‘Pursuing Love’ and Our Prodigals

I recently picked up a book with what seemed like a terrible title to me, but was written by a man whose writing I have come to respect and have learned a lot from in the last year. Jack Miller – pastor, evangelist, author and founder of World Harvest Mission, as well as father to A Praying Life‘s Paul Miller – had five children with his wife. One of those children, by her own admission, became a prodigal who turned her back on the Christian faith for well over 10 years. Several years after returning to the faith, this daughter, Barbara, alongside her father, collaborated to write a book called Come Back, Barbara, about their collective experiences as she rebelled against her family’s Christian faith and sought to find happiness apart from Christ.

As someone who has gone through strained relationships with unbelievers, dealt with teenage rebellion and watched as many others have as well, I was drawn to see what the elder Miller had to say. And, as someone who also sought happiness outside of Christ for years, I was intrigued to hear what his daughter’s perspective would be.

Come Back, Barbara

Come Back, Barbara

Both had much to say.

As a pastor, I figured Miller would have had a far better response to teenage foolishness than most of us. I was surprised to read that even an amazing man of faith like Jack Miller could be blinded by his own pride into thinking that a solid Christian upbringing and a stable family life would produce solid, stable believers. I was further drawn into their journey into “the middle of the story” for their daughter when I realized that it took Rose Marie – Barbara’s mother and Miller’s wife – nearly two years to overcome the heart grief of her daughter’s choices before she began to take any active steps toward her daughter. Oddly, I found their failures, weaknesses, blindness and pride encouraging.

Yes, encouraging. I think many of us, when we realize we’re facing the kind of pain that comes from broken relationships, think that most other people with a stronger faith than ours “have it more together.” They trust God and are perhaps significantly shielded from the grief and fears that we face with our pathetic, small portion of faith. What became clear through reading this book is that we are all drawn to make similar mistakes. Here are just a few I thought I’d highlight:

  1. Outward conformity to an orderly family life proves nothing. As parents, we all want our children to obey. If we’re honest, at least some of our motivation comes from a desire to have easy children that contribute to our comfortable life – as opposed to difficult kids who frequently create conflict – and for others to think well of our family. Even if we catch a glimpse of deception or manipulation in our children’s behavior, we are greatly encouraged to overlook it when their outward behaviors match what we want to see. The Millers made this mistake, and Barbara admitted that though she knew she lied, she really could not see how deep her own deception was. She was as self-deceived as her parents.
  2. Too often, parents try to be the Holy Spirit in their children’s lives. I can’t say it any better than Jack did: “I was not giving [Barbara] the opportunity to be driven to Christ by her own mistakes. I was trying to be the Holy Spirit in Barbara’s life, and in doing so I only succeeded in making her more aware of me than of God.” I’m 25 years into this parenting gig, and yet I continue to consistently make this same mistake; I still find it hard to resist using words and actions with my kids with the desired outcome being to control my kids’ hearts…as if I could! Barbara’s account only confirms this; the more her parents pressed her in the early years, the more she focused on her resentment. The conflict between them allowed her to continue to blame her parents – not her own choices – for the pain in her life.
  3. We often distrust God’s seeming slowness when it appears that His plan is different from ours. When we are trying to press a situation and do the work in someone’s life that only the Holy Spirit can do, we are revealing our own unbelief and lack of trust in God’s plan and timing. Miller confessed that it was a struggle for him to continue to cling to faith as the years passed and his daughter’s life continued its downward spiral. The more Miller was able to trust God with Barbara, and to love her for who she was – instead of who he wanted her to be – the more Barbara was drawn back into relationship with her family. And it was that reconnecting with her family that God used to slowly draw her heart back to Him.
  4. You cannot love someone with the enduring kind of love talked about in the Bible without forgiveness…and yet too often we hold back forgiveness “until the rebellious one comes around.” Again, Miller says it best: “The practice of comprehensive forgiveness overcomes our own love of being right, our actual enjoyment and treasuring of our sense of being wronged…frustrated condemnation of others and the treasuring of old wrongs are not part of the artillery of God but the slithering, slimy, deadly creatures of the Prince of Darkness.” Until we can trust God by letting go of the hurts and betrayals our own children have inflicted upon us, and entrust our hearts and theirs to His care, we will not feel free to love them in the way God calls us to love them. We will not feel strong enough or brave enough. Hurts quite naturally cause us to want to protect ourselves. It takes forgiving those hurts to give us the courage to use our bruised hearts to show God’s pursuing love to rebellious kids. But Barbara tells us it’s exactly this kind of reckless love that had a big impact on her, softening her heart to finally receive Christ for herself.

Jack Miller found forgiveness and reckless love hard to do in the face of his daughter’s rebellion. If he did, I have to think most of the rest of us will, too. But as we wrestle with trusting God even with these kinds of very deep, very personal hurts, and follow Him in faith, He can and often does amazing work.

If you knew that your child might have a chance at knowing Christ if you would trust God with his/her life, if you trusted Him with the timing and details of their story, and if you would work hard to persevere in showing them love even as they continue to make choices that hurt you…would you do it?

I confess I have not been very good at that kind of pursuing love. It hurts, and it takes more courage than I’ve had in the past. But one other thing this book made clear – as long as we are drawing breath, it’s never too late to repent of our own weakness and unbelief, to ask God to give us the strength to live faithfully, to again put our hope in the God who raises the dead, and to choose today to love the prodigals in our lives.

After all, God did just that for us. He pursued us to His very death.

Luke 23:33-34
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

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