Prodigal Parenting

I believe in “prodigal parenting”. To best explain, let me start with an excerpt from Tim Keller’s book “The Prodigal God.” The following came from page xv of the Introduction of the book (the information discussed below is in relation to the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”):

“The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to his repentant son was literally reckless because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the community.

In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well. St. Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19 – American Standard Version). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience…”

Based on the above, I realized that if God, in His role as a Heavenly Father, is prodigal towards us as His children, then it’s probably best if we model His example and seek to become prodigal parents ourselves.

So, what could prodigal parenting look like? One facet, as Keller noted above, is “to spend until you have nothing left.” This doesn’t mean spending monetarily, but rather “spending yourselves.” To spend your time, energy, and efforts – to sacrificially give until you cannot give any more. Not to end of “spoiling” your children or becoming “helicopter parents”, but to the end of doing whatever it takes to chase after their hearts. Prodigal parenting entails fervent and diligent efforts (“spending yourselves”) to keep children from succumbing to themselves as opposed to succumbing to God. Isn’t that what God does to us, after all? Isn’t the Bible filled with stories of God chasing after our hearts and refusing to let us succumb to our own selfish desires?

Another facet of prodigal parenting is the reflection of God’s reckless grace and mercy, which in effect, can produce a life-changing experience. The story that always comes to mind when I think about “a life-changing experience” is the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. In particular, the part of the story that drives this point home is when Jean Valjean, who has stolen silverware from a bishop, is captured and forced to face the bishop. Having just been released from jail, Jean Valjean appears to be reverting back to the behavior that landed him in jail in the first place. Recognizing that what this ex-prisoner needed was lavish grace and mercy, the bishop told the police officers that not only was Jean Valjean given the silverware, but that he also was given two silver candlesticks in his home that he forgot to take with him. The bishop provides these to Jean Valjean, the police officers release Jean Valjean, and Jean Valjean leaves the priest’s home a changed man, pondering the bishop’s reminder to use the candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.

A great Biblical illustration of both the “spending yourselves” concept and the “reckless grace and mercy” concept of prodigal parenting is found in the book of Jonah from the Old Testament. Throughout this story, we see the love and grace of the Father as He seeks to change the hearts of both the Ninevites and Jonah.

A brief summary of the story is that God asked Jonah to travel to Ninevah (“Sin City”) and preach His Word. Jonah literally ran away and bought a boat ticket to Tarshish instead. God brought a storm upon the boat, and Jonah confessed to the crew that he believed God had sent the storm upon them because of his disobedience. He told the crew to throw him overboard so at least they would be saved, then God “appointed” a fish to swallow Jonah. God did not “appoint” the fish to punish Jonah, but rather to keep him safe from the sea and give him a little time to think. Once Jonah surrendered to the idea of preaching to the Ninevites, he was spit out on shore. Jonah then preached to the city, and they repented.

The King issued a decree that the whole city should fast and repent of their sinful ways. As a result, Jonah became…angry!?!?

He essentially told God that he knew that, being a God of mercy, He would inevitably end up forgiving the Ninevites, which is why he ran away in the first place!  Being a religious person, Jonah didn’t think this “nonreligious” City was deserving of God’s grace and mercy…

The story continues…Jonah hiked up to a position where he could pout and see if God would change His mind and destroy the City regardless. God did not destroy the City, but in the meantime he “appointed” a plant to sprout and provide Jonah shade from the sweltering heat. Jonah was thrilled about this plant. However, when Jonah awakened the following morning, the plant had withered. Jonah became so angry about this that he literally told God he was angry enough to die (perhaps a little overly dramatic?). At this point, God, being the clever Father that He is, states, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Looking at the big picture, it appears that God did not intend for Ninevah to be utterly destroyed. He intentionally sent a prophet (Jonah) to tell them how to be saved and to beseech them to call upon the Lord. Therefore, it does not appear that God’s only intention in providing us the story was to tell us about the warning (and repentance) of the Ninevites. God also wanted us to see the tough love He displayed for Jonah. If God were less loving, He could have simply allowed Jonah to run away from Him, to drown in the sea, to be eaten by the fish, or to be attacked by the Ninevites. I’m sure it would have been a small thing for God (being God) to choose someone else as Jonah’s replacement to convey the message to the Ninevites.

However, God loved Jonah and took the time to cleverly discipline Him with the ultimate goal of making him repentant and changing his heart. God, who can handle things just fine without Jonah, watches Jonah reject Him, run from Him, lie to Him, and disobey Him.  Yet God not only forgives Jonah, but allows him to still preach the Word to the Ninevites, and then uses his story to touch the entire world (by included the story of Jonah in the Canon of Scripture). What amazing love and parenting!!! God continually pursued this sinner and lovingly taught and shepherded him –until his heart was changed. Despite our sin, God loves us all enough to chase us, teach us, correct us, and even permit/allow us to further His kingdom! What a lesson for us as parents – when our children disappoint us or sin, MORE responsibility is placed on US AS PARENTS to chase, teach, correct, and then permit/allow them freedom to choose to make the right choice next time.

It seems absolutely counterintuitive! I’ve always assumed a child misbehaves, a child is punished or disciplined as consequence, end of story. But all that appears to do is to address the one behavior and not the root of the problem (our depraved natures). At our church this Easter season, we have been doing a wonderful sermon series called “unmasking sin.” I feel like the series ties in quite well to what I am attempting to address here. Discipline for a particular behavior addresses the behavior but doesn’t “unmask the sin.” God was not content to simply address Jonah’s disobedient behavior and move on….He wanted to “unmask the sin” and force Jonah to deal with his heart. He wanted Jonah to see that ultimately, his heart was in no better place than the hearts of the Ninevites. It would have been easy for God to address Jonah’s behavior (you disobeyed, therefore you will be punished), but that’s not what He did. God worked and worked (storm, fish, plant, etc.) until Jonah got it. There is no shortcut to prodigal parenting…true prodigal parenting requires “spending ourselves”, not just addressing behavior with consequences (although addressing behavior with consequences may be part of how we “spend ourselves”, that alone is not enough – we have to focus on the more important goal of addressing a child’s heart).

Additionally, I think it’s interesting to note that, in the story of Jonah, God is after the hearts of BOTH the Ninevites and Jonah, but the way He treats them is vastly different. My take on this is that the make-up of their hearts was vastly different, so God knew He could not address them the same way to “unmask their sin.” The Ninevites could be compared to the “younger brother” from the Prodigal Son story. God sent a prophet to tell them to repent, and all they had to do was look around at the killing, raping, etc. they had been doing and they KNEW they were in the wrong and repented. It would be hard to argue that they were not in the wrong with the blood of others on their hands.

However, with Jonah (who could be compared to the “elder brother” from the Prodigal Son story), God had His work cut out for him. Jonah wasn’t killing and raping, but was instead a prophet and religious person. God couldn’t just tell him to “repent” because he didn’t realize how sinful he really was. His sin ran much deeper than visible outward displays of rebellion (and thus was a lot harder to “unmask”).

Here comes the point in this reflection where I offer my two cents on the “spare the rod, spoil the child” debate running rampant in Christian circles today. I find it comparable to the “are the Old Testament stories in the Bible supposed to be taken literally?” debate.  For instance, whether or not (in the story of Jonah) Jonah was “literally” swallowed by the fish, the main point of the story is not Jonah being swallowed by the fish. The main point of the story is that Jonah was unrepentant until God chased after him enough to make him see all the sin he had hiding deep within his heart.

Likewise, whether or not a child is spanked and corrects bad behavior based upon his or her spankings (or lack thereof) should not be our main focus as Christian parents. A child can correct and modify behavior out of a couple of things – fear, or remorse rooted in love and respect. Spanking (or lack of spanking) alone totally misses the heart of the child. No matter which methods of discipline we employ if we are not keeping the “main point” of the discipline (a shepherding/teaching opportunity) as the focus, we have started to lose the battle. Just as God has different methods of disciplining His children, I think it is absolutely fine for us as Christians to use different methods (as long as they are Biblical) to discipline and shepherd our children. I truly do not believe there is “one size fits all” to Christian parenting. In fact, I believe there is a probably a reason God gave us the children we have – we probably are some of the best judges of their internal motivations and have the best opportunity to shepherd them Biblically.

For instance, I remember when my son was a baby. I had an amazing pediatrician in New York (her name is Dr. Cathy Ward, for any of you in Manhattan, do look her up!) One of the best pieces of advice that she gave me was to always trust my “mother’s intuition.” Thank God she told me this! Like any mom who is trying to do what is best for her child, I read scores of books about fussy babies (my son was one of the worst!) –  Happiest Baby on the Block, the 90 Minute Baby Sleep Program, etc. Additionally, I was familiar with the BabyWise methods and the importance of “getting a child on a schedule.” Also, I knew all about the importance of letting a baby “cry it out” to teach them to sleep by themselves.

Yet, despite this head “knowledge” from the experts, my son did not thrive with swaddling, the pacifier, a sleep schedule, any type of schedule (period!), or crying it out! I trusted my mother’s intuition and did “demand” feeding, let my baby call the shots (I know, horrid!), and even slept with him when needed. Sometimes he still needs me to help him fall asleep (he’s 2). Am I ok with this? Yes. Is it what the “experts” say to do? No. Yet, my son is a very well-behaved, happily adjusted and loving toddler (although I’m sure I am biased!). I’ve just come to realize that Dr. Ward was right – I know my baby best and needed to listen to my intuition – he needed less of a schedule and more nurturing to thrive.

Likewise, God gave you your children for a reason and you know your children (their personalities, their sins and strongholds, their strengths, etc.) better than anyone. Don’t become discouraged if your Christian parenting styles don’t seem to mesh with the latest best-seller out on Biblical parenting. As long as you are prayerfully seeking the Scriptures and God’s will through your parenting and are keeping the focus on the main point of shepherding their hearts (as opposed to solely correcting bad behavior), then I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed of. You know your children best. You know how best to shepherd them. As one of my friends noted – he can speak sternly to his eldest child and she immediately becomes repentant, while one of his younger twins responds to nothing but spanking. Different children, different shepherding methods –  that’s what God employs with us as His children, after all.

The important thing to remember, as prodigal parents, is that we have the responsibility to “spend until we have nothing left” when it comes to our children. We have the responsibility to extend lavish grace and mercy to our children as a reflection of what our Father has extended to us – so that they will produce changed lives. These children God has given us are gifts – “Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3). Let us be good stewards of these gifts we have been given; we are commanded to do nothing less. “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:2)

Some recommended reading to aid those of you interested in becoming prodigal parents:

“Give them Grace” is probably the best “Christian” parenting book I have read. Should be a must-read for Christian parents! From the back of the book, “We must tell our kids of the grace-giving God who freely adopts rebels and transforms them into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message your children hear, if you are just telling them to “be good,” then the gospel needs to transform your parenting too.”

I could not put “Biblical Parenting” book down, and finished it all the first day I received it from Amazon. It advocates what I would call “prodigal parenting” (Crystal terms it “covenant parenting”) and provides the appropriate Scriptural references. Incredible book!

While this book is not directly aimed at Christian parenting, the truths could not be more appropriate to those of us seeking to understand the individual “bent” of our children. Essentially, Dr. Keller explores the two ways we avoid coming into a relationship with God (by being a “younger brother” or an “elder brother”). Understanding which of these camps your child(ren) fall into will help you better shepherd them and seek to unmask the idols in their hearts that prevent them from drawing to God.

From the back of the book, “You only want the best for your kids. And you want them to be successful. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. But what if there was something more? Could your definition of success be leaving out the most important part?” This book focuses on Biblical “true greatness”, which is defined as “a passionate love for God that demonstrates itself in an unquenchable love and concern for others.” It focuses on teaching children the importance of serving, as Christ our Servant King taught us (and continues to teach us) through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, etc.