When prodigal children don’t return

The loving father in Jesus’ parable can help us relate to our own wandering children

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younger son demands his inheritance, then “sets off for a distant country”—severing himself from his father’s beliefs, values, and spiritual legacy—with no intention of returning. Years later, without warning, the son returns home to the joy of his father (Luke 15:11–24).

We’re familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. Unfortunately, joyous returns do not always occur for the many parents who watch their children head off to a spiritually “distant country.” Yet, the loving father in the parable can help parents relate to their own wandering children.

From guilt to forgiveness

When prodigal children don’t return home, parents are left with deep guilt, thinking they caused the child’s yearning to leave. This guilt is a false interpretation of Proverbs 22:6. Yet, the passage says, “should go” not “will,” observes Phil Waldrep in Parenting Prodigals. The parent’s role is to plant seeds of faith, not guarantee they will grow. The prodigal must choose to return home: the child-turned-adult is responsible for his or her own faith. Our loving God does not leave parents mired in self-blame but heals guilt with the balm of forgiveness.

God’s pardon signals that parents are free—even compelled—to extend mercy to themselves, duplicating the divine compassion. When parents forgive themselves, something miraculous happens. Defenses for faulty parenting or assumed responsibility for a child’s decisions are no longer needed.

Forgiving yourself matures parents’ ability to bear, believe, hope and endure no matter what their prodigal throws their way (1 Corinthians 13). Our heavenly Father shows parents that they still have a role in the life of their prodigal; they are still mom and dad.

From cajoling to loving

Like our heavenly Father, the father in the parable demonstrates love by allowing his child to chart his own life’s journey, not by running after his son and cajoling him to stay. In the parable, the father “had to let [his son] go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cost both his son and himself,” writes Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal. “It was love itself that prevented him from keeping his son home at all costs.”

“I had to let go of all my efforts to get him to return to his faith,” said a mother of her 20-year-old prodigal son. She loved him enough to allow him to experience the consequences of his decisions, to find his own pigpen. “I had to hand him over to God.”

Writes Nouwen, “It was love itself that allowed [the father] to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.”

From “in the right” to in relationship

Parents cannot fix their wayward children, “especially the embarrassing and defiant ones (who) mess up their lives in incredible ways,” writes Waldrep. “They have financial calamities, trouble with the law, drinking and drug difficulties…. They marry people we can’t stand, and they make decisions that are foolish at best.… We feel compelled to jump in to make it right.” In their rescue attempts, parents’ coaxing and preaching often alienates their children who respond, “I don’t want your help.”

When alienation breaks the parent-child bond, parents have to choose between having a relationship and being right. In the parable, the younger son’s experience of remorse was made possible by remembering that his father would listen: “I will arise and go to my father.”

The same attitude that released the son to leave home would welcome him back. If a parent chooses relationship, when the child is ready for faith, he or she will grab on to it.

From wounded to waiting

Of course, prodigals don’t always stay away. A prodigal may bring home an unbelieving common-law partner for the weekend. Or a child who stops his addiction and professes faith may fall off the wagon, relapsing back to his addiction and old lifestyle. After a few cycles, parents are exhausted and filled with disbelief. Said one parent: “I’m tired of killing the fatted calf.”

In the parable, the father, not the servants, is the first to notice his son coming up the road. He reflects the ceaseless vigilance of waiting for the child’s return. Parents who work hard at waiting will be comforted, writes Isaiah: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (40:31).

God instills enough energy in parents to walk and not faint from despair when the prodigal child is not in sight.

From right to wrong

The older brother, the good son, did his duty. Yet, he refuses to join the party to celebrate his younger brother’s return. He responds to his father’s encouragement with a verbal lashing of self-justification, bitterness and condescension toward his younger brother.

The elder brother is like the Pharisees and scribes. As “tax collectors and sinners” draw near to hear Jesus tell the story, they stand aloof murmuring, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2). Jesus tells the religious righteous that the tax collectors and sinners were their younger brothers. But with insensitivity, rudeness and theological arrogance, the Pharisees and scribes value purity of theology and a show of righteousness over God’s love.

What great irony this parable reveals. The son who does “right” by staying on the farm doing his duty is, in fact, wrong. The son who lives “wrong” ends up being honored with the fatted calf. May parents and the church never allow concerns with theological purity to overwhelm God’s primary edict to love prodigal children (Mark 12:30).

Taking on the loving heart of the heavenly Father is the central message of the parable. For years, even decades, as the prodigal child gambles away opportunity, parents pray out of deep brokenness: Lord Jesus, if there is a spark of hope, however small, in my child’s heart, fan it into the flame of salvation and bring my child out of hell, home to his compassionate
heavenly Father.

An old Jewish proverb offers encouragement: “God is closest to those with broken hearts.” In eternity, when these parents meet Jesus face-to-face, the one who also lost so many of his children will embrace them and say, “I understand.”

David Ortis is a member of Bakerview MB Church, Abbotsford, B.C. He is a therapist with  Focus on the Family Canada and a former pastor. This article was first published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, the publication of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, and is reprinted with permission.


  1. So…when our child ends up in hell for eternity instead of with us in Heaven, we’re supposed to be comforted by Jesus saying, “I understand. ” ???

    I DON’T understand. I came here for answers for when your child never repents and dies without the Lord, and I found none. I’m not sure I want to have any part of a God who requires child sacrifice in order for Him to be pleased with us. And I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I’m considering walking away. What’s the point of faith?

    • As I read your statement I saw someone who is concerned about their children’s eternal future. I hope and pray that what I am going to say will help you in your concerns. Would you rather serve a God that does not give us a choice, but forces us to love him and because of that method of love, we will all go to heaven and miss hell. Or serve a God that gives us the option to make up our own minds as to where we will spend eternity. Now if I understand what Jesus did on the Cross it is not sin that keeps us out of heaven. Because when Jesus died, he died for all sins. So sin is not the reason we will miss heaven. Again, if He died for all sin, then all sin is forgiven. The Bible says nothing nor no one can take us out of the Father’s hands. We are safe as long as we abide in his hands. BUT, if we decide to walk away, as the prodigal son did, then what happens next is on us not on the Father. He has made a way through the cross, through the blood of his son Jesus Christ, that is forever the answer that God the father was looking. The prodigal walked away, but he returned, to a father that was waiting for him to return and the father restored his son to the position in the family as if he had never left. BUT, if he had decided not to return, or if something had happened to make it impossible for him to return, like death, then he would have chosen to stay in exile and be forever out of the protection of his father and family. God’s protection plan is for all who choose to stay with the Father. The Bible says, train up a child and when he is old he will not depart from it. I believe it is speaking of those times when they are away from the family, another city, state, country, jail or what ever the situation, they will always remember what they have been taught. They can not get away from what mama or daddy said. SO, now the issue is, what will they decide to do with what God has given them through His Son Jesus Christ? He (God) will not force you or me or anyone to love him. You make that decision, He gave us his best in His Son, now it is up to us to decide what we are going to do with God’s perfect gift. The prodigal had two options, stay there or go home. He chose to go home. So he made up his own mind, and that is what we will have to do. Do we stay in this world, and reject God’s gift, or do we go back home to the Father and his blessings and mercy. Heaven or hell, the decision is up to each and everyone of us.
      May God bless you and your family is my prayer.

    • Hi Renee, although I’m not ready to walk away from my faith, I can certainly agree with and understand what you are saying about if the child doesn’t come back to the Lord – where is the answer to that. I have been searching online for a good article about that, but keep finding ‘pray and they will come back’ articles. However, that’s not always the case. I’m glad you questioned this article on that. There were Godly leaders that had children that did not end up following Him, or turning back to Him.

      I do hold to the fact that Believers are shown to sin in scriptures, and armed with that fact and that scripture does not say a Christian who has committed a sin is automatically lost and condemned, I hold that if they died it doesn’t necessitate a belief that they are in Hell.

      I prayed specific prayers for my prodigal and saw God specifically answer – to try to get her to repent – but while she temporarily did, she still went back. Ignorantly. Believing it wasn’t wrong.

      But I don’t see articles on that, so I trust what I see in scripture; God will do all on His end, and even if she dies I can’t say she is in Hell.

      Hope that helps.

    • That is known as unilateral forgiveness, you didn’t do anything. As long as you’ve forgiven them then the rest is up to them!

  2. Renee, since your response was submitted a few months ago I am not sure if my thoughts will ever catch up with you, but I will still comment on what you wrote.

    I don’t believe Ortis’ intent was to provide steps for Christian parents wanting to know how to deal with a wayward child. I sense his objective was to help parents deal with something that is common among many parents, and that is how to work through feelings of guilt regarding their “lost children.” “Am I the reason why my child has gotten off the path?”

    Granted, there are parents that are better than others in communicating Christian values and teaching to their children, but ultimately it is the adult child that is responsible for their salvation regardless of how good or bad their parents were. Even Jesus had imperfect parents, but because of the right choices he made in life, he was perfect in all his thoughts, words, and actions.

    Some pastors also deal with much guilt because of wayward members that once were active in their congregation. As a former missionary and pastor, I have dealt more with biblical mourning (Mt 5:4) than wallowing in guilt regarding those who have left the church and or the faith for what reasons might be.

    Several years back I wrote an article that hopefully will assist followers of Jesus when helping wayward members. I believe this article might help you and others reading this reply in dealing with wayward children. It is titled “To Love the ‘Dones’ and ‘Nones’ and ‘Broken Ones’—’Go to the lost sheep of the church,’ Matthew 10:6 (adapted).”

    Please write me at lynnandmary@gmail.com and I will get this article to you. You can also read about my own return as a prodigal child to Jesus and the local church in CL’s Letters to the Editor, April 25, 2022. Blessings!


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