. When the eyes of your heart are closed to the light of God, you stumble blindly through life, making one dumb choice after another. You fall into sinful patterns, you break God’s laws, you end up driving into the ditch, you make the same mistakes over and over again, and you enter one dead-end relationship after another. Why? Because the eyes of your heart are shut and you lack moral vision. The light of God is shut out of your life. That means you can see and be blind at the same time. That is, you can have 20/20 vision with your physical eyes, but the eyes of your heart can be blind to the light of God. There are lots of people like that in the world. Physically they can see but spiritually they are totally blind.
The heart has eyes
That describes many young people raised in the church. They know God, but their eyes are so filled with the things of the world that they are blind to the truth. Let me illustrate. Here we have a young man who has been raised in a Christian home. He’s been going to church for years—Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, children’s ministry, and the youth group. Now he goes off to college and at last he’s on his own. He meets a girl and they start dating. Soon they are sleeping together. When his parents hear about it, they are furious and worried and upset and they wonder what to do. They argue and plead and cajole and threaten and quote Scripture, all to no avail. What is the problem? It is precisely this: The eyes of his heart are closed to the truth of God. And until those eyes are opened, all the yelling in the world won’t make much difference.
It’s time to get in the game!
If our young people sleep around, or if they get drunk on the weekends, if they cheat and cut corners, if they are rebellious and unmotivated, those things are only symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental issue. They’ve never made a personal commitment to get serious about Jesus Christ. They’re sitting on the bench when they ought to be in the game. I tell you this with total certainty, once you get into the game, once Christ becomes the center of your life, no one will have to tell you not to sleep around, and no one will have to tell you, “Don’t get drunk on the weekends.” You just won’t do it. Once the eyes of your heart are opened, the light of God’s truth will come flooding in and you’ll never look at anything the same away again.

The Prayer We Must Pray

The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Sometimes we worry too much about the symptoms without dealing with the root issues of life. We should pray, “Open the eyes of their heart, Lord,” because when that happens, life will radically change. They will grab their helmet and get in the ballgame for the Lord. They’ll go to the huddle and say, “You call the play, Lord. I’m ready to do whatever you say.” One translation of Ephesians 1:18 (The Voice) says it this way: “Open the eyes of their hearts, and let the light of Your truth flood in.” That’s what prodigals need. When the eyes of the heart are opened, light from heaven comes flooding in.
Light from heaven comes flooding inSuddenly everything looks different. What seemed right, they now see as wrong. The truth they once mocked, they now gladly obey. The Jesus they spurned, they now worship. The path they followed into sin, they follow no more.
All things have become new to them. What a thousand sermons could not do, they light of God does for them. Once they enjoyed the far country. Now they long to dwell in the Father’s house. Once they lived for worldly pleasure. Now they seek to please the Lord.
With God all things are possibleOnce sin held them captive. Now their heart is captive to Jesus alone.
As I type these words, I realize some people wonder, “Is this really possible?” Could a life so far gone in sin ever been deeply changed? My answer is quite simple. We do not need to understand how it could happen. We only need to know that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope.
We all have the same problem This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones who today are far from God. As our children grow older, we discover over and over again how little control we have over them. We cannot compel their obedience because we cannot compel their hearts. But we can pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.” If you have a prodigal daughter, pray like this: “Lord, open the eyes of her heart so that she can see Jesus.” That prayer is so simple and yet so profound. Apart from God’s grace, we all have the same problem. Our hearts are closed and we cannot see the truth. Only God can open the eyes of the heart. When God opens those eyes, she will see the truth and light from heaven will come flooding in. Do not focus on her going to hell. Focus your prayers on God and his power to change her heart. Ask our Father to do what only he can do—open the eyes of her heart so that she will come to know him.

A Mother’s Tears

My favorite story about the power of prayer to reclaim a prodigal is over 1600 years old. It begins with a woman named Monica who was raised by Christian parents in North Africa. When she was old enough, her parents arranged a marriage to a pagan man. Evidently the marriage was very difficult because of divided spiritual loyalties. Monica and her husband had three children who survived. Two of them followed Christ but one son left the faith of his childhood. By his own admission, he chose the path of worldly pleasure. For many years he lived with a mistress and together they gave birth to a son out of wedlock. He broke his mother’s heart by joining a religious cult. Monica prayed for 17 years that her son would return to Christ and to the church.
“Your son will be saved”
Looking back, her son said that she watered the earth with her tears for him, praying more for his spiritual death than most mothers pray over the physical death of a child. She fasted and prayed and asked God to save her son. One day she went to see the bishop and with tears asked why her son was still living in sin. The bishop replied with words that have become famous across the centuries: “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish. Your son will be saved.” He was right. It took several more years of fervent praying but eventually Monica’s son came to Christ. His name is Augustine. We know him today as St. Augustine. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Sixteen centuries later his books and writings are still in print. He makes it clear in his Confessions that his mother prayed him to Jesus. She would not give up and eventually God answered her prayers. I think the bishop was right when he said, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” How precious are a mother’s tears! There is no substance on earth more valuable than the tears of a godly mother. There are mothers and grandmothers who have prayed their children and their grandchildren to Christ. There are mothers and grandmothers who have seen their children in the “far country” of sin and have prayed them step by step back to the Father’s House. When everyone else gave up, godly women laid hold of heaven and claimed their offspring in Jesus’ name. And God heard those prayers and answered them.
We pray because everything depends on GodPlease do not misunderstand. I do not believe that our prayers contain merit in and of themselves. But God has ordained both the means and the ends of salvation. And the two chief means of salvation are fervent prayer and the proclamation of his Word. We pray because everything depends on God, and we preach because the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Your prayers are part of heaven’s plan to reach out to the prodigals in your life and bring them back to God. If you are heavily burdened for a loved one, you may be sure that that burden does not come simply from yourself. The burden is a gift from God, a token of his mercy toward the prodigal who at this moment cares nothing for the Lord. Your prayers are an indispensable link in the chain of God’s purposes.

First, We Must Change

Finally here is one more email that arrived from a mother whose prayers have not yet been answered:
Our third son is a prodigal, (although I suppose we are ALL prodigals in some fashion!). I have experienced a depth of relationship with God that I didn’t know before mothering a prodigal. God has continued to walk this road of parenting with us, revealing his character to us, and growing us through the trials.
I thank God for our son actually. He has been and is the iron that sharpens me. I trust that God is working deep in his heart, even though the outside doesn’t often look that way. I believe that someday his eyes will be opened, and God will remove his heart of stone will give him a heart of flesh! And the renewing of his heart and his mind will be a great testimony to God and who he is.
Everything I have been trying to say is in that email. Here is a mother who has grown spiritually as she has prayed for her son who at this moment is still far from the Lord. Instead of becoming bitter, she has been changed on the inside and brought closer to the Lord. God often uses the prodigals in our lives to bring us closer to him. As long as we try to control our loved ones, either through anger or through our tears or by arguing with them or complaining about them to others, as long as we focus on them, they will not change, and neither will we. Sometimes in our despair, we become prodigals ourselves because our anger at them has ruined our own walk with the Lord.
Our anger may make us prodigals
As we pray for our prodigals, we must remember that the first change needs to happen in us. Until we are changed, and our anger is turned to love, we will become bitter and hardened ourselves. That can happen even though we go to church every Sunday, pray the prayers, sing the songs, serve the Lord, and do all the outward things the church asks us to do. At that point we ourselves have become prodigals just as surely as the loved one for whom we are praying. We must relinquish our loved ones into his hands and say, “Lord, they belong to you. Always have, always will.” They never were ours to start with. It is so hard to yield them to the Lord, but it is made easier when we remember that his love never fails, that he knows what he is doing, and that he is a better parent than we are. We sometimes look at the prodigals around us and wonder where God is in the midst of our pain. He is not unknowing or uncaring. He is not surprised or stumped.
God is not stumped
Though our prodigals may have left the Lord, he has not left them, not even for a second. They may be “lost” to you, but they are not “lost” to him. He knows exactly where they are and what they are doing at this very moment. He loves them more than you do. And he leads them even when they don’t know they are being led. Do you have a loved one who is far from the Lord? Does it seem totally impossible that he or she will ever change? Do you get angry thinking about their foolish choices? Do your prayers seem useless to you? Pay no attention to your feelings. There is more going on in the heart of your loved one than you can know.
Pay no attention to your feelings
Don’t give up. Keep on praying. Keep believing. You never know what God will do. When you pray for a loved one who seems hardened against the Lord, pray that the eyes of their heart might be opened so that the light of God can come flooding in. If that seems hopeless, at least it puts the hopeless case at God’s doorstep, which is where it belongs. On Saturday night there was a “hopeless case” in the Garden Tomb. On Sunday morning the whole world changed. You never know what God will do, so keep on believing and keep on praying. God specializes in impossible situations, and he loves to prove that hopeless cases aren’t hopeless after all. So never give up. Pray, pray, and keep on praying. Your prayers accomplish more than you have ever dreamed.

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