Painful relationships between parents and their children could feel unsalvageable to some. But Jesus offers love and grace in these dynamics, opening a door for healing to begin.

When You Love a Prodigal


Are you in a relationship that feels so badly damaged that it is irreparable because trust is broken?

People daily navigate the rocky terrain of pursuing connection with a loved one where these dynamics exist.

Judy Douglass wants you to know that you’re not alone. As a writer, speaker and encourager, she partnered with her husband, Steve, to lead Campus Crusade for Christ® globally (known as Cru® in the U.S.) for 20 years. She’s written a book, “When You Love a Prodigal: 90 Days of Grace for the Wilderness,” based on her experiences with their son, Josh. The book captures, over a 15-year period, letters posted on her blog that she crafted to a community of parents who were seeking help and encouragement amid difficult relationships with their children.

Maybe you are a parent who resonates with Judy’s story. Or perhaps you know someone who is struggling.

Jesus understands these relationship tensions and with graceful intention provides a parable in Luke 15:11-32 to help. He shows us what it looks like when love and grace are in action to help heal these fractures.

The parable of the prodigal son provides a glimpse into the steady love and free-flowing compassion a parent can offer to their children, even in the midst of seeing their son or daughter make crushing choices that bring pain and consequences.

Many parents resonate with the story in Luke 15. They know what it feels like to have to let their children go into a world that seems enticing and satisfying. They hope for the child’s safe return and reconciliation, even in the face of long periods of estrangement.

“Loving a prodigal can be a long and desperate road, filled with fear, worry, anger, and self-recrimination. You wait for the phone call — will it be from jail or the hospital? You plead with your loved one, then threaten him. You search for help. You feel the shame. You cry out to God, ‘How long, Lord?’”

Judy Douglass, When You Love a Prodigal

Following are two excerpts from Judy’s book, providing insight into how love and grace play essential roles in cultivating relationships with children.

Chapter 1 — Love

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

I love my prodigal. You love your prodigal.

But often it’s not easy to love a prodigal. Our love is tested and stretched. Unappreciated and questioned. Not returned — even thrown back in our face. We grow weary and discouraged.

How do we keep loving as the years unfold? What does love look like when our prodigals keep making bad choices?

What real love looks like

The apostle Paul exhorts us to really love. Note how the New Living Translation presents these thoughts:

“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions” (1 John 3:18).

So the obvious question is, what does real love look like? Below are six thoughts on demonstrating real love to our prodigals.

Love speaks truth. Often the first expression of love we jump to for a prodigal is “tough love.” After all, we have a responsibility to provide correction and discipline to help turn them from their wicked ways. We must speak truth to them, explaining what is right and help them understand that choices have consequences.

Scripture affirms that this is following God’s example, “because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:6).

Real love will let them experience natural consequences, or add some consequences appropriate to the choice made and the nature of our relationship with this prodigal.

But tough love is not always God’s approach, nor should it always be ours.

Love gives mercy. Earlier we were reminded not to keep a record of wrongs suffered. Any list we have needs to be forgiven, but of course our prodigals keep sinning (as do we). So often, maybe daily, there are new offenses that do not need to be put on a list, but need to be forgiven.

Peter tells us this wonderful truth: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

So many times I have thanked God that His love has covered my multitude of sins. Can I do no less than to forgive my loved one?

Love extends grace. Even as God has repeatedly forgiven my many sins, He has also given me grace over and over. Sometimes it is grace instead of the consequences I deserve, or favor with someone who could help or hurt me, or maybe it is even the strength or courage or power to do something I have not been prepared to do.

I have sought to live by words that God repeatedly affirmed as His desire for me to extend grace to my prodigal: “When you make mistakes with this boy” — and I made many — “err on the side of grace.”

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

If God can extend that much grace to us, He can enable us to do the same toward our prodigals.

Love bestows blessing. Over the years, my loved prodigal has done many things that made me want to return in kind, to say, “See you later,” to give up, to speak a curse.

Every time, God reminds me of His instruction through Peter: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

So I have to practice speaking blessing to him, doing something kind for him, reading a blessing I have written for him. It has transformed my attitude over and over, and it has convinced him that my love for him is real.

Love confers honor. Sometimes I can start thinking I’m better than my prodigal. After all, I have not done what he has. I walk with God fairly consistently. I keep loving Him no matter what.

But God is quick to remind me of His words in Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Can we do that? Can we put aside our “better living” and not think more highly of ourselves than we do our prodigals?

Can we live out this instruction from Romans: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10)?

Love never gives up. We choose to love — as God has loved us. We are guided by these challenging descriptions of real love: Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8).

These are not wishy-washy descriptions. “Always” means always. And “never” means never.

We love it when God does big miracles quickly, but we all know that He usually works over time. When you love a prodigal, you must be patient. Don’t despair. Keep praying.

And keep loving your prodigal as God has loved you.

Chapter 2 — Grace

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Our God has much experience loving prodigals — such as you and me, and all of humanity. So He is the perfect companion for us on this wilderness journey. He goes with us. He comforts us. He gives hope. He relieves our fears.

And He gives grace — for all our inadequacies and mistakes, and for the pain experienced by and caused by those we love so much.

The voice of grace

“That’s disgraceful!”

“You are so ungrateful!”

Each of these phrases contains a word with the Latin root for grace — or lack of it. They both mean “without grace.” And they are words that any of us might have said to our prodigals because they have been true.

Yet, God tells us just the opposite should be true of the words we speak. They should be full of grace: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

I am convinced that one of the most important ways we extend grace to our prodigals is through our words.

Words are powerful. They have either the potential to inflame discord and inflict great emotional harm, or the capacity to encourage repentance and restoration, and offer healing and reconciliation.

Certainly we must speak truth, and our prodigals often need to hear some hard truths. But God’s Word reminds us how we must deliver those words: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, …” (Ephesians 4:15, NIV).

Speak it in love.

Easy? No. Our frustration prompts negative words. Disrespect from a prodigal elicits a raised voice from us. Anger arouses other emotions. Conflict escalates.

How do we speak truth in love? How do we make sure our words are seasoned with grace?

Some practical thoughts:

  • Moderate: Speak slowly, calmly, gently, and firmly.
  • Think: Will these words add fuel to the fire?
  • Consider: Would you like someone to speak such words in that tone of voice to you?
  • Recognize: The words you speak today may be part of your relationship with your prodigal for all the years to come.
  • Realize: Your tone of voice can turn neutral words into destructive words.
  • Remember: You love this person!
  • Pray: Most of all, stop to pray before you speak. Make sure you are filled with God’s Spirit. Ask Him to govern your tongue, to release His love into your heart. Choose to be an instrument of God’s grace.

Gracious words may or may not lessen the carnage in the immediate “conversation,” though they should help. But over time, words filled with grace will eliminate the fuel that feeds what often becomes an inferno. When grace has prevailed and the words we have spoken have not done irreparable harm, then return, reconciliation, and restoration will occur more easily.

Love speaks grace. So should we.

Connect With The Author

To learn more about the book and connect with Judy, visit her website.

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Listen And Be Encouraged

The podcast “When You Love a Prodigal” releases episodes weekly. Look for it wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Melody Copenny
Words by

Melody Copenny

Melody serves as editor-in-chief for Cru Storylines™ and a journalist with Cru®. She’s an Atlanta, Georgia, native and University of Georgia graduate with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. She enjoys the intersection of creativity, theology and popular culture in her writing projects.

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Guy Gerrard
Photo Illustrations by

Guy Gerrard

Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.

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