Years ago, I read a Christianity Today article that featured an interview with pastor and author John Piper, giving his thoughts about the importance of reconciliation. This interview provided some excellent insights into one of the 6 things good dads do. At the end of the interview, he talked about how his son walked away from the Christian faith at 19-years-old. He said:
“I was pursuing him constantly…emailing every day almost, taking him to lunch every time he came back to town, trying not to preach at him. Everything in me wanted this kid back.”
As I read John Piper’s words, I was reminded of the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here was a father who had two sons, and one day, the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. The father complied and, no doubt, to the father’s regret, this younger son left home. And, like Piper, everything in this father wanted his son back.
Over the years, I have heard many sermons on this parable and all of them have used it to illustrate how much our Heavenly Father loves us and desires to restore us to himself, no matter what we have done. The Bible says that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Therefore, we are all prodigals. However, as a father, I could not help but think about how it must have felt to have a child that you love, essentially reject you and all that you value. You see, the prodigal son valued what his father had, but he didn’t value who his father was and what his father valued.
Like John Piper’s son, the prodigal son was an unbeliever.
Now, I raise this point because I have written often about what a good father does. Men like systems, equations, and formulas that can be solved to get the right answer and a certain fixed conclusion. Therefore, it can be easy for men to fall into the trap of believing that if they follow certain steps, there is a guarantee that their children will be what they want them to be. This is a logical conclusion. But, unfortunately, fathering—even the best—doesn’t work this way. Think about it. The father in the story of the prodigal son represents God, the ultimate Good Father. Yet, his son rejects him and goes his own way.
So, should fathers despair? Of course not. Years ago, a wise Christian told me something that I would never forget. He said, “You take care of the effort and God will take care of the results.” From a fatherhood perspective, this means that a dad just needs to make sure that he is faithfully doing his best to follow Proverbs 22:6 which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
That said, I believe one of the reasons God made sure this story was in the Bible was to illustrate an important truth for fathers. Sometimes, despite a father’s best efforts, a child may decide to go down an unwise path. When God created man and gave him free will, He knew that by giving man that ability to run to Him. God also knew that He was giving man the ability to run from Him. This is true also for every father who brings a child into the world. Remember, our Heavenly Father wants us to love him. But one cannot truly love another unless one has the freedom to not love as well.
I believe God also placed this passage in the Bible as a model of two important principles that fathers must remember should they have a prodigal child. The first principle is the notion that a father must demonstrate steadfast love. No doubt, when a child has acted out badly, rejected you and many of the values that you consider sacred, it can be very difficult to continue to demonstrate love. But, as 1 Corinthians 13:1 makes clear, without love, the words that you speak to your prodigal child will sound to him or her like a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” You see, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. A father, like the one in the prodigal son story, rises early in the morning—day after day— and looks to the horizon with an abiding hope that today might just be the day when his child will return. A father will only have the ability and discipline to do this if he has a steadfast love for his prodigal child like our Heavenly Father has for us.
The second principle is the notion of helping your other children learn the right lessons from the behavior of the prodigal son. For example, if the prodigal son story was in today’s setting, this son would post frequent updates on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter with pictures and videos showing his siblings just how much fun he or she was having. Assuredly, this behavior would do one of two things. It would either tempt your other children to follow in the prodigal’s footsteps or it would create resentment and jealousy towards the prodigal child and fill your other children’s hearts with self-righteous pride. In fact, you may recall that the latter is exactly what happened to the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. When the loving father threw a party to celebrate the return of his younger son, the older brother became enraged and angry with his father. My sense is that he must have felt that he was a real “sucker” for doing the right thing for all those years while his brother partied away. It would be easy for him to conclude he had labored in vain.
Therefore, how the father responded to the older brother would be extremely critical. It would be important that this father remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood. There is an Evil One who seeks to steal, kill and destroy. He wants to steal your faith and children from you, kill your relationship with them and destroy the unity that exists between your children.
It’s clear that the father in the prodigal son story was very aware of the family dynamics at play and how he needed to respond to the older brother in a way that affirmed him and still demonstrated love for his wayward brother. Moreover, he could not leave the impression that there are no consequences for sin. Note what it says in Luke 15:31-32:
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
His comments reflect the perfect balance between justice and mercy. You see, when he tells his son “all that is mine is yours,” it is a reminder that the younger son has lost his inheritance, so there is a just consequence for his behavior. He is reminding the older brother of the principle illustrated by Galatians 6:9, which says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
However, this father was also modeling for the older brother the importance of mercy, which he would not have been able to do if he did not truly have a steadfast love for the younger brother. (That’s why maintaining one’s love for the prodigal child is so critical!) Mercy is showing compassion and kindness toward an offender or another person in one’s power. Given the family dynamics related to the inheritance and what the younger son had done, the older brother would clearly be in control of the family’s wealth and the father wanted to model how he was to treat his younger brother after the father was gone, much like Christ modeled for us how we were to treat each other after He was gone. That’s why Jesus said, “I do this so that…” You see, this wise and loving father wasn’t just seeking to restore his younger son to himself; he was also seeking to restore the relationship between these brothers because that is what good fathers do. Love hopes all things.
Well, at this point, you are probably wondering what happened in the case of John Piper’s son. Good news and glory to God, his prodigal son returned home as well. In the interview Piper said:
“He came back to the Lord four years later and the church had a beautiful, beautiful restoration service. He wept his eyes out in front of the church and was restored.”
Indeed, love hopes all things.
In fact, Piper’s son wrote a wonderful article that you can find on Pastor Piper’s “Desiring God” website, where he outlines ways to love your wayward child. It will give you some excellent advice and practice steps to help you live out the principles that have been discussed in this section. Remember, love rejoices with the truth. And, love never ends.
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The above is an excerpt from Bad Dads of the Bible: 8 Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid. Click here to order a copy.