Praying for Your Prodigal
June 25, 2006
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? 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. 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 see the outside and to us, 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.
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 prodigal sons and daughters. 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 former best friend 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.
•A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday School, he knows the Bible, but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years she has prayed for him but to this day he remains a prodigal son.
•A wife prays for her husband who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable and the marriage heads swiftly for divorce.
•A husband prays for his wife who has terminal cancer. She has six, maybe seven months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumors. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies five months later.
•A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes.
And so we cry out with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
Calvin And Hobbes
You wouldn’t think that such a serious subject would make it to the comic strips, but I happened to find it there a few years ago. The comic strip is called “Calvin and Hobbes.” It’s late November and a little boy is waiting with his sled for the first big snowfall. He waits and waits but all he finds is brown grass … and no snow.
So he says, “If I was in charge, we’d never see grass between October and May. Then, looking to the heavens, he says, “On ’three,’ ready? One … Two … Three. SNOW!” Nothing happens and the little boy is downcast. Then he shouts to the heavens, “I said snow! C’mon! Snow!” Then shaking his fists he cries, “SNOW!” Now thoroughly disgusted with God’s failure, he says, “Ok then, don’t snow! See what I care! I like this weather! Let’s have it forever!”
But his defiance does not last. In the next frame we see the little boy on his knees offering this prayer, “Please snow! Please?? Just a foot! Ok, eight inches! That’s all! C’mon! Six inches, even! How about just six?? Then he looks to heaven and shouts, “I’m WAAIITING …”
In the next frame we see him running in a circle, head down, fists clenched, making a little-boy sound which the artist spells out as “RRRRGGHHH.” That’s not an English word but every parent has heard it many times. Finally, the little boy is exhausted, his energy spent, his prayer unanswered, with snow nowhere in sight. In the final frame, he looks up at God and cries out in utter desperation, “Do you want me to become an atheist?”
There are many Christian people who feel just like that little boy, only they have prayed for things much more important than a few inches of snow but the end result has been the same. And in their frustration and despair they have cried out to God, “Do you want me to become an atheist?” Some of them have. Most haven’t, but the pain turns many of them into prodigals.
The Heart Has Eyes
At this point we come face to face with the crucial importance of good theology. 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. And 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.
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.
Get off the Bench and Into the Game
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. A few years ago I met with a young woman who had been part of our church’s youth ministry. She came to see me at the request of her mother who was at her wit’s end in dealing with her daughter. The young woman was sweet and friendly and very open when we met. We talked for a while about this and that, and finally I came to the point. When she went off to college, she met a boy she liked, they started dating, and now they were sleeping together. This much the mother had confided to me. Was it tru? The young lady answered yes. I knew it wouldn’t do any good for me to argue with her because she and her mother had been arguing about it for quite a while. But I did ask if she thought it was wrong to sleep with her boy friend. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess so.” Her answer wasn’t really defiant and she didn’t seem angry. In fact, she was very friendly and not rebellious in her manner. She was just a nice girl, raised in the church, who now slept with her boyfriend at college. And what’s wrong with that?
As we were talking, an illustration came into my mind. Whenever you watch a football game, you’ll usually see three different groups of players. The first group is the players on the field. They give all they have on every single play. The second group is on the sidelines. They stand together, watching the action the field, waiting for their turn to get into the game. But often there is a third group of players who don’t seem very interested in the game. They sit on the bench laughing and talking and goofing off. Sometimes they turn around and wave to the people in the stands. They could care less whether their team is winning or losing because they’re just along for the ride. As far as the team is concerned, they might as well not be there at all. I explained all of that to the young lady and made this application. Living for Christ means that you’re playing on his team. You’re either on the bench or you’re in the game. “Your problem is, you’re sitting on the bench goofing off when you ought to be in the game serving the Lord. Bench warmers sit around, goof off, laugh, cut up, and trade jokes while the game is going on. If you ever decide to get in the game, you won’t have time to do the things you do now.”
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. And 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. 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.”
“I Just Don’t See It”
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 see this principle very clearly when we witness to those who don’t know Christ. After sharing the gospel with them as best we can, sometimes they will say, “I just don’t see it.” That’s not an excuse. They truly don’t see it. That’s why you can talk to a lost person until you are blue in the face and it will do no good. You can quote Billy Graham, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, and if you’re creative, you can throw in some John Calvin and Martin Luther. Quote Abraham Lincoln and Mike Ditka if you like. It will do no good. You can quote Scripture all day long and the lost will still be lost. Until their eyes are opened, they will not “see” the truth about Christ.
What is the answer? We must pray for the lost that God will open their eyes, give life in place of death, enable them to hear, create within them a desire to understand, give them a hunger for Jesus, and then grant them faith to believe the gospel. In short, as we prepare to share Christ with others, we must fervently pray that God will go before us. When we pray for the lost, we are saying to God, “You go first! If you don’t go first, all our efforts will be in vain.”
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
One of my favorite stories 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. 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.
Please 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 thus an indispensable link in the chain of God’s purposes.
I met a woman recently who told me that she prayed for fifty years for her brother to be saved. For most of that time, he showed little interest in spiritual things. But through an amazing series of events, he saw his need of Christ and embraced him as his Savior. For the last six years, he grew in his love for the Lord and he made his faith known to everyone. When he died in March, he died as a Christian, trusting in Christ to the very end. Fifty years is a long time to pray. I’m sure the woman must have felt like giving up many times. Surely it sometimes seemed hopeless to her. But God granted her faith to keep praying and not to lose heart. Eventually her prayers were answered with the miracle of her brother’s conversion. How happy she was when she told the story. And rightly so. Lest we miss it, let me make the theological point very clearly. Salvation is of the Lord, but that does not mean that our prayers do not matter. Our prayers are part of God’s plan to bring the lost to Christ.
A few days ago I received this email from a man I have never met:
I am one of those who never thought my older brother would ever be saved. I had lost all hope for him. Then, May 18 of this year I visited him in the hospital in Missouri (I live in Arkansas) and led him to the Lord. He cried like a baby afterwards and testified to his nurse a few minutes later when she came into his room. BTW, he is 75 and I am 73 and I have prayed for him for many years. God is faithful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
God is a Better Parent Than We Are
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. Before, I didn’t understand the joy in trials that James 1:2-4 speaks of quite like I do now. It is an opportunity to become mature in our faith as we have heartbreak and disappointment in different situations. 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. 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. And 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. Notice two key sentences in this woman’s note: “I thank God for our son actually. He has been, and is the iron that sharpens me.” Those are the words of a woman whose heart has been softened and not hardened as she has prayed for her son. The change we seek in others must start in our heart first. I believe God will answer that mother’s prayer sooner or later.
A few years ago, when we needed some encouragement, the Lord put this thought into my wife’s heart: “God is a better parent than we are.” No matter how much we love our children, he loves them even more. No matter how much we want the best for them, he wants it even more than we do, and he truly knows what it is best. Not only that, he can see from where they are to where he wants them to be, and no matter where the starting point is, he knows how to lead them from here to there. He does it infallibly, with an abundance of wisdom, a generous helping of tender mercy, and he wastes nothing along the way. Sometimes parents look at their children, especially when they seem to be far from the Lord, and we feel hopeless or guilty or angry or frustrated, or maybe all of the above, and we wonder where God is in the midst of our pain. There are many ways to answer that, but this much is certain. He is not silent or absent or uncaring. Nor is he stumped or surprised by young people who seem to have rejected all they have been taught.
God is a better parent than we are. That’s really good news for those times when we’ve blown it. Because he loves our children far more than we do, he will lead them even when they don’t know they are being led. He can bring them back to himself, though the road back may be long and hard and torturous, though it may seem to go in circles or even be going backwards for a season.
At some point we must relinquish our children 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 if we remember that his love never fails, that he knows what he is doing, and that he is a better parent than we are.
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 that you can know.
Don’t give up.
Keep on praying.
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. And 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.