When the Prodigal Returns: An Interview with Kyle Idleman

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Kyle Idleman is Teaching Pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. An accomplished speaker and author, Idleman has written four books and presented at regional and national conferences. Join us as Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee has a conversation with Idleman about his book, Praying for Your Prodigal, where Idleman explores the complicated relationship between prodigal children, their parents, and God.

WC: What led you to write Praying for Your Prodigal?

Kyle: As a pastor for the last 20 years, I have just seen all kinds of parents who struggle through a season, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer of not knowing how to best speak God’s love to their child, not knowing how to best confront something in their child. It’s that they don’t know how to interact with them. They don’t know what to do about it. They’re afraid they’re going to make things worse. A very consistent lesson for me as a pastor and parent is the power in prayer. When you have a child who’s struggling with their faith or with addiction, or where they’re at in life, there’s no substitute for prayer. As parents we want to fix it. We want to know the answer to the question. But the best step is to pray.

WC: What is a prodigal child?

Kyle: That term is most often identified with the story from Luke 15. In the story of the Prodigal Son you read about a father who has two sons and the youngest son rebels against the father, leaves the father’s home and goes off to a distant country. Then the son loses everything and finds himself living in a pigpen. The Bible says he came to his senses and he went home—seeing him from far off, his father ran to him and threw his arms around him and said, “Let’s have a party and celebrate! My son was lost and he’s found. He was dead. Now he’s alive!” For a prodigal child that’s often the story as well. It can look different but it’s a rejection of what a parent taught, or a way that a child has been brought up, and they go to a “distant country.” They take a different approach to life, a different belief system, a different moral code, and reject what was taught to them. The prayer is that there would be this coming to their senses, that they would have an awakening, and their eyes would be opened, and that they would come back home.

WC: Why do some people turn toward God and others turn away during difficult circumstances?

Kyle: People turn away from God during their difficult circumstances because they blame God and think that He either could or should do something to change them. If you doubt the goodness of God, question Him as the Father when something difficult comes, the first response is sometimes to turn away.

Eventually their road becomes so difficult that their desperation allows them to be open when they weren’t before. People may go through a difficult season, reject God for a while, and then they reach a place where they have nowhere else to turn. They then turn towards God when they recognize that His arms are open, and as the Bible says, He’s a shelter in the storm, a sanctuary and He is where we are.

WC: How far does someone have to go to wake up and long to return home?

Kyle: I often hear people say, “Well, I had to hit rock bottom.” I don’t think that’s true. We can learn from other people in the journeys that they’re on. Wherever someone is right now can be the point where they can turn. But there does seem to be something to this idea that things have to reach a certain point before we’re open. The prodigal son lost everything. His friends abandoned him. Only then did he finally go to his father. I see that with couples in marriages or with addiction struggles where it reaches a point that the desperation is such that they turn to God. I sometimes talk about it as the gift of desperation. It’s a gift nobody wants. But there’s some really beautiful things that could come out of desperate moments when we recognize God’s power and His presence in a different way.

WC: What’s the difference between welcoming back a prodigal and enabling a co-dependent relationship?

Kyle: One of the reasons I wrote the book on Praying for Your Prodigal is because I recognize that parents really want to do something. But oftentimes, what we do ends up being enabling and that’s why prayer is so powerful. The father in the parable is a great example of finding that right line. The Bible says the father saw him when he was a long way off, and then he ran to him. He didn’t chase him down in the far country. He didn’t wire more money trying to demonstrate his love or earn the favor. He waited for the son to go through some really difficult times. When the son returned he was quick to run towards him. That’s a great example for us as parents. We want to do something. We want to fix things and we certainly want to respond with grace the moment we see repentance and we see brokenness. But often we are too quick to step in and enable. That’s one of the reasons we need help from some other people. Someone outside the situation can be more objective on what’s enabling behavior. I can tell another parent, “Hey, that’s enabling,” but I don’t necessarily see it in me.

WC: How do people try to act in the place of God when dealing with prodigals?

Kyle: We try to be their conscience. That often comes off as pretty judgmental and condescending. We also try to fix others. That gets us in trouble because it tends to be more enabling. But as much as anything, it’s a mentality that puts the weight on the parent. If I think it’s my job to fix my child, I’m going to be living with some pressure, some guilt, some shame that isn’t mine to bear. I’m going to be an imperfect parent no matter what, but I also have to acknowledge and recognize that my child is going to choose their own path. When we try to bear that burden it causes problems in the relationship with the Father. It’s a weight that we can’t bear. We’re asking ourselves to do something that only God can do.

WC: How does the family move on when a prodigal is restored?

Kyle: Going back to Luke 15, I love the fact that there’s a celebration. I’ve seen examples where a child returns home and the parents don’t want to celebrate their behavior. They want them to feel the weight of the consequences. The reality is that when a prodigal is broken and repentant and they feel the weight of that, they don’t need to be made to feel more guilt or feel more shame.

They’re living with the consequences of their decisions already and it’s a time to celebrate grace and forgiveness, God’s redeeming work. They’re going to have to continue to live with some of the consequences of their choices. It’s not the job of the parent at that place to punish him or her. You might want to help that child establish boundaries, and help them get on the right path. Certainly, you want to be aware of whatever struggle that might have pulled them off the path in the first place. But there needs to be a spirit of celebration, of grace giving. Parents need to celebrate, to give grace. Not make excuses, not minimize but to celebrate God’s redeeming work.

WC: What would you say to the one who finds it difficult to forgive the prodigal?

Kyle: I think that tends to be a commentary on our own self-righteousness. When I’m having trouble being gracious with someone else, it’s because I am underestimating the grace that I have received. When I understand God’s grace towards me, I much more quickly give grace to someone else. When that’s a struggle, whether that’s a parent or a sibling, I would encourage them to spend some time reflecting on the grace that God has given them through Jesus, the price that was paid so that they could come home and be reunited with the Father. The older brother in the story of Luke 15 is a clear representation of the religious leaders who are listening to the parable. They would look down on the sinners, but they were the sinners. That is the challenge in addressing our own hearts and being honest about our own prodigal ways with God and appreciating His grace in our lives. When we receive that, we have it to give.

WC: Since writing the book, is there anything you wish you had included?

Kyle: One of the things I tried to do with the Praying for Your Prodigal book is allow the prayers to speak for themselves. The tendency is to tell stories that always resolve. We want to put a nice bow on it and say, “Hey, everything is going to be okay,” but that’s too simplistic. We need God to give us strength on the journey. You don’t really know how long the journey’s going to last or where it’s going to lead. It’s taking it a day at a time and praying through it. I tried to do that in the book. I want to give people hope and encouragement, but not to think that all of it is just waiting for that day. It can be messy, and it can take a while, and you may not ever see it in your lifetime. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of surrendering it to God and praying through it.

—Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is the Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary