|A flood of gratitude engulfed me as I sat in church behind my handsome young son. His arm draped around the shoulders of Kim, his beautiful fiancée, as they listened to the words of the song “The Keeper.” He, too, was having a difficult time holding back the tears.
Just five years before I had wondered if I would see this beloved son again. Tullian was our prodigal. His father, Stephan, and I had given him all we could. We loved him dearly, but he chose to disregard his teaching and training and turned his back on all that we offered. We had no choice but to let him go—at sixteen.
I’ll never forget the day he left home. I stood in the doorway, watching my son walk slowly down the driveway and out into the street. Then, with a heart that felt heavy as lead, I reluctantly turned away.
I forced myself to go through the motions of fixing dinner and doing the evening chores. When I finally crawled into bed, I lay awake, crying and wondering. Where was he? Had he eaten supper? Did he have a place to sleep? Could we have done things differently? Would he ever come home again?
I thought back on the months before that day. The ups and downs, the emotions, the harsh words, the frustrations, the disobedience, the dishonesty, the questions, the long nights…sitting and waiting, wondering, worrying, asking, “Why?” Why was our son choosing to rebel? He could have a warm, loving home, physical comfort, an education, a godly heri-tage. We had wanted him, prayed for him, and had been overjoyed at his arrival. Tullian had been such a fun-loving, happy child. We called him our “sunshine.”
Unable to control the tears, I thought about all the chances we had given our son. We had taken him back again and again only to have him abuse our trust and disrupt our family life.
I wasn’t prepared for a prodigal. I never imagined I would one night lie in bed, wondering where my son was. But once you love, you are never free again, and the Lord caused this heartbreaking situation to teach me many things. I had to cope with overwhelming sadness that at times almost engulfed me. But as painful as it was, Stephan and I also realized we could not allow the behavior of this one child to consume us. At times we had to purposefully put our prodigal out of our minds. It simply wasn’t fair to focus all our attention and emotional energy on him at the expense of the other members of the family.
I also had to deal with guilt. I wondered: Could I have brought him up differently? Had I been too strict—or not strict enough? Had I shown enough love? Had I truly gone the extra mile?
I even found it difficult at times to trust the Lord. Eventually, when I accepted the fact that God loved my son even more than I did, I was able to surrender Tullian to Him. But as the years came and went, I still found myself discouraged. My hopes would build, only to come crashing down in bitter disappointment. I was tempted again and again to try to do God’s job for Him. Then I would cry the words of the old hymn, “Oh for grace to trust Him more!” And in response I would hear a still, small voice deep within my heart saying, “Love and patience…love and patience.”
I didn’t have a problem with the love part. After all, I’m a mother. But I had a lot of trouble with the patience. My mother reminded me that in dealing with an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God, I had to pray not only with persistence, but with patience.
More years passed. Then, totally unexpectedly, Tullian took his girlfriend by the hand one Sunday, and from high in the balcony of our church, they went forward to give their lives to Jesus Christ.
I was overwhelmed with joy—but also a bit skeptical. I didn’t want to have my hopes dashed again. I waited and watched. As the weeks turned into months, we saw this young man grow and mature into a sincere, dedicated child of God.
Recently he wrote these words to an older Christian friend:
Things went real raw after I last saw you. My whole life went down the tubes. I really fell far from the Lord. Drugs, alcohol, sex, the whole nine yards. I dropped out of school, got kicked out of my house; things couldn’t have gotten much worse.
But I don’t want to go on about the bad stuff. I want to tell you about what the Lord has done for me. After leading a very empty, up-and-down lifestyle, I gave the Lord total control of my life. What a change. Things I used to live for don’t even matter anymore. Things I used to run away from, I’m hungry for.
Isn’t God good? He has been so patient with me. He never gave up on me. For the first time in my life I feel peace and contentment. I don’t worry about anything. I am a totally different person.
Yes, our prodigal had returned.
I smiled in the church that day as I reflected on all these things. My mind drifted back to the present. The song was coming to a close. With thanksgiving in my heart I glanced again at Tullian and Kim sitting in front of me. I, too, was feeling peace and contentment when snatches of a favorite psalm floated into my mind: Truly, the Lord is thy keeper…He does not slumber…He shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.
Parenthood is one of the greatest blessings in life—yet it can also bring on the greatest anguish. Can anything compare to the pain of watching beloved daughters or sons walk away, turning their backs on the love, values, and faith you have so carefully nurtured over many years? Is there a higher torment than seeing your precious children suffer or needlessly abuse themselves? Far too many mothers and fathers wake up to this agonizing reality, and you have my utmost sympathy if you are facing this situation tonight.
Nearly as distressing for many moms and dads is the fear that they will lose their children as we have just described. These parents are tortured daily by doubt and guilt. They ask themselves: Do I know what I’m doing? Am I turning my children into monsters? Have I doomed them to eternal damnation by the mistakes I’ve already made?
Fortunately, there is hope in all of these circumstances. As Gigi Tchividjian has shown us, God does sometimes answer our fervent prayers in this life for our wayward offspring, though it may be years later. And even if we don’t live to see our prodigals return on earth, we still have the great hope of a “homecoming after we are gone.”
We’ll offer further encouragement this week to parents who are plagued by doubt and guilt. Like the psalmist, you too can cry out, “May your unfailing love be my comfort” (Psalm 119:76). Your heavenly Father will hear and respond—you can depend on it.
James C Dobson
- From Night Light For Parents, by Dr. James & Shirley Dobson
Copyright © 2000 by James Dobson, Inc. All rights reserved.