Yesterday I read a helpful article guiding parents on how to respond to their children who walk out on Christianity – prodigal behavior as it’s often called. I found the insight helpful, but there are a couple additional angles that could be addressed. Many times, in a situation when a child decides to turn their back on God and family, we tend to zero in on the prodigal and the parents. But there are often other participants in the process who don’t get addressed. I’m talking about the other brother (or sister). Here are some considerations for you:
1. You are not alone.
Yes, behind the veneer of self-righteousness, pleasant overtures, and smiles, there are people in your church, school, and extended family who are experiencing the same thing that you are experiencing right now. No, you’re not the only one to have a dysfunctional family. The worst you’ve seen has been experienced and seen by countless scores of kids in Christian homes across the planet. This is no unique problem experienced only in your family, your church, your denomination, and so on. The feeling of loneliness will only eat at you during the months and years ahead. So remain encouraged by knowing that you are not alone. Remember: even Jesus had prodigal siblings.
2. You are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.
Especially has a younger sibling, you’re going to be tempted to dread each successive year that brings you closer to the age of your sibling’s departure. You’ll wonder how much longer you’ll make it before you make the same mistake yourself. You’ll wonder if your brother’s proclivities are genetic. You’ll begin to freak out when you realize that you experience the same types of temptations your sister experienced. But the fact is that you are not them. You’re your own unique person, and you have your own relationship with God. You’re your own person who has your own set of struggles and your own difficulties. Don’t waste the upcoming months and years projecting their problems into your own life and living in fear of them. You’re only responsible for your own actions – not theirs. By God’s grace you don’t have to fall where they fell.
I think of Cal in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Upon seeing that a great evil ran in his family, pitting brother against brother and spouse against spouse, he sees the same potential in himself. This fear drives him to prayer – prayer that God would keep him from destroying his family and brother like others in his family had done. Pray, and pray earnestly that you don’t repeat their sins. But in the end, there is a danger of obsessing on this. If you obsess over avoiding their mistakes, you’ll be tempted towards pessimism and depression when you end up having their flaws or extreme pride when you feel like you’ve beaten their sins. The Gospel gives you hope beyond the pull of your genetics.
3. You’re not free from making their mistakes.
I know that on the one hand, there’s the danger of obsessing over their mistakes – the danger of assuming that you’ll do the same thing. But there’s another danger too. That’s the danger of thinking that you’re better than them – that you’ll never make the same mistakes or fall to the same sins. The reality is that we all have the same sin nature. Under the same conditions you and I are prone to make the same decisions that we hate seeing our childhood friends make. So when that moment comes, that moment when you look at your siblings’ terrible choices and ruined life and immorality, stop saying: “I can’t believe you did that.” Instead, start saying, “but by the grace of God, there go I.”
4. Your church and family love you too.
Let me spend a little more time here, because this really needs to be said (maybe because no one else will say it to you). I know that over the next few months and maybe years, everyone’s going to be talking about your brother or sister. They’re the big news. You may be known from here forwards to your youth group or in your school as nothing more than “the other brother.” Every time there’s a family reunion, everyone will want to talk about what she’s up to. They’ll ask about her finances, health, kids, and lifestyle choices. They quiz you about your brother’s job and girlfriend. But in the midst of the crazy, I’d like to make a couple points about the interlopers. More often than not, they don’t really care about your brother or sister. They’re looking for a little dirt or something to make themselves feel better about their failures. Don’t play into this desire for scuttlebutt. Even if you’re ticked at your sibling and want to run them into the ground…don’t! You’ll only regret your participation in the feeding frenzy. Pray for him. Don’t prey on him. You’ll make her road back home a lot smoother if there aren’t as many obstacles in the church and extended family. But in all this attention, remember: don’t conflate interest with concern.
But what about your parents? They’re going to be very distant and tied up in dealing with these new challenges. Your parents will always pray for your sister. Your parents will cry for your brother. They will talk to each other about your sibling and their problems and the latest updates on their struggles and challenges in life. In the midst of all the chaos in all the concern, it may seem like no one cares about you. It’s easy for you think your parents are only concerned about the prodigal. But this simply isn’t true. Your parents do care about you. They’ve always cared about you.
What you absolutely have to understand is that they’re going through some things that are flat-out impossible for you to sympathize with. As much as it hurts for you to see your best friend leave the family never to return, you’re only experiencing a fraction of what your parents are experiencing. Their little son or daughter, the one whom they held close to them, swaddled, and changed, is not coming back. The little newborn daughter who they cuddled and lovingly placed in a crib is now in bed with a man who only cares about what he can do with her tonight. They helped their little boy ride a bike and now he’s driving off into the sunset to spend another night in reckless drug-hazed partying. They helped him learn to read and write, but now he’s enslaved to typing in another URL of a porn site. They’re watching their little girl struggle how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. And they just don’t know what to do.
As you see your parents react to this situation, you’re seeing the depth of their love for you too. They held you and taught you just like they did your sibling. They have hopes and dreams for you just like they did for your sister. Next time you watch your mom cry or your dad vent his sorrow, just remember: this is how they really feel about you too. You get to see an angle of your parents’ love for you that some of your friends will never see from their parents. The kids in your school who don’t have brothers or sisters who leave home simply never get to see the depth of concern that their parents have for them. Remember and treasure what you see.
Let’s tie this point back to the Gospel too. In the Gospel, we see a God whose love is seen at the highest when we are at our farthest from him. Just as Jesus weeps for his people, your parents weep for their children. We really wouldn’t understand God’s love if we only saw how he treated those who loved him back. Instead, we appreciate God’s love all the more when we see how he loves those who turn their backs on him. The dark times only make the light of love that much clearer.
5. Break into the life of your sibling.
As the sibling of a prodigal, you’ve been through a lot. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You’ve seen things that your prodigal brother or sister will never see. You’ve seen your family torn apart from the inside out. You’ve seen your dad cry. You’ve seen the pain and stress aging your mother’s face. Your prodigal brother sees only the stage where your parents put on their best faces and try to confront the impending calamity in his life, but you see what happens behind the scenes. You see the anguish and the fear. You see the sadness and the chaos. And with a backstage pass like this, it’s so easy to get bitter. It’s so easy to see the hurt that your sister has brought into your life and want nothing to do with her ever again. After counting the losses and surveying the damage, why would you ever speak to them again?
This is when we need to remember the Gospel. Jesus wasn’t the Word, the Message of God, speaking into a world that wanted to listen to him. Jesus didn’t come chasing after us when we were chasing after him. He didn’t pursue those who lived perfect little lives and do everything just right. The Gospel is all about God breaking into the lives of those who hurt him in the deepest way imaginable. We’re all God’s prodigals. And now God wants us to model his pursuit of us in the way we pursue our siblings. He’s calling you to move through the hurt and the pain, and out into their world. He’s calling you to love that brother who has betrayed your trust and has let you down. The Gospel calls us all to break into the prodigal’s life to show them what the Gospel of Jesus Christ really looks like.
A Final Word
I always fear coming off too preachy, but these reminders are things that I wish someone had told me when I experienced what you’re experiencing. I’m not writing these thoughts because I did it right. I screwed up in all of these areas, so I’ll be the last to recommend my own example. My hope in writing these thoughts is twofold: (1) to help kids like me wrestle through how to respond as their family crumbles into chaos around them, and (2) to help people on the outside better appreciate and understand what happens in the life of the other brother or sister.