Ten years ago today, I experienced one of the happiest days of my life. That day brought an end to the worst and most sorrowful season I have ever gone through, which lasted an agonizing year and a half, and began when my son, Nathaniel, appeared in my living room and announced: “Dad, I’m not a Christian anymore.”
While this announcement hit me like a ton of bricks, it didn’t come out of the blue. Our whole family knew he had been struggling for some time. He had been fighting to hold on. At one point he told me through tears, “You all think I’m falling away, but you don’t know what’s going on in my heart. I’m still trying.” But it felt like the last desperate efforts of one to hold on to a ledge before he lets go and hurtles to the earth.
I felt so helpless myself, watching it unfold in slow motion. It was like witnessing a car crash. You see the car careening out of control and you’re crying out, “No! No! No! Stop!!!” But it’s no use – it IS taking place, right before your eyes, and there’s nothing you can do except brace yourself for that devastating moment of impact.
Nothing though can prepare a believing parent’s heart for that moment when you know your worst fear has become a reality. I knew this was serious because Nathaniel, like his namesake, had always been one in whom there was “no guile.” If he said he wasn’t a Christian, he wasn’t a Christian. My heart could not have sunk any lower.
How? How could such a thing have happened? Of all my kids, Nathaniel was the last one I pictured leaving the faith. Growing up he had developed such a sweet relationship with the Lord. For one of his birthdays I got him the statuette of the man on his knees. Nathaniel had learned how to pray out of deep sense of need. As a child, he dreaded bedtime because he feared “being alone” when everyone else had gone to sleep and he lay awake. He not only shared with me his fear, but cried out for God’s help, and wonderfully heard back from Him. One day he came to me and said, “Dad, it’s going to be okay. God comforted me with the scripture, ‘It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.’ My trust can’t be in you all being with me, I have to remember that God is with me.”
Oh what a comfort, that my boy should hear from God, like the young boy Samuel of old! Not only that, but Nathaniel, more than any of my other children, would regularly come to me and share his heart. He would open up about his struggles and feelings with candor and transparency. He wanted prayer, counsel, and encouragement from his father. And when it came to church, he gobbled up every sermon and Bible study. He collected all the notes I handed out and wrote his own comments alongside the scriptures I gave. Whenever I went out anywhere, he wanted to go with me. We were inseparable. I saw a remarkable child, who I had every reason to believe, would turn into a remarkable man.
Needless to say, when I saw him starting to slip away, I was concerned. When the bomb dropped I was devastated. But what could I do? Somehow, the vision of what was “out there” for him to explore and experience became too tantalizing. Like the prodigal of old, dreams of a more exciting life in the far country had captured his mind and were enough to pull him away from the table he had grown up at.
Having broken God’s bands and cast His cords away, Nathaniel now felt himself “free” to pursue all he previously wanted nothing to do with. The floodgates had flung wide open, and unclean spirits now spread their table before him. One of the chief manifestations of this was a compulsion to get tattooed. When he got his paycheck at the end of the week, he would text my wife to let us know he was going to the tattoo parlor. After the arms, what would be next? Where would it end? I had visions of his neck and face being next. But what was I to do? My words were falling on deaf ears. Any attempts to curtail his behavior were met with anger. This poor, enslaved young man was not the son I knew.
My heart was in turmoil. I was afraid for him. He had a curfew, but I feared what he was doing while out. What might happen to him in this fallen state? I began to pour my heart out to God in writing. My son’s life and eternity were on the line. I wrote:
“Oh Lord. You see what the enemy has done. You see how he has wrapped his ropes around the mind of my son. You see how he has “shut him in” so that he sees no way out of this Christless life. Lord, truly he is fast becoming imprisoned further and further in the prison-house the enemy would bring him in to. There is a place where I am so hurt that he could allow this to happen to him. There is a place in which I am astounded that my son, my child, who I gave such an opportunity to, who was taught better, should reject it all, despise it all, and go down this path (which I hate) so foolishly and needlessly. I am indeed angry with him for what he is doing.”
At times, it got heated and ugly. I found myself striving with him, until God gave me Proverbs 26:17: “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.” He clearly spoke to me: “Don’t meddle in strife that does not belong to you. This is not between you and your son, this is between him and Me. If I want you to say anything, I will tell you what to say; otherwise, leave him to Me.” I began to take refuge in the Lord like never before. The distress I felt drove me into the secret place of the Most High. At times I cried out and at times I was just numb. “Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4).
Mixed in with his new-found bravado, Nathaniel was showing the beginning signs of spiritual distress. Our first grandson, David, had just entered our lives and the whole family was overjoyed with this sweet baby boy. One day, Nathaniel told me he was having fearful dreams of dying. He knew where he would be if such should happen. With anguish and anger in his voice, he said: “If I were to die, all of you would go on enjoying life, playing with little David, and I would be forgotten about in hell.” What could I say, except that such an event would leave us utterly broken-hearted, but what were we to do – not go on living? The life he was living was his choice, and he would have to live with the consequences.
One day, when I drove him home from work, I marveled at what was coming out of his mouth. After he got out of the car, I sat there stunned, and heard God say: “This is what hardness of heart looks like.” It was getting bad. At a certain point, he served notice on me: “I don’t want you to preach to me about anything. Keep it to yourself!” And then he added: “And I don’t want you praying for me either!” At that the Spirit of God rose up in me and I answered him back: “You can tell me not to talk to you; but you can’t tell me not to talk to my God! I will pray for you as long as He wants me to.”
Prayer at this time became my only hope. I would sit down, if God would arise. Weariness with it all would hit me. I wrote:
“Because something is so painful and distressing there is the defense mechanism of choosing not to think about it. There is such a sense of helplessness. I find myself just wanting whatever will happen to happen so that he can finally wake up. I feel that he is beyond the place of wanting anything by way of sound counsel from me. The ‘I don’t want to hear you preaching at me’ has caused me to retreat to a point where I really don’t look forward to any fireworks with him. But in this place of throwing my hands up in the air, have I taken a position that is antithetical to real prayer? Despite what he will allow, I cannot let myself be discouraged. I have to continue to pray whether he wants to hear what I have to say or not. I refuse to stop praying for my son. I refuse to no longer care.”
My words to him had to decrease and my cries to God for him had to increase. I wrote:
“If he will not allow me to speak into his life in church; if he will not allow me to counsel or exhort him; I must go deeper in prayer so that the words I do speak will be words dropped in my heart by God and communicated to him at the right time with laser like precision.”
I thank God for his mother and siblings that had to battle their own pain and keep praying. We were all in mourning. I wrote at this time:
“We cannot take things personally, saying: ‘How could you do this to me?’ Parents, relatives, are collateral damage of a life that is intent on pleasing itself. The callousness of the one not serving God, but his own pleasure. First and foremost, the issue is between the person and God. ‘And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.’ (1 Samuel 8:7)”
I was glad for those moments when the old Nathaniel would come back and talk with me bluntly about what was going on in his heart. At one time, we were talking about what was really keeping him from coming back to the Lord. He agreed with me it was a matter of control. He said, “Oh I know. I’m about to go off to college. I want to be able to experience the college life. I want the freedom to do what I want to do. I can’t if God is in control. Yeah, it definitely is all about being in control of my own life.” But that life independent from God had a down-side to it as well. He was now feeling anxiety about many things and had nowhere to turn. One night he was honest enough to admit to me: “Dad, you know what the hardest part of living like this is? I can’t pray. I used to find such comfort in talking to God and bringing Him all my cares, and now I can’t do that – not with the way I’m living.” Was I going to tell him he could still pray and know God heard him? God forbid I give him false comfort. “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil” (1 Peter 3:12). I knew he was in a desolate place, but I could only tell him it was of his own making, and could easily change if he would return to the Lord.
At this point it was a praying and waiting game. I didn’t know how long it would take. Who knows, maybe months, maybe years. I had to settle in for the long haul. His life was going to be messy, but we were all still connected to him and needed God’s response, not our own. I wrote:
“Don’t be impressed by how any person of the world is doing at the moment. Every life without Christ is a house of cards. I am troubled for my son. I am troubled because he is like a sheep without a shepherd. I must watch unto prayer for him. I do believe that such watching will produce gentleness. Lord, gentleness is something which is so needed in the life of a believer. I don’t want to be harsh or hard with those who are in so desperate a condition. At times they are living in a silly giddiness because things are looking up for them; then they are in the depths of despair because things don’t look good. What a roller coaster they are on. How do we find them at any given moment? If we find them giddy, boastful, cocky we roll our eyes or cringe. If they are upset we want to shake our head and blame them for their own predicament. I need Your response at all times.”
But little did I know how near he was to surrendering.
Ten years ago this night, I had just come home from ministering at Rikers Island. I was at my kitchen sink making some dinner for myself. From somewhere out back I heard what sounded like a loud wail. I wondered: what was that? Was it a person or a wounded animal? What I didn’t know was that the spiritual distress that Nathaniel was under had come to a breaking point. He always had a close bond with his sister Katie – even through this sad season they would talk. She would exhort and encourage him to stop resisting and and come back to the Lord. This night he was on our back porch talking to Katie, who was living in California, telling her that he didn’t know what to do, he was at his wit’s end. Katie told him to get on his knees and just start crying out to Jesus to save him. And that is what he did, and that is what I heard out the window. The next thing I knew, as I was sitting on the couch eating, who comes around the corner of the living room – my long, lost boy with tears in his eyes. He looked at me, and with the biggest smile, exclaimed: “Dad! I just gave my heart back to the Lord!” At that moment I experienced a jubilance that is beyond description. How we hugged! How we cried! And began to shout to all I knew: “My son, who was lost, has been found! My son, who was dead, is now alive!
Since I was a young man I have been serving the Lord. I raised seven children in the faith. I have been a pastor for over forty years. My son did not have to become a prodigal. He chose to. But as hard and harrowing the experience was, I thank God for it. Had it not happened, I don’t believe I would have the depths of compassion I now have for the parents of prodigal children. It can happen to anyone. The apostle John wrote: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” (3 John 1:4) The flip-side is that there is no greater sorrow when our children are not walking with God. It brings exquisite and excruciating pain that only refuge in God can buffer. I stand with each and every broken hearted father and mother who has watched their dear child walk away from the good God who deserves their all. I stand with you, looking out the window, and with our broken hearted Father, yearn for the day when we will see the prodigal on the horizon, returning “home” where they belong – to the rich table and blessed life God has awaiting them.
My Nathaniel went on to attend college, where he met Waleska, the sweet woman who would become his wife. After college, he became a member of the NYPD. Now he lives here in Texas, and is a police officer in the same town we live in. He still loves to talk to his Dad. He is back in church, eating up the Word once again. He brings his family with him – two precious boys and a beautiful baby girl. And since that day ten years ago, he’s gotten no more tattoos! The good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine to find even one lost sheep, has restored my son’s soul. He has changed him, both inside and out! To God be the glory – great things He has done!