Prodigals VI: Loving Prodigals

How do we love a prodigal? What is the right response to their sinful rejection of Jesus, His Word, and His people? This is something that prodigals have an opinion on: to the prodigal, love means uncritically accepting them, their choices, and their lifestyle. If you respond any other way, they will accuse you of not loving them. In the prodigal’s mind, when they reject the faith, you have a choice to make: either you will discipline them, or you will love them. So which will you choose, discipline or love?

If you’ve felt impaled on the horns of this dilemma, then Proverbs 13:24 comes as good news, because it reveals that this is a false choice. A prodigal who demands that you choose between discipline or love does not understand either discipline or love, because love includes discipline. Discipline is the way that love responds to folly and sin. Discipline is an expression of love, because sin is destructive, and discipline is corrective and protective. Sin kills, discipline saves. Refusing to bring consequences is hatred, but love disciplines.

So what does loving discipline look like? In response to prodigals, love establishes boundaries, enforces consequences, and finally, it lets go.

Establishing Boundaries – Back in the garden of Eden, there was only one rule: don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But once sin entered the world, the commandments started multiplying. As Galatians 3:19 says, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions.” Now that sin is threatening to enter your home, you need to establish clear boundaries to protect your family and especially the prodigal, from sin’s devastation. You need to make it clear that sin is not welcome in your home. Sinners may be welcomed (and called to repentance!), but they cannot bring their sin with them. When prodigals start bringing sin into the relationship, love responds by establishing boundaries for the purpose of keeping sin out, because love recognizes that sin is fundamentally destructive.

Enforcing Consequences – the next step of discipline comes into play when those boundaries are broken. Now the consequences need to be enforced. Many people get tripped up at this point: they think that love means “being gracious”, not enforcing consequences, and allowing the prodigal to keep on sinning. But 1 Samuel 2-3 shows us the sad example of Eli, who failed to discipline his sons, and so the Lord to put them to death. In 1 Sam 2, Eli does rebuke them, establishing boundaries with his words, but in 1 Sam 3, the Lord says that Eli did not restrain them, and so God punished them. And because Eli did not love God and his sons enough to take this step, the punishment of God was far more severe than Eli’s consequences ever would have been. Love brings the limited pain of consequences in order to protect prodigals from the far greater pain of God’s judgment.

Letting Go – Finally, when boundaries are established and the consequences are faithfully enforced, and your prodigal still chooses to walk in sin, then it is time to let the prodigal go. In Deuteronomy 21 and in 1 Corinthians 5, we see that stubborn and rebellious sinners who refuse to repent, who don’t respect godly boundaries, and who aren’t even corrected by consequences are to be removed from families and churches. Through their sin, they are communicating that they want out, and God’s strongest discipline involves giving them what they want.

However, this isn’t giving up, because you are deliberately letting them go in order to bring them back. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father gives his son his inheritance and lets him go, because father knows that giving his son what he wants is the best way for the son to learn that what he wants isn’t worth wanting, a lesson the son refused to learn any other way. Here’s why letting go is love: if the prodigal never leaves, then he can never come home. Spending a while away from home sent the prodigal son running straight back to the father, which was the whole point of letting him go in the first place.

In fact, that’s been the goal every step of the way, because discipline is love. Love establishes boundaries to protect prodigals from themselves. Love enforces consequences to teach prodigals that sin is costly. And love is even willing to let go, because love understands the great gospel lesson that death is the way to life. Being disowned by your family and put out of the Church is a kind of death, and so love puts prodigals to death because only the dead can be resurrected. May God help you love the prodigals in your life, so that they might be redeemed.

Posted on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 by CJ Bowen