Prodigal Love: What to Do When Family or Friends Have Rejected Jesus
Daniel Smith, 23, arrived as a freshman at Cedarville University in 2008. Outwardly he was a Christian, but inwardly he was a prodigal. Doubting some essential doctrines, he was afraid to ask peers and professors about God, hell, and Christianity's dark moments in human history. "Others probably perceived me as a typical, good Christian kid," Smith says. "I worked hard to keep up that perception. But inside my faith was completely dead."
Steven* (*not real name), also a freshman, was immersed in all that life at a Christian college offered. His charisma, activism, and faith were infectious to others—including Smith. "We bonded over our bookish pretensions and freshman philosophizing. The world was in our pockets, and we were like brothers," Smith says. The two decided to room together sophomore year.
Early that year, Steven's mother began having health problems. Soon she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Before school was out, she was dead. During her illness, Steven grew frustrated with Christians' trite responses to his mother's suffering. He was angry at God. By the time she died, Steven had turned to meditation and Eastern mysticism for solace. By senior year, he had come out as gay and walked away from the faith. Steven's journey gave Smith a lot to think about.
When Lee,* Michele Sterlace-Accorsi's husband of 24 years, walked away from Christianity, he walked away from his family, too. Much of their marriage had been difficult, says Sterlace-Accorsi, but the years of raising their four children were mostly good. The couple built a large home in upstate New York on a plot of land with woods and a pond. The family went to church each Sunday, the children attended Christian schools, and prayer began and ended the days and preceded family meals.
One of those prayers was the turning point, recalls Sterlace-Accorsi, 48, sitting inside the condominium on the West Coast where she moved after the divorce. "We always held hands around the dinner table. One night—it was right after Lee lost his job as a museum curator—he refused to hold hands with us. The kids were confused and urged him to pray. He finally gave in and held our hands, but just stared ahead. You could see something inside him was changing."
Lee swiftly took more steps away. He began to doze off in church as soon as the sermon began, then stopped going. He started to mock the music Sterlace-Accorsi and the kids listened to. Family fights escalated as Lee alternated between being volatile and withdrawn. "He was either angry or depressed, yet he continued to reject God," says Sterlace-Accorsi.
Ezra, the youngest child, recalls one day when he and his father were riding in the car. "I was worried about his salvation, so I begged Dad to pray the sinner's prayer with me. Finally, there in the car, he did." But regardless of any spiritual shift, Lee soon disengaged from church and the family's prayer life entirely. Within a few years, he left the family.
Of course, some prodigals stay with their family. But being married to a spouse who has renounced a faith once shared brings its own kind of pain.
Alise Wright was in the living room of her family's West Virginia home in the fall of 2009 when her husband, Jason, returned from meeting with a therapist. After a few minutes of rehashing the session, Jason said that he no longer believed in God.
Wright misunderstood. From the time they had first met, it was Jason who had been "completely on fire for God."