When the Prodigal Doesn’t Return

By John Smith   •   August 28, 2007

It was his senior year at a prestigious Christian college, and we had gone for a few days to a log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were questions about the faith, a faith he had embraced at his mother’s knee.

He was just a little guy then, yet his profession of faith seemed real and, despite occasional teenage time-outs, he tried to live it. But now there were questions. Still, no hint of what was soon to come.

After college graduation Jim confided in his older brother, “It worked for you guys, but it never worked for me. For Dad’s sake, I’ve tried and tried, but it’s no use. I’m opting for atheism.” And so it has been. A splendid husband and father; a loving, generous son and brother. But no God in his life.

The haunting question is, “Where did I fail?” Sometimes I have sought another cause. Was it the college professor he so admired, the one who took exception to much of what the school stood for? I puzzled about that for years.

One day I heard a famous radio preacher say, “All my children follow the Lord, and if you do what I tell you in the next 10 minutes, so will yours.”

Yeah, right–too bad he didn’t clue God in on the secret, I thought. God had two children, Adam and Eve, with a perfect heredity and paradise for an environment, and they both blew it. Was God the ultimate parental failure? No. Each person is responsible for his or her own choices, the prophet reminds us in Ezekiel 33. At the final Judgment no one will be able to plead, “Go after my parents. They’re to blame.”

But doesn’t the Bible say, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”? (Proverbs 22:6). Isn’t that a promise in the Bible? No. It’s a proverb in the Bible, just like, “A man who excels in his work … will stand before kings” (Proverbs 22:29). Yes, that often happens, but it’s no promise, no guarantee. I knew that, but I still felt guilt.

I failed in many ways–and how I have grieved. But I’m forgiven, and in that I rest. Some children blame their parents for their departure from the faith, but Jim never blamed me. No, my greatest pain is not guilt but apprehension over Jim’s final outcome. Do I run for comfort to the promise, “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My Hand”? (John 10:28). Or do I agonize over the statement, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him”? (1 John 3:6). I’ve given up on solving the theological mystery. God knows. And “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

So what do I do? I remember that as my children enter adulthood, I’m responsible to them but no longer for them. Once they’re grown, my responsibility is to love them and pray for them. How do I pray? I can’t ask God to force Jim into the Kingdom–God has clearly said He won’t do that. But I pray almost daily that the Holy Spirit will not give up on my Jim. He does give up on people, we read (Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 63:10). So I pray that He who was sent to convict of sin and righteousness and judgment to come will not give up yet, but that He will do His work. Just one more day.

John Smith is a pseudonym for a Christian leader in the southeastern United States.

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