Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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When You Love a Prodigal

Dannah Gresh: Judy Douglass knows what it’s like to have a son far, far from home—and not just physically far either.

Judy Douglass: You get so weary in the journey that you think, Okay, I’m just going to go on and live my life. And if he comes back, that’ll be wonderful, but I can’t bank on it.

Dannah: Ultimately, says Judy:

Judy: God is the only one who really knows what’s going to work for them, what’s going to help them be able to come back, and He is the one who can help me, or any other person who loves a prodigal, to hang in there with them.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Surrender, for June 3, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Dannah, I think this series with my longtime friend Judy Douglass may elicit as much or more response than anything we’ve done in a long time. And what makes me think that is anytime I post a comment or a testimony or a quote on social media that has anything to do with prodigals—prodigal children in particular—my feed blows up.

I mean, people just are so struggling for hope, for help. There’s a sense of desperation in the hearts of so many parents. You’ve seen this among people that you know and love as well.

Dannah: Oh, I’m praying with several of my friends right now that God would bring their children’s hearts back to Him and to them. And it’s deeply painful. There are seasons and times of hopeless. But I think Judy, listening to her voice these last two days, has given me new hope for those friends who are walking through that painful time.

Nancy: So, Judy, thank you for joining us here on Revive Our Hearts to talk about something that is not only your journey with an adopted son, Josh, who’s given you freedom to tell this story . . .

Judy: Yes.

Nancy: He’s now in his late thirties and in a very different place. But there were fifteen years of, like, hanging-on-by-your-toenails sort of crisis and all the impact of that on your family. We’re going to unpack a little bit more of that story. 

Thank you not only for being willing to walk through that journey, to love a child well, to love a prodigal well, but also for letting God shape and mold you and your husband Steve, the president of CRU, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ, and then to reflect it.

Here’s what I love about this, what I’ve seen in you through this journey: The desire to reflect the Father heart of God. That’s what this takes us to—God who is compassionate and merciful with all of us who are prodigals. We are all prodigals, right?

Judy: Right. We are all prodigals.

Luke 15 is probably my favorite story for this. This boy comes to him and says, “I want my inheritance.” Well, inheritance wasn’t money in the bank. It was land and animals. And so he must have had to sell things and diminish his income as a result, and then let him go.

And you know his heart is breaking, not only for what his son has just said and done to him, but “What’s going to happen to him?” And yet, he doesn’t quit hoping, because we know he’s looking. Every day he must look and ask, “Is he coming? Is he coming?”

We aren’t told how long it is, but we know the son comes to his senses finally—when he’s living with the pigs.

Nancy: And through all of this, the dad doesn’t know what’s going on.

Judy: No, he does not.

Nancy: And how true that is for a lot of parents. I hear, “I don’t know where my child is. I don’t know what he or she is doing.”

Judy: There’s so many, so many.

Nancy: You’ve just got to cling to the Lord while that child is in that far country.

Judy: Yes, because you don’t know.

I have a friend whose son is, well, let’s say he hasn’t seen him in twelve years, I think. He did actually talk to him twice and thinks maybe his son is warming up a little. But that’s just one of many, many stories that I know of . . . the kids are gone. They won’t speak to them. They won’t let them see their grandchildren. Horrible stories.

And yet, the father waits. And then when he sees him coming, and the son has rehearsed his apology and asking for forgiveness and mercy, but the dad runs—RUNS—out there to greet him, and he grabs him.

And he says, “Oh, Father, I have sinned.”

And he says, “I love you! You’re back! My son was lost and now he’s found!”

And that’s what God says about us. He’s watching. And all of us, when we make our forays into bad decisions—maybe not as much now, but occasionally, and attitudes more than anything, and when we have in the past—God is eagerly waiting for us to return so He can welcome us.

Nancy: And I love that the father saw him when he was a long way off.

Judy: A long, long way away.

Nancy: He’s longing.

Judy: It’s just a beautiful picture of what our Father is like and how He feels about us as well as how He feels about those that we love.

And, yes, He knows the end of the story, and we don’t. I realize that’s a harder thing for us in a sense. But at the same time, He tells us that the hard places are really doors of hope.

We go into these hard places, and we think, This is going to be difficult. I can’t make it through this. I don’t know what to do. I have no answers.

And God says, “This is a door of hope. And if you’ll walk through this with Me, I’m going to show you the hope that you can have.”

And all of us, our hope is that these we love would come back, that they would return to us and to the Lord or come to the Lord, that they would return to a better life than the one that they’re choosing. And we can’t make that happen. We can facilitate. We can make it easier. But we can’t make it happen. But God says, “Cling to Me. Don’t let go of Me.”

In the book Hinds Feet on High Places, Little Much Afraid gets separated in a fog, in a valley, from her companions, Sorrow and Suffering, and she’s totally lost. She’s trying to get to the high places to be with the Good Shepherd, and she’s lost. She’s despairing. She loses hope. She says, “I’ll never make it.”

And then she remembers that the Shepherd said, “If you call, I’ll come.”

And she said, “Shepherd!” And he was there.

And here’s the key—and this is what I held on to so many times. She said, “I’m lost. I’ll never make it. How am I going to do this?” 

And he said, “Oh, Little Much Afraid, you’re going to make it. You just don’t know I’m always working. You just can’t see it in this fog, but I’m accomplishing my purposes.”

And the thing that blows my mind is: God accomplishes His purposes in so many ways. It’s not just that our loved ones return. Or it’s not just that what we’re struggling with He takes care of us in that. Then it rolls out into other people’s lives.

I have a book because of our son.

Nancy: And the book is called, When You Love a Prodigal.

So God birthed a means of grace and ministry through you as a result of the wilderness that you walked through, not for fifteen days or fifteen weeks or months, but fifteen long, hard years, as you say, in the wilderness. And this book is ninety days of readings, ninety days of grace for the wilderness.

We’re making it available to all our listeners this week because I can’t imagine there’s a listener who either has some loved one who is in some sense a prodigal or you have a friend who has a loved one who is a prodigal. And I think, Judy, that God is going to use this book to minister much grace to people who are walking through those hard paths that you’ve walked.

And for those who haven’t been with us over the last couple of days, I do hope that you’ll go back toReviveOurHearts.com and listen to the first two parts of this conversation. But I want you to just remind us some of the things, some of the hard things that you walked through with your beloved, prodigal son, Josh, who’s given you freedom to tell this story.

Judy: He has.

Nancy: He’s in a way different place today in his late thirties. But just give us a sense of what that was like.

Judy: Okay, lots of things. We learned so many things we knew nothing about. We learned about the juvenile justice system. He spent a little time at JVC—Juvenile Detention. There were gang fights a couple of times. I never knew if the phone call in the middle of the night was going to be from the police or from the hospital. We got both.

He ended up in jail. That didn’t turn out to be a big deal except for this wonderful blessing: He was on probation for two years. Absolutely wonderful because it kept him from making a lot of bad choices because he was afraid to go back to jail. So that was great.

I think there were seventeen cars in five years that he went through. We learned how you get out of tickets. We learned when you go to court and when you don’t.

We learned a lot about alcohol, though we had already known a lot about that from an extended family situation.

We learned about drugs—a little—not nearly as much as we probably could have learned.

There were a lot of girls in his life. He had a failed marriage. It lasted seven years, but it was never a good thing.

He was gone sometimes, and we didn’t know where he was. During those times we’re just pray, you wait, you love. You say, “I love you no matter what you’re doing, but you’re breaking my heart, and you’re ruining your life.” Those are the things you will say.

We prayed for him. He never denied that he knew Jesus. Well, that’s not true. There was one night he was drunk, and he said, “I don’t want your Christianity. I don’t want Jesus. I don’t want anything to do with any of it.” But that was not his normal response. He knew that he knew the Lord. But he also didn’t know what to do with all the pain in his life.

So for him, the pain is what . . . He would be an alcoholic. You would say, “He hasn’t had a drink in five years.” But he would, when he was in pain, when he was so hurt, so frustrated. 

Nancy: That’s what he would turn to.

Judy: That’s what he would turn to, to the alcohol.

I home schooled him all through high school. When he turned eighteen, which was well before he was finished, he said, “I’m quitting. I don’t have to go to school anymore.”

I said, “That’s true.”

So after about six months, and he couldn’t get a job because he didn’t have a high school diploma, he said, “Can I finish school?”

And I went, “I don’t know. Can you? Will you?”

So we went back to school, and he ended up graduating first in his class—that is, the only one in his class! We had a special graduation service for him. I thought he was doing well then, but he wasn’t.

We let him get an apartment with some guys and go to community school/college. That was not a good situation. He was in and out of our home. He would come home for a while, wanting to do well. We were, “You’re an adult now. If you want to be here, we would love to have you (because we’d really like to be able to have input into his life), but here’s the options: this can happen, this can’t.”

After a while, he would not be living that way, and so we would say, “You are choosing to leave again.” That happened several times.

Nancy: So your heart in that was that you weren’t wanting to enable irresponsible behavior.

Judy: We didn’t want to enable him, but we helped him to see, by having clear definitions and boundaries: “This is what’s necessary if you’re going to be in our home.” So he knew. “And here’s the result if you’re going to live this way.” And generally it was, “You’re going to leave, and you better get a job and a place to live.”

But always, when he was leaving we said, “We are so sorry that this is necessary.”

His girlfriend then, whom he later married, said, “Well, you’re forcing him to leave.”

“Oh, no. It’s his choice, and he knew that.” It doesn’t require that I kick him out. It requires that I help him to understand how to make responsible choices.

And he slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y began to grow. But then he and his wife broke up. They never had a good marriage. They were splitting up because of unfaithfulness on both sides. But then he called me one night and said, “You can pray that I’m going to go to heaven.”

And I said, “Whoa, whoa . . . wait!”

And he said, “So I went to see her and told her that everything was my fault and that I was sorry, and please, can we work this out?” And she shut the door in my face.”

So he was in his truck. His job at that time was as an armed security guard. So he went out in his truck with his gun, and he’s sitting in the woods with this gun to his head. And he texted me, to say goodbye, basically.

After several efforts, I got him to text me back. Over the next hour we texted back and forth. I convinced him this was not the end of his life, that God still had a plan for him, that God had a hope and a future for him. 

He finally said, “Okay.” And he put his gun down and drove home. He called me when he got home.

But that’s . . . I tear up just thinking about it. It was a really scary time.

Another time, his grandfather was dying. He adored his grandfather. He was the man in his life when he was a young boy that took him fishing and boating and sports and stuff. When he was ill and dying, we were really concerned that he would take his life then, too. But, instead, God had been doing a work. He brought this new woman into his life, who he’s married to now, who is a wonderful person.

Between the work God had been doing and our love and encouragement and her encouragement, instead of taking his life when his grandfather died, he said, “I have to make good for my grandfather. I have to prove that I can do this. And I have to be there for my grandmother, to help her.”

He’d never said those kinds of things before. All of a sudden God was coming in a way that was enabling him to make a different approach, a different choice in life. That was really the turning point. At that point, he’s twenty-eight years old and finally seeing his need to be a responsible person.

Nancy: Judy, during that whole journey, you were tenacious, but what kept you from just giving up, from totally losing hope?

Judy: God. I’m in the Word. I’m praying. I’m talking to people. I’m praying for others. That really is important—to take my pain and use it in praying for others. I’m letting people minister to me. This one friend especially was there for me all the time.

So God was just tenacious and wouldn’t let go of me, in a sense, so I increasingly didn’t let go of Him. I’m holding on to Him, saying, “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t know anything else to do.” You just get so weary in the journey that you think, Okay, I’m just going to go on and live my life. And if he comes back, that will be wonderful, but I can’t bank on it.

Most people who have prodigals, especially who are addicted in any way to anything, it’s going to take several rounds of a journey. They’ll come back, and then there’s relapse. And then they’ll come back, and then there’s relapse. And it will take them, frequently—not always—but probably more often than not, it’s going to take some time for them. They want to come back, but they can’t resist the addiction. And then they want to come back, and they can’t resist.

God is the only one who really knows what’s going to work for them, what’s going to help them to be able to come back. And He is the one who can help me, or any other person who loves a prodigal, to hang in there with them.

You have to do some things for yourself. You need to find some safe places. I would go to the beach for a few days by myself and just spend it with the Lord. That was very much a treasured time for me to do that. I would go horseback riding because I grew up with horses. And, for me, getting on a horse was a place of rest—that’s not true for a lot of people, I know. But to get on a horse, for me, was a place of rest. I could just go and ride and talk to the Lord.

It was important that I had people sometime, but that I was by myself with the Lord other times. I’m pretty much an introvert, so I did need to get away from that.

Dannah: Well, you’re also saying that you took time to take care of yourself, which I think is something we don’t do very well when we’re overwhelmed with where our children are. You’re saying, “Take a day off. Go rest.” That is a good thing.

Judy: It absolutely is. And, for me, a day was not enough. I would take two, three, four days. My husband didn’t always like that, for me to be gone.

My husband and I talked a lot. Increasingly, as time went on, he engaged more in this. At first, he was letting me, as the one who had the word from God, handle a lot of it. But then he really came to a similar place that I was in that he would find that when Josh did something that really irritated him or frustrated him, and he would start to think negative thoughts, it would be like he would hear God say, “So, Steve, what do you think you’ve ever done to irritate or frustrate Me?”

And Steve would say, “Oh, I can think of a few things.”

And He says, “So how big is the gap between you and Josh compared to the gap between you and Me?”

And Steve would say, “Oh, God, You have been so good to me. You have been so gracious and merciful.”

And that was a journey that he took to learn, even though we had the boundaries and the consequences, to be gracious and loving to this boy even when he didn’t deserve it, when he didn’t do the things that we would want.

It was a growing time for us together. A lot of it was individual because God was working on us each, but then we could come together and share what we were learning. And that’s been something we can look back on now and talk about how, when we’re going through a challenging time in the ministry or personally or with family.

Steve’s mother had Alzheimer’s and lived with us for several years and then was in a nursing home. That was a hard time. It was right when I had three teenagers, too. And yet, the fact of learning to let God minister to us and to be there and meet our needs and show that His grace is sufficient, that He is enough, that we could learn together on that.

God didn’t ever let go of us. And so the key was: Could I keep holding on and not let go?

Nancy: What I’m thinking of, Judy, as you’re sharing, is that verse . . . It’s a recurring refrain throughout the Scripture, particularly in the psalms: “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”

Judy: Forever, ever.

Nancy: “The steadfast love of the Lord”—that’s a covenant love. It’s a loyal love. It’s a love on God’s part that is not shaken by our behavior or our neglect of Him or our resistance of Him. The steadfast covenant-keeping love of the Lord endures forever.”

And where in the world would we be if it weren’t for the steadfast love of the Lord? We want it for ourselves. We’re thankful to have it for ourselves. We know how badly we need it. But then, how hard it is for us to do what God has helped you and Steve and other parents to do, and that is to be a channel, a conduit of that steadfast love of the Lord.

Where would Josh be today without the love of the Lord flowing through you to this boy who so desperately needed God’s grace?

Judy: And we think that if it were not for us, or someone like us, who would let God’s love flow through, he would be one of two places: in jail or dead. Those were the decisions he was making, the path he was on. God didn’t let go of us, but also did not let go of him. God has been so gracious.

Nancy: There are a lot of parents listening to this conversation who are not on the other side of that wilderness. They’re in that fifteen-year hard, hard journey you and Steve had. God can say how long it’s going to be—fifteen months, fifteen years, twenty-five years. We don’t know.

Judy: No, we don’t know.

Nancy: But I just sense that God wants to speak words of hope and encouragement to a mom, a grandmom, a friend, a sister, somebody who loves a prodigal, to say, “Can you continue by My grace, loving with a steadfast love of the Lord that endures—not just for fifteen years—but forever.”

That’s why you’ve written this book, to help those who love prodigals—maybe a child, for many moms and dads, it is—but loving someone who is in the far country, who is away from the Lord. You’ve offered in this book ninety days of grace for the wilderness. Now, it’s going to take more than ninety days in many cases. So what somebody might want to do is read this in ninety days and then start over again and read it for another ninety days.

But I just think it’s going to be a life preserver. It’s not just your story and your journey, but you’ve packed this with Scripture and with wisdom from God’s Word, and with transparent sharing from your own journey how to love a prodigal and how to experience God’s grace when you’re still in the wilderness and you don’t see hope at the end.

Dannah: Again, the book is titled, “When You Love a Prodigal: Ninety Days of Grace for the Wilderness. It’s by our guest today, Judy Douglass.

We’ll send you a copy when you contact us with a donation of any amount to support the work of Revive Our Hearts. To do that, just visitReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959.

In case you’re wondering if we’ve met our goal for donations in the month of May, we’re still crunching the numbers. We’ll let you know on Friday whether we’ve made it or not, so stay tuned. But thank you so much for giving, and thank you for praying.

Now, if there’s a prodigal in your life, do you find it difficult to give thanks to God for the situation? Tomorrow, Judy will tell us more about some of the gifts she received during those wilderness years, including the gift of gratitude.

I’m Dannah Gresh, inviting you back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to see hard times as doors of hope. The program is 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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