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Praying for Your Prodigal

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By Ray Pritchard

Not long ago I received an email with a heartrending question:

I have a daughter that I don’t believe is saved. I pray for her but often times I can’t. I suppose that I’m angry she isn’t responding and feel incapable of helping her. What can I pray for on a daily basis so that she will come to Christ? At times I feel such sorrow, thinking she might go to hell.

Universal Heart’s Cry
This parent speaks for mothers and fathers everywhere who pray for their prodigal children, often for years, with seemingly no results. I do not doubt that praying parents must at some point feel like giving up, and it must be hard not to get angry when you see your children repeatedly making bad choices or showing no interest in the gospel. What do you do then? How do you keep believing for your own prodigal son or daughter?

When I use the word “prodigal,” I’m referring to anyone who has drifted away or run away or totally rejected their Christian heritage. It could refer to a college student who simply stops going to church or to a man who thinks he doesn’t need “religion” or to someone who becomes an atheist.

Defining a Prodigal
A prodigal could be someone who gets so busy in their career that they have no time for God. In all those cases, the prodigal was raised in a Christian home or had a Christian background and for some reason no longer lives for the Lord. In thinking about cases like this, we often wonder if the prodigal is saved or lost.

The answer is, only God knows because only he can read the heart. We see the outside and to us, it may be easy to conclude that the person we thought we knew so well was never saved in the first place. But our knowledge is limited. While the prodigal may appear to have totally rejected his background and he may give all the appearances of being lost, only God knows for certain.

At The Beginning
In thinking about hard questions, it’s crucial that we start in the right place. Nowhere is this more important than when we pray for our prodigal sons and daughters. Because we have so much invested in them, we may be tempted to give up because the pain of praying when nothing seems to be happening finally becomes overwhelming.

  • A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday School, he knows the Bible, but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years she has prayed for him but to this day he remains a prodigal son.
  • A wife prays for her husband who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable and the marriage heads swiftly for divorce.
  • A husband prays for his wife who has terminal cancer. She has six, maybe seven months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumors. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies five months later.
  • A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes.

And so we cry out with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)

The Heart Has Eyes
At this point we come face to face with the crucial importance of good theology. We need to be reminded that an astounding miracle lies at the heart of our faith. We believe something absolutely incredible—that a man who was dead came back to life on the third day.

Now if God would do that for his Son, indeed if God has the power to raise the dead, who are we to question God’s power to change the hardest hearts? You can’t start with what your eyes see or what you can figure out. And you can’t trust your feelings in something like this because your emotions can play tricks on you. We must therefore start with God who can raise the dead, not with the person who is spiritually dead.

If it is God alone who can raise the dead, then our focus must be on God alone.

Here are three verses that will help us as we think about praying for our prodigals:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV).

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1 NKJV).

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18 NASB).

The heart has eyes. Did you know that? When Paul speaks of “your heart,” he’s not referring to the organ in your chest that pumps blood throughout your body. The term “heart” refers to what we might call “the real you,” the place inside where the decisions of life are made. The heart is the place where you decide what values you will live by and what direction you will go and how you will live your life each day.

Our Hearts
Every important decision you make starts in your heart. And your heart has eyes that can be open or closed. When the eyes of your heart are closed to the light of God, you stumble blindly through life, making one dumb choice after another. Why? Because the eyes of your heart are shut and you lack moral vision. The light of God is shut out of your life. That means you can see and be blind at the same time. That is, you can have 20/20 vision with your physical eyes, but the eyes of your heart can be blind to the light of God.

There are lots of people like that in the world. Physically they can see but spiritually they are totally blind.

Get off the Bench and Into the Game

If our young people sleep around, or if they get drunk on the weekends, if they cheat and cut corners, if they are rebellious and unmotivated, those things are only symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental issue. They’ve never made a personal commitment to get serious about Jesus Christ. They’re sitting on the bench when they ought to be in the game.

And I tell you this with total certainty, once you get into the game, once Christ becomes the center of your life, no one will have to tell you not to sleep around, and no one will have to tell you, “Don’t get drunk on the weekends.” You just won’t do it. Once the eyes of your heart are opened, the light of God’s truth will come flooding in and you’ll never look at anything the same away again.

Sometimes we worry too much about the symptoms without dealing with the root issues of life. We should pray, “Open the eyes of their heart, Lord,” because when that happens, life will radically change. They will grab their helmet and get in the ballgame for the Lord. They’ll go to the huddle and say, “You call the play, Lord. I’m ready to do whatever you say.”

“I Just Don’t See It”
Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope.

We must pray for the lost that God will open their eyes, give life in place of death, enable them to hear, create within them a desire to understand, give them a hunger for Jesus, and then grant them faith to believe the gospel. In short, as we prepare to share Christ with others, we must fervently pray that God will go before us. When we pray for the lost, we are saying to God, “You go first! If you don’t go first, all our efforts will be in vain.”

This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones who today are far from God. As our children grow older, we discover over and over again how little control we have over them. We cannot compel their obedience because we cannot compel their hearts.

How To Pray
But we can pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.” If you have a prodigal daughter, pray like this: “Lord, open the eyes of her heart so that she can see Jesus.” That prayer is so simple and yet so profound. Apart from God’s grace, we all have the same problem.

Our hearts are closed and we cannot see the truth. Only God can open the eyes of the heart. When God opens those eyes, she will see the truth and light from heaven will come flooding in. Do not focus on her going to hell. Focus your prayers on God and his power to change her heart. Ask our Father to do what only he can do—open the eyes of her heart so that she will come to know him.

A Mother’s Tears
One of my favorite stories about the power of prayer to reclaim a prodigal is over 1600 years old. It begins with a woman named Monica.

Monica and her husband had three children. Two of them followed Christ but one son left the faith of his childhood. By his own admission, he chose the path of worldly pleasure. For many years he lived with a mistress and together they gave birth to a son out of wedlock. He broke his mother’s heart by joining a religious cult. Monica prayed for 17 years that her son would return to Christ and to the church.

Looking back, her son said that she watered the earth with her tears for him. She fasted and prayed and asked God to save her son. One day she went to see the bishop and with tears asked why her son was still living in sin. The bishop replied with words that have become famous across the centuries: “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish. Your son will be saved.” He was right.

It took several more years of fervent praying but eventually Monica’s son came to Christ. We know him today as St. Augustine. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. He makes it clear in his Confessions that his mother prayed him to Jesus. She would not give up and eventually God answered her prayers.

Prayer—God’s Ordained Means

Please do not misunderstand. I do not believe that our prayers contain merit in and of themselves. But God has ordained both the means and the ends of salvation. And the two chief means of salvation are fervent prayer and the proclamation of his Word.

We pray because everything depends on God, and we preach because the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Your prayers are part of heaven’s plan to reach out to the prodigals in your life and bring them back to God. If you are heavily burdened for a loved one, you may be sure that that burden does not come simply from yourself. The burden is a gift from God, a token of his mercy toward the prodigal who at this moment cares nothing for the Lord. Your prayers are thus an indispensable link in the chain of God’s purposes.

A Story
I met a woman recently who told me that she prayed for fifty years for her brother to be saved. For most of that time, he showed little interest in spiritual things. But through an amazing series of events, he saw his need of Christ and embraced him as his Savior.

For the last six years, he grew in his love for the Lord and he made his faith known to everyone. When he died in March, he died as a Christian, trusting in Christ to the very end. Fifty years is a long time to pray.

I’m sure the woman must have felt like giving up many times. Surely it sometimes seemed hopeless to her. But God granted her faith to keep praying and not to lose heart. Eventually her prayers were answered with the miracle of her brother’s conversion. How happy she was when she told the story.

Lest we miss it, let me make the theological point very clearly. Salvation is of the Lord, but that does not mean that our prayers do not matter. Our prayers are part of God’s plan to bring the lost to Christ.

Trying To Control
Finally here is one more email that arrived from a mother whose prayers have not yet been answered:

As long as we try to control our loved ones, either through anger or through our tears or by arguing with them or complaining about them to others, as long as we focus on them, they will not change—and neither will we. Sometimes in our despair, we become prodigals ourselves because our anger at them has ruined our own walk with the Lord.

As we pray for our prodigals, we must remember that the first change needs to happen in us. Until we are changed, and our anger is turned to love, we will become bitter and hardened ourselves. And that can happen even though we go to church every Sunday, pray the prayers, sing the songs, serve the Lord, and do all the outward things the church asks us to do. At that point we ourselves have become prodigals just as surely as the loved one for whom we are praying. The change we seek in others must start in our heart first.

God is a Better Parent Than We Are
A few years ago, when we needed some encouragement, the Lord put this thought into my wife’s heart: “God is a better parent than we are.” No matter how much we love our children, he loves them even more. No matter how much we want the best for them, he wants it even more than we do, and he truly knows what it is best.

Not only that, he can see from where they are to where he wants them to be, and no matter where the starting point is, he knows how to lead them from here to there. He does it infallibly, with an abundance of wisdom, a generous helping of tender mercy, and he wastes nothing along the way.

Sometimes parents look at their children, especially when they seem to be far from the Lord, and we feel hopeless or guilty or angry or frustrated, or maybe all of the above, and we wonder where God is in the midst of our pain. There are many ways to answer that, but this much is certain. He is not silent or absent or uncaring. Nor is he stumped or surprised by young people who seem to have rejected all they have been taught.

God is a better parent than we are. That’s really good news for those times when we’ve blown it. Because he loves our children far more than we do, he will lead them even when they don’t know they are being led. He can bring them back to himself, though the road back may be long and hard and torturous, though it may seem to go in circles or even be going backwards for a season.

Relinquishment

At some point we must relinquish our children into his hands and say, “Lord, they belong to you. Always have, always will.” They never were ours to start with. It is so hard to yield them to the Lord, but it is made easier if we remember that his love never fails, that he knows what he is doing, and that he is a better parent than we are.

Do you have a loved one who is far from the Lord? Does it seem totally impossible that he or she will ever change? Do you get angry thinking about their foolish choices? Do your prayers seem useless to you? Pay no attention to your feelings. There is more going on in the heart of your loved one that you can know.

Don’t give up.

Keep on praying.

Keep believing.

You never know what God will do.

A Good Prayer
When you pray for a loved one who seems hardened against the Lord, pray that the eyes of their heart might be opened so that the light of God can come flooding in. And if that seems hopeless, at least it puts the hopeless case at God’s doorstep, which is where it belongs. On Saturday night there was a “hopeless case” in the Garden Tomb. On Sunday morning the whole world changed. You never know what God will do, so keep on believing and keep on praying. God specializes in impossible situations, and he loves to prove that hopeless cases aren’t hopeless after all.

So never give up. Pray, pray and keep on praying. Your prayers accomplish more than you have ever dreamed.

©Keep Believing Ministries. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bio:
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries. For twenty-six years he has been a pastor, speaker and author of twenty-seven books. Married to Marlene for thirty-three years, he enjoys being a dad to three sons, biking, world travel and playing with Dudley, beloved basset hound. Learn more about his ministry at www.keepbelieving.com.