Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Dannah Gresh: Judy Douglass struggled to love her teenage son. He was a bully who was constantly in trouble at school. He joined a gang and made poor choice after poor choice. But she remembers clearly the day she sensed the Lord speaking about her prodigal.

Judy Douglass: “Judy, I’m giving you My love for Josh.” And there was a picture of He’s opening me up, and He’s pouring into me from this huge vat of His love for this boy.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts, with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Surrender, for June 1, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Before we introduce today’s guest, I want to set the stage. Are you familiar with the parable Jesus told in Luke chapter 15? We sometimes refer to it as the story of the prodigal son. Here’s Bob Lepine from FamilyLife Today.

Bob Lepine: Jesus tells the story. He tells about a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father:

Boy: Father, give me my share of the estate.

Bob: So he divided his property between them not long after that. The younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country. There he squandered his wealth in wild living.

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country who sent him out to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything to eat.

When he came to his senses, he said:

Boy: How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men.”

Bob: So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him and ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. The son said to him:

Boy: (Crying) Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.

Bob: The father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!” So they began to celebrate. (see Luke 15:11–32)

Dannah: A special thanks to FamilyLife for that audio.

Of course, the story continues as Jesus talks about the older brother. The word “prodigal” actually means “wasteful, extravagant.” So the young man in Jesus’ story was prodigal in the sense that he wasted his inheritance on loose living.

But the word has also come to be used to describe any child who chooses to go down some really unwise paths. Prodigals in that sense are young people who reject their parents’ wishes and walk away from everything they’ve been taught is right.

And maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about. Maybe you have a son or a daughter who’s far from home, metaphorically or even literally. If so, you’ll appreciate your guest today. Nancy?

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know Judy Douglass. We go back a long, long way, and her family and my family go back a long, long way. Judy and her husband Steve have been forever friends of my family, my parents. Her husband Steve is the president of CRU. You may remember that as Campus Crusade for Christ, many of us do.

But, Dannah, I’m so grateful today for the opportunity to have a long-awaited conversation with Judy about what it means to love a prodigal and to experience God’s grace and peace in the midst of walking through that kind of story.

Dannah: You know, I have so many friends who are walking through this right now. And I was texting them right before we came in the studio and said, “You need to hear this woman’s heart. It’s going to encourage you so much.”

And I, myself, don’t have a prodigal but found that it was very useful in how I love my children during those seasons when they’re figuring things out about their faith and their family. So it’s very, very applicable for all of us.

Nancy: So, Judy, thank you for living this story. Thank you for writing about God’s work in your life through this journey. We’re going to unpack some of that, but just welcome to Revive Our Hearts.

Judy: Oh, Nancy, thank you so much. What a delight to be here with you. And, yes, we do go back a long way, as well as to your parents. So what a blessing.

Nancy: I’ve watched you and Steve as parents. And it’s not just those who are called prodigals that can be challenging at times. Parenting is challenging in its best circumstances.

Judy: Yes, it is.

Nancy: But your and Steve’s lives—you already had two biological daughters, and then your lives changed drastically when you got a call from someone saying, “Would you be interested in having an eight-year old child come into your home?” Tell us what that moment was like.

Judy: Well, it was actually a new friend, as we had just moved to Orlando. When we were saying, “So long,” she said, “By the way, do you know someone who could take an eight-year old boy?”

I just froze because God had been telling me He was going to give us a gift of a son. But at that point, we weren’t expecting to have any more children—I was in my forties, well into. And I started to cry. And she said, “Why are you crying?”

And I said, “Because I believe this is from God.”

It took about a year before this boy, Josh, who had been taken away by the county from his birth mother—a drug addict, alcohol, living in a not-great place, having her son with her and lots of inappropriate people there, and a lot of abandonment and abuse in his life.

And she came to us, and we thought, This is an incredible gift.

Our daughters were excited. I was. Steve was a little nervous maybe, but he really believed that I’d heard from God that He was sending us this gift. So we anticipated this gift.

Nancy: So you knew the background.

Judy: Yes.

Nancy: You knew, at some level, what you were getting into.

Judy: Only at some level. We did not entirely understand all the implications of the fact that his mother had been doing drugs and alcohol when she was carrying him. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome has terrible consequences. One of the worst is it prevents in the brain of a fetus the formation of the ability to do cause-and-effect reasoning. And so this person comes with an inability that, if you do this, this happens.

So that took iteration after iteration of learning that there are consequences to actions and to words. It took years for those patterns, those pathways to be built in his brain. That was just one. It also may cause learning disabilities. And it causes the executive portion of the brain to not manage life very well.

We didn’t know those things. We just knew that there would be probably reactive-detachment disorder, which comes from his dad never showing up. His mother chose her addictions. And the sweet, wonderful grandparents were already raising his older half-sister and said, “We can’t do it. We can’t take him.” Even the people he knew and loved and loved him weren’t able to be there for him. So he ends up in this family of people he doesn’t know, really. I mean, we were getting to know him, but he had no idea that he was going to actually come live with us.

He came in tentative, but with lots of things. The biggest thing was we went to bed at a certain time at night, or we went to school every day, or we didn’t eat certain things—all the things that there had been no structure or boundaries for in his life. We bring him to our home, and we have some boundaries and some structure and expectations of him.

One of the saddest things was I found in his room several times that he was hoarding packets of ketchup. They say that when children in poverty or homelessness, their major source of vegetables in their life is ketchup packets. And so, anytime he was at a fast-food place, he would just grab some, and he would keep them, to make sure he had something to eat.

Now, he did have plenty to eat at our house, but those were sad things and big discoveries for us.

Another issue there was his high, high need for being the center of attention. I don’t even understand all of where that comes from. It was challenging, but it wasn’t really terrible yet.

Dannah: I’m comforted, actually, by what you’re saying . . . and that probably sounds odd, Judy. But I’m an adoptive mother. My husband and I adopted a beautiful girl from China when she was fourteen. And what we’ve found is, like your story, many of us who take in a child who really wasn’t loved well, we’re not really prepared for how difficult it’s going to be, and there’s not really someone to talk to because that’s not the idyllic view of adoption and foster care that everyone likes to tell.

Judy: Right.

Dannah: That’s not the story they like to tell. I think just you being honest today is really healing to my heart. But I want to land on something just for a second. What you just said was very eye-opening to me. You just said, essentially, that your son came to you brain damaged.

Judy: Yes.

Dannah: It’s not that he wanted to act a certain way. It’s that he couldn’t.

Judy: Correct.

Dannah: There was a time when we were hoping to attach to our daughter more quickly, and our counselor just looked at me and said, “If your child was in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk, you would not be unkind enough to wake up every day and say, ‘Stand up and walk!’”

And it is difficult in these situations for these sweet children.

Judy: It is so difficult. People assume that these kids are just rebellious, just want their own way. And there’s some of that because there’s some of that in all of us. But a lot of them are not coming out of doing the things they do and the things Josh did later that I’ll tell about—and they’re pretty awful. But those don’t all come out of a rebellious spirit. They come out of the damage that’s been done to them.

So that needs to change our perspective—just what you said, Dannah—to see that this is not all that they’re bad; it’s that they’re damaged. It takes time for healing, and in some ways it’s not going to heal very much.

So it changes a whole lot of how we go forth with these children or other people. It took me quite a while to learn all this.

Nancy: Now, let me just back up, for the sake of the chronology here—when you first took Josh into your home, you did it as foster parents.

Judy: Correct.

Nancy: And so, what did you assume? How long did you think you might have him in your home?

Judy: Well, I thought that God said He was sending us a son and that it would not be for three years. At the end of three years, they terminated his mother’s rights. They said, “He’s now up for adoption, and you get first choice.”

I’m thinking, God didn’t say it was just for three years.

Steve is thinking, Boy, he’s such a distraction. He requires so much attention. He’s pulling our attention away from our daughters. Is this really what God has for us?

So we had a conversation with our two daughters. Our younger daughter was twelve. Josh was twelve. She’s eight months older than he is. She’s a very compassionate, loving person. She’s a counselor now. She began her counseling ministry at about the age of twelve. All of her friends came to her.

And she’s like, “I don’t know if I want us to keep him, but I don’t want to ruin the rest of his life by rejecting him.” So for her, it was clearly that one more rejection may be the last straw for this kid.

Then we go to Debbie, who is two years older—she’s fourteen at that time. She’s rather self-focused, not really into her walk with God at that time, and really hadn’t connected well with Josh.

And so Steve’s thinking, She’s not going to want us to do this.

And she said, “You know, we just need to suffer gladly. God sent him to us. He must have things to teach us.”

And we all looked at her and said kind of at the same time, “Who is this? Where did Debbie go?”

But that was, for Steve especially, a confirmation that this was of God. So we said, “Yes.”

Josh also got to say yes or no. Because he was twelve, he had a say in it. And his response was, “Well, I don’t see any other options. Sure.”

So we adopted him. I thought that he would feel secure in our love, because he hadn’t been. He was sure we would abandon him like everyone else. And we’re saying, “No, we are not abandoning you. We are sticking with you.” I thought that would change things.

He went into middle school. By this time, because he’s two years behind in school and big anyway, he goes into sixth grade. And you know how tall sixth grade boys are—and he looks like an eighth grader, for sure, or more. So he found there were all sorts of benefits to being big. He became a bully. He stole from kids. He hassled them to get their lunch money. He fought with people on the bus, and so, eventually, they kicked him off the bus and wouldn’t let him ride in it anymore.

He had ADD, so he couldn’t be still or quiet in school. He spent most of his days in alternative classroom, which he thought was not unusual. He thought that was normal.

He just got in one more incident after another. He joined a gang because he was looking for the friends that he could identify with. The principal called me in and said, “One more incident, and he’s out of here. We’ll be asking him to leave school.”

We’d tried so many things already. We’d done all the good things any good parent would be doing to try and provide community and good friends and spiritual input in his life and unconditional love, and it just hadn’t been enough. We didn’t know what else to do.

So God led us to a local residential Christian program, and he went there. He was a resident there for over a year, and then on home-phase for the next five months after that—so almost a year and a half that he was in this program. We had to go through it with him. Several really good things happened. It wasn’t an easy thing, but several wonderful things happened.

First of all, they had a thousand rules. Therefore, he broke many of them, and there was immediate and strong consequences. So they helped make up for the deficit in his brain of cause-and-effect reasoning because he got to build those pathways so often there. So that was a good thing.

Dannah: Wow. I never really thought of that in terms of . . . I have friends who have gone through this same journey of the prodigal and sent their children to Christian residential programs. I never put the connection there that it is a form of retraining their brains to understand.

Judy: Yes it is.

Dannah: They do have a lot of rules.

Judy: Oh, yes.

Dannah: When I hear about the rules, I think, Wow! That’s a lot of rules! This kid would be lucky just to obey ten rules, and you’re giving him a lot of rules! That makes a lot of sense.

Judy: They don’t expect them to be able to obey them. They’re not unkind—at least this place wasn’t. They were actually pretty loving, but they were really committed to the rules and the consequences.

The next thing that happened was we were required to be there on a regular basis—two times a week. And part of that was just time alone with Josh. So this boy who surrounded himself with a brick wall because he didn’t trust anyone, he wasn’t going to let us into his life, he had to talk to us, and we had to talk to him. And over a year and a half, we built relationship, and he began to believe that we really were committed. At first, he didn’t, because we got rid of him, in a sense, by putting him there, but then he began to see that.

The third thing that happened was he met Jesus. He did receive Christ. His house dad led him to Jesus. His house dad is still in his life. In fact, I was communicating with his house dad and house mom, who aren’t there anymore, but they live nearby, just yesterday. So he’s been an important part of Josh’s life. He called me that night after, and he said, “Josh received Christ today. We baptized him.”

And in the months that were left, which was a year almost, he really grew a lot. He had Scripture pounded into him. He was loved by these house parents, though they moved on to something else. But he really, when he finished, wanted to walk with God.

He came home behind in school, so I started home schooling him to get him caught up, but thinking we would probably keep doing that because of the learning disabilities that he had. He just begged and begged to go back to school. And so we finally said, “We’ll give it a try,” with lots of requirements, parameters, restrictions, and he agreed to all of that.

At first he followed it, but it didn’t take him even a month to find his old friends, his old gang friends, and others. He started cutting school. He passed weight lifting and keyboarding that semester. So I said, “We’re going to home school.”

Nancy: Okay, I’m going to push pause there because we’re going to pick up the story. A couple of things you said, Judy, that I think are important. I want to ask you to maybe expand on a piece of this.

First of all, the fact that he got all this help over years, and then this external help, and then came to know Jesus didn’t make all the problems go away. I mean, it’s obvious, but he didn’t cease to be a prodigal. This was a step in a journey.

And so I think the hope that some thing is going to fix this child or some experience is going to make all the problems go away, that’s just, in many cases, not reality.

When we come back in this discussion tomorrow—our listeners want to hear more of the unfolding of this story—but I want to just reel back for a moment and say: Over the course of these years, having him in your home—the foster-care years, the early adoption years, the year he’s gone, and you’re meeting and developing relationship—this was hard. You and your husband have a demanding, active role in one of the largest ministries in the world. You have two biological daughters who have needs—they were teenagers at this time.

And it’s just hard, hard, hard. You’re doing everything you can or know to do, and the problems are still there. Every single day you’re dealing with this.

So, I’d love to hear in this journey, what’s happening in your heart? You had such a strong sense God wanted to bring a son into your home, that God was giving you a son. So you’ve got that to hang onto, but it’s still hard, hard, hard.

Judy: Hard, hard, hard.

Nancy: What is God doing in you during those years?

Judy: Well, a lot, though I didn’t recognize it all at first . . . and I’m sure I haven’t recognized it all yet.

Nancy: And while you’re thinking about that, are you struggling during that period? This child who’s not loving you, he’s not giving any love back . . . what happens to your own mother’s heart? I’ve not been in this situation. There has to be feelings some days that, “I don’t love this child,” or “I have no idea how to love this child.” What are some of your own reactions to this journey at that point?

Judy: Well, here’s something else that happened that I didn’t tell you about that was pretty important.

The night that he received Christ, I was going to bed, thanking the Lord. The Lord said, “Judy, I’m giving you a gift. I’m giving you My love for Josh.” And there was a picture of Him opening me up, and He’s pouring into me from this huge vat of His love for this boy. He said, “You’re going to need it.”

And I went, “Oh, okay.”

But that is one of three things that really sustained me—maybe four. But I fell in love with this kid all of a sudden. In fact, I would say that night he was born in my heart as my son. Before that, he was this boy God sent us, and I was doing the best I could. Steve was doing the best. Our girls were trying to be good and loving to him—mostly.

But love hardly was there because it was hard. Then when God filled me up with His love, the good and the bad of that is, I’m overwhelmed with this newborn son. There’s new emotions that hadn’t been there, and I’m dealing with that. He was in the program, and they wouldn’t let me see him but twice a week. He’s my new son! (They didn’t quite understand that.)

But the wonderful thing of it is that whenever he did things to make life hard—and he did many things over the years, like fifteen years—God just kept saying, “I have given you My love for him, and I want you to let it flow through you to him.” He began to give me a picture of what a flow-through God He is.

He gives us grace. He gives us love. He gives us mercy. He gives us hope. He gives us strength. Everything that we need for our lives, not to hold on to, but then to let them flow through to the others in our lives. So that was happening.

Nancy: I want to just park there for a minute because—we’re going to pick up this conversation with the other things that were happening in your life at the time. But what you just said, Judy, Dannah, you’re both parents, now grandparents—isn’t this what every parent needs?

Regardless of how your child behaves or misbehaves (obviously there are some situations where the love isn’t natural, you’re more conscious of your need for God’s love to flow through), but parents are sinners who are loving sinners—no matter what the child’s background is.

Dannah: Correct.

Judy: That’s right.

Nancy: I’m thinking that every mother, every dad, every grandparent listening to this conversation—and you think not just of your own children, but of siblings, of mates, of just hard-to-love people—we’re fallen people loving fallen people. And it’s impossible to do that well.

Judy: On our own.

Nancy: On our own apart from the love of God flowing through us. I think that’s just a huge takeaway from this first day of this conversation.

And, Judy, I’m so thankful that you’ve written now a book called When You Love a Prodigal. It’s actually a book of 90 days of devotional reading—90 days of grace for the wilderness. This is the kind of thing you unpack in that book.

Dannah, I know that many of our listeners, whether they have a prodigal or they know of someone who does or they just want to have grace for the wilderness of loving a hard family, I know that many of our listeners are going to want to have a copy of this book.

Dannah: As I look through these 90 days, Nancy, I thought, It doesn’t matter if you have a prodigal. It doesn’t matter if you’re in one of those difficult phases of life.

My son and my daughter-in-law right now have twins that don’t like to let them sleep or rest or eat or take showers.

Parenting in a COVID-19 world can be hard, too.

And just getting to the end of yourself is a very big part of what God does with us when we become parents because when we get to the end of ourselves, that’s when we have to realize that He must be our sufficiency.

Now, I’ll tell you in just a moment how you can get a copy of Judy’s book, but did you know that tomorrow, June 2, is Worldwide Prodigal Prayer Day? This is something Judy started some years back as a way to encourage all of us to pray for the prodigals we love. More about that tomorrow, but it’s something you’ll want to check out on our website, ReviveOurHearts.com.

The title of Judy’s book is When You Love a Prodigal: 90-days of Grace for the Wilderness. This week it’s our gift to you in thanks for your donation of any size to support Revive Our Hearts. Ask for it when you visit ReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959.

Have you ever wondered how to pray for the prodigal you love? Tomorrow Judy will coach us on ways we can pour our hearts into prayer for our prodigals. And she’ll tell us about the Prodigal Prayer Day, including why she chose June 2 to be the day.

I’m Dannah Gresh. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you let God’s love flow through you to others. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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