The Shame of Loving the Prodigal – An Excerpt from Letting Go
What do you do when someone you love leaves? And how do you pursue someone who has hurt you, who has sinned against you? In Letting Go, pastors Dave Harvey and Paul Gilbert share stories of pain and stories of hope as they reveal how to care for the prodigal who has strayed.
In today’s excerpt, we learn about the shame that often confront those who are paired with a prodigal.
There is something those who love the wayward refer to as “the walk of shame.” We’re not talking about the “morning-after” stagger from where you just spent the night, or the silent shuffle alongside the security guard after you cleared out your desk because of job cuts. Another sort of shame is common to the struggles we’re talking about in this book. It greets you each morning and scrubs you raw by the end of the day. It’s the shame of being paired with a prodigal. Your life and identity are wrapped up in your connection to a straying spouse, a truant sibling, a wayward child. Someone you love has screwed everything up, and they’ve left you to explain and sometimes even to defend what they have done.
THE SHAME DISPENSER
Being paired with a prodigal is a relational nightmare. Imagine a person who, due to idolatry, addiction, or brain chemistry, lives as if there are no rules—only rights. Their rights! Add a strong dose of violation, butter it with entitlement, and pepper it with victimhood. What happens? You get a human hurricane on a collision course with personal self-destruction and familial devastation. The home becomes a federal disaster area pretty quickly.
But that’s just the beginning.
Take that prodigal and assassinate his conscience so that moral reasoning and personal responsibility are excised. But give him a voice—one that thunders about injustice or seethes with silent hostility. He regularly feels violated by crimes undetected by others, but according to him are deserving of capital punishment. Then plant him smack dab in the middle of a marriage or a family, and the entire group’s happiness will be dependent upon how he is doing at any given hour. He’s a full frontal “identity assault” on the family, one that tears the heart in two and tars the soul with humiliation.
Added to this is the burden of how others see you. Wayward souls rarely have a muffler. They curse, vomit, demand, scream, and cry. They acquaint you with indignities. Their sin may be private, but their flight from God easily becomes public fodder. The behavior of someone you love incites the chatter of others.
To love a prodigal is to live exposed.
This means the sense of condemnation you feel is not just inward but outward. The shame affixed to your soul is not just what you feel about yourself but can come from what others say or how they treat you.
The most damaging element is the suspicion. Veiled inferences within your social network send a clear message that some people, perhaps many, trace a straight line between your faults and your prodigal’s choices. It’s bad fruit, they say—the jury coming in, the rooster coming home to roost, the reaping of what’s been sown. In your better moments, you remain silent, wishing to God your life was as simple as their logic.
Cara knows shame. When she married John just out of college, he seemed grounded in his faith and determined in his work—a man on a mission. A few years into their marriage, financial trouble hit them like a freight train. John unraveled, became an angry man, and blamed God. Now John is emotionally withdrawn and gone for large blocks of time. Cara knows not to bring up church, or the kids, or sex, or where he goes—they’re all hot-button issues. John may leave, or he may stay. Oh, and he blames Cara too.
Christians around town look at Cara with sympathy, or maybe pity; it’s so hard to tell. Some wag their heads in quiet certainty, knowing that the fruit has finally spoken. They don’t see how or why, but they just know the dots between John’s irrationality and Cara’s behavior connect in some mysterious fashion. So every morning, Cara wakes and thinks to herself: I don’t get it. If he’s the one AWOL from God and his family, why do I feel the shame? When we’re yoked with the shameful, we often wear the shame they deny.
Cara feels exposed, inferior, and rejected. And it doesn’t take long for those feelings to become what she believes about herself. What do we say to Cara? How can God help her? Or let’s make it more personal: How can God help you?