By Dr. Mark H. Creech
One father relates that when his brother and his wife were considering adopting some children, they first took two little boys into their home as foster children to see how they would relate to one another before moving into adoption. He was explaining this situation to his twelve-year-old daughter, who responded spontaneously, “Man, that’s like test-driving a little kid.”
One thing is for certain, there’s really no test-driving parenthood. When it happens, you’re in it – no backing out. Each child is unique and comes without an owner’s manual. My father used to refer to me, his firstborn, as his experimental model.
The Bible, however, does provide a wealth of information to parents for raising children. And nothing is more instructive on good parenting than considering the way God treats his own children, especially when they turn out bad.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32, a loving father of two sons gives one younger son, who is restless, his inheritance early. The son leaves home and travels to a far country, squandering in debauchery all that his father had given him. Sadly, he ends up in the worst way, having lost everything and reduced to eating the feed for the swine he’s employed to keep – a matter of intense shame for a Jew. Finally, the boy comes to his senses and humbly returns home to his father, who has longingly waited for his return and joyously restores him to his place as an heir.
One truth to be gleaned from this story is that sometimes a parent must let go of a rebellious child. When a child is insistent, stubborn, and no amount of loving counsel or discipline is effective, sometimes there is nothing left to do but to give them their freedom – turn them loose to experience the pain of their poor judgment. It may be the only way the child will ever learn.
Such an experience may or may not be any fault of the parent. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son had two sons. The elder brother was not perfect in his ways, but he certainly hadn’t lived so wrongly as his younger brother. What happened to the younger son? The Bible doesn’t say. Nevertheless, when children go bad, it’s not always the parent’s fault. Each child is a responsible individual – responsible to accept or reject the heritage his parents provide.
There is a great paradox to be seen here. Samuel, the prophet, was reared in the same home that the wicked Phineas and Hophni were raised. Samuel turned out to be a great man of God, the other two became reprobates. Cain and Abel were brought up in the same home. Abel turned out good and Cain turned out bad. But in each case the difference was not in the parents. It was in the children. It was their choice.
Children are not like computers. They have a will. And just because parents feed them the right information doesn’t mean that they’ll always make the right choices.
But note also in the story that the father waits and watches for his son to return. Parents often go through repeated agony over the recklessness and negligence of their children. In certain extreme circumstances of distress and trouble, parents may be tempted to give up. How long should a mother and a father care? How long do they keep hoping for change? How long do they keep looking for better days? As long as it takes!
Waiting can be the hardest part. There can be temptations during this period to accommodate or force a false redemption or reconciliation. There are essentially three responses parents can have to a child’s rebellion: (1) parents can reject and refuse to have anything further to do with the child; (2) parents can lower their standards and embrace the sin of their child; or (3) parents can remain lovingly firm against the child’s wrongful ways and wait for genuine repentance. The latter is the hardest course, but the correct one.
Someone has rightly said, “Sound travels slowly. Sometimes the things you say when your kids are teenagers don’t reach them until they’re in their forties.”
Lastly, the return of a prodigal child is something to be celebrated – something to be received with the swift action of forgiveness and restoration. To hold at arm’s length – to pardon with condition – to upbraid the offending child instead of joyously accepting him or her again – is all too often an unfortunate parental response. Good parenting requires forgetting oneself and making the interest of the child supreme.
The Scripture says, “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:22-24 RSV).
The story of the Prodigal Son is as much a story of an amazing parent as it is a story about a wayward son. Most importantly, it’s a story about God’s desire to be a father to us all – no matter how far we may have wandered or fallen.
All of us have been born into a natural family. We have a human father. But when in the far country of sin, we are separated from God, the Father. God wants each of us to come home. He wants to be a Father to us now and forever. He wants to give what our earthly father did not or would not give. He wants to build upon the positive experiences we may have had with a good father to help us understand how profoundly He loves us. No matter the extent of the depths we may have sunken – no matter how lost, discouraged or hopeless our situation may seem – He is always ready – always eagerly waiting – to receive us into His glorious, eternal family. We only need to come home to the Father!