The following article is an excerpt from Letting Go, a book I wrote with Paul Gilbert that was recently published by Zondervan. This is Part Three in a series of articles on the topic of “prodigals”.
“If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” Welcome to the seventies, where quotes like this by Richard Bach captured the masses with an illusion of insight. If you’re part of the generation who wore bell-bottoms and line danced to disco as I was, you know that discernment wasn’t a generational strength. Still, Bach had one thing right. Sometimes loving someone means letting them go without knowing if they will ever come back.
If you’re walking with someone who is going down the wayward road, you may be experiencing a growing realization that letting go is the next step.
How do you know when to let go?
Knowing When It’s Time
We wish we could offer you a detailed road map for your situation, but every relationship is unique. What we can offer are guidelines that help indicate when it’s time to let go.
Have You Prayed Fervently?
Paul tells the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). You need to pray because prayer is essential to the spiritual battle you are engaged in. In fact, Scripture tells us what lies behind a prodigal’s flight. “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).
Pray—because Satan has blinded someone you love.
Be ready for things to change in unexpected ways when you pray. Things may even get worse before they get better. But God moves in powerful ways to draw individuals back to himself.
Remember: only God is big enough to win this battle.
But there’s another reason to pray. You need it, too! You need strength, help, and power.
So pray faithfully! God is your ever-present help in trouble.
Does This Person Have Psychological Problems?
At times sinful behavior is being fueled by unrecognized physical or psychological problems that make normal interventions largely ineffective. In extreme cases, clinical factors can be at play that may be diminishing the prodigal’s assessment of right from wrong. When patterns of irrational or harmful behavior arise, it’s wise to involve experts who are trained to address these kinds of issues. But this should be supplemental to pastoral care and counseling. Our brokenness manifests in many forms and a holistic response is required to address the problems we face.
One of the great difficulties in navigating this issue is that we live in a world where a therapeutic interpretation of human behavior is pervasive—to the exclusion of biblical understanding of how people’s motives and actions are shaped and expressed. While a diagnosis can be helpful, it will not address the entire person.
Clinical solutions rarely address the spiritual issues. This is why prodigal sufferers need to consult with their pastor, other Christians, and Christian counselors and psychologists. This will help ensure they’re getting trusted counsel that doesn’t abandon Scripture. These engagements will enable families to properly weight the physiological contribution as they evaluate whether it’s time to let go.