The Heartache of Parenting and the Hope of the Gospel

It’s understandable to feel shame, betrayal, and anger when our adult children disappoint or humiliate us. Jesus knows how betrayal and humiliation feel. He suffered those things for our sake when we were unrepentant sinners (Rom. 5:8). But it wasn’t a voice of wrath that stirred our hearts to conviction—it was His costly love. Christ forgave us a great deal and at a great price. Knowing this can help us respond thoughtfully rather than reactively when we see our children sin. 

Consider how deeply wronged and humiliated your Savior was for your sake. Jesus understood what it was like to endure harm, abandonment, betrayal, and misunderstanding from family and friends. Yet he did not withhold His love based on their behavior; He didn’t say, “I’m over it. I’m done.” His example should inform the way we relate to our adult children. Remembering the cost of your salvation may not transform your adult son or daughter, but it can change you.

Are you willing to endure humiliation for the well-being of an adult child, even an unrighteous one? Are you willing to suffer injustice for the sake of someone you love? Is that not what Christ did for us? Luke 15 tells a story of a father whose adult sons wronged and humiliated him. This good and loving father suffered with sons who didn’t love him. It should comfort parents to know that struggles with adult children aren’t necessarily the result of bad parenting. 

Amazing Grace 

When God confronts us with our sin, He does so with love. It is speaking the truth in love, not shaming, that brings repentance. As Romans 2:4 (ESV) says, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” 

I have listened to brokenhearted, anguished young adults whose parents had clearly communicated to them the wrath of God (they called it “holding them accountable”) yet failed to express the undying, unconditional love of God. This omission may be because their parents had never fully experienced the love of God firsthand. Or it could be that their anger consumed them. Not only do their children feel they can’t go home again, but they also do not believe God loves them. Truth without love is a poison that will infect these young hearts. And when this happens, heaven weeps. If we passionately give our adult children the truth, we need that truth to be foremost that God saves sinners because he loves them. They can quote us chapter and verse on God’s wrath; Satan has made certain of that. 

In Jesus’s parable, He focused on love without ignoring sin. He continued, 

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21–24 ESV

The father’s love unraveled the younger son’s plan. He dropped the hired servant scheme and faced whatever consequences his loving father willed. And his father willed a glorious celebration! 

Exasperating Grace 

Though one son surrendered, this father had yet another son to face. Isn’t that the way of parenting sometimes? The parable says,

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him.” (Luke 15:25–28 ESV

We love to speak fondly of grace, how much we love it, need it—especially when we are its recipients. But when called to extend grace, well, that’s another thing entirely. Grace doesn’t always feel amazing. Sometimes it’s downright exasperating. It’s more than enough to get on a Pharisee’s nerves. For the second time in the same day, the father bore the humiliation of dealing with a son’s shameful behavior. This time, it was the elder son. 

The father’s guests would have seen this son’s adult tantrum outside the home as a grave insult to his dad. The father had every right to discipline him sharply, but that would have deepened the divide between them. He could have ignored his son’s behavior and waited to deal with him until after his guests left, but that would have enabled his older son to take greater liberties. 

Instead, the father left his guests in a public manner and tenderly pled with his son for genuine restoration. The older son professed to be the better son. After all, he had kept the law and wanted his reward. He couldn’t see how much he had in common with his younger brother. 

The older son made his case to his dad: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (15:29–30 ESV). 

“I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Really? Never? This is reminiscent of the rich ruler who told Jesus, “All these [laws] I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21 ESV). The older son, even if he managed perfect obedience at home, failed in his duty to the family. He had a duty to find the younger son and bring him home.1

Thus, the older son’s loyalty claim was bogus. He didn’t even address his father by name. He also referred to his brother as “this son of yours.” That doesn’t sound like loyalty. For this older son, fulfilling his duty meant keeping a list of sins he didn’t commit, and he failed to see the proactive obligations he owed his father because those actions required love. He failed to be faithful because he failed to love. “You never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” infers that the father gave him nothing—ever. In truth, his father had divided the inheritance when the younger son had left, and the older son also received his share (Luke 15:12). 

When the sins of those we love (like an adult child) make us angry—and understandably so—we should acknowledge our need for a Savior instead of pointing to a false record of sinless perfection. Otherwise, we can be more like the older son than we realize. Jesus’ response to this attitude is, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (15:31–32 ESV). 

Empowering Grace 

This father absorbed tremendous pain and suffering to love these two men, his sons, for years. If you’ve ever walked with someone through suffering, this question inevitably comes up: How do you endure? Days after my husband died, I placed 2 Corinthians 12:9 on my bedroom wall, where I’d see it each morning. It reads, “[Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” This was my reminder to get out of bed—because some days I didn’t feel like it. In reading that verse day after day, it became apparent that grace was not only unmerited salvation. Grace was also an unmerited power, given by God, to enable us to endure suffering. 

If you are heartbroken over your relationship with your child, mistakes you’ve made, or words you cannot take back, remember the cross, and remember that three days after that grisly death, our Savior rose from the grave to save you and to continue saving you. You can boldly approach the throne of the one who endured our shame. He understands every ache and pain you have suffered and every tear you have shed. Imagine Him as your father, who, when He sees you in the distance, runs to you. He will equip you not only to fight your battles but also to flourish, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16 ESV).

This article has been adapted from Loving Your Adult Children: The Heartache of Parenting and the Hope of the Gospel by Gaye Clark (© 2024). Published by Crossway. Used by permission.

If your heart is aching over a prodigal child, don’t miss “Praying for a Prodigal Child: A Mom Who Prays Part 1,” today on the Revive Our Hearts podcast. 

Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 45.

About the Author

Gaye Clark

Gaye Clark

Gaye Clark is a nurse case manager for Parkridge Health Systems in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, Servants of Grace, and many other online media outlets, including Revive Our Hearts. She is the widow of … read more …

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