What Did I Do Wrong?
About the Guest
Phil Waldrep reassures parents that they aren’t to blame for their child’s rebellion but there are things they can do to lower the risk.
What Did I Do Wrong?
Bob: One of the great pains for any parent is to have a son or daughter who walks away from the faith. It inevitably leaves a mom and a dad wondering, “Where did we go wrong?” Here’s author and speaker Phil Waldrep.
Phil: I found prodigals come from every kind of family you can list. I don’t think there’s any kind of correlation that I found between those who were strict and those who were not. Now I will say this—I did see a little bit of a tendency in my research that, where there are rules without relationships, there often are more prodigals.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, August 15th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Are there things we can do to keep a son or a daughter from becoming a prodigal? And if we do have a prodigal, what do we do then? We’ll explore that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think I’ve said this over the years, but it’s one of those things that has stuck with me—3 John, verse 4, is that great verse that says: “I have no greater joy than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” Of course, John was talking about his spiritual children when he wrote that, but it’s even truer for parents who have biological children. When your kids are walking in the truth, there’s not much better than that. I’ve thought to myself: “If that’s true, then the opposite has to be true as well. There may be no greater pain that a parent feels than when their child is not walking in the truth.”
Dennis: No doubt about it. In fact, I’m looking at this book that we’re going to talk about today. The author, Phil Waldrep, is seated across the table from me, and I’m struck by the subtitle. I’ll give you the title of the book in a moment, but these two questions: What did I do wrong? What do I do now?
The title of the book is Reaching Your Prodigal.
Phil, this is a very deep subject we’re talking about here. First of all, I want to welcome you to the broadcast—welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Phil: Well thank you. I’m honored to be here.
Dennis: I have to tell our listeners how we came across you and your ministry. You give leadership to a ministry that is titled after you, Phil Waldrep Ministries. You and your wife live in Alabama. You have two grown children and now two—count them—two grandchildren.
Phil: That’s right; two—that’s right.
Dennis: We ran across this message that Phil had given. Bob, do you remember how many years ago?—15?
Bob: It was about 15 years ago. Actually, you gave it here in Little Rock, I think.
Phil: I did. I was at Immanuel Baptist Church.
Bob: Somebody came to me after being there and said, “This was a great message,” and they brought me the cassette. That tells me how old it was because it was a cassette tape. I listened to it and shared it with Dennis. We agreed this was a message we needed to share with our listeners.
Three or four times, over the last  years, you know, you have been gracious enough to let us share this message with our listeners. Every time we share it, we hear from moms and dads who are in the midst of the pain that we’re talking about here.
Dennis: And it does resonate with people. My question that I have is—what a lot of listeners are wondering: “Why did it take you 15 years to write this?”
Phil: Well, sometimes when you write a book—if you’re an author, you know—you start out writing and then you go back and you say, “Well, I need to address this issue,” or “I need to address that issue.” Sometimes, when you write a book, people come to you and you think, “Well, I’m really going to put a lot of emphasis in this area,” only to discover that that doesn’t resonate in the way you want it to.
So I probably wrote and re-wrote and worked and re-worked until finally it came to the point where I could say, “I want to do this and share it with people.” That’s why the book has come to be.
Bob: You did not write this book because you and your wife had an experience in your home with a prodigal; right?
Phil: That’s very true. That’s one of the questions people ask me—is: “Why is this such a passion of your heart?” It is because, as a traveling speaker, every week I met people who walked up to me and told me about a son, or a daughter, or a grandson—and occasionally it was a brother or sister—or it might be even sometimes prodigal parents, believe it or not. They would look at me and they’d say: “What did I do wrong? I mean, I took my child to church. We prayed together…”
One of the things I often share is—people will tell me: “I have five kids. Four love God and are serving the Lord, and one has walked away.” It was out of that passion to help them. Fortunately, my wife and I have not walked through that pain—our two children are serving the Lord—but I’m very quick to say, as much as I love my daughters, they could—so, none of us are above the experience.
Dennis: No; that’s exactly right.
You received a letter, a number of years ago, that initially turned your heart toward this subject. What was it about that letter that got your attention and started you on this search?
Phil: Well, it was a pastor’s wife, actually, who wrote me the letter—I had spoken in their church. As we were having lunch together, they began to share with me about their five kids. Four were involved in church and one was a prodigal. It was that pastor’s wife who wrote me, really to apologize for not talking about their fourth son. Then she said to me, “I remember looking at you and thinking, ‘This man deserves an answer.’” She felt obligated to tell me about this fourth son who was a prodigal. But then she asked me the two questions that I have heard so many times: “I really want to know, ‘What did we do wrong?’ and ‘What do we do now?’”
Dennis: As a result of hearing those questions, you hit your knees and God woke you up one night.
Phil: He did. You know, it was funny because I went to the Scriptures; and I searched the Scriptures to find answers to those questions. Initially, I did not find the answers I was seeking—
—now, it wasn’t that they weren’t there. I personally wasn’t quite as clear on the subject, I imagine; and the Lord wanted me to walk the journey with some people. I would have these people ask me over and over—it became a burden. I researched, and I still was at a dead end. I found myself thinking: “Lord, one of two things must happen. You need to remove the burden, or give me insight into the issue.” Every time I tried to push it away, the Holy Spirit pushed it back.
One night, I was speaking in Missouri. I finished the service and—I remember this lady came up to me. She said, “I feel so led to tell you about my daughter,”—her daughter was really away from the Lord, breaking her heart. I remember, as we were standing there, she said: “I just feel so impressed to ask you two questions: ‘What did I do wrong?’ and ‘What do I do now?’”
I remember going back to my hotel room and telling the Lord, “Lord, one of two things must take place—either You need to give me insight, or You need to remove the burden.”
I said, “Lord, while You’re deciding what You’re going to do, I’m going to bed.” And I did—[Laughter]—I went to sleep. It was in the night the Lord woke me up and led me to contact 30 prodigals, whom I knew well / who I knew would be very honest with me. I sat down and I interviewed them. I told them: “I’m not going to preach. I’m not going to offer any comments. I just want you to be honest.” Some were good moral kids—they weren’t involved in any kind of destructive behavior, but they weren’t in church. Some had all kinds of addictions. One was even incarcerated for a very serious felony.
As I listened to their stories, everything I read in Scripture made sense. It was then that I think I saw the insight that I share in Reaching Your Prodigal.
Bob: You know, as a parent, I’m aware of the fact that the choices I make / the things I do—for good or ill—are marking my child.
If there’s a prodigal in the family, I can’t help but think: “I must have contributed to that in some way. Maybe I don’t think that ‘If I’d been perfect, that never would have happened’; but I have to stop and think, ‘Surely, there are some things I could have done differently that might have influenced my child in a different way.’” Do parents bear some weight when a child becomes a prodigal?
Phil: That’s a very good question. I think there are two aspects to that question. One aspect is: “Yes, parenting does affect our children.” However, you can be the perfect parent and still have a child who walks away. When people look at me and say: “I find that hard to believe. I think, if you do it right, your kids always grow up right,”—which I find, by the way, I hear that more from people who have no children than I do from people who do have children. [Laughter]
But I look at them and I’ll say: “Well, let me ask you this: ‘What did God do wrong with Adam and Eve?’ and ‘What did Jesus do wrong with Judas?’
“’What did God do wrong with the children of Israel?’” You can be a perfect parent, and still have a child who walks away.
But then, we feel guilty as parents / we feel shame. So we don’t want to sing in the choir, we don’t want to teach a Bible class, we don’t want to serve on a committee, we don’t want to go on mission trips because we feel the waywardness of our child is causing shame; and we bear that responsibility.
So the very first thing that I want parents to understand is—if they have that burden of shame and guilt, you must stop and ask the Lord, “Lord, what did I do wrong?” If the Lord says you did nothing wrong, then walk in victory / don’t walk in guilt because, if you feel guilty, your prodigal is going to manipulate you. I’d go so far as to say the devil’s going to manipulate you.
He’s going to destroy your joy and your effectiveness. Once you feel guilt, especially when you have no idea what you did wrong, the prodigal—especially if they are in addictive behavior—will begin to manipulate you. You will make decisions as a parent that is making the situation worse instead of better.
Bob: All of us, as parents—when our kids were born, had somebody point us to the Proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” We clung to that and said, “Okay; I’m going to do my best to train him up in the way he should go; and then God has to keep His end of the bargain and make sure that this kid doesn’t depart from it.” So now, we think, “I must have done something wrong because he’s departed from it.”
Phil: You know, one of the things that I find interesting about that particular verse is—when I began to research it, there were very few Bible scholars, especially Hebrew scholars, who told me that that was a reference to parenting in general.
Now, I’m not taking away from that interpretation—because many people have it—but instead, it really referred to a child having an interest and we train that child in that interest. For example: If a child loves music, you train them in music; and they will pursue if for the rest of their life.”
But even if we take it as a promise, I tell people: “Back off for a minute and look at what the Scripture did say: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,’ could be rendered, ‘It will not depart from him,’—which I believe means that, if a child becomes a prodigal and if they walk away, there will be a constant conviction in their heart.”
Every prodigal—who had wonderful Christian parents—whom I’ve ever interviewed, without exception, said to me: “I know what I’m doing wrong. My parents taught me differently.” I did not have one single prodigal, whom I interviewed, blame their parents—not one. Now, others I have interviewed, since, have blamed parents; but the initial 30 I interviewed did not blame their parents at all.
Phil: Their parents weren’t perfect, but they didn’t blame their parents.
Dennis: I can tell you there’s one other side to this that we’re not talking about here. There is a lot about parenting that appeals to a parent’s pride, thinking he or she can do a better job than his or her parents did when he was a boy or when she was a girl. But I can tell you this—once you have a child, who doesn’t do well for a period of time, that pride gets stripped.
Phil: It certainly does. One of the things we forget, even as Christians, is that our kids are prone to sin. We all are! We’re fallen—we aren’t perfect! Because of our tendency to lean towards sin, the real miracle in a family of five kids and four are serving God is not, “Why is one prodigal?” The real question is, “Why are four of them serving God?”—that’s the real miracle.
Certainly God uses our parenting skills and what we teach; but at the same time, we must remember—when we deal with our kids—that they’re prone to sin. Sometimes, they wander. When you go to the story of the prodigal son, which I like to call “The Story of the Wonderful Father,” in Luke’s Gospel, remember—there’s nothing in that story that says the father did anything wrong. The son just one day decided: “I want to go live in a far country. Give me my inheritance. Let me go.” The father did nothing wrong in that story, and yet the son walked away. So you can be the world’s perfect parent and still have a child who walks away.
Dennis: Yes; and I just have to add this—there isn’t any parent who’s going to do it perfectly.
Dennis: Let’s cut to the chase. I mean, who in the world hasn’t gotten angry with their kids or have always been there at the right moment to say the right thing in the right way at the right time? But there’s something we need to remind ourselves of—and that is every child has parents, who are also wayward and who also can wander, and can get off into sin as well.
We, as parents, just need to realize we’re all broken. God’s trying to work His story of redemption through all these broken people, and the family is what He forged. There isn’t a perfect one in all of Scripture. There’s not going to be one until we get to heaven.
Bob: We’re talking with Phil Waldrep, who has written a book called Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now?
As you talked with prodigals, Phil, I’m just curious—some parents tend to be strict and authoritarian / some tend to be a little more relational, permissive—they let the boundaries out. Is a prodigal more likely to come from one or from the other?
Phil: I found prodigals come from every kind of family you can list. I have prodigals I talk to—and people say, “Well, they’re a prodigal because they come from a divorced family.”
No; I don’t necessarily think it’s any higher among single parents than I do among two parents. I don’t think there’s any kind of correlation that I found between those who were strict and those who were not. Now, I will say this—I did see a little bit of a tendency in my research that, where there are rules without relationships, there often are more prodigals—let’s make that clear. But yet, at the same time, I don’t know if you can say, “Well, this type of parenting produces prodigals / this one does not.”
Bob: I think what I keep looking for here is what our listeners are looking for—which is: “Is there a preventative? Is there something I can do to minimize the risk? I want to do whatever I can do so that the odds of my child being a prodigal go down. Is there anything I can do?”
Phil: Well, it is—and that is: “Be real. Be who you are. Be authentic. Don’t try to be one thing to your kids that you are not in private.”
One of the things I discovered was that a lot of times what does cause barriers to be erected in the lives of prodigals / that keep them away—I don’t think it causes them to walk away, but it keeps them away—is a parent who cannot admit a wrong. How often have I had kids say to me: “Well, you know, my dad had an affair. He’s still trying to justify his affair.”
As I listened to those prodigals, I realized the father’s inability to admit his sin was a barrier that was keeping that child away from God. One of the principles that I shared when I wrote Reaching Your Prodigal was—on the one hand, you know—if the Lord doesn’t make it clear what we did wrong, then certainly we shouldn’t walk in guilt and shame; but on the other hand, maybe we need to ask our prodigal: “Did we do something that wounded them?” If they tell us, “Yes,”—and I’m talking about a legitimate concern—then we ask for their forgiveness.
I’ll give you an example—one of my friends has a son, who’s a prodigal.
He went to his son and he said: “Son, I want to have this conversation, as your father. Did I ever do anything to wound you?” He was prepared for him to try to bring up this long list of sins. The young man looked at him and he said: “Dad, when I was younger and I played Little League baseball, you traveled with your job. You never were at my games.” Then he looked at him and he said, “Dad, I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for that.”
At that moment, he wanted to justify it and say: “Well, we had bills to pay, and this was a great job. It was a time when the economy wasn’t good”; but instead, he looked at him and he said: “Son, you are right. If I had it to do over, and I knew how it was affecting you, I would have taken another job.”
He said it was amazing—in that moment, his son looked at him and said, “You admit that?” He said, “Sure I admit that because, when I look back now, if I knew it had that kind of effect on you, I would have never taken that job—certainly, wouldn’t have kept that job.”
He said, at that moment, the relationship changed for the better because his son realized the father was willing to acknowledge he made a mistake.
One of the things I strongly suggest to parents, who have prodigal children—it may not be a healthy conversation—it will be healthy / it may not be an easy conversation to have because they may bring up things you haven’t even thought about. Some things maybe they misunderstood—maybe there’s a time for explanation—but I think authenticity is the one thing that we must be, as parents, with our prodigal children.
Dennis: And it may not end in a sweet story like you just shared.
Dennis: I mean, that’s a remarkable story—that that son, in that moment, turned away from a hardened heart and was softened by his dad’s response. There are some kids who aren’t going to forgive their parents—they’re going to hold onto it because it justifies their behavior.
Bob: But you have to think that that humility and that acknowledgment that: “You know what? I messed up here. I do that,”—even if the child is stubborn and stiff-necked in the moment—that doesn’t go away. They’re going to remember Mom or Dad saying: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” They might not do that instantly because of bitterness, or anger, or pride of their own; but I don’t think that moment goes away in a child’s life.
Dennis: And all I was doing, Bob, was cautioning parents for one of those moments that it all works out. As you just said—
Bob: Adjust your expectations, as a parent.
Dennis: Yes. They may hear you; and it may be months / years before, ultimately, that relationship is reconciled. What I want the parents to know is—sometimes, the race is cross-country.
Phil: That’s true. We don’t get there overnight; and sometimes, we don’t have the relationship restored overnight. What I do believe happens—when parents do go and sit down with prodigals, and they’re willing to be honest and not defensive—it does remove excuses.
Now, they may not see it at that moment; but in the mind of that child—up to that point, in their mind—they’ve been able to associate a parent who refuses to acknowledge wrong with their spirituality. When a parent is willing to say, “You know, I made a mistake; and I ask for your forgiveness,”—now, the excuse for staying away from God is taken away.
They may not forgive the parent—in fact, I go into detail about times when kids will say things and they refuse to forgive us—but I tell parents: “Give them time. Be authentic, and don’t go back to being the way you were.” It has to be a sincere conversation.
Dennis: It is remarkable when a parent can have their child come to them and point out something that was a mistake / a true error—a judgment error / a repeated error—and for that parent to hear that—and not justify, not defend, not push back, not get angry—that, too, is a work of God in the parent’s heart.
So I would say to the parent, who may be listening to us right now and has a prodigal—if you have a child who’s not doing well, and you are thinking about going to them and asking the question, “Have I done anything to hurt you / to disappoint you that is between us?”—you need to go prayed-up.
Phil: Exactly right.
Dennis: You know?
Phil: Exactly right.
Dennis: You need to go ready to hear—
Bob: —quick to listen—
Bob: —slow to speak—
Bob: —and slow to anger.
Dennis: And it is why, Bob, a book like what Phil has written is so helpful because it helps a parent kind of count the cost and may help parents remove the log from their own eye.
Bob: Yes. It gets you in the right frame of mind, as a parent, to be able to have the kind of conversation you need to have with a son or a daughter. I’m so glad because, for years, Phil, I have recommended your message on prodigals to others and shared it with so many people—now, to have the book that I can pass on to a friend.
I’m grateful that you’ve written the book, Reaching Your Prodigal: What Did I Do Wrong? What Do I Do Now? The two questions parents are asking. You can get a copy of the book when you go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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And I hope you can join us back tomorrow. Phil Waldrep will be here again. We’ll continue our conversation about how we can best be the parent of a prodigal. That’s coming up tomorrow. Hope you can join us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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