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Craig Svensson talks openly about the heartache involved in watching a son choose opposite values from you as he fell deeper into the abyss of addiction.
Bob: Parents of prodigals face hard choices. Craig Svensson knows about that firsthand. His son started wandering from the faith and making destructive choices when he was still in high school.
Craig: It became a point, when he got older and was an adult, we simply couldn’t have him in our home—when he would come home and be intoxicated and put us at risk because of things he might do—you have to think about that. You have to think about your own safety/the safety of your spouse. Once he became an adult, that reality is: “If you are going to use drugs—if you’re going to come in our home and use drugs/if you’re going to come home intoxicated—we can’t have you continuing to live here.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, November 19th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What are the right boundaries to put in place when you have a son or a daughter, who is a prodigal/who is making choices that violate your value system or put your family at risk? We’ll talk more with Craig Svensson about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. As I’ve talked to couples, over the years, about subjects we’ve addressed on FamilyLife Today, the thing that we come back to all the time, when it comes to parenting, is that whenever we start talking about issues related to kids being prodigals, parents are paying particular attention.
Parents, who don’t have kids, who are acting out, want to do whatever they can to try to head that off if there is anything they can do. Parents—where it’s going on—this is dominating a marriage and a family. When you’ve got a child, who is making bad decisions, everything else kind of gets on hold until you can try to get your arms around this situation.
Ann: I have many friends, who have been and are in those situations; and they feel desperate for help. They are looking everywhere and especially to God for help, because they’re at a loss to know exactly what to do.
Dave: It’s a lot more families than you think.
Dave: You know, they are all over your church.
Bob: —and they don’t want to be known by this.
Bob: There is some shame, and there is privacy—and there is all of that going on—yet, they need help, and support, and encouragement, and the prayers of others.
Dave: And we get to give them help today.
Bob: We’ve got a friend joining us this week on FamilyLife Today to talk about this. Craig Svensson is here. Craig, welcome back.
Craig: Great to be with you.
Bob: Craig has written a book called The Painful Path of a Prodigal. Craig and his wife have been married for 36 years. They have three children, including one who spent a long season as a prodigal. We’ve already heard this week about how your son, at age 12/13, starts acting out: disobedient/self-willed in school. At age 15, you find him smoking marijuana over on the side of the house. You intervene; you get involved/try to figure out, “How are we going to get our arms around all of this?”
You got a job transfer in the middle of this; you went from teaching at one university to teaching at the University of Iowa. Your family, now, moves to Iowa; and you guys were thinking, “Change of scenery/change of location—maybe, this is the thing that will break the spell.”
Craig: That was our hope; that was our prayer. It looked like God was opening a door of help for that.
You know, as a parent, you want to do what you can. You know, ultimately, it takes God to do a work in their hearts. Until that happens, nothing is going to happen; but yet, the Bible teaches us, as parents, we want to fulfill our parental responsibility; we want to create the best environment for them; we want to try to give them the resources and the environment that will best allow them to flourish in. It seemed like a great opportunity for us; it did not turn out that way. But we know, as parents, we took that step to try to be able to give him the opportunity to turn in a new direction.
Bob: Did you arrive in Iowa, and Eric just started seeking out the same kind of folks he had been hanging out with in Michigan?
Craig: —very quickly. This actually came as a surprise to us, but the drug problem was actually worse in Iowa City than it was in Metropolitan Detroit. It took us a while before we realized that. It was really our son, who said to us, “You know, you don’t understand what’s different here. My friends’ parents use drugs with them; that never happened in Metro Detroit.”
Now, I don’t want to disparage all of Iowa City; it’s a wonderful place to live. But in the people that he engaged with—and of course, he sought out the drug-using people—it was just pretty shocking to us how many parents were using drugs with their children. In fact, ultimately—fast forward a little bit—things just kept getting worse. Then he got involved in legal difficulties. Ultimately, he was sentenced to a residential program in Iowa; and he was placed into a center that was mostly filled with kids, who were addicts.
Craig: He shared ten months residential with 24 other kids. They would have these sessions, where parents would come. It appeared that we were the only parents, where at least one of us was not currently or had not recently been in prison for drugs.
Bob: Had he graduated from marijuana to other things by this point?
Craig: Yes, he had started using stimulants and some other drugs. One of the challenges that we found is what the courts decide to do when they intervene. One of the things that they did was they forced him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. As a teenager, going to Alcoholics Anonymous, what that unfortunately does is it introduces you to a whole lot of people that have access to drugs in the community that you might not necessarily have.
A large portion of the people that were in the Alcoholics Anonymous group that he went to were just there to fulfill their legal responsibility. Some judge had told them: “You have to go to so many sessions for so long,” or whatever. They weren’t there because they want to change themselves; they were just filling their court-mandated requirements. What it did is—it introduced him to a network that he could get a supply of all kinds of different kinds of drugs.
Bob: You’re—by training, you are a pharmacologist.
Bob: You can spot when eyes are red and bloodshot.
Bob: You can spot when people aren’t acting the way they ought to be acting.
Bob: Was your son coming home; and you go, “He’s high”?
Craig: Sure; there were times of that—definitely.
Bob: What do you do?
Craig: By the point in time that we began seeing him coming home like that, there was already judicial action; and he was on probation. The difficulty with that is you have a probation officer. When you violate that probation by using drugs, etc., then the courts ramp up what their action is going to be. That’s ultimately what happened with him.
But we—certainly, over the years and even beyond that—it became a point, when he got older and was an adult, we simply couldn’t have him in our home—when he would come home and be intoxicated and put us at risk because of things he might do—you have to think about that. You have to think about your own safety/the safety of your spouse. Once he became an adult, that reality is: “If you’re going to use drugs—you’re going to come into our home and use drugs/you’re going to come home intoxicated—we can’t have you continuing to live here and put us in danger.”
Dave: How was that? That is the right decision but had to be extremely hard to do.
Craig: Oh, it is incredibly hard to do. As a parent, what you want to do is protect them; because you know putting them out into the street is not a good thing. There were periods of time, over the years that our son was homeless—we were/then had moved on to Purdue University—and he was in Iowa. Of course, like any kid, he would call us and say, “I don’t have a place to live. Can you pay for an apartment? Can you put me up in a hotel?” But we knew any resources that we would send him would ultimately be used for drugs. It’s an incredibly difficult decision to allow your kid to be homeless.
In fact, what we did—I think it’s important for parents, when you come to hard decisions—you need to have someone, who can check your emotions and make sure you’re not making decisions in anger; because by this point in time, your child has hurt you terribly.
Ann: I was going to say—I’m crying for you guys, thinking about the pain you’ve gone through. I also think it probably happened so much that your heart starts to protect itself and become a little bit hardened to the pleas or the things. Does that happen?
Craig: It can happen. You can even—I have one chapter in my book—you lose affection for your child. It seems like a strange thing; and maybe, some people hearing that say, “How could that ever happen?!” But when your kid has hurt you, again and again, it’s hard.
Those are times when you need people you can turn to in confidence. They can check your heart; or you can talk through decisions when you’re going to face some of those really hard decisions and say, “Listen, I just want you to listen, and I want you to tell us if we need to be thinking of something that we’re not, if there are warning flags, if you think we’re responding in emotional ways that we shouldn’t.” Everybody is going to need someone to turn to in those moments, where they can get some advice and get some insight.
Ann: I’m curious; as you and your wife sat down with Eric, and you just said, “What’s happening? What’s going on in your heart?” how would he respond?
Craig: He would acknowledge that he was making destructive choices and that he was making choices that he knew hurt us/hurt him. The most baffling thing was his repeated responses, “But I like using drugs.” Now, it’s very hard to see, especially as the consequences were piling up—jail. Ultimately, he ended up spending three years in a maximum security prison in Iowa. Health consequences—over, and over, and over—and you sit back and you say, “How can you say you like taking drugs when you see what it has done to your life?” It was so baffling to us.
But at the same time, my wife and I work in our community with the homeless. We’ve been working for over a decade; and a significant portion of the homeless community are serious drug users. Their lives are shambles because of drugs; but yet, they don’t want to walk away. The way they see consequences has become so distorted that they don’t recognize the magnitude of destruction in their life that the drugs have brought.
Bob: I want to ask you about two things. First, I want to ask you about how you processed the shame and the personal responsibility that comes with: “Our son is doing this. We must be bad parents; this must be/we must be responsible, at some level, for what he’s doing.”
Ann: —the guilt.
Bob: Yes; then, secondly, as a pharmacologist, talk about how you understand addictive personality and addictive biology. Was there something going on with him, biologically, that was causing him to be predisposed in this direction?
Talk about the shame and the guilt side first; can you?
Craig: Sure; well, first of all, you feel like a failure when your child goes south; right?—when they are making rebellious and destructive choices. The reality is that every child has to make their own choices. And you realize that, as a parent, we all make mistakes; however our children turn out, we’ve all made mistakes. I think that’s an important point to remember; because we can take a very formulaic approach to parenting: “If I do ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C,’ everything will turn out alright.” Well, we know that’s not true; there are many biblical examples. I mean, where did Jesus fail in His discipleship with Judas? Judas would not only turn from Him but, literally, turn on Him and betray Him unto death. There are many other examples of that in the Bible.
You have to recognize that an individual—their choices in life are not driven just by what they are taught—that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t desire to teach them rightly. As parents, we have that responsibility; but it doesn’t guarantee everything. We have to recognize that as a parent.
Secondly, you have to realize that your failures do not determine their destiny. God’s the One that does the redemptive work in a heart. If God is drawing your child to Himself, it will happen no matter how good or how poor a parent you are; right?
Craig: God is the One who has to do that work.
There is forgiveness in where we might fail as a parent; we need to be able to embrace that forgiveness. There may be times, when you have done things that you need to seek forgiveness from your child. We shouldn’t be hesitant to do that, because that’s actually a very important teaching moment—is to help them see how to respond when we sin—when we sin against them and seek their forgiveness, they learn that. As parents, we should do that.
What you can’t do is beat yourself up over your failures, whether they are real failures or not. You have to embrace the forgiveness that God gives and move on. Just as God gives us forgiveness, we realize that that’s what another person should do; but we can’t be held hostage if they refuse to forgive us.
Dave: Now, is that hard to do. I’m sitting here, thinking, I could say the same words. I’ve laid in bed at night over decisions I’ve made that affected my sons, not even very tragically, but just missed opportunities—whatever—and I’ve laid there, thinking, “Oh, if I’d only….” “If I’d only…they would have….” I know, in my head, I can let the shame go; I can’t let that regret go. I can receive God’s forgiveness; but I lay there, and I can’t. Have you ever been there?
Craig: Our hardest time was the first time our son appeared in court. To see him walk into that court room in an orange jumpsuit, with his wrists and his ankles shackled, and his wrists shackled to a big thick leather belt that was around his waist—my wife and I went home and just said, “Where did we go so wrong?”—and just cried ourselves to sleep. Sure; we have been there.
Craig: To me, the most important thing is a solid belief in the sovereignty of God—that’s what gives you confidence and peace—to know that God is sovereign and to trust in His sovereign work.
Bob: I like the fact that you acknowledge parents may make mistakes, and those mistakes may have consequences in the life of a child. We’ve got to own the fact that our parenting is not inconsequential to the lives of our kids.
Ann: There is not a parent in the universe that hasn’t made a mistake.
Bob: That’s right; but by the same token, your child’s choices are not solely your responsibility; every child has to make his own choices. Mix in the providence and sovereignty of God on the top of all of this; as parents, we can say, “Lord, forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made. Lord, pour grace on this. Lord, bring beauty from these ashes”; and walk in confidence that God is sovereign over the affairs of men.
Ann: There was a time at church that you were seeking prayer. Share about that; what happened at one point, at the beginning, you were asking for prayer for Eric.
Craig: This was early on and a prayer with the rebellion of our son. I just asked, at a prayer meeting, for prayers for a son, who was beginning to rebel. A man came up to me—much taller than I am—stuck his finger in my face and said, “The Bible says that: “If you train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it.” If your child isn’t following the Lord, it’s your fault and nobody else’s.” Then he turned on his heels and walked away.
Ann: I’m sure that was very helpful. [Laughter]
Craig: Yes! [Laughter] It was shocking, as much as anything else. Here I was, looking for help—I was looking for others to pray—what I ended being was condemned. I think that that was probably an extreme example of being judged by others, but we experienced some other cases.
We have gotten to know other parents of prodigals, and they talk about that’s one of the most painful experiences—is the way they are judged by other people with the actions of their children. This is, obviously, an area where sometimes the church falls short, where the church should be there to help and to support.
We can gratefully say, more often than not, people were there to help and support us, and comfort, and to guide, and to be there with us.
Bob: But a good word to every parent, who is listening—you don’t have a prodigal; maybe, your kids are doing fine—you see something going on in somebody else’s family; pray for them—
Bob: —encourage them; support them; help them. Don’t come up with some kind of self-righteous, “This is all your fault,” thing.
Ann: Craig, I always wonder, if I know a family struggling with something, do they want us to approach and ask, “How can I pray?” or do we avoid it? I don’t want it to be awkward and embarrassing. What’s the best approach to help other parents?
Craig: It probably depends on your relationship with them. If you have no relationship at all, coming up out of the blue and asking them that is probably going to be hard; but you can always pray for them if you know. But if you know them, sometimes, just simply saying, “We continue to pray for you,”—just giving them that assurance and that knowledge can be encouragement. If you’ve got a close relationship, then you might even be able to ask specifically; and maybe, there are ways you can actually reach out to their child.
What you don’t want to do is create an environment, where parents are probed about, “Okay, what’s going on?” We can fall into the guise of wanting to pray wisely, getting into the salacious details of something that we don’t really need to know. It’s not helpful for the parent to rehearse that either; because as you rehearse that over, and over, and over again, it can strike against your affection for that child. As a parent, you don’t want to be running around, rehearsing.
As a parent, there is also a sense of you want to protect your child. Your desire is to see them to come to faith in Christ—to turn/to be like the prodigal child in Luke, Chapter 15—and to come back; right? You want to protect their reputation as much as you can; you don’t want to share things unnecessarily.
Bob: I know this is somewhat controversial—but talk about the biology of addiction—and are certain people predisposed in this direction?
Craig: Well, it’s interesting you asked that. I’ve just finished writing the draft of a book on the subject of addiction that I’ve spent the last several years writing—and of course, my professional background and everything. Addiction is a choice. It is mostly—and there is no one model that is going to explain all addiction—it is mostly an acculturation. It’s a process of people using drugs with peers and getting deeper and deeper into it as they go deeper and deeper into a peer group that’s using drugs.
Are there biological effects of it? There certainly are, because it’s not all drugs that are addictive; so biology is important. The science on whether there are people, who are predisposed, is not very strong, quite frankly. The best evidence is with alcohol. It does seem that there is some predisposition, but no one is a predetermined alcoholic. No one becomes an addict because they take a drug once/because they take a drink once. There might be some people, who are more inclined, because of their personality. There is no such thing, though, as an addictive personality. There might be personality traits that make you more inclined to get into drug use; but it really is an acculturation process, where over a period of time, you enter into a drug-using culture, getting into a wider array of drugs, and getting into using drugs more frequently; and it becomes a part of your life.
One of the reasons why it’s hard for people to leave it is because that’s their culture now, and it would be like us moving to a foreign culture. You probably know that most missionaries only serve one term; why? Because it’s really hard to go live in a foreign culture—that’s not the only reason—but that it’s a big part of it; right? They are trying to live in a culture that is very different is hard.
Taking somebody, who has become very entrenched in drug abuse and drug use—and all of the things you associate with that part of the culture—and now asking them to step away from that and leaving it, what you are asking them to do is now to live in a new culture. That’s why it is so very difficult to leave drug use behind.
Bob: You’re saying, “Set the biology aside; the sociology of drug use may be more powerful—
Craig: It is.
Bob: —“than the biology of drug use.”
Craig: There is no question. Biology certainly has a role, because there are biological changes that happen; but far more important is the acculturation process. You know the Bible tells us, “A blessed man doesn’t sit in the seat of scoffers.”
Craig: Who you hang out with is going to have an impact in your life; right? The Proverbs are filled with warnings about who you hang out with.
Bob: “If you walk with the wise, you’ll be wise,” “The friend of fools comes to shame”; right?
Craig: Yes; yes. That doesn’t mean people can’t find trouble where they want to find it; but the Bible is filled with wisdom about being careful where you go/what you do: “Love not the world, nor the things of the world.”
Bob: I’m sure you tried to point Eric toward—
Ann: Oh, yes.
Bob: —this group of friends: “Play on the team with the kids who go to youth group.” He just wasn’t interested; right?
Craig: That’s correct; that’s correct. You can’t create that hunger in them. You can try to provide an opportunity, if God begins to move in their heart, that there are people who will help them; but again, ultimately, it comes that God has to do that work. Jesus said that that work is as mysterious as the wind—
Craig: —right?—when He talked to Nicodemus. It’s really important to realize that the greatest thing that we need to do is be in prayer that God will do a work in their lives. We do everything else we should as parents; but ultimately, it comes to whether God is going to do a work in their lives.
Bob: That’s what I think all of us, as parents, need to remember today—it’s what you point us to in the book you’ve written, The Painful Path of a Prodigal: Biblical Help and Hope for Those Who Love the Wayward and Rebellious—we have copies of Craig’s book available on our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to get a copy of Craig’s book. Again, the title is The Painful Path of a Prodigal. Order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy.
You know, we’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: kids make their own choices. Parents can do the best job they know how to do, discipling their kids, and kids can still make destructive choices. There are no guarantees that come with parenting. Yet, we have a responsibility to raise our kids, like you and your wife did, Craig, to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—to point them toward Jesus—to talk to them about the Bible.
The holidays provide us with kind of a ready-made opportunity to be able to reinforce biblical truth. This week, we can be talking about gratitude and thanksgiving, and why it’s good to have a thankful heart, memorize some Bible verses about gratitude or thanksgiving. Then, as we head into the Christmas season, there are plenty of opportunities to talk about Jesus coming, and why He came, and why we celebrate that.
FamilyLife® has created a resource called “The Twelve Names of Christmas”™, a dozen Christmas ornaments designed for young children, each one pointing to a different name or title of Jesus. There is an ornament that portrays Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, another one portrays Him as the Good Shepherd, or the Bread of Life, or the Living Water. All of these ornaments are designed to help stimulate engagement with your kids around spiritual themes during the Christmas season.
We’re making this resource, “The Twelve Names of Christmas,” available to those of you who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife with a donation this week. When you go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate online or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation over the phone, you can ask for your copy of “The Twelve Names of Christmas.” We are happy to send it out to you.
Let me just remind you—what you are investing in, when you donate to FamilyLife Today, is the spiritual health of marriages and families all around the world. You are expanding the reach of this ministry so that more people can, more often, receive practical biblical help and hope for their marriages and for their families. Thanks, in advance, for your donations. We look forward to hearing from you, and we appreciate your partnership.
We hope you can join us again tomorrow when we’re going to hear from Craig Svensson about the phone call that no parent wants to receive, especially when they have a prodigal. We’ll hear that story tomorrow, and I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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