Lessons in Love from the Prodigal Son's Father
In the story of the prodigal son, the father's unchanging, consistent, and enduring love for his son in all circumstances are a role model for loving our own children with patience, persistence, compassion, flexibility and fortitude.
The focal point of this month is LOVE – a word with infinite meaning and infinite expression that goes far beyond the romance and affection expressed on Valentine's Day. To me, the love of a parent for a child is the most profound because it lasts a lifetime, it demands constancy and consistency, and it plumbs depths unknown at times when it must be drawn from a deeper well than ever before. Two questions we, as parents, have surely asked ourselves countless times are: How do we get more love when we need it? How do we express more love when we least want to?
The Bible offers outstanding, pertinent direction and inspiration. One story that always stops me short is that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here's a young man who tries to take matters into his own hands and willfully rebel – he set aside his upbringing and family moral code in order to make his own, independent way in the world. He ends up in abject poverty of heart, soul, and bank account. And he crawls home to Dad.
Which child of ours hasn't expressed a yearning for, if not taken steps to pursue, a similar "leave me alone, I want to do it my own way" path? What parent hasn't experienced the toddler who refuses to put her shoes on the right feet; the 5th grader who picks up swear words faster than math facts; the teenager who plays Xbox for hours behind closed doors while failing multiple subjects in school because he doesn't turn in homework?
The response of the Father touches my heart every time I read his role in this story. When his son comes home, the Father is a rock of all things true and good and constant and lasting. He seems never to have doubted his son's return—and it appears that he's been ready to give him a welcome-home hug since the day the son set off on his own. Amazing! Incredible! Wonderful! Impossible?!
The Father expressed unchanging love. We might be tempted to think it's unconditional love. I contend that it was totally conditional – it was grounded on the premise that God is the Creator of man, and that man is the full (read: complete) and fully functioning (read: always in his right mind) idea, image and likeness, child, of God. What's more, God is Love (I John 4:8), therefore man is the image of Love – he is loving, loved, and lovable, and cannot be anything less. Refusing to accept as true or real any conditions other than these foundational points about his son, the Father simply, purely, and constantly loves – and awaits the return of the son to his arms, to his home, to his roots – to his sense of self as a child of God. The strength and endurance of the Father's love are based squarely on its conditional nature.
What the Father refuses to do is accept a different persona disguised as his son – a persona that was working very hard to replace the one the Father understood to be his son's true nature. This is what appears to be the hard part – to separate the behavior from the child. If we can do this, then we are able to love more than we ever thought possible because we are loving what's real in our child. What's more, when we make the separation, we are also impersonalizing the child's words and actions – they no longer feel like hateful and hurtful daggers to our own heart. (How many parents feel like they have failed when their child goes astray?)
As I've thought about the Prodigal Son's Father over the last twenty plus years of parenting my three children, I've learned lasting lessons about qualities I include – and behaviors I must diligently separate from myself:
- A parent is endlessly patient, which denies an "I'm bigger, older, wiser, and all-around better than you are" need to "win" the battle – or even to compete in the first place.
- A parent is persistent and consistent, eliminating wiggle room and excuses from both parent and child.
- A parent expresses perspicacity and unflappability, which together lead to compassion and mercy without sacrificing morality, ethics, or justice.
- A parent is a role model of flexibility and fortitude because these two qualities are foundational pillars for thriving in an ever-changing world, be that within the home or through the internet.
- Above all, a parent knows where to go for help, and knows that asking for help is the first and most important step in getting help.
In other words, I've come to cherish my own identity as a child of God – the ultimate Father – the one Father of us all.
My mom told me in blunt, honest words that were meant to inspire and reassure: "Being a parent is twenty years of hard work! And the twenty years start over with each successive child." A few years into my third re-setting of the clock, and more than halfway to the end of my first double decade, Mom pressed the point a little further: "At the end of the first twenty years, you start over again for another twenty. You know that, right? And there's another twenty after that…" By this time, I could actually laugh with her, and feel a wellspring of humble gratitude for the ongoing opportunity to be a never-ending parent.
Consider parenting in this light: each successive year draws us closer to being as unchangingly and conditionally loving as the Prodigal Son's father. Now that's true LOVE!