Maxwell Institute Podcast #140: Prodigals All, with Spencer Fluhman
“When we begin to see ourselves as the prodigal in that famed biblical parable, we are better able to minister to that prodigal daughter or that prodigal father. When we see them as in process and recognize the same in ourselves, we can forgive their wandering because we know we must.”
With some topics, one must tread lightly. Mine is surely one of those. When invited to address the matter of loving someone during or after a so-called “faith transition,” I knew my words would weave through life stories inflected by disappointment, desperation, and pain. And heaven knows this question is almost universally pertinent. There aren’t many families who haven’t experienced one or more members who choose a path away from the restored gospel, mine included. As a result of the pervasiveness of this issue and the heavy burdens that often come with it, I’ll issue some essential caveats here at the outset.
With those disclaimers in place, I’ll start with a theologically foundational conviction that shapes all that follows. It’s reflected in the title I’ve chosen for my remarks. That is, we are “prodigals all.” Human experience is limited, broken, and always changing. Even at our most committed, our most spiritually aware, a vast gulf separates us from complete wholeness. At no point in this life will we fully see “eye to eye” or through the “glass” clearly.1 That perfect vision of ourselves and all other ultimate realities awaits in other realms. Every one of us is a work in progress, in other words. We all wander, to one degree or another, from what we yearn to be.
I say none of this to denigrate the human experience. Its limitedness, it’s unfinishedness, is part of the wonder for me. The admittedly daunting processes of refinement and discovery is part of life’s joy, our various challenges notwithstanding. The fact that learning, insight, and progress come slowly, haphazardly, and by degrees is less the test of life and more the point of life for me. I have found that God’s influence is discovered and experienced through these processes, not in spite of them. When our striving is set within that broader context of God’s purposes for human experience, progress, and sanctification, we can cease resenting the brokenness of life and instead recognize it as integral to God’s plan.
I’m claiming, in other words, that when we begin to see ourselves as the prodigal in the famed biblical parable, we are better able to minister to that prodigal daughter or that prodigal father.2 When we see them as “in process,” and recognize the same in ourselves, we can
forgive their wandering because we know we must. When we’re clear about our own faltering, we can better approach the same in them. Surely, no loved one’s wandering can stand outside the rather comprehensive command to forgive, issued in this dispensation with such unmistakable force: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” and women.3 That divine command has stopped more than one of us in tracks, hasn’t it? Doesn’t God know how deeply hurt I am by others’ actions, we ask? Doesn’t God know how desperate I am to get them back in the circle of faith? How hard I’ve worked and how many tears I’ve cried?
The answer, of course, is yes. He knows. And he asks us to forgive it all still. Indeed, it is because God knows so profoundly the pain of wandering children that he asks forgiveness from us. He perfectly knows the cost of our failing to forgive. And, certainly, his command for our forgiveness is offered in the context of a truth that will comfort every hurting soul: no human wandering can stretch beyond the reach of divine love. That will become the bedrock hope for everyone who weathers the storms of loved ones’ choices. Run they might, but they can never outpace God’s love. And even when their flight from God entails devastatingly bad choices, we can mourn but avoid despair. As President Boyd K. Packer taught,
there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ. How all can be repaired, we do not know. It may not all be accomplished in this life. We know from visions and visitations that the servants of the Lord continue the work of redemption beyond the veil.4
God will not cease seeking their redemption, in other words. That conviction can help reorient us from an overwhelming sense of loss towards God’s purposes. How, we might wonder, could God stomach such apathy and rebellion from the human family? What kind of God could risk so much by offering such freedom in the world? More than one parent has only half-joked in my presence about the perils of human agency. Wouldn’t it better, they wonder aloud, if we could forever simply shield our children from physical or spiritual danger? Is all this freedom worth it?!
In response, I’ve often turned with them to the weeping God of Moses, chapter 7. We learn there that it’s not that God simply rides above it all, eternally insulated by his own perfection. No, God’s tears bear witness to the weighty consequences of human freedom and the perpetual toll they take on even divine love. Philosopher Adam Miller lays bare the implications of this vision for our understanding of the divine life itself.
Many traditional Christian creeds deny that God can weep. They deny that God can be moved or affected or troubled … To protect his omnipotence, they deny that God could have a body or feel passions. But this, I think, is a brittle kind of omnipotence. It’s a kind of strength that is only strong because it sidesteps all of time’s troubles and life’s sorrows. It’s a kind of omnipotence that isn’t strong enough to be vulnerable to other people and their decisions. It’s a kind of omnipotence that isn’t strong enough to shelter agency and bear its consequences.5
It’s a harrowing vision, really. God’s weeps so long as his children continue to wreak their havoc. More than one conversation partner has recoiled at the news of this kind of divine life: “an infinite capacity for pain?!,” they ask. But if you’ve ever really loved anyone, you’ve felt the risk, haven’t you, deep down in your soul? To love at all is to be vulnerable, and the restoration’s vision of divine weeping reveals a vulnerable God indeed. Though it renders him vulnerable, it’s that same perfect love that keeps God attentive to the processes we wrestle with.
The task for every one of us, then, is to approximate that pure love as best we can. That divine love, relentless and extravagant, drew me to God in the first place. I long ago decided to spend a lifetime approaching it if I could. I’ve found that path is not an easy one. You have, too, I suspect.
When we read scripture with an eye to this topic, we find varied models that each spur us to emulate divine love. One appears in a modern revelation and in the context of priesthood. Joseph Smith’s canonized letter from Liberty Jail sets something of an ideal for church leadership and parenting alike. I’m struck by its ideal pattern for reproof, those times when we feel impelled to witness against someone’s poor choices. I said “feel impelled” there and I might not be far off. We offer correction, the revelation stipulates, only when we are “moved upon” by the Spirit. As any parent knows, uninspired reproof is, well, tricky. When inspired by God’s spirit, though, correction can have a counterintuitive effect. It can actually draw together the one receiving reproof to the one offering it. If our motives are pure, we show “forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” Did you catch that? The one reproved has no question why we’ve intervened. They know we came in love. They have no doubt of our “faithfulness.” The wording is unclear there as to whether that’s referencing our faithfulness to God or to the one reproved … and I like it that way. Either way, if they know I’m with God and with them, faithfully, to the end, my inspired correction will draw us together. We won’t be enemies. Unsurprisingly, the words immediately following that instruction direct our love outward, towards the entire human family: “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men.”6
In another passage, we’re again struck with the scale of God’s command to forgive. Addressed to suffering Saints in the wake of persecution and deep disillusionment following the 1833 atrocities in Missouri, it endeavors to keep the Saints from retaliation.
And again, verily I say unto you, if after thine enemy has come upon thee the first time, he repent and come unto thee praying thy forgiveness, thou shalt forgive him, and shalt hold it no more as a testimony against thine enemy—And so on unto the second and third time; and as oft as thine enemy repenteth of the trespass wherewith he has trespassed against thee, thou shalt forgive him, until seventy times seven.7
This was strong medicine, no doubt, for Saints still smarting from others’ brutality. Wouldn’t a God of justice make things right with swift recompense? God’s justice comes, yes, and eventually like a river, but the revelation makes clear in its closing verses the reason for God’s
begging the Saints for longsuffering—that most complicated of words in the restoration’s lexicon. (Have you ever hoped to find some passage about short-suffering? I have!) The reason for God’s insistence that the Saints cool their desire for vengeance? Repentance. God’s call for patience makes space for repentance. It provides time, precious and fleeting, for change, for turning, for a return to the light. God’s love for the Saints’ enemies is his answer to their pain.8 His love, pervasive and universal, pours over all humanity like mighty waters, not unlike his justice.9 More on that later.
Incidentally, I have no intention to equate your less-religious sibling or friend here with violent hooligans! I’m calling for less stigmatization of those loved ones, in fact. Rather, I’m offering scriptural injunctions towards forgiveness and patience as reflections on God’s own heart. In other words, to wait on a wandering loved one is a divine act. In doing so, we’re in very good company. To mourn but not despair in the face of loved one’s waning faith is to commune with the Father of us all.
We’ll need patience to do such a thing, it is true. And not just the “hopelessly waiting” kind of patience, either. To be the kind of friend or family member we must be to those who wander, we’ll need a more active kind of patience, one that approximates God’s own mix of urgent care and longsuffering. Elder Uchtdorf described this powerfully:
Indeed, patience is a purifying process that refines understanding, deepens happiness, focuses action, and offers hope for peace … [it is] far more than simply waiting for something to happen—patience require[s] actively working toward worthwhile goals and not getting discouraged when results didn’t appear instantly or without effort. … patience is not passive resignation, nor is it failing to act because of our fears. Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can— working, hoping, and exercising faith; bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!10
That kind of patience goes beyond simply mourning loss. It pushes us into active love for those who’ve chosen other paths. Like God’s command to the early Saints to forgive, it puts us to the work of perpetually making space for those who’ve strayed, both now and in the future.
We make space for them now by trying to understand them.
We make space for them now by listening to them.
We make space for them now by choosing to recognize the good they’re doing.
We make space for them now by working to keep open lines of communication.
We make space for them now by choosing to love the person they are, today, rather than the person we hope they’ll someday become.
We make space for them in the future by recognizing that no story is fully written yet and, indeed, won’t be in this life.
Our feelings of sadness, concern, or panic for those who choose other paths are real. We need not dismiss or deny them. There may even be appropriate moments to communicate those feelings to our loved ones. And, certainly, love and patience don’t entail our suffering endless anger or criticism from those whose faith has waned. Discipleship doesn’t demand we weather unceasing waves of denigration for our faith choices or our deepest commitments. We can, in love, establish boundaries for ourselves. We can choose which conversations to have and when. We can insist on respect for our values and choices.
But the reverse is also true. We must also respect the boundaries our loved ones set. They, too, can choose which conversations to have and when. Some who have stopped participating in the church carry deep wounds and complex feelings to sort through and we’ll need to be sensitive to know how and when to best love them. One recent study found that among younger people who had ceased participating in the church, the number one reason for leaving did not relate to doctrinal or policy matters. Rather, respondents replied most often that they “felt judged or misunderstood.”11 In our efforts to help, then, it may take patience indeed as we seek to understand them without condescension or dismissal. It may take years. It may take a lifetime.
We’ll need to care for ourselves, too. I am well aware that many tend to look inward and blame themselves for others’ choices. This seems especially true for mothers. My wife Hollie made this devastatingly clear in a recent essay.
I have found that the most profound sources of joy can also generate profound pain. Motherhood has certainly taught me that. My sweet mother has a saying that has proven painfully true for me. When considering the struggles of my children, she has said, ‘A mother is only as happy as her saddest child.’ … One of the unintended consequences of all our emphasis on nurturing and mothering, which in itself is unquestionably good, is that we women often take responsibility for the happiness of everyone around us. This adds a double burden—not only do we ache with our children in their pain but we also tend to see their struggles as somehow failures in ourselves. For women like me, President David O. McKay’s oft-recited … counsel, ‘No other success can compensate for failure in the home,’ can feel like a perpetual indictment.12
Hollie’s wisdom helps me to avoid misreading President McKay. He wanted our focus fixed on our loved ones, clearly, but neither he nor any other church leader wants us feeling solely to blame for their choices. Rounds of self-incrimination likely won’t help them. Real repentance for errors will, but self-flagellation often quickly becomes counter-productive. We’ll need to grow as parents and friends to best love those who need it. The task for some of us will be to cease looking inward so critically and practice compassion for ourselves as we seek to do the same for others. God shouldn’t blame himself for his children’s wandering and you should probably do less of it, too.
I shift direction a bit to offer a different kind of caution. In truth, I have seen parents’ or siblings’ disappointment and despair, almost always well-intentioned, calcify into a kind of blunt instrument wielded to remind wayward family members how much pain they’ve caused. (Sometimes, it’s more of a needle: a constant pin-prick reminder that someone is off the path.) I get it: when we’re panicked over a loved one, we can become sad or hurt and can, in our desperation, reach for what leverage seems handy. But again, though we might mean well, these kinds of expressions are often more about our own needs than our loved ones’. We can find ourselves recklessly ministering to our own pain. We can even make our love seem conditional, available only to those who do as we wish. That approach risks metastasizing into manipulation and ruin, I fear. We might unwittingly push them further away. No wonder the revelations call for spirit-inspired reproof only.
These are heavy matters. Joseph Smith taught an eternal truth to the early Relief Society sisters that can guide us over such difficult terrain:
Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what pow’r it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.13
Some of our wandering family members aren’t deep in sin, of course, but the principle still applies. What is more calculated to help people progress towards divine light than love? Than tenderness or kindness?
When we choose to look beyond our own sadness or concern, and truly see the loved one in question, we’re in a better position to live out our faith in their behalf. Doing so will entail sometimes turning the other cheek when they express criticisms or frustrations. Doing so will entail being generous and gracious. Generosity and graciousness do not have us ever calculating what the people around us deserve. Rather, they have us tipping our love towards God’s own version, which overflows human deserving at every turn. Remember the powerful lesson from the New Testament: God’s love spills over the boundaries we might be tempted to create, bathing all alike like spring rain and sunshine. Not surprisingly, that remarkable description of God’s love appears just after the daunting command to love our enemies.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.14
Surely, that prodigal daughter is no enemy. So how much light can you send her way? How much love? If indeed our faithfulness to God and to those wanderers is stronger than the bands of death, then we keep loving them no matter where they ramble. They will roam where they will but, in the end, they will have to reckon with the deep well of our love. It must not fail them. And we can press on in the knowledge that God will certainly never forsake them. His love can never be exhausted. That truth leaves every human story gloriously unfinished.
I wrote the following to a young missionary who I deeply love and whose faith seemed to her to be withering on the vine. Her testimony seemed to have collapsed and she could not imagine a place for herself in the church, let alone a mission.
Your description reminds me of scorched earth … with so much seemingly destroyed and barren. Here’s the thing about scorched earth, though: it heals. Life springs up again. It’s reborn. When I was a kid, our usual summer vacation spot in Yellowstone burned horrifically (1988). I watched, though, year after year, as that wasteland came back to life. It was remarkable. How could life spring again from such devastation? So, here is my prophecy about you … nothing you’ve lost is permanently gone from you. Spiritual life will break through the charred remains of what was. God brought you this far and won’t forsake you now. That new life will likely be different than the old one, but that will be part of the joy, I hope. So many of the New Testament parables are about loss … lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. Jesus is trying, I think, to show us that loss is inevitable but not final. That’s true with faith. If you want it, it’ll come back. It’ll be new—deeper, richer—but it’ll come back.15
Some of you are now thinking of Bible verses about beauty and ashes, and I’m glad you are. That is the promise of God to those who crave light and love. Those promises are sure, sooner or later. Rest on them. Lean on them. Those promises are for your loved ones and for you, too. Hear the verses again, with that loved one in mind and then again with your own burdens in mind.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound … to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.16
You see, sisters, you don’t have to save that prodigal daughter. You don’t have to save that prodigal husband or that prodigal son. That’s God’s work. It’s the work of his Only Begotten Son. The moment that family member or friend tires of running and turns around, they will see that the Father has been running after them all along.
And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.17
Is yours a great way off? In the terms of the parable, that doesn’t matter so much. And so, returning to where I began, I express my certainty that God’s ever running to you, too. In your ache and fear and concern for those loved ones, his grace remains sufficient and his love overflows. Of that I am sure and of that I bear witness, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 See Isaiah 52:8, 10; 1 Corinthians 13:12.
2 See Luke 15:11-32.
3 Doctrine & Covenants 64:10, emphasis added.
4 President Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” General Conference address, October 1995, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1995/10/the-brilliant-morning-of-forgiveness?lang=eng.
5 Adam Miller, An Early Resurrection: Life in Christ Before You Die (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co. and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2018), 101-02.
6 Doctrine & Covenants 121:43-45.
7 Doctrine & Covenants 98:39-40.
8 Doctrine & Covenants 98:44, 47.
9 See Amos 5:24.
10 Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Continue in Patience,” General Conference address, April 2010, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/04/continue-in-patience?lang=eng.
11 Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 225-27.
12 Hollie Rhees Fluhman, “Hoping for Joy,” in Hollie Rhees Fluhman and Camille Fronk Olson, eds., A Place to Belong: Reflections from Modern Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2019), 190-91.
13 Joseph Smith, Jr., address to the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, 9 June 1842, “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” 62, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book/59.
14 Matthew 5:44-46. See also, Miller, An Early Resurrection, chapter 25.
15 J. Spencer Fluhman, email correspondence, 13 January 2021, in the author’s possession.
16 Isaiah 61:1-3.
17 Luke 15:20.
This address was given at the BYU Women’s Conference in April 2021 and should not be copied or distributed without permission. The views and opinions expressed in this talk are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)