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How To Love A Prodigal


Jonathan Acuff

One of the first things that happens in a prodigal situation, a moment in which a child emotionally, spiritually, mentally or physically runs away from home is that a moral chasm is opened. I’m not talking about the obvious gulf that exists between parent and child in this situation. The separation of geographical distance, age or ideas. I’m taking about the distance between wrong and right, good and evil, clean and dirty.

What happens is that even though you might not try to do this, it’s often tempting to live your life better when your son or daughter leaves the farm so to speak. To be a brighter light of God and Christian values and truth and peace. To show them more clearly the things they are missing by their voluntary decision to leave the safety of your home. You can see this in communication styles. I am sarcastic and if someone does not respond to that, I just get more and more sarcastic. What was a tiny distance becomes huge as they back away further and I keep going and going, thinking that more of the thing that has separated us will fix the separation.

I think that is noble in a way, but it does the opposite of what we intend. We think it will make the mistakes they are making easier to see. That it will shine a light on their situation. But it doesn’t always do that. Like the silence of a church sanctuary amplifies the loudness of a cell phone ring, the righteousness of your behavior sometimes makes the wrongness of your child bigger.

Instead of closing the gap between us, it actually makes it greater. It stretches the distance further and further as the parent comes to represent the good and the child comes to represent the bad. Sides are drawn with more distinction instead of less and the gap grows exponentially.

How do you sidestep this? You might not be able to instantly close the distance between you in this moment, but how do you at the bare minimum keep it from earthquaking open even more?

You share your junk.

You tell your story. The good parts, the bad parts, the beautiful parts, the ugly parts. You fight the urge to simply multiply your good qualities as a parent and instead do the opposite. You confess your faults. You confess your own trash and share the grossness of your own life with your child.

That might feel like the opposite of what you should do. That might be exactly what a million books on parenting tell you. The only research I am pulling from is my own life and the lives of dozens of prodigals I know. But here is what happens when you share your junk in the middle of a prodigal story:

1. You earn life currency.
Even if you’ve been a horrible parent and are in no position to be labeled as the good one in this story, there is still going to be an amazing amount of guilt your child is dealing with right now. They will think you could never understand what they are going through or why they are making the decisions they are making. By sharing your story, you show them that you speak their language too. And that you are not perfect.

2. You close the gap a little.
You can’t instantly eliminate the gap and maintain some healthy boundaries that actually teach your child the impact of consequences. But you can take small steps toward them by admitting your own weaknesses. You take subtle steps from the “good side” of the situation and take powerful steps toward the “honest side” of the situation when you talk openly. It’s like deliberately tearing down the white wall of righteousness that grew tall the minute they left. And if they have legitimate reasons for leaving because of your hurtful actions, it gives you the space to confess what you’ve done wrong.

3. You remove the “inventor’s curse.”
I think I made this term up so it requires some explanation. When we mess up, we are immediately inflicted by the “inventor’s curse.” This is that little voice inside us that says, “No one has ever failed like this. No one has ever done something so wrong. You are the only one in the world that struggles with this.” And so your child sits alone, on an island, weighed down heavy by the inventor’s curse. Sharing your junk with them puts you on that island with them and destroys the inventor’s curse.

This idea is difficult to execute because you don’t want to be the parent that says, “I smoked pot too when I was in college. No big deal. Party on!” You have to be hyper careful that what you share is not romanticized by your words or made light of. And you have to be very smart about what you choose to share. This is not a full disclosure moment, a husband being honest with a wife. You have to make sure that in your confession you do not simply hand them something heavy to hold. The last thing a prodigal child needs is to now wrestle with the weight of some deep dark secret you carried for decades. You are not confessing to be free of something, you are confessing to share something.

Counselors and people that are trained are so much smarter than I am when it comes to this stuff. And I can’t speak highly enough of the four I have seen in the last ten years. But if you’re not ready to see a counselor yet, hopefully you are ready to read a blog and maybe wrestle with the problem of the prodigal in a slightly different way.

©2010 Jonathan Acuff. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

See Jonathan’s popular blog at www.stuffchristianslike.net.