Few people discuss the deep pain, anxiety and anger that can accompany loving a prodigal. When the biblical prodigal returned home, God acknowledged the father’s anguish in his overwhelming relief to see his wandering son return. Caring for a wayward person is a wilderness journey for the soul. In the middle of it, how do we make sure to also care for our own hearts? Today, we rejoin Gary Wilkerson and Judy Douglass as they continue their discussion from last week and explore how the parents of a prodigal can find strength and hope.
Gary Wilkerson: Welcome to the Gary Wilkerson podcast. We're thrilled to have you with us here today, we're continuing talking about issues that I believe are really important in our lives real down to earth stuff. And so, we're thrilled to have with us in the studio today, Judy Douglass. Welcome, Judy. Thrilled to have you with us.
Judy Douglass: Absolutely delighted to be here. Thank you, Gary.
Gary Wilkerson: You just shared to our staff a devotional really, precious message about mercy and love and grace when particularly dealing with prodigals.
At the worst moment, because there's always this, some people call it rock bottom or just like, and they are in hopelessness. The difference I always notice is, when my son was out there, he was doing some pretty heavy drugs and drinking a lot. So, his pain was masked by, he felt fine. Yeah, he's, "I'm high, I'm having a party," but my pain and my wife's pain was unmedicated. Obviously, we had the Lord to go to, but the Lord doesn't always, in my experience, He doesn't always let you escape the pain you tend to feel.
Judy Douglass: No, he doesn't. The pain is part of the gift.
Gary Wilkerson: Yeah. So, tell us a little bit about that. Your pain and how you call it a gift. So, at the worst, did you feel hopeless?
Judy Douglass: Yes, hopeless is absolutely the word because you don't see. Everything you've tried hasn't worked yet. And even though there were good times, there were more and longer hard times and the choices as they get older are scarier, because they have freedom to make, to do what they want and he was increasingly doing drugs and drinking, and that he never got a DUI is a miracle in my opinion. Yeah, I can tell you lots of funny stories about his 17 cars. For me, it just became this desperation. And there were two specific things that made the difference for me. One was a sweet friend, in addition to my husband, who was there with me all along, but did not have the attachment to Josh that I did at that time, but my friend lived down the street, and we were very close and she, at the drop of a hat would stop what she was doing and come and just be with me when I was in tears, when I was desperate, when I was afraid.
He was driving with a friend and they had an accident and ran over a big huge electric box. The car caught fire. They were both knocked out, but Josh came too and realized that the car was on fire. He managed to stumble around and pull his friend out before the car is engulfed in fire. And I saw the car later and it was all charred. And so, to me, God rescued him. He was there in that, but they said, "So we both decided we’ll quit drinking," and then later, "Well the car had a problem, it wasn't us." And so, in the moment they realized it was theirs, but later, they had excuses. One of my chapters is on no alibis.
And so, the other thing besides my friend who would listen and cry with me and pray with me, is this group that formed when I started asking others to pray with us, and it became what is the prayer for prodigals ministry, and that I could post my prayer requests, and they could post theirs. So, we would pray for each other. It was sweet. And that really took me through. But the other thing that it did, was it pushed me to quit just holding on to my pain, but to really learn what God was doing in my life through it, because I started writing to this group of prayer for prodigals. Every month, I wrote them a letter.
And those became my walking through what God was doing in my life, recognizing that he's still working in Josh's life, even if I don't see it, if it doesn't look like it, He was still working in him, but he was also working on me. And I may not be the prodigal my son was, but I am a prodigal, you are a prodigal, we all are. And so, God's got a lot of work to do to get to his goal of making us like Jesus, and when I think of myself, I'm so far from being like Jesus.
Gary Wilkerson: What do you think, this is probably an unfair question, if you could only say one word, what was the most trying to work in, you said he was working in you, not just Josh. Is there one word that would describe what he was after? Or a sentence?
Judy Douglass: Well, probably two words. Grace is one of them. Understanding his grace toward me, that he wanted me to extend to our son. And that being fairly revolutionary, in the prodigal world. It isn’t a grace world for the most part. The second is, I would probably use the word surrender. My life has always been wanting my own way. You ask my family they would agree. They actually did that once where I was speaking, and I said, "Everybody was miserable if I wasn't getting my own way." I look over here and my mother and sisters are all just nodding their heads.
So, when I came to Christ when I was in high school, it was a wonderful message on what Christ's death on the cross, what my sin had cost him. And so, I'm, wow. But then the speaker said this amazing thing, "Not only will he come into your life, does He want to come into your life and forgive your sins, He also wants to show you his better way for your life." And I went, "God has a better way for my life than I do?" And it was almost like I signed a contract that said, "I choose your way, not mine." Thinking then that, that was settled till the next morning, when something didn't go my way. And I'm like, oh, and then I realized this is the rest of my life, is getting to choose will I do what God wants? Or will I do what I want?
Gary Wilkerson: I'm so glad you heard that message because that's, I don't want to get off the track here, I want to stay on your story, but there's just a little sidebar here. One of my pet peeves is, if they call it that is, it seems to me not to be critical here, but that the church rather than preaching a message of the cross like you heard it that said, He has a way for you and you have to follow his way. We're almost saying, what's your way? And then God will come into your life and help you make your way, like he's there to serve you. It seems this American culture has a lot of-
Judy Douglass: There is a lot of that, without a doubt, because they've been told you can do anything, and you're looking for who God made you to be and that's all true, but it is not true by just your figuring it out. It is a surrender to Him.
Gary Wilkerson: I'm sorry.
Judy Douglass: Go ahead.
Gary Wilkerson: Well, just somebody was saying, from my sermon last week, he was calling it, we've switched from theology to ‘meology’, it has a lot to do with me, what does Jesus have for me and my job and my finances? And that's not so much the cross centered life anymore. So, that's good that you learned grace, and the surrender. For me, it was trust. I realized how little I trusted him. I thought I did, but when he's telling you to offer, surrender your child to Him, you're, well, you haven't, that my very accusational, you haven't done a very good job with him up to this point, why should I trust you with the rest of his-
Judy Douglass: Absolutely. That's why there's a whole chapter on trust.
Gary Wilkerson: And grace. Grace is... So, you wrote these letters to the prayer for prodigals. And that's still, that's online now?
Judy Douglass: It's still going, it's an online community, we don't know each other very much personally, but we pray for each other, and especially for each other's prodigals.
Gary Wilkerson: Good. You need that prayer. And you're not alone. The first one you wrote, was it grace?
Judy Douglass: Love.
Gary Wilkerson: Love. Okay, good to start with that. Yeah. And tell us a little bit about how the Holy Spirit spoke to you about loving the prodigal?
Judy Douglass: A couple of things. One, what I shared before that he shared his love for me, for my son, and that's a supernatural love far beyond anything I'm capable of. And it was necessary, because he did so many things to reject that love. And I'm back to that second, but the idea that God is, well, He's a flow through God, He does work in us that He will then do in other's lives through us. And so, I began to understand that. The other, second thing was, in my falling in love with this kid when he's born in my heart as my son much later than when I got him, but I wanted him to be able to love me in return, which we all would like that.
So, I would find myself saying, "Lord can't he ever love back? And could he just say, I love you on a Mother's Day card or something?" And God says, "Judy, don't you know, unconditional love has no conditions. And so, what my love is, is unconditional for you, and your love for him, needs to grow into being unconditional, where you're going to love him no matter what, if he never loves you back." For him to love me was a betrayal of his birth mom, who he still loved, and occasionally saw. She was around. And so, that was just transformational for me to understand the kind of love God's called us to, it's not a tit for tat, give and take kind of thing. It doesn't matter. You still love with his kind of love, which is a lay down your life sacrificing kind of love, which we were not capable of. So, those are the love things I will tell you that took him 12 years to say, "I love you." And now every time he texts me, he most often texts and says, "Would you pray for me today?" And then he says, "I love you." So, it's a really sweet thing, but it took a long time.
Gary Wilkerson: When you say it took 12 years for him to say he loves you; it sounds you remember the actual event when he first said it? What did he say? And how and when?
Judy Douglass: He's been married twice, and he and his first wife, it was a fairly not wonderful marriage and they had a big fight. And one of the things that I've always appreciated is, for all his acting like a tough person all the time, he really wasn't violent. And so, he had never hurt her, which they could have because they were drunk a lot. And anyway, he was so drunk that he ended up, he was swinging a hairdryer around and it hit her. And at which point he was horrified that he'd actually hit her, but then he passed out. And so, the next morning when he came too, he realized, because she had a place on her head, he was just really horrified that he had actually hurt her. They could yell and scream, and that was not a problem, but the hurting he wouldn't do. And so, he just was, "Oh, I didn't mean to hurt her. And I did." He says, "And that's what I've done to them." So, he called us, we happened to be in Colorado at the time. He called me and says, "I love you guys. I love you. Thank you for all you've done for me. I love you." And so yeah, it was very special.
Gary Wilkerson: So this is a long process too, you're talking over the time he's eight, now this story you're talking about, he's in his 20s. So, you've gone through, it wasn't sort of a one-time prayer, was not as, click your heels together and it wasn't name it claim it.
Judy Douglass: Not at all. It's a long wilderness journey.
Gary Wilkerson: Wilderness. Yeah, you can speak about that quite a bit in your book. Tell us a bit about that, the wilderness.
Judy Douglass: Well, in the wilderness, you often can get lost. And so, in this, with a prodigal, you feel lost, you don't know the way forward, that's a good way for him or her and for yourself. And so you're lost, there can be scary things out there. I mentioned, in Florida, you always have scary snakes, and when you go in the wilderness, and gators could be there. We have a conservation area behind our house, which is a euphemism for swamp. So, the first week we were there almost there was, no maybe not quite that early, there was a little baby gator that came out and we haven't heard any, we hear them, we haven't seen any more. You can hear the bull gators. I mean, it's a wild world. [crosstalk]
Gary Wilkerson: We don't have any snakes, we have the thing, may be coyotes, foxes, and the one you want to avoid is the bears. You don't get bears. No.
Judy Douglass: Yeah, black bears.
Gary Wilkerson: Florida bear? I never heard that.
Judy Douglass: Oh, yeah, lots of them. There even still Florida panthers.
Gary Wilkerson: There's a lot of strange stuff there.
Judy Douglass: And so, in the wilderness in Florida, it's a little, you're very alert, you're watching where you're going, where you're stepping. What actually at night, if I come home, in the dark, I clap my hands like this to make the snakes leave, because we've had some at our house, because we have a conversation area. [crosstalk] That's the wilderness and when you love a prodigal, you don't know what's coming next. You don't know what hard thing, you don't know if your kids going to be in a terrible accident, or if they're going to get arrested, which they should have been many more times than they are. And you don't know if they're going to overdose.
I have a friend of mine whose book is coming out very soon. And twice she's called to the hospital because her son is overdosed on heroin. And so, she's telling her story and so, you don't know those things. And the uncertainty, it's a lot of what makes it a wilderness and the fear. I know we're not… perfect love casts out fear and that's in my book, but at the same time, it takes a while for us to get there, because it is a scary thing, what might happen to this person you love. And so, when you're when you live through it for, I would say our wilderness part. The first part was not really wilderness. Lately, it's not a wilderness, but we're looking at 15 solid years of these ups and downs hard things, risky things he's doing, bad choices. They're scary.
Gary Wilkerson: Did you ever get angry at God?
Judy Douglass: Oh, yeah. I believe God's quite able to handle my anger.
Gary Wilkerson: Yeah, yeah, that's what, you talked about your son's attachment disorder. And the thing about knowing Christ is, if you understand what his nature and character's like you don't have to suffer through attachment disorder because He's willing to be attached to you no matter what you bring to him. And so, there's been some studies recently, brain chemicals that they study in children, when they're screaming and angry and throwing a fit, when the mother picks up that child and take some close to her, I don't know how they determine this. I can't understand science, but it's not just an emotional thing, but they've actually seen that the mother absorbs the emotion of the child.
Judy Douglass: I've heard a lot about that.
Gary Wilkerson: I don't understand, but taking away that-
Judy Douglass: So, that was really hard to do with Josh.
Gary Wilkerson: I imagine so, yeah, but Jesus does that with us, he takes-
Judy Douglass: He wouldn't let us. So, that was always a challenge because I think that would have made a difference. I got advice from some counselors on that earlier. And when it just wasn't in-
Gary Wilkerson: Well, what I'm talking about is, six months old stuff like that, by the time they're eight or 10, there's always a lot of history already. So, it's much more difficult to [crosstalk]
Judy Douglass: Holding them close is a key thing to help with the sense that they're abandoned, or that nobody really loves them. And so, that's a great thing to be able to do. I would rub his back a lot, because it was kind of the only way you could touch him. He needs touch. Everybody needs touch. And yet, he's got this wall around him.
Gary Wilkerson: In your wilderness then, I don't want to skip ahead too much the story but obviously he's doing well now, and I read the end of your book and there's a letter in there that he wrote. But what if, so you're in the wilderness, normally, the Christian story ends, and then they came back to the Lord, the prodigal came home. What would you think? And I don't know if you ever thought about this now, but for some of my friends, the story has not ended well.
Judy Douglass: Right. And I know many like that. There's no guarantee, they'll get a choice.
Gary Wilkerson: Yeah. Did you ever think about that? What if this wilderness doesn't have an ending that I'm hoping for?
Judy Douglass: Well, that has a lot to do with the way this drove me into the arms of the Lord. And teaching me that, that God is trustworthy even if I don't always see it. There's a story. There's a book called, Hinds feet on High Places that I've read it four times, at key times in my life when I was not walking, trusting God with situation. And in each case, God just did a wonderful work to remind me he's working. And then one chapter, little much afraid, the heroine of the story, is trying to get to the high places to live where the Good Shepherd is. And she and her suffering, her companion sorrow and suffering, get lost in the fog in a valley. And she actually gets separated from her companion. She's all by herself. She can't see anything. She doesn't know where to go, and she's, "I'll never get to the high places, I won't ever get there."
Judy Douglass: And she says, "Oh, but the shepherd said, if I need him, just call and he'll come." She said, "Shepherd come," and he was there. And she said, "Shepherd, why have you left me in this fog where I can't see and where I don't know what's out there." And he says, "You will get through, you'll get through. You just need to know I'm working even when you can't see I'm working." And so, God's working in the life of that person I love, and he's working in my life. And he's got both of those things at heart. There are no guarantees. I believe that when a prodigal or somebody who's walked away, senses love and acceptance, knowing like in Luke 15 that the father really is going to welcome them back and not say, "Oh, it's you? Well, we'll talk about it, but here's what you have to do before will even consider you're coming back." And that's how it happens a lot.
And so, I think it's much harder for those to come back when there is a sense that even though I've blown it, even though I took everything that I could from my person who loved me, my family, they still love me, and they still would welcome me. Then after that, you can say, "We want you here, but let's talk about what's going to make this work." But that's different than saying, "Here's the way you can come back." So, I they that come back more easily. I have seen more people when they change from this harsh response to a loving, welcoming, merciful, gracious, then it happens more. Still no guarantee, people make choices just like God's waiting for all these people that he loves, and doesn't want any of them to be lost, not a single one. But some don't choose. And so, I don't like that, I would like it to be a different thing, but at the same time, I know God's love, and I know that he does everything that he can to shower that love, to do good to us, to give us reason to trust him. And so, for me, it was just this driving me into the arms of the Lord and learning to trust him at a depth [crosstalk]…
Gary Wilkerson: He's so capable of touching our children or the prodigals in our life, whether it be a spouse while working in us simultaneously. And I think it's all about, "I'm going to pray for my spouse or my child to bring them home to the Lord or get them out of their addiction." And you see all along, he's been working in both of us and so much of what you wrote here has stuff for us helping the prodigal, but also helping us through our wilderness.
Judy Douglass: It is more about helping us. It is about helping the prodigal, but it is more about letting God do his work in us. And that's why I see our son is such a gift, because he was the way that God has done. Could he have done the work in my life that he's done in other ways? Of course, and he has done some of it. But this was the powerful, intentional, I can't miss it the way that he has worked in my life to depend on Him, to trust Him, to pray, to learn about grace. In grace, he says that, "Come on up," in Hebrews 13, "Come up to the throne of grace." And when I think of a throne of grace, that means maybe that the throne is made of grace, and that where God is actually sitting there waiting, inviting us to come, He's sitting on grace. He's letting grace flow through. And I just think we don't get nearly enough understanding of grace.
Gary Wilkerson: What a great word picture of the throne of grace, never heard that before. Beautiful. Speaking of prayer for prodigals, would you mind praying for those listening that have a prodigal in their life? Or maybe they're a prodigal of themselves? They're getting-
Judy Douglass: They are, just not in those situations.
Gary Wilkerson: Yeah, you mind?
Judy Douglass: I would love to pray.
Gary Wilkerson: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Judy Douglass: Oh, Father, thank that you love us. And each one of us is truly a prodigal, but you weren't happy to leave us there. And so, you made it all this big plan to send Jesus to rescue and redeem, and reconcile, and restore us as your very own children. You adopted us into your family. You said, "I'm your father, and I'm going to care for you, and I have good plans for you." Lord, what you have done for each of us, you will be through us for those that we love who have walked away. For some is just, they've turned their back on you Lord, they've walked away from their faith. For others, they have walked away just from their family, and I know that just breaks people's hearts, and some have walked away into really risky lives and behavior, and as I always was afraid that our son would end up in jail or not alive anymore.
And Father, in all of that, you will work through us, you will give us the love to keep loving and I pray that for everyone who has it, that they would have the resource, the unquenchable resource of your unconditional love, that they would learn about love and grace, and mercy. That they would learn to trust you and understand that you are God, you're able, but you're also very, very good, and you care even more about our prodigal than we do. So Father, I pray for the work you do, and those we love and us, that we will see your hand, your strength, your power through your spirit, to enable us to walk through this wilderness, and to do as you said in Romans two, to woo back through loving kindness, those who've walked away. Give us each trust, faith, the ability to just surrender to us so that you can do amazing work and us and through us in Jesus name, amen.
Gary Wilkerson: Amen. Thank you so much for being here. That was a wonderful conversation. I know it's going to be so helpful for all of us who are wanting to love like you're talking about the kind of love here, and the book is called, when you love a prodigal, and 90 days of grace for the wilderness. Pick it up on Amazon or anywhere. We're going to have it in bookstores. Yeah. Thank you again, come back soon.
Judy Douglass: Thank you so much, Gary. God bless you.
Gary Wilkerson: Thank you.
…that was just transformational for me to understand the kind of love God's called us to, it's not a tit for tat, give and take kind of thing. It doesn't matter. You still love with his kind of love, which is a lay down your life sacrificing kind of love… - Judy Douglass
I may not be the prodigal my son was, but I am a prodigal, you are a prodigal, we all are. And so, God's got a lot of work to do to get to his goal of making us like Jesus – Judy Douglass
…when you love a prodigal, you don't know what's coming next. You don't know what hard thing, you don't know if your kid is going to be in a terrible accident, or if they're going to get arrested, which they should have been many more times than they are. And you don't know if they're going to overdose. That's the wilderness. – Judy Douglass
God is so capable of touching our children or the prodigals in our life, whether it be a spouse, while working in us simultaneously. – Gary Wilkerson
Judy is a writer, speaker, missionary with Cru. She is an encourager—urging everyone she encounters to know God and to entrust their lives to him for all He wants them to be and all He has prepared for them to do. She also writes about women, prodigals, becoming a true follower of Jesus, the homeless, grandparenting, learning from children.
Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO.