Walking Away From a Child


Brandon has two daughters and a son, all grown. His son lives a destructive life, which hurts Brandon deeply. He admits that wanting his son to succeed may be a bit of “male pride,” and he has exhausted himself trying to force his son into making better choices.

His counselor has worked with Brandon for years and understands the overall family dynamics. “Brandon,” he told him, “You have two amazing daughters going to great places, but you spend the majority of your time thinking about and talking to your son. In fact, I think you spend more time fretting over your son than you do affirming and relating to your two daughters combined. Not only do your daughters feel left out, but all this extra attention stolen from your daughters isn’t even helping your son. In fact, it seems to be making things worse. Isn’t it time to make a change?”

Brandon thought that perhaps the counselor was being too “psychological,” so he wanted a pastor’s opinion. “After all, Gary,” Brandon pointed out, “Didn’t the prodigal’s dad give the prodigal half of all he earned?”

“Yes,” I said (though technically, it wouldn’t have been half—the elder son would have received a larger share), “But that’s not the point of the parable or its purpose. Besides, even looking at it that way, the father didn’t chase after the prodigal when he first left, did he? He let him walk away and experience the bitterness of poor choices. And during that season, the elder son got his father all to himself. The father embraced the prodigal son when he walked back, not when he walked away.”

Responding To A Difficult Child

Whenever you have a “difficult” child the natural temptation is to pour most of your energies into “saving” that child as you (perhaps unwittingly) spend less time and thought on the “faithful” ones. Yet the Bible specifically directs God’s people to focus on finding and investing in the most faithful: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

When talking about ministry strategy, Jesus tells you that when someone resists, you’re to “shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14) and find other willing hearts who are open to correction and truth. Jesus modeled this by walking away from people when they asked Him to leave (Matthew 8:34-9:1).

With His last words to His disciples, Jesus told us to take the time to thoroughly train disciples, “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matthew  28:20). This implies focused attention, spiritual care, and patient counsel. It takes time, effort, energy, and teachableness on the part of the disciple. If someone isn’t willing to follow the commandments of Jesus, they’re not good candidates to be trained as disciples.

Leave the Door Open

When a child strays we should always leave the door open, continue to pray (and even fast), and of course we would run to them if they merely started walking back toward us. But both Jesus and Paul, in passages already cited, stress the need to make wise investments in people through the grid of making the most effective use of our time. Just as it is foolish to keep pouring money into a bad investment, so it’s unwise to spend the bulk of our time speaking truth to people who resent and ignore it. This warns parents to make sure we don’t neglect the faithful children for the unfaithful and unreliable, which may be our natural bent.

Before you’re a parent, you’re a Christian. Before you’re your kids’ mom or dad, you’re your Heavenly Father’s child and servant. And Jesus tells His followers that the church needs more workers, desperately so. “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Whether these workers end up operating a Chick Fil A, serving as judges or police officers or running an auto body shop, we need women and men seeking first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), creatively and passionately. Such women and men need to be trained and discipled. Don’t neglect training reliable people in hopes that you can rescue an unreliable, stubborn, or toxic relative, even if that relative is one of your own children.

If you have a faithful child, qualified to teach others, one of the greatest gifts you can give to the church is to invest deeply in that child’s mind and soul and imbue that child with earnest passion to seek first the kingdom of God. Don’t make the faithful children pay for the unfaithfulness of their sibling(s). 

“Walking away” from an adult child in this sense by no means implies that you should shut off communication. It doesn’t mean you don’t welcome them over to dinner or stop calling them on the phone. Rather, it means you focus the bulk of your ministry time on reliable people who are qualified to teach others and that you zealously guard your efforts so that you don’t neglect a willing disciple for the sake of wooing a toxic prodigal.

If this seems like a difficult word, know that it’s part of a larger discussion about following in the example of Jesus and learning when to walk away from toxic people—even, at times, grown family members. Good spiritual offense requires sometimes applying wise spiritual defense.

This post is adapted from Gary’s book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. This book also addresses how this concept applies to work colleagues, spouses, in-laws, and parents.

This article originally appeared here.

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Gary Thomas is writer-in-residence (and serves on the teaching team) at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas and author of 18 books that have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his wife Lisa have been married for 30 years. Please visit his amazon link.