The Painful Path of a Prodigal: Embracing Forgiveness

Parents of a prodigal wrestle with questions of how their own failures contributed to their child’s choice of a wayward path. It is natural to reflect on your parenting and identify things left undone, things you wish you did not do, or things you could have done better. Those who have a prodigal are especially prone to blame themselves, which inevitably harms other relationships in life. As a parent of a prodigal, how does one deal with these struggles?

Acknowledge Your Imperfections

No parent has always been exemplary in their actions towards their children. There were days when our words to them were wrong, perhaps even destructive. We missed teachable moments because we were preoccupied with lesser things. Does this surprise us? Aren’t we all imperfect? Face the reality—you, like the rest of us, were an imperfect parent. Do not beat yourself up over your imperfection.

Confess Sinful Failures

Maybe you examined your parenting and realized not only your imperfections but persistent patterns of sin. It could be you used physical force inappropriately or were prone to yell rather than speak. Perhaps you neglected your parental responsibility because you gave yourself over to other pursuits.

If this is the case, confess your sin to God—specifically and as plainly as possible, confessing the sin in the language of biblical truth. Where appropriate and possible, confess your sin to those against whom you sinned—again, as specifically as you can.

Accept God’s Forgiveness

The apostle John penned an important reminder to believers who might struggle with putting past failures behind them: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Recognition of sin in our life, whether recent or distant, should not produce a remorse one carries like a heavy burden. The exposure of sin should drive us to the Father who has given his Son to bear the judgment for sin on our behalf.

When Jesus has cleansed us, it is an affront to him to view ourselves as dirty. We were washed by the blood of the Lamb and should therefore freely and joyfully receive this marvelous gift he has given.

Once you confess, move on. Persistent and repeated confession of past sins will not move the heart of your prodigal. It is also an unbiblical response to sin. We confess. God forgives. He restores the joy of our relationship. This same pattern should guide our confession to others. A prodigal’s failure to embrace restoration does not mean you should keep confessing your sin to him. Doing so will only empower him to justify his rebellion by blaming you.

Recognize the Limits of Your Parental Impact

Your child was born with a sinful nature. You do not have the power to rectify this birth defect borne in all children from Cain onward. No amount of instruction or example can remove the stain of sin. It requires a work of the Spirit to bring a new birth. This is why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

The work of saving faith is a mystery in the hands of God. As much as you might wish, you cannot control the response of your son or daughter to spiritual truth.

Do Not Excuse Your Child’s Actions

A parent will be tempted to excuses the choices of their prodigal in an effort to make up for their own deficiencies. This will have a negative influence on him, as excusing his conduct gives license to continue down a destructive path. Providing excuses for a prodigal’s conduct to others also mislabels your offspring before those who can help.

Realize the Responsibility Borne by Your Prodigal

Your prodigal child is responsible for the decisions he makes. Despite any failures on your part, he is accountable for his choices.

Nowhere in Scripture are the sins of men excused because someone else led them astray or failed to teach them aright. No failure on your part excuses the sinful choices of your prodigal.

Parents of prodigals must embrace the same forgiveness that they pray their wayward children will come to know. If we remain burdened with guilt, it may obscure the grace of God in our lives to our prodigal.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)

Excerpted from The Painful Path of a Prodigal: Biblical Help and Hope for Those Who Love the Wayward and Rebellious by Craig K. Svensson.

Shepherd Press