Rerun of a Classic: when to let go of a prodigal (aka shun)

This is an update of one of my most popular columns to date: Stressed over Prodigals? First Root out the #1 Joy Thief.

Dear Andrea,

I have a twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Gomer*, that is living with her boyfriend. She claims to be a Christian, but wants nothing to do with church or other Christians. She has been rebellious for the last fourteen years, ever since she moved in with her father….

…She says she does not feel guilty about having sex outside of marriage, although she does admit she is living in sin. Last May, when she moved in with her boyfriend, I told her I was disfellowshiping her and would not be going to lunch with her, etc…

.…I feel I have been in the fight or flight mode for many years. At this point, it is definitely flight. I am really burned out being a parent and have a lot more peace in my life when I don’t have contact with her.

I did go to lunch with her last week (she wanted to take me out for my birthday) and she was so negative and nasty, I went to bed for the rest of the day because I was depressed. For years, she told me her friends were more important than family, that we have nothing in common, and that we don’t need to talk on the phone very often. Now that I have distanced myself she is after me and wants me to go to lunch with her on a regular basis. She says she wants to have a relationship with me, but I can hardly stand to be around her. She gets angry if I say anything about her lifestyle. She cries and is obviously distraught that I don’t want to spend time with her.

She also has no regard for my feelings and expects me to show up at a wedding reception at her dad’s house. Her dad left me 21 years ago and was cheating on me… He has shown no remorse or guilt for what he did and was eventually excommunicated from a church. His attempts to apologize are a joke… I told her I would go if they chose a neutral place like a park, (but I still want nothing to do with him.) As you can tell this has been a long ordeal.

Gomer rarely listens to me or follows my advice. She is in a lot of debt and insisted on going on trips to Europe twice, Florida several times, etc. on borrowed money. I refuse to help financially anymore. …

In addition to all this, I have health problems that are made worse by stress. I am under doctor’s orders to avoid stress. She is aware of this, but it does not seem to matter. Where does a mother go to resign? I am considering going to counseling, but in the meantime, I just want to be left alone.



Sorry, I’ve been warned you can’t resign from being a mother, but I do understand your frustration. Your daughter behaves in a pattern very familiar to me, as I’ve had a Gomer in my life, too. In my case, we loved each other, and both wanted a relationship with the other, but despite her desire to still claim His name, Christ had come between us. We’re not on speaking terms, either, her choice, and you’ll understand why I felt relieved even as I wept. I imagine some might find it easier to be simply angry than to weep.

I felt much the way you did. Being around her was all trial, and in truth, neither of us felt comfortable with the other. Our conversations, even when we managed to avoid The Issue, were too phony for me to stand indefinitely, yet I didn’t have the heart to do what the bible recommends for someone who claims to be of the brethren, yet walks in darkness. Let’s review:

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner-not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”

–1 co 5:9-13

Now, the church today goes to two extremes in approaching this scripture, we either toss it out the window as irrelevant to modern times since the person will just denounce us and move onto a different church, as if we have just now invented false teachers and itching ears.

Or, conversely, we add to the scripture our own traditions, and begin practicing this over differing convictions on matters of dress, Sabbath-keeping, worship styles, and so forth. Such abuse is why this scripture has come to be largely ignored. We prefer to talk about the scriptures calling us to love instead. Indeed, we hope Apostle Paul had changed his mind about this when he wrote in the thirteenth chapter of the same letter, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Indeed he hadn’t changed his mind. But love does not mean enabling, in fact, enabling is the opposite of love. There comes a time, as much as you love someone, they have chosen a lie, and you must place a premium on your spiritual health—and the church’s—and not tolerate a lie.

Don’t be fooled when a Gomer talks of love and says things like, “let’s just not talk about it.” A Gomer’s motive is not love at all, but control. That’s what the silence treatment is about and why a Gomer suddenly gains interest in a relationship when we pull away rather than begging their forgiveness and restoration to their graces as they typically hoped. This desire for control is connected to a desire to drag us down into the lies the Gomer has bought, which is in turn connected to a hunger for our approval. That is the nature of sin. It wants justified (i.e., accepted) and Gomers will use trickery, flattery, manipulation, even black mail or out right force, if possible, to achieve that end.

This desire for control, often rooted in a dysfunctional childhood, genetics or both, is what ultimately shipwrecks their faith in the first place. So it is to their own detriment if we perpetuate the problem by continuing to serve as doormats. Because we love them, we must set boundaries, and we must stick to the stated costs of crossing those boundaries.

The sad truth is, Gomers will not repent until they have suffered sufficient pain, which too often means until they hit rock bottom, if then. The most dangerous state for a Gomer is when they change their outward behavior and can fool themselves and undiscerning brethren into believing they’ve gotten right with God when in truth their hearts remain unchanged. Time and their tongues will expose them. Even the worst of Gomers—namely sociopaths—will usually betray themselves, sooner or later.

When a loved one is a Gomer, as Paul suggests, all we can do for them is pray, and get out of God’s way, which may mean no contact and utter silence. Unless you have reason to believe you’re dealing with a sociopath, it’s wise to keep a phone line available, so you can be there for them when they do hit bottom. Just don’t let them use it for anything but actual emergencies and don’t interfere if you get a call before true rock bottom, lest you find yourself fighting God, or, worse, get taken down with them.

I do have one caution on applying 1 Cor 5:9-13, some will argue this is church discipline and hence inappropriate for family members to apply outside the context of the local church body. But let’s also remember Paul lived in a world where people didn’t move around like they do now, unless you were a merchant or a missionary like he was. Your believing family and friends were generally all members of your church as well. The application of this scripture should never be done lightly, but with much prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But neither should it be ignored.

Do go to counseling, though, Mara, as I would be negligent if I didn’t mention, if you really want to reduce your stress level, a key step would be working out the anger and bitterness against your ex-husband, a process the church often likes to summarily call forgiveness, and label true biblical forgiveness as ‘reconciliation.’ Your forgiveness or lack thereof won’t change anything for him. If he is unrepentant, your hatred won’t leave him in a deeper pit of Hell anymore than you not hating him would get him out of Hell. If he is truly repentant and has given his life to Christ, no matter how laughable you might find his apologies, I guaranteed you God won’t be laughing, He’ll be shepherding His prodigal into the same Heaven we call Home.

Now, I have no way of knowing what the case is with your husband. Regardless, an angry, bitter, and critical spirit will stress you out, ruin your health, destroy your relationship with God, and allows someone who hurt you to keep on hurting you, over and over and over again. A mother’s bitterness, as hard as this will be for you to hear, also poisons her children. Your daughter, now, she made her own choices in life, and she’s responsible for that, not you. Believe me, though, I know how hard it can be to let go of bitterness—that’s why I encourage you to seek pastoral or Christian counseling—but you until you do let go of this bitter hatred, you will never heal.

You have a choice, Mara. You can keep laying your stress exclusively at the feet of your daughter, or you can recognize the true culprit stealing your peace and joy. To paraphrase our Savior, you need to get the beam out of your own eye, and then you’ll be able to see clear enough to deal with your daughter’s. It may not make her any less deceived or change what you need to do with her, but it will change your life, and only the Lord can say for certain what impact that would have on the world.

Love In Christ,
Andrea Graham

*not her real name

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