Prodigal. The dictionary knows that word as an adjective, meaning “lavish” or “wastefully extravagant”; however, the church has appropriated it as a noun, a person who has left the faith of their youth. The more modern terminology knows this person as one who has “de-converted” or “deconstructed” their faith. If you’re anything like me, many faces come to your mind as you consider those definitions. Perhaps you thought of a celebrity pastor (or just plain old celebrity) who recently took to the inter-webs to share his or her newfound status as “de-converted.” Or, maybe your heart is aching as you think of a son, daughter, grandchild, or sibling who no longer identifies with Christ.
As a mom of a toddler and an infant, I cannot pretend to know the pain of a mother whose child has chosen a lifestyle of rebellion. However, as a teacher in a Christian school and youth group sponsor, I have known my share of students who loudly proclaimed the Good News of Christ and even shared it with others, only to depart from that message as they entered adulthood. It doesn’t always surprise me, but it does always break my heart.
Before We Get Started: Two Important Doctrines
As we weep for these souls teetering on the brink of eternity, we must discuss two core doctrines related to this topic. First, Scripture makes no bones that a person rescued by the work of Christ on the cross will never face condemnation. If you’re not so sure, check out Romans 8, where you’ll find these verses:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, . . .
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:1, 38–39)
Second, is the perseverance of the saints. That is to say, I believe that true believers will persevere in their faith. The New Testament does not know Christians who confess Christ with their mouth only to persevere in rebellion for the rest of their lives. On the contrary, it offers many warnings to those who think they can do just that. First John contains many of these passages. Here’s a smattering:
If we say, "We have fellowship with him," and yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. (1 John 1:6)
This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands. 4 The one who says, "I have come to know him," and yet doesn't keep his commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:3–4)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
Because of these twin doctrines, I want to proceed with caution. We cannot know into which camp our loved ones fall. While the Bible instructs us to treat a rebelling person as an unbeliever and assume by their lifestyle that they are not truly saved (Matt. 18:15–17), I believe it is dangerous and unhelpful to presume to know a person’s heart. Saved or unsaved, however, the message for a rebel is the same: repent and cling to Jesus.
In the letter to the church of Sardis (Rev. 3:1–6), Christ addressed a church that had a “reputation for being alive,” but was full of “dead” people, or as we might term them, prodigals. Christ then gives the church a series of commands, which will make helpful prayers as we intercede for the prodigals in our own lives.
Christ twice tells the Church of Sardis to wake up (Rev. 3:2–3). These believers, at best, were spiritually comatose. They had been lulled into apathy and slothfulness by their lazy Christianity. Their armor lay tucked away neatly in the closet, and their swords sheathed safely in their scabbards. These alleged believers had long since ceased to fight. They needed to wake up.
I wonder if someone was praying this very prayer for King David as he spent a year (or perhaps longer) in sin. After sinning with Bathsheba, impregnating her, and orchestrating the demise of her husband, enough time passes for the baby to be born. All the while, David continues on in his spiritual lethargy. It’s not until the prophet Nathan comes at God’s behest to confront the king that David finally wakes up. After realizing that Nathan had come to point out David’s sin, the king’s first words were, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam. 12:13). He finally woke up.
Though we yearn for the type of turnaround we see in David’s life, praying for a wayward loved one to wake up can be scary. We never know what it will take to rouse a person from their spiritual coma. But, whatever that price may be, it will be worth it. “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life?” (Mark 8:36).
Remember the Truth
“ . . . strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before my God. Remember, then, what you have received and heard. (Rev. 3:2–3 CSB)
Have you ever been amazed by your own memory? Sometimes I hear a song come on that I haven’t listened to since high school, and though nearly two decades have passed, I still know the lyrics. Memory care patients may forget the names and faces of their loved ones, but hymns they learned in their youth can come out with ease. Our memories are simply astounding.
As we implore God to wake up a rebel, we can also ask that He “strengthen what remains and is about to die.” In many cases, these souls know the truth. They have heard the gospel, sung the songs, even memorized the AWANA verses. That truth is in there. Just like that song lyric from junior high can come flooding back, so too can the verses a person learned in VBS or Sunday school. However, unlike pop music from the 90s, the Word of God has power.
"For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, "so my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do." (Isa. 55:10–11)
The Word of God will accomplish just what He wants every single time. It never returns void. Even if the person you’re praying for is still without Christ, ask that God would bring back to mind things that they have heard and been taught and that He will cause it to flower and flourish.
After the Word has done its work, and a heart has stirred from its sleep, the prodigal must repent. Beseech God that He grant this gift to the rebel you’re interceding for. We may not know the status of the person’s heart, but we know what he needs to do: repent. Whether repentance that leads to salvation, like Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) or repentance that leads to a renewed relationship, like David after his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11–12, Psalm 51), a heart running from God needs to turn back. This is always God’s call to a rebel heart. While we must acknowledge the hard and unsettling truth that not all hearts will turn, we do know that it is God’s desire that they would: “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9)
I wish that I could assure you these three simple prayers would ensure the repentance for every wayward heart for whom you’re concerned. Of course, I cannot. My hope with this article is to give you biblical and memorable requests to lift up on behalf of a loved one running from God.
Let us storm the gates of heaven on behalf of those we hold dear that they may wake up, remember the truth, and repent!