A prodigal is a person who veers their life away from an intimate relationship with God and instead pours their time, money and attention into the pursuit of their own pride and pleasure.
A prodigal is described in the dictionary as “a licentious, dissolute person.” Words associated with a prodigal include terms like “wasteful,” “imprudent” and “debauched.”
To one degree or another, a prodigal is of the mindset that living life on his or her own terms is better than living life under God’s direction and influence.
One of the most famous stories in the Bible centers around a son described as living as a prodigal.
Here’s how the story begins in Luke 15:
And Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luke 15:11-13 ESV)
In these three verses much is revealed about the mentality of the younger son.
First the son dares to ask his father for his inheritance while the father is still living. Imagine how this must have made the father feel. It was as if the son was saying, “Dad, I want your money, I just don’t want you!”
Yet the father complied. And not soon after, the son made another bold statement: he moved far way from his father. Talk about adding insult to injury.
This is the modus operandi for most prodigals. They begin thinking selfishly and then follow up such self-absorption by distancing themselves from anyone who might call them out for their self-centeredness.
Note the son didn’t make his journey away from home to gain an education, start a new career or invest in a business. No, the son left home with one thing on his mind: party!
As for understanding the mindset of a prodigal, I find this quote quite instructive:
“It is not reason which turns the young man from God; it is the flesh. Skepticism but provides him with the excuses for the new life he is leading.”
― Aurelius Augustine
A prodigal may try to justify his actions in a way that sounds high and mighty, but the fact is he are just trying to life for satisfying self apart from God.
As a pastor, I find it sadly predictable that when someone within our church begins the “prodigal drift,” it is only a matter of time before they unfriend me on Facebook. Why? Because their postings will likely reveal a shift in their lifestyle, and they’d rather not have the pastor privy to their prodigal activities.
So what do we do with prodigals?
First, we ought never give up on them. Jesus’ story of the prodigal son tells of how the son, after much stubbornness, finally came to his senses. And in much humility, the son began the journey home with hopes to renegotiate his relationship with his father. That’s what we hope for with our prodigals: that they will all of a sudden figure out that their life is being wasted and damaged. One person once said, “No matter how many steps one has taken from God, it still only takes one step to get back.”
Of course, we always want to pray for them. Prodigals burden our hearts, and as the Bible instructs, we are to cast all of our cares and burdens upon Jesus. It’s always good to remember that God loves our prodigals even more than we do.
Third, we should speak truth to them. If our loved one is acting foolishly, we shouldn’t be afraid to tell them so. I don’t believe this should be done is a critical or judgmental way, but more in a matter-of-fact manner. As difficult as it may be, I believe that keeping our emotions under control makes it easier for the prodigal to process our words, and in time better allows for a “coming-to-their senses” moment to occur. Also, it is key that we keep our own life on track. Don’t let a drowning prodigal pull you into the water!
Fourth, I believe we need to understand the path every prodigal needs to take. Ed Cole writes that “the pattern of the prodigal is this: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration.” We understand the first two components (and they break our heart). But to see a prodigal truly get back on a level path, the application of the last three – repentance, reconciliation and restoration – are key. They lay the groundwork for a more successful future. We must put effort into seeing each step realized in the prodigal’s journey.
Finally, we want to be there for them for that time when they are ready to return from living life as a prodigal. In Jesus’ story, perhaps no picture is more striking than the father rushing out to the road to meet his humbled son. Jesus paints a picture of a man who has constantly been looking out the front window with hopes that his confused son might one day make his way home. One of the best things a prodigal can hear is this: “I don’t agree with how you are living, but know this: I love you, and when you are done fooling around, I will be here.” And when they do give up the prodigal life, we need to make good on that promise.
Think about it: isn’t that how God treats us?
Relationally, God is the steady constant. We are the ones who careen back and forth. There are times when we lean in and faithfully abide with Jesus. And there are other times when we drift, led much more by our flesh than the indwelling spirit.
As much as we may feel like we don’t understand our prodigal, the reality is that we have much in common with them. Spiritually, everyone must experience a moment of coming home. It’s that time when we first came to Jesus. We looked at our life and realized that being in the loving, protective arms of God was far better than holding on to the scraps of our sin.
One last thought:
If you love a prodigal, please know that you are not alone.
Watching other families can be painful. Although everyone has their issues, Sunday mornings usually bring out the best in families…at least on the surface. Parents of prodigals often feel as if they are alone, that no one else can relate or understand.
But parents and friends with prodigals are much more common than we may think.
They fill our seats every Sunday.
May God place it upon the heart of every Christian to minister to those who feel the pain and burden of loving a prodigal. And may we love and pray for those who have drifted away from Jesus.