Parenting a prodigal child can be a difficult, lonely, and heartbreaking journey as our precious children choose to leave the path of relative safety to navigate their challenging route without us by their side.
In this vulnerable, powerful article, Joyful Life founder, Sandi Warner, shares her own personal experience of parenting a prodigal child. She writes of the regrets and questions she has wrestled with along the way. But she also shares the hope she finds in the knowledge that our children are never truly alone. Her words remind us of the God who never gives up on the lost.
I could see them just ahead. His arm draped around her shoulders. They walked together laughing with ease and familiarity. The pride on her face was worn like a well-earned badge of honor. Envy welled up inside me and spilled over as hot tears.
Oh, how I longed to be walking along the path in the same carefree manner with my own son. Instead, I walked alone. In fact, I couldn’t even recall the last time I had heard from him. A blurry glimpse in the distance was all I had to cling to.
WHEN MOTHERHOOD HURTS
Peering up the dark side of the mountain, I had to squint intently in order to make out his form. But the struggle to maintain his footing was unmistakable. The dust billowed around him once again—another setback of many. This scene had become all too familiar.
He could no longer hear me at all. It seemed he was much too far into his journey. My frantic cries—begging him to hear me, pleading with him to take different steps—had long since evaporated into the silence somewhere in the vast distance between us. He had not been able to hear me for a long time. But it did not dissuade me from calling out to him. Nor did it change my desperate yearning to help him navigate his way to the other side.
Why couldn’t our journey be as easy as this woman and her son’s?
What persuasive words had she spoken to her child to convince him to stay on the safe path with her?
I wondered if she had managed to discover some special wisdom I had missed along the way. If so, it was not for lack of seeking. Perhaps her son had never tip-toed up the mountain at all. Maybe he wasn’t as brave and brazen as my son had been. I wished I knew her secret. But it was too late to ask—too late to matter.
I wanted nothing more than to rush past her, as I’d done with so many others. Her mere presence along the path was such a painful and visual reminder of what I was missing—my precious child.
The Questions Build
Would he ever hear me again?
How could I have let this happen?
Does he know I’m still here?
How could God have let this happen?
My soul felt crushed under the weight of so many angry questions. All of which I doubted would ever be answered.
BECOMING THE PRODIGAL CHILD
I remember his first curious steps up the mountain. He was so young—as was I. Terrified by his incessant curiosity, I demanded he return to the safe path we were walking together. He obeyed—reluctantly. But those first few precarious steps were all he had needed to develop a deep desire for the adventure the mountain promised. And that desire lured him back—again and again. The early years were a relentless battle.
Determined to match him step for step, I became quite skilled at pulling him back to safety on a daily basis.
Why wouldn’t he simply trust my warnings?
Couldn’t he see the danger that lay ahead?
Why was he so willfully determined to take the most harrowing journey to the other side?
The Gap Widens
As time marched on, he discovered detours that proved intensely challenging for me to navigate. And as he grew in strength and stature, it became increasingly difficult to convince him to return to the safe path. I could no longer simply grab his small hand and demand his return. Indeed, we had turned a new corner. I found myself left with mere words as my only defense. My once gently-given instructions had long since given way to angry demands and desperate coercion.
Could he still feel the unconditional love behind my distressed pleas?
I feared not.
Soon I was plagued by an unending list of things I wished I had done differently—things I would change without hesitation if given the chance. Maybe they would have made all the difference in the world—or perhaps none at all.
REMEMBERING MY OWN PRODIGAL YEARS
The mountain was as familiar to me as my reflection. But my perspective had changed so much since my own journey. No longer navigating the complexities of its dangerous terrain, my present view was buffered by boundaries and reduced to hindsight. I tried to tap into the recesses of memory I had long since hidden away for a hint at how to reach him.
What might they have said to me that would have changed my course of action?
Was there something that might have changed my mind?
But I also remembered—far too well—the stronghold the mountain held, the adventure it promised, and the lies I believed during my stay. My every attempt at warning him of the danger fell on deaf ears. Just as I instinctively knew they would have fallen on mine as well.
We are so much alike—this stubborn boy and I.
THE DAY HE SLIPPED AWAY
I’m unsure of the exact day now, but it felt reminiscent—almost deja vu. I had fearfully envisioned the scene so frequently and so vividly that it had been imprinted on my mind as deeply as a memory. So much so that it felt as if I was experiencing it a second time. I don’t recall the date, but I do remember the devastation. It seemed I turned my head for the briefest moment. I closed my eyes for just a minute to rest—and in an instant, he slipped away. He climbed so quickly and so far up the side of the mountain. Suddenly the lies enveloped him as intensely as the air around him.
“There is nothing but fun ahead…”
“This is where you will be able to truly live…”
“The path below will suck the life out of you…”
“This is where you belong…”
The Final Turn
The mountain seethed and seduced from every direction. It was on that tragic day that he turned one final time, away from my pleading cries. He pressed forward—resolved to take this turbulent journey.
I held my breath, seized by fear, as I watched him scale the side of the mountain. Slipping and losing his footing over and over, he struggled to navigate this new terrain.
I wondered if he knew he could still turn back. Or if he was already convinced of the blatant lie I knew the mountain incessantly hurled at him. “It’s too late—there is NO turning back.”
I had believed the lie myself for so many years.
On several occasions, I caught him lingering at crossroads as if carefully considering whether he had truly gone too far to return. His timid deliberations offered me brief glimpses of hope. They reminded me that despite his growing stature—youthful fragility remained.
Could he still hear me?
Each time he glanced back, my eyes locked hard on his, pleading with him to return. I yelled with all my might and all my heart. “It’s never too late, and you’re never too far!” But I watched discouragement settle back into his frame as he slowly and inevitably turned and took a few steps further.
I’m not sure which day was the last that he could hear my voice. But I distinctly remember facing the awareness that my words could no longer reach him. He was entirely on his own now. And my only recourse was to continue walking along the base of the mountain alone. I desperately hoped I would find him on the other side. But he faced navigating a long, lonely, and dangerous journey before I could meet him there. And I knew not everyone who chose to climb the mountain made it back to safety.
Many remained on the mountain indefinitely. And I knew all too well the longer you stay, the more comfortable you become—even amidst the danger. Fear consumed me—as did regret.
How had I failed at this vital task of keeping my precious son on the safe path?
What more could I have done? Surely, something!
THE OTHER MOTHERS
The path around the mountain was heavily populated by other mothers—each on their own unique journey. Many, like the woman in front of me, walked rhythmically with their children. They seemed so carefree—so happy.
Some smiled pleasantly when their eyes met mine. Yet others shot me a deliberately arrogant look as I passed by. Desperation was written all over my face.
Some whispered amongst themselves, without so much as a feigned attempt to conceal their voices. I heard them, both with my ears and with my heart.
The boldest of them looked down at me in condemnation as if to say, “It’s your own fault you’ve lost him!”
Hadn’t they seen how many times I had climbed the mountain after him?
Didn’t they notice my own wounds and scars?
Were they blind to my tear-soaked clothes—a visible reminder of the countless hours I had cried over my failure to prevent him from taking this journey?
A Shared Bond
Some, although walking in step with their children, looked upon me with compassion and seemed to share a measure of understanding. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps they had a prodigal child—one lost on the mountain as well. Maybe they could empathize with my pain.
Then there were the other despondent mothers—the others walking alone. Instinctively, we knew each other. Our eyes told similar stories. We understood each other‘s heartbreak. And somehow the devastating connection of prodigal children made us feel a little less alone. Occasionally, one of them would even slow her pace a bit, take my hand, and walk with me awhile. It was a nice reprieve to concern myself with someone else’s tears for a bit. I suspected my own tears offered them some solace as well.
A Somber Realization
Distraction often felt like a perfectly-timed gift. Particularly when the days grew distressingly somber—as they often did.
On one unusually dark afternoon, I watched as an especially lonely and grieving mom collapsed under the weight of her suffering. Unable to take another step, she dropped to her knees. She buried her face in the filthy ground beneath her. Unintelligible cries escaped her as we all watched with bated breath.
I longed to run to her, wrap my arms around her, and tell her it would all be okay. But would it? I could make her no such promise. It devastated me to realize that no one could make me such a promise either.
ONE LOST IS FOUND
As I stood paralyzed on the path, unsure of how to help or what to say, I caught sight of a tall, thin boy, having narrowly escaped a tragic fall, racing desperately down the dark side of the mountain. We all watched and prayed as he tripped and fell time and again. But full of determination, he picked himself back up, gaining measurable traction from the downward momentum he had committed to. He stumbled repeatedly, but as he neared the bottom of the mountain, he steadied himself on stable ground. As he was finally able to catch his breath, we all gasped as his voice shattered the silence. “Mom!” he cried as he ran straight into her arms.
The lost had been found.
Those of us who empathized gathered around and celebrated with much rejoicing. But pain lived there in tandem. I couldn’t escape it. As happy as I was for this mother, I couldn’t help but feel the crushing weight of my own continued loss. I knew there were only so many that came racing back down the mountain. And for each one who did, I was forced to wrestle with the fact that it became increasingly less likely mine would be one of them.
I WAS NOT HELPLESS
There was one special woman who met me on the path and walked with me throughout a particularly difficult leg of my journey. I shared my desperate helplessness with her. We lamented over the great and growing distance between my son and me. As I shared my anguish regarding his safety and my consuming fear of what lay ahead for him, the Holy Spirit used her to remind me of a beautiful truth I had long forgotten. My son was not actually alone on that mountain. Although he had chosen to travel a much harder path to the other side than I would have chosen for him—I was not helpless to assist him with navigating.
His cries for help traveled straight to my heart. But mine traveled heavenward—to the One who holds all the power to move the very mountain he traveled upon. My son’s journey was interwoven with my own. And his help would come from the same place mine had. From the One whom the mountain obeys. And while my son may not be crying heavenward, his mother forever will be.
I WAS NO LONGER HOPELESS
Her gentle reminder that day carried me through every next changing season along the path. As did the whisper from Heaven that brought a halt to my cries. It was nearly audible, like a soothing balm for my broken heart. God patiently reminded me of our own beautiful reconciliation so many years before.
Like a loving Father caring deeply for His child, He spoke directly to my hurting mama-heart: “Sometimes one voice must be silenced for another to be heard. For some, it takes a painful journey of severance up the dark side of the mountain to hear My voice. But once they learn to hear Me, they will not forget.”
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
His words, piercing my heart like a personal parable, brought me back to my own journey. So many painful memories had been made on that mountain. I had journeyed many of the same enticing trails myself. Often I had experienced the adrenaline highs of taking dangerous steps. I knew too well the devastating lows of the downward slopes that followed. Some steps had been so tricky to navigate I had immediately lost my footing. I spiraled so quickly that I was gravely damaged from the fall. Some detours took years to recover from. Others had left indelible scars—permanent reminders of the injuries I bore during my stay.
Once on the mountain, you’re committed to the journey. There is no easy way to navigate back down. And every step comes at a grievous cost.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BE RESCUED
But it was also on that very mountain, in the pitch black of the darkest season I had ever known, that my Rescuer met me. Battered, ashamed, alone, terrified, and so very lost. It was on that darkest day, paralyzed by fear at the top of the mountain, that I was finally able to acknowledge I had lost my way and couldn’t find the road back home.
Wait, I need help!
I don’t want to be on this journey anymore!
Please, I want to go home!
Can anyone still hear me?
I feared it was too late and I had traveled too far. Sadly I had created so much distance between myself and my parents. But in the earliest hour, just as the light of day began to overtake the dark of night, I heard the desperate cries of my own mother from so many years before echoed through my Savior’s voice:
“It’s never too late, and you’re never too far.”
What Satan had used to lure me to destruction had led me directly to my Rescuer. He took my hand and navigated every rugged step of my journey back down the mountain. The lost had been found.
REST FOR THE WEARY
Lost in the reverie of my salvation years before, I pressed on. I meandered along a slight bend in the path beneath the mountain. The brighter sky indicated I was approaching the other side. And as I noticed what appeared to be new growth along the base of the mountain, my heart leaped with a renewed sense of hope. Spring was coming. An eager anticipation of ‘all things new’ was permeating the air.
This path of motherhood has been a wearying journey—much more difficult than I ever imagined. I’ve made my way to a place of respite on the far side of the mountain. Somehow I have found myself at peace in a season of eager anticipation for Jesus to meet my son on his journey.
God has used this time of waiting to renew my strength in unexpected ways. He has tethered my confidence to Christ in such a way that marries the faith built in hindsight with hopeful expectation for the future.
THE HOPE OF SALVATION
On peaceful days, I catch quick glimpses of my son on this brighter side of the mountain. We can see each other once again. And even though it is still from a distance, he can sometimes hear my voice. His head receives my words. And at times—depending on the direction he is facing—so does his heart.
Occasionally, he calls down in great distress, insisting that I can’t possibly understand what he’s been through on the mountain. Yet, I continue to assure him that although his journey has been different than mine, I understand far more than he knows. The trails we chose may differ, but we have both been lost on the dark side of the mountain. And from where I wait—with fresh faith in the God who rescues—I trust that once again the lost will be found.
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This brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely beautiful and yet heart wrenching! As a mother with a prodigal daughter I feel the the same hurt and confusion. Those same questions I have asked my self and God. The encouragement and hope that you bring is real and we have to choose to walk in that hope to help us on the journey. Thank you!
Bethany—I am so sorry that you are walking this same journey. It is a sad and difficult one to navigate. I am glad that this encouraged you and I hope that you are daily reminded that God is so close to the brokenhearted. I’m praying for restoration and reconciliation for you and your daughter—and for all of us with fractured relationships with our children. God is so good—and He alone can heal all of the brokenness.
I too have a prodigal. A book by Kitti Murray entitled: A Long Way Off: Hope and Healing for Hurting Parents helped and helps me keep Hope Alive! It’s available on Amazon. Here is a poem I often refer to from her book:
By Kitti Murray
I called my children
Home to you.
And I clanged;
Harsh, like the ring
Of a dinner bell
Across a still neighborhood.
I warned my children
Away from sin.
And I blared;
Sonorous, like the sound
Of a foghorn
On the wild open seas.
I woke my children
To your truth.
And I droned;
Persistent, like the buzz
Of an angry alarm clock
In the pale morning light.
The truth is worth knowing,
The danger worth averting
And the home
Worth the trip back.
Please tell them for me
In your own voice.
I pray every day for His voice to reach my prodigal!
Oh, wow—Michelle, that poem gave me chills and it spoke to my heart so deeply. Thank you for sharing this—it’s definitely one that will stay with me.
Thank you for this… It really was a great visual… Both of our girls, now in their 20s, have walked away from traditional faith. They won’t say their atheists, but they have told us “they don’t believe the same things we believe anymore“. We have one who’s dived deep into the LBGQT world, and the other caught up in the world‘s religion. It has felt isolating and the pain actually feels a little revved up right now due to the holidays, but I will be a testimony that our God has grown my husband‘s faith and my faith. I have been learning that the closer we are to the Lord, the more we surrender and submit to him, submitting to his love, his power, his goodness, his extreme, perfect care for us… We can walk in joy, peace, hope, and greater faith. I have been learning that I need to take my thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. And while acknowledging the pain and the painful moments, I can’t stay in them. we pray, we cry out, we love them with Christ’s love. They are actually both coming home for Christmas, and our chief prayer is that God will give us the love that he has for them and that it will be very evident as it is shown through us. All that God does is for our good in his glory, and while we don’t know how the end will go, we do trust it will be for our good and his glory! This is an awesome opportunity to find out your hierarchy of love. We really had to discover that God is number one. Jesus makes it clear that because of him, families will be separated… But he will always give us everything we need. Take heart, mom and dad. Let us encourage one another while it is still today. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up…
Lisa, what a blessing that you will be able to spend the holidays with your daughters. I am praying alongside you that this time together will be one that will tear down walls and open hearts—both in your relationships with each other as well as their relationships with the Lord. He is faithful—and He will restore and reconcile in His time. I pray that time is very near for you and your family.
Lisa, the fact that they wanted to be home with you is the greatest thing. And a gift to you from God as you wait. When things are rough in the future, take out this gift and unwrap it again and recall that God is working where we cannot see.
Sandi, I’m guessing a hundred more comments could be here on any given day. And though this may have been so painful to write, that God led all the way and will continue to use your words to comfort so many. I’ve struggled with guilt about why my kids are not like others. It’s been a test of trust for me like no other. And we may not see the answer to our prayers while on earth. But as you and I both know our main job is to pray and of late I’m trying to practice Living in the Land of the unseen with peace, even joy, and I know that pleases Him.