Having forewarned me it would be difficult to look at, the man slid a photo across my office conference table. I forced my eyes to look down at the image. There was no need to gaze long upon the face. My heart wanted to deny it was he. However, those were clearly his eyes. The nose as I had seen it since his birth. Though his overall features were distorted, there was no denying who the picture captured. Gripped by this reality, I raised my eyes to the man across the table—who sat silent while awaiting my verdict. Deep within I wanted to scream, “I never saw this face before. I do not know who he is.” Yet I did. I knew with certainty. My voice cracked as I acknowledged to this visitor from the county coroner’s office that the photo had captured my youngest child. The body they found was the boy I once held so tenderly. Thus, just one month after his thirtieth birthday, an end came to a fifteen-year journey of watching his painful descent into drug abuse and its attendant ugliness. Now I knew what my wife and I long feared—our prodigal would never return home.
People find great hope in the story of the prodigal son told by the Lord Jesus. It pictures the gracious love our heavenly Father shows in forgiving all who repent and turn to him. Many a follower of Jesus whose child chose a path of sinful living have clung to the hope their child’s story would have a similar glorious ending. Untold numbers have returned in repentance and to restoration. We join the angels in heaven praising God for each who returned. But many have not. Many never did, nor ever will.
How do you live the abundant life Jesus promised when the shadow of a prodigal who never returned follows you for the remaining days of your life? You might conclude my wife and I began to learn those lessons the day the coroner visited my university office with photos of our son. In fact, those lessons began during the journey, while hope remained. Though difficult, they prepared us for living when the time for hope was past.
Loved ones of prodigals walk a painful path. It is easy to think comfort will only come by the repentance and restoration of your prodigal. However, if we link our joy solely to the response of the heart of our wandering loved one, the journey will be unbearable and a tragic outcome will be devastating. True joy and comfort can only be found when our hope rests solidly in our heavenly Father. It is to him, through his Word, that we must turn for guidance on this painful journey.
Excerpted from The Painful Path of a Prodigal: Biblical Help and Hope for Those Who Love the Wayward and Rebellious by Craig K. Svensson.