In 1915, Charlie Chaplin was more than just a movie star—he was a bona fide national craze. To capitalize on that, vaudeville houses started hosting Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike contests. Well, America’s “Little Tramp” wasn’t one to be left out of the fun, so he anonymously entered his look-alike contest in San Francisco that year. And lost. In fact, the real Mr. Chaplin didn’t even make finals.
I think, when it comes to parenting, sometimes I’m like those near-sighted judges at the San Francisco Chaplin contest. I want to look like my heavenly Father, to imitate Him in recognizable ways—but I get so caught up in my own attempts at mimicry that I often miss out on the real thing!
So today, for once, I want to look closely at my Father and see if I can discover some of the parenting lessons I’ve been missing. Where better to start than in the picture of Father God that Jesus gave in Luke 15:11-32?
Lesson 1: It’s OK to Be Generous Toward an Ungrateful Child
Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son begins with an insult:
“There was a man who had two sons,” Christ said. “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate…’”
To our modern ears, that son’s request seems mildly annoying, but innocuous. To those who first heard this parable, it was an outrageous demand calculated to be hurtful. In practical terms it was as if this boy had said: “I wish you were dead already! I want your money more than I want you.” (2)Had I been that boy’s father, my response would’ve been quick and harsh: “Nope. Get back to work.” But notice how different God is from me, and what happened next: “So he [the father] divided his property between them [the sons].”
Wait … what?
Yep, that’s what happened. After being contemptibly insulted, the Prodigal Dad’s immediate response was to grant what common sense said he should deny: A significant portion of his fortune, freely given into the greedy hands of an ungrateful child.
Why would a Dad do that? I think Jesus explained best it in an earlier sermon: But love your enemies … and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35,emphasis mine).
As a father, it’s tempting to believe I’m entitled to something in return for the sacrifices I make for my family. Thus, my natural instinct is to withhold good things from a child who treats me poorly. But the first lesson I see in the Prodigal Dad—and my heavenly Father—is not a tit-for-tat love, nor blessing conditioned only on behavior. I see a generous Father who sometimes blesses in spite of hurtfulness, regardless of disrespect. I’ve experienced this kind of treatment from Him myself, and I’m guessing you have too.
So I wonder: What might change if I believed that no one can steal from me what I give away freely? What might happen if, like a Prodigal Dad, I decided it was OK to be generous—even to an ungrateful child?
Lesson 2: Sometimes Life Has to Teach What Your Child Refuses to Learn
The second parenting lesson I see in the Prodigal Dad is no less heartbreaking than the first: Sometimes life has to teach what you can’t.
If you’re like me, you want to help your child avoid self-inflicted damages from mistakes made and consequences felt. There can be no doubt that the Prodigal Dad knew some of what was to come when he funded his son’s runaway into the “School of Hard Knocks.” What bothered me for a long time was that Dad could’ve stopped it.
Proverbs 14:12 had already revealed, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” Knowing this, and that his son would have to endure pain from this big mistake, why would Dad let his beloved boy go? Why give the money that made the sin possible?
I think, maybe, the Prodigal Dad understood that life has two teachers: Instruction, and Experience. When instruction fails to teach Proverbs 14:12 to a child, sometimes a father must grudgingly let experience be the teacher instead.
Is it risky? Yes. Life can be deadly. It can cripple in ways that are physical, emotional, and spiritual. Releasing his son to the Classroom of Experience cost that boy much suffering. But … If this rebellious kid had never been allowed to learn firsthand the truth of Proverbs 14:12, he likely would’ve never learned it at all.
Again, this is a hard parenting lesson for me. It goes against my Dad instincts. But when my instruction isn’t enough, there’ll be times I’ll have to unclench my fist of control, trust God’s Holy Spirit, and pray: Jesus, please use life to teach what my child refuses to learn from me.
Lesson 3: Joy is Always an Appropriate Response
One evening, when my son was a precious preschooler, he and I were laughing and playing a silly game in the living room. My wife had stayed behind in the kitchen, washing our dishes from dinner. Finally I said to Tony, “Why don’t you go ask your mom to come join us?”
My boy dutifully trotted to the kitchen on his chubby little legs, and I heard him say, “Mom, would you like to come enjoy us?”
There was a pause, and I could almost feel Amy’s smile through the kitchen wall. I heard the water shut off as she responded, “Of course! I’d love to come enjoy you!” Needless to say, the dishes didn’t get cleaned that night—but our family grew stronger because Amy had already learned what the Prodigal Dad teaches me next:
Joy is always an appropriate response to a child.
Let’s face the truth here: When the wicked son returned home, he had no right to be there. He’d burned through his dad’s money and should’ve burned through his father’s goodwill too. Common thought at the time was that the now-impoverished son was being punished for his sins. According to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, he deserved nothing but judgment, and possibly even death from stoning. Yet when his father saw the boy from afar: “He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
What’s more, the Prodigal Dad demanded a celebration—simply because his lost son had come home. How cool is that? In this joyful moment, Jesus revealed a shockingly different father than any we’d expect: A Father always happy to see us.
In our polarized society today, homes can become unwitting battlegrounds in American culture wars: This child rejects God for Hollywood-style morality; that child opts for a homosexual lifestyle; another leans too heavily into supercilious religiosity … and family always seems caught in a fight. In these situations, I’ve known of parents who disown their children, kids who refuse to speak to dads, moms who try to justify awful sin because they love their kids, and more.
But what if …
In the swirl of hot-button issues and heartbreaking decisions and red-state/blue-state differences, we fathers chose to do what Amy did, what the Prodigal Dad taught her to do? What if, instead of judgment or lectures or arguments and disappointment, we decided that our first response upon seeing a child was simply this attitude of welcome:
“Of course! I’d love to come enjoy you!”
Lesson 4: Pride is Not a Parenting Tool
The last heartbreak of the Prodigal Dad is one from the older son instead of the younger—a prodigal boy who still lives at home. After discovering the family party: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in” (Luke 15:28).
Again, the parent in me feels indignant at the grumpy elder son. Ancient Hebrew tradition sides with me on this. Refusing to enter the house and failing to greet his father respectfully were both grievous insults—and could have warranted a beating for that older son. Gratefully, neither I nor Jewish culture is the Prodigal Dad!
See, it appears that father knew what I’m still learning: Pride is not a parenting tool.
I know some men who refuse to lose an argument at home—even when they know they’re wrong. They think admitting error will make them “lose control” of their children. I know others who live out “pet-peeve parenting,” enacting harsh punishments for minor infractions because, well, “I’m the boss, not you!” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Father God doesn’t appear to have the same insecurities you and I have as dads. Notice the father’s response to his older son’s petulance: “His father went out and pleaded with him” (Luke 15:28, emphasis mine).
For awhile, I was secretly embarrassed by the father’s actions here. It felt humiliating for him to a) go out to the whiny son, and b) plead with him to be happy. Now I think I understand, just a bit, what was going on.
God, it seems, isn’t humiliated by humility.
If you don’t believe it, just look at the Christmas manger—and Calvary’s cross. If God in heaven isn’t bothered by being humble, why am I so opposed to it in my living room? Especially when my own child’s well-being is at stake?
And so, the last lesson I learn from the Prodigal Dad is likely one I need the most: I’m not in competition with my child; I don’t need to prove myself somehow better or smarter or stronger than him. My job is to seek my child’s best interests, and sometimes that means I must lower myself in order to help him rise above. That’s OK, because Proverbs 16:18 really is true and thus:
My pride has no place in the parenting toolbox.
(P.S.: Neither does yours).
Mike Nappa is a features writer for Crosswalk.com and a theology writer for Christianity.com. He’s also a bestselling and award-winning Christian author with more than a million copies of his books sold worldwide. Learn more about Mikey at Nappaland.com and MikeNappa.com.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/jacoblund