“O Absalom, my son, my son”.
It was a moment of raw emotion. King David had seen his son, a prince in Israel, walk out on him, his family and on God. He had murdered his half brother. Then David allowed back his rebel son without any confession of wrong, repentance or justice, so giving the impression that he had condoned his son’s sin. Absalom and David were first alienated from each other, then engaged in battle, before Absalom was killed by Joab. David ‘the king, deeply moved, went to the chamber over the gate, and wept, “O my son Absalom – my son, my son Absalom – if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!”’ (2 Samuel 18:33)
The inward pain of the spiritual loss of a child remains immense. It is deeply hurtful. It weighs so heavily on Christian parents, becoming a burden robbing them of joy, freedom in ministry, comfort and spiritual rest. Some Christian parents speak with pride about the secular success of their children, even saying that they are good people, not opposed to the gospel, but in doing so they attempt to disguise the reality that their loved ones are not walking with the Lord. Christian parents know that their overwhelming desire is for their children to belong to and be serving the Lord. Sometimes the heartfelt prayers for them can seem like despairing cries as the burden for those dearest to us is quite overwhelming.
The pain has been felt many throughout history: Isaac and Rebekah had ‘grief of mind’ over Esau (Genesis 26:35); Jacob experienced that same burden, grieving over the waywardness of his sons (Genesis 34:30). Aaron ‘held his peace’ when ‘fire went from the Lord and devoured’ his sons Nadab and Abihu who had offered profane fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-3), but reading between the lines you feel for him. Hophni and Phinehas broke the heart of their father Eli, but then Samuel’s sons did the same to him. And the prodigal son’s father waited longingly and lovingly for his son to return. He was daily feeling the disappointment of knowing that his son was wasting all that had been given him. The fact that he had one son at home was no consolation to him. For the prodigal, there was no turning back the clock, but with the father, there was a way forward.
Imagine how David Livingstone felt having to dig the grave for his son who had died of an opium overdose. DL Moody said that he would gladly have traded all the thousands to whom he was preaching if he could just have his son Will, who at that time was a prodigal, become a Christian. Shakespeare’s King Lear has the line, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.’
Too often the true person, whom God has created, is hijacked by a cruel understudy who squeezes the life out of him or her. CS Lewis tells of a clergyman’s son who returned from his university for the holidays with a fledgling scholar’s assured arrogance saying, “Dad, I’m not at all sure I can follow you any longer in your simple Christian faith.” The father’s eyes skewered his young son who was ‘lost’ as CS Lewis put it, ‘in the invincible ignorance of his intellect.’ “Son,” the father said, “that is your freedom. Your terrible freedom.” The Bible says, ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child’, and so the reason a child does not trust and follow Jesus is their own sinfulness. But our desire, like that of our loving heavenly Father, is that they would be saved.
The responsibility of fathers is to act towards their children as our heavenly Father does towards us. He too has grieved over the waywardness, rebellion, stubbornness, arrogance, pride and sin of His creation, and even of His children. He is patient, merciful and forgiving, but He is pained, even repenting of the freedom He has given (Genesis 6:6). As parents hurt over their wayward children, they are reflecting the heart of the Lord who grieves over His creation. They are experiencing the overwhelming ache, the pain that God the creator feels towards those He loves but who spurn and reject Him.
The wayward child, like the prodigal son, is living as if the father was dead, and that is deeply grieving to us. But God never wastes any pain or tears; He wastes no time or toil. He uses the hurt we feel to mould us, sculpturing us into His image. When we are oppressed by overwhelming problems it is a time to rediscover the boundless goodness of our triune God. None of us has been the parent we should have been, but God is well able to overrule our weaknesses and mistakes. We must never lose hope, or be cast down; rather looking to Him, we are to keep praying that soon the prodigal will return home. We all have our scars, and if those of the prodigal seem bad, they are not a match for the ones Jesus carries because of Calvary.
The Lord Jesus is able to bear the burden which for us seems too heavy. ‘The afflictions of the righteous are many,’ but none of them take our Saviour by surprise. He will walk with us through the heaviness; He feeds the soul with His word, and quenches the craving desire for a resolution to the problem with His streams of living water. He who wills that none should perish is the Lord ‘in whom there is mercy and plenteous redemption’. Ours is not to wallow in worry but to love, to pray, to trust and to wait. We can cast our burden on Him, knowing that He cares for us … and for them. His eye is on them, even if they wish it wasn’t. His grace is pursuing them, no matter which far country they have settled in. Our prayers will not go unheard, even though the prodigals are drowning out the grace of God. And He has given us exceeding great and precious promises that encourage us to act wisely and pray fervently that, as the gospel song puts it, ‘the circle will be unbroken, by and by, by and by.’