Daniel Smith, 23, arrived as a freshman at Cedarville University in 2008. Outwardly he was a Christian, but inwardly he was a prodigal. Doubting some essential doctrines, he was afraid to ask peers and professors about God, hell, and Christianity's dark moments in human history. "Others probably perceived me as a typical, good Christian kid," Smith says. "I worked hard to keep up that perception. But inside my faith was completely dead."
Steven* (*not real name), also a freshman, was immersed in all that life at a Christian college offered. His charisma, activism, and faith were infectious to others—including Smith. "We bonded over our bookish pretensions and freshman philosophizing. The world was in our pockets, and we were like brothers," Smith says. The two decided to room together sophomore year.
Early that year, Steven's mother began having health problems. Soon she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Before school was out, she was dead. During her illness, Steven grew frustrated with Christians' trite responses to his mother's suffering. He was angry at God. By the time she died, Steven had turned to meditation and Eastern mysticism for solace. By senior year, he had come out as gay and walked away from the faith. Steven's journey gave Smith a lot to think about.
When Lee,* Michele Sterlace-Accorsi's husband of 24 years, walked away from Christianity, he walked away from his family, too. Much of their marriage had been difficult, says Sterlace-Accorsi, but the years of raising their four children were mostly good. The couple built a large home in upstate New York on a plot of land with woods and a pond. The family went to church each Sunday, the children attended Christian schools, and prayer began and ended the days and preceded family meals.
One of those prayers was the turning point, recalls Sterlace-Accorsi, 48, sitting inside the condominium on the West Coast where she moved after the divorce. "We always held hands around the dinner table. One night—it was right after Lee lost his job as a museum curator—he refused to hold hands with us. The kids were confused and urged him to pray. He finally gave in and held our hands, but just stared ahead. You could see something inside him was changing."
Lee swiftly took more steps away. He began to doze off in church as soon as the sermon began, then stopped going. He started to mock the music Sterlace-Accorsi and the kids listened to. Family fights escalated as Lee alternated between being volatile and withdrawn. "He was either angry or depressed, yet he continued to reject God," says Sterlace-Accorsi.
Ezra, the youngest child, recalls one day when he and his father were riding in the car. "I was worried about his salvation, so I begged Dad to pray the sinner's prayer with me. Finally, there in the car, he did." But regardless of any spiritual shift, Lee soon disengaged from church and the family's prayer life entirely. Within a few years, he left the family.
Of course, some prodigals stay with their family. But being married to a spouse who has renounced a faith once shared brings its own kind of pain.
Alise Wright was in the living room of her family's West Virginia home in the fall of 2009 when her husband, Jason, returned from meeting with a therapist. After a few minutes of rehashing the session, Jason said that he no longer believed in God.
Wright misunderstood. From the time they had first met, it was Jason who had been "completely on fire for God."
"My husband grew up in a Christian home," says Wright. "When we started dating, he was attending Bible college and helping to lead worship. There is no question to me that his faith was genuine. It always seemed much more secure and passionate than my own."
United in a love of worship music, Alise and Jason had married and attended church and prayed together. They were raising their four children in the faith. Then, 12 years into their marriage, Jason declared himself an atheist.
"I was terrified," Alise says. For two weeks, neither spoke about it. Alise only cried. She feared Jason would no longer want to be married to a Christian, while Jason wondered if Alise would stay with an unbeliever.
They both stayed.
After she and Jason began to talk about the sudden turn in their marriage, they shared with family, then their church, and, finally, their children. Now, four years later, her husband remains her "closest friend," says Wright. But the situation is complicated. Wright wrote recently at her blog:
The emotions catch me off guard. A sense of loneliness on a Sunday morning when I'm in the middle of a worship song that we used to sing together. A hint of frustration when I am unable to ask my spouse to pray with me about something troubling. A feeling of gratitude that I am able to navigate this road with the person that I love the most in the whole world.
More Than Teen Angst
Sandra's* prodigal story more closely resembles the one found in Scripture. Her daughter exhibited a strong faith as a child. "Jennifer* was the youth group superstar, leading worship, inviting friends to church, reading her Bible, and searching out mission trips," Sandra says. But during Jennifer's teen years, now over a decade ago, battles began emerging over clothing, curfews, and house rules.
At first the fights seemed like a mere product of teenage angst. As a homeschooling family in a conservative Midwest town, Sandra and her husband were more lenient than most families in their circle. But looking back, Sandra realizes that Jennifer was rebelling against a legalistic Christian culture. During one fight, Jennifer told her parents that she didn't believe "the world" was as bad as they had made it out to be. She vowed to prove it to them.
"That vow was as deep and real as any other commitment she'd ever made in her life," Sandra says. "Including the commitment to Christ she made when she was 6."
At age 18, after dropping out of college and returning home, Jennifer took everything out of her room and left. Sandra can't erase from her mind the moment of standing in Jennifer's old bedroom, the bed stripped bare, the dresser drawers pulled open, the closet cleared out. "It was like the aftermath of a devastating storm," Sandra says, the pain fresh in her voice. She watched Jennifer drive away, not knowing where she would sleep that night or the next, not knowing to what distant country her beat-up car would take her.
Kristen's* experience puts her in the company of the elder son in the parable. Kristen has believed since age 4, she says: attending a Christian school, a Christian college, and then seminary. Her brother Nathan* first professed faith at age 9. Yet "he was always drawn to the flashiest, most popular, most expensive, and most fun," Kristen says. When their school outside of Pittsburgh put on the Christian children's musical Antshillvania, Nathan landed the part of the fast-talking dragonfly who leads the protagonist ant away from the colony. Nathan was praised by everyone as a "natural talent," and he and Kristen joked about the typecasting.
"He has an extremely charming and witty personality," says Kristen, "so everyone wanted to be his friend. And he always seemed to gravitate toward those the Scripture would call 'fools.' "
By the time Kristen came home the summer after her freshman year in college, Nathan's flirtation with fools had turned into something more serious. Instead of discussing with her what she was doing and learning at school, her parents were consumed with Nathan: the pornography in his room, his late hours, and the friends he was making. Kristen grieved with them. But it was hard not to resent him, too, for taking so much away from their family—and from her.
Giving Up Guilt
At some point in their lives, one of every three Americans will leave Christianity, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Religion and Society. Called "leavers," "deconverts," or "ex-Christians," they are targets of fresh concern among church denominations watching their numbers shrink. Pollsters and bloggers tick off reasons why so many are leaving, such as intellectual hurdles to belief, immoral or intolerant church leaders, and profound suffering. But the leavers phenomenon is nothing new. It goes back at least to the parable of the Prodigal Son, told by Jesus and recorded in .
What about the people whom the prodigals leave behind? The ones who love the leavers? The ones left to hold down the forts of remaining families and faith communities? Few theological and practical resources exist for the two out of every three Christians who remain with the Father while they watch their "younger brother" leave.
The biblical parable centers on the relationship between a father and his two sons. But the essence of the story remains the same, whether the prodigal is a child, sibling, spouse, parent, or friend. This is why P. C. Ennis Jr. argues in the Journal for Preachers that "it is crucial that periodically we preach on the Prodigal Son. . . . Like the Easter story and the Christmas story, it bears repeating, for the story of the Prodigal Son is the gospel in capsule."
The father, in his eager rush to reconcile with his son, is understood to represent God the Father, or Christ, who is telling the story. The resentful elder son is linked to the Pharisees, who were part of Jesus' original listeners. The parable makes clear which attitude we believers, saved by grace, are to have. But chances are that when confronted with a flesh-and-blood prodigal, we are neither the father nor the elder son. Usually we are both.
The anguish of Sterlace-Accorsi, Wright, Sandra, and Kristen reflects the love of the father. Yet for most of us, it is easy to be swayed, too, by the exacting calculus of the elder son. It is hard, after all, to love a God of justice and righteousness and not to love those very qualities overmuch. It strains our human frailty to hate rebellion, squandering, and wantonness—prodigality—and yet be able to embrace one so wasteful.
Helmut Thielicke notes in his classic commentary on the parable, The Waiting Father, that the elder brother is outraged because his father's lavish welcome is "uneconomical." As in the parable of the day laborers (Matt. 20:1–16), it is a bitter pill that those who arrive late get the same welcome as those who have been faithful all along. Yes, we want grace, but in the recesses of our hearts, if we are honest, we want it doled out with justice.
This economical attitude is exactly what Wright feared she would encounter at church after Jason revealed his atheism on his blog. She suspected that fellow Christians would point to her progressivism and blame that—her—for his leaving the faith, as if she hadn't done enough. Before church that first Sunday back, she went to an empty room to be alone. She tightened when she heard someone enter. But when that person walked over and gave her a long, silent hug, it was "the expression of love that I needed," Wright says.
Yet Wright believes some members think more prayer, greater conservatism, or sharper apologetics will bring her husband back into the fold. That if she was doing more or doing it better, he would believe again. "It can feel unsafe when someone wants to fix things. It hurts," Wright says. "The Great Physician is Jesus. He can work with our prodigals in a way we can't."
"One of the deceptions that befalls those who love prodigals is the notion that the prodigal's decision to head for the far country is somehow all about us and, correspondingly, it is our total responsibility somehow to bring them home," says Jeff Lucas, a teaching pastor at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. Describing itself as a "prodigal-friendly church," Timberline aims to reach nonbelievers or ex-Christians wandering in and out of the faith.
Believing that we faithful Christians can fix our prodigals adds an undue burden of guilt, as it did for Sandra for years. When she remembers the fights over Jennifer's Britney Spears–inspired clothing, she realizes they were about much more than fashion. "Those fights were like I was going after her personhood," says Sandra. Counseling has helped Sandra give up the role of the elder brother; she can't shoulder responsibilities that are the Father's alone. Being a "perfect" parent does not guarantee a child's faith. After all, Adam and Eve's Father was perfect, and still they rebelled.
"This trial has clarified a lot in my life," Sandra says. "I wouldn't trade what I've learned about God in this for anything—anything except seeing Jennifer restored to God, to herself, and to our family. We have learned that God is there, he is for us, and he is good. He loves us. He loves Jennifer. I have learned that waiting can be prayer."
Kristen's parents, meanwhile, are not quite there. Embarrassed, they haven't told fellow church members about Nathan, who was kicked out of his Christian college, then moved far from home, and has worked for years in the nightclub industry. Unfortunately, says Carol Barnier, author of Engaging Today's Prodigal, such secrecy, while understandable, prevents the church from functioning as the body.
A pastor's daughter who returned to faith after 13 years of atheism, Barnier describes walking into a room once where she was to speak about prodigals. The downcast demeanor of the people trickling in was unlike any gathering she'd seen. She realized that the atmosphere was due to one emotion felt by everyone in the room: shame.
"People with a prodigal don't share because they fear a very different response," says Barnier. "They worry—often with some justification—that they or their [prodigal] will be judged, lose status, and even lose fellowship." Yet, Barnier says, it is important to tell fellow Christians, not only to gain support but also to show other "elder brothers" that they aren't alone.
Further, sharing is one of the few aspects of dealing with a prodigal that one can control. It's "something proactive, something you can do today, something you can make happen that actually makes things better . . . in the lives of you and others near you," Barnier says. "Allow the body of Christ, which is to reach out to the world, to also reach out to you."
Mercy and Malice
But the church does not always know how to minister to either the prodigals or to those who love them. Wright says one of the greatest difficulties in being married to a prodigal is how it has affected her relationships with Christians. "I often feel protective of him, and as a result, I sometimes hold others who I perceive as a threat to him at arm's length."
Sterlace-Accorsi struggled less with her church than with her ex-husband. Certainly she had just cause to feel the elder brother's resentment—and more. But the bitterness she bore was hurting her most. Her children insisted that she begin to see her former husband as they do, as a "lost soul." Her oldest son welcomed his father—and new girlfriend—into his home on the occasion of a family celebration. Slowly, Sterlace-Accorsi was won over. "The kids have ministered to me. They've helped me see that that's the way I'm supposed to look at him." Although she has moved on in her life, she says that if Lee were to return to God and reconcile with his family, "I would be that father in the parable. I would welcome him home 1,000 times over."
This mercy mingled with malice arises, in part, from the legacy of evangelicals as "a holiness people," says Lucas. We don't know how to reconcile our particular Christian tradition with the universal truth that "church is for 'the messed up,' " he says. "We have a theology that says church is for the pure. But the same passages from Paul we use rightly to stand firm against sin provide the very evidence that such sins have been prevalent in the church from the start." Why should we expect the modern church to be any different from the first-century church?
Rather than seeing ourselves as the father and, in so doing, only continuing to play the part of the elder son—after all, the elder son was essentially usurping the authority of the father in upbraiding him—we should instead consider ourselves as equals of the prodigal, equals in need of grace and equals in recipients of that grace. "We think of ourselves as extending grace to prodigals, but we are simply sharing grace we have received and are still receiving." We should stop "feeding the Christian obsession with fixing everybody," Lucas exhorts. There is no magnanimity in extending grace, he explains, because we all need it.
Likewise, UK pastor and business leader Rob Parsons says, "The great problem with the church in the Western world is that half the prodigals are still in the pews." In other words, coming home is not about returning to church, but rather despairing over our own sins as the Prodigal Son does in the pigsty. The elder brother "did his sinning without ever leaving," Parsons, author of Bringing Home the Prodigals, notes. He "needed to 'come home' every bit as much as his brother."
This is what happened to Smith. In the midst of his roommate Steven's doubts, he found himself drawn to God. "The peak of Steven's questioning was probably my most potent period of growth," Smith says. Steven's agonized wrestling seemed to free Smith to seek answers for himself.
Although they stayed roommates, Smith and Steven spoke less and less. After graduating last year, they went their separate ways. Smith is now strong in his faith and hopes to teach theology someday. In watching his roommate and best friend walk away, Smith came home.
An Impossible Prayer
Whether in the church or out of it, wandering in the hills or working the Father's fields, we need the Father's radical love equally—the elder son no less than the prodigal. Helmut Thielicke noted that we easily dismiss the attitude of the elder son as "nothing more than dull, Philistine respectability." But the compassionate father, Thielicke writes, "sees the life of the elder brother too from the inside, from the point of view of his heart, and he says to him, 'Yes, you are my beloved son, you are always with me, and therefore we share everything.' "
The cloud of the father's rebuke of the elder son's resentment carries the silver lining of "the dependability of a heart surrendered to him." Thielicke marvels, "How broad is the love of the Father! It spans the whole scale of human possibilities."
Thus, at the heart of the very notion of prodigality lies an intriguing paradox. For the word prodigal, meaning "profuse," carries with it both the negative sense of "wastefulness," the meaning understood as applied to the younger son, but also "extravagant," "luxuriant," or "flamboyant." In this way, it applies equally to the younger son and to the father in corresponding polarity.
The love of the father is more prodigious than the son's waywardness. The love the father shows the Prodigal Son—both in the son's leaving and in his returning—is nothing if not extravagant. It is a love that is blind to past wrongs and present accounting. It is a love that offers the loved one the freedom to squander, without cajoling or badgering or wrangling the prodigal into wisdom. It is a love that waits with patience and prayer.
It's like Kristen's love for her brother.
Late one summer night while on school break, Kristen woke up again to the sound of her parents arguing with Nathan after he had come home hours after his curfew. She put her head under her pillow, but it didn't help. The arguments had gone on all summer and the summer before. But this night, Kristen recalled a convocation speech recently given at her college. The speaker had urged the students to honor God by praying for the impossible. Kristen sat up, turned on the light, opened the prayer journal at her bedside, and wrote down three impossible prayers. One of these was that Nathan would return to God.
That was ten years ago.
Today, Kristen teaches at a Christian university. As she prepares each day to teach, she glances at herself in a mirror surrounded by photos. The photo in the upper-right corner where her eyes most often land depicts a handsome black man, a Creole woman, and a little girl with bronze skin, curly dark hair, and sparkling eyes. The man in the photo is Nathan, the woman, her sister-in-law, and the child, Kristen's only niece. Each morning when she looks at the picture, Kristen feels a punch in her gut: Nathan has yet to make the prodigal's journey home. But every day, Kristen offers up that impossible, immoderate, and extravagant prayer.
Many theologians have pointed out that because the Prodigal Son requested his inheritance from his father, his petition was tantamount to wishing for his father's death. Given the death required for the salvation of all of us, our prayers for prodigals ask no less. We are prodigals, all of us.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor in the English department at Liberty University and author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. A Her.meneutics contributor, she is writing a book about abolitionist Hannah More.
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