Recovery Wisdom from The Prodigal Son



Luke 15: 11-20 The Prodigal Son, Scenes 1 and 2. I call your attention to verse16. The young man had squandered all he had. He was in a miserable place. He was hungry. He was in a circumstance that was a violation of everything he’d ever been taught about what was right and proper. Notice especially the NEXT sentence: NOBODY GAVE HIM ANYTHING. It appears that he had played all of his cards, manipulated everyone, used everyone and everything and was in the worst of places. AND NO ONE WAS WILLING TO ENABLE OR RESCUE HIM. Nobody gave him anything. Soooooooooo….the next verse says, “He had this moment of self-reflection.” Other translations say, “He came to his senses.” The critical timeframe, the turning point of coming to his senses, was preceded by having no one to rescue or help or give him anything. That’s the end of the line. It is only there, at the end of one’s rope, that sanity is possible. In psychological terms, this position presents the opportunity to introduce a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that combines acceptance and mindfulness with commitment and behavior-change strategies to increase psychological flexibility to craft new paradigms and perspectives that can work better under the conditions in which one finds himself. If this can be accomplished real change is possible. This approach does not seek to eliminate difficult circumstances or feelings; rather, it presents the subject with the reality of what life brings and presents strategies to “move toward valued behavior”. Acceptance and commitment therapy invites people to realize that they cannot change the reality of what the current circumstances are, to open up to unpleasant feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoid situations where such negative feelings are invoked. And even in the midst of that to discover that there is hope and a future.

“Once there was this man who had two sons. 12 One day the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, eventually I’m going to inherit my share of your estate. Rather than waiting until you die, I want you to give me my share now.” And so the father liquidated assets and divided them. 13 A few days passed and this younger son gathered all his wealth and set off on a journey to a distant land. Once there he wasted everything he owned on wild living. 14 He was broke, a terrible famine struck that land, and he felt desperately hungry and in need. 15 He got a job with one of the locals, who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man felt so miserably hungry that he wished he could eat the slop the pigs were eating. NOBODY GAVE HIM ANYTHING….17 So…… he had this moment of self-reflection: “What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death? 18 I’ll get up and return to my father, and I’ll say, ‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you. 19 I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’” 20 So he got up and returned to his father.”

From time to time when individuals will not accept the reality of the circumstances of their lives, engage in mindful reflection on what they really want out of life, commit to the hard work that restoration requires, and quit returning to strategies that have proven unhelpful and even destructive in the past, then it becomes clear that they are not ready yet for change and recovery. They are still battling reality, living a lie, angry at God and others for “doing this to me”, unwilling to accept personal responsibility and will continue to make choices that keep them stuck. Once we have offered them ACT and a new perspective on life, encouraged them toward a clear-eyed view of reality and they have chosen to go back to their old ways, we have to step away and let them journey farther down a dead end road and pray there’s a pig sty waiting for them there.

We strive to discern and pray for indications that one has found herself in the proverbial pig sty and has had that moment of clarity after realizing no one is going to give her anything or rescue her. Those who are not yet truly ready for change, who have not confronted and accepted reality, are not likely to find Titus 2’s approach to life recovery comfortable or helpful. They will resist and run or be so disruptive that we will have to dismiss them. It is sad when it comes to that. But we trust God’s plan for them and God knows how long, how difficult, and what circumstances will be necessary to get them to the pivot point of change.

I would love to say this is original, but it is not. My daughter-in-law, who is also a Christian counselor, first pointed out this verse- Nobody gave him anything- to me as the two of us were discussing addictive behavior and the ways in which we attempt to discern readiness for change and whether or not one has come to the end of her own resources. So, Joni Byrd, kudos to you, my precious DIL and friend! We can offer people encouragement, some perspective on hope, challenge their paradigms and assumptions, but we can’t make them decide to change. As Jesus asked the lame man sitting by the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you WANT to be healed?”

One more thoughtful observation by Joni Byrd, from the perspective of the Prodigal Father. He was a man of means and certainly could have sent a slave along with the younger son. He could also have sent someone to follow and report on his activities, but he didn’t. He chose to keep his hands off, to simply watch and wait. As I considered her observation it occurred to me that, as parents of wayward adult children this is a good example. One must simply watch and wait until the child returns, having made his mark and proudly proclaiming his success or humbled and repentant, having learned that he still has more to learn. Perhaps the Father trusted that he had poured all that he could offer into the young man and accepted that the young man was now on his own, at least until he was ready for additional lessons from a Father. Perhaps he trusted God’s love, plan, and provision for the young man, too. Whatever the reason, the resolution in his heart was the best choice… he simply watched and waited for the son to return.

One cue I listen for in interviews is an acknowledgement that a woman knows what she DOESN’T WANT any longer….that she’s DONE, had enough. She knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that if she continues in the old life she will die. As I tell them, you can get your soul “empty and swept clean”, like the man in the parable of Jesus who had an evil spirit cast out., through detox and white-knuckling it, or placing yourself in an institutional environment where someone else owns and enforces your recovery. But unless one works to fill that empty and swept-clean soul with things that are more valuable (like the Phil 4:8 things, the Gal. 5:22 things, and so much more that Christ offers), then the vacuum in the soul will continue to be re-filled with the same vile things of the past, and with more and more of it each time.