No matter how prepared you are for the adopting and fostering journey, there still may be those that we deeply love as parents who will choose to learn things the hard way—to reject the love of a family, leave the security of our homes and faith and follow their own way.
In today’s episode of the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast, author Judy Douglass joins hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber to discuss her new book, When You Love a Prodigal.
Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Lynette Ezell: You know, Tera, we’ve been on this parenting journey long enough to know that we can faithfully walk with the Lord.
Tera Melber: Yes.
Lynette Ezell: I know. We do, right?
Tera Melber: Yes.
Lynette Ezell: Attend all the seminars, soak in all the trauma training. But there’s still maybe those that we’ve deeply loved, we’re living with daily, we’re parenting who will choose to learn things the hard way—to reject the love of a family and leave the security of our homes and faith and just kind of follow their own way.
Tera Melber: It’s so true, and we see that story in the gospels with the prodigal son. And even though the prodigal had a loving family and financial blessings and a really good life, he chose to turn his back on it all. And those difficult seasons are so hard to navigate.
Lynette Ezell: They really are. You know, about a month ago I got a little gift in the mail from our friend, and it was an incredible book entitled When You Love A Prodigal, a little paperback, easy read. 90 days of encouragement, and after digging in this writing, I knew that we had to invite the author Judy Douglass to join us, so that we could share her story of faithfulness and unconditional love with all of our listeners.
Tera Melber: That’s right. So we are honored to welcome Judy Douglass with us today. So welcome, Judy.
Judy Douglass: Well, what a delight to be with you. Thank you for including me.
Tera Melber: Yes. So I know that Steve and you are in ministry with Cru, Campus Crusade For Christ.
Judy Douglass: Correct.
Tera Melber: And years ago, the Lord asked you to expand your family through adoption. So give us a quick over view of your family and how the Lord brought you all together.
Judy Douglass: Okay. We have two girls who we were very happy with and content with. They were growing, and the Lord said to me, “I have a gift for you. I’m sending you a son.” And I went, “Probably not necessary. I really don’t know that we need to add anyone.” He says, “Oh, no. I’m sending you a son, and he will be a gift.” So it took a while, but I met a new friend. And she said, “Do you know someone who could take an eight-year-old boy?” And I started to cry, and she was the best friend of our son Josh’s grandparents. He had just been removed from his mother’s home, his birth mother. She’s a drug addict, alcoholic and other things. She couldn’t care for him. So they put him with his grandparents who said they could not keep him long term because they were just too old and too tired. It took almost a year, and he came into our home as a foster child. We knew there were going to be issues because of fetal alcohol syndrome from his mother’s drugs and alcohol, which have far more significant brain issues than I ever had heard before or even when we were doing this, we discovered them as we lived through them.
He came in, didn’t really know us well, and he had so many needs. So many needs from the abandonment and neglect and abuse that he had experienced in his early life. He just had the issues of learning disabilities and ADD and attachment disorder. All these things that we didn’t know much about. We knew a little. But to live them was a whole new thing. So we spent the next three years fostering him. I was pretty sure that when God said, “I’m sending you a son,” it wasn’t for three years. So when they terminated this mom’s rights and said, “He’s up for adoption. You have first choice,” we had a decision to make because it hadn’t been easy. It hadn’t been terrible, but it had been a little chaotic and unpredictable, and we felt so inadequate to meet this boy’s needs and to convince him that we were committed to him.
So, we, the family, talked and prayed, and we said, “We believe God wants us to adopt him.” And we thought surely the adoption will say to him, “We’re committed. We’re for you. We love you.” But instead he went into middle school two years behind, much bigger than all the sixth grade boys, and he was in trouble all the time. Yeah, that was the beginning of the really hard years.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah. I know you said in your book that he kept you emotionally at arm’s length, that it was really hard for him to attach to you all. Why do you think he responded this way to you, Steve and the girls?
Judy Douglass: Well, it’s not unusual with children of any fostering or adoption to have issues of not believing people will be there for him because if they’re needing to be fostered or adopted, they’ve had issues that are traumatic even for them usually. So he just didn’t trust. His dad never showed up. His mother chose her addictions and even his beloved grandparents said, “We can’t do it.” So he’s like, “Why would I trust you? I don’t even know you. The people who should’ve been trustworthy in my life were not.” And so it’s a hard thing, and it’s a very common thing, especially in older adoptions or in foster care.
Tera Melber: Judy, you write in your book that loving a prodigal can be a long and desperate road. Can you explain that to me? What do you mean by that?
Judy Douglass: Well, I mean that first of all, it will probably be long. There are some teens, which is where it happens most often to start with, and they’re just checking out what they can get away with and maybe have rebellious spirits. But for a lot of them, there are other causes than just being rebellious, and they are truly seeking of who am I and do I matter to anyone.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah, that’s right.
Judy Douglass: And it takes time for them to believe that someone is going to be there for them. But it also takes time to overcome the fact that once they get on a negative road, and especially if they do it with negative friends, that’s going to take a long time for them to work through some of that and try all the things they want to try and find out none of them really satisfy.
Lynette Ezell: I know there’s times you just want to quit. I know you even shared that with me there was just like look, this isn’t going to work out. Kind of wanting to throw your hands up. How were you able, who did you lean on or what enabled you to persevere in this relationship with Josh?
Judy Douglass: Well, several things. One, I was sure God had sent him to us, and so when God says, “I have a gift for you,” and even though it’s, I called it a grievance gift, I said, “Really? This is a gift?” And He said, “It is a gift.” So, I had to trust God and could go back to the assurance of this is a boy He sent to us. My husband, though, he hadn’t had the same word from God, walked through with me very well. I started this prayer group not intentionally. I just asked some people I knew around the world. Because of Cru, I know a lot of people all over. And I just said, “Pray with us for our son.” And they did. But then they started saying, “Well, we have someone to pray for too.” And it led to two things. One, the formation of this Prayer for Prodigals online community where we write prayer requests out, and people come and write their prayers out, which is so encouraging to people. But it also includes every June 2 (which is our son’s spiritual birthday) every June 2, a worldwide Prodigal Prayer Day, and people send in names. It’s all first names, and ask us to pray.
So, year after year on June 2, people all over the world come together in one or two people or a larger group or just by themselves, and they bring these names before the Lord. And it is a battle because it’s a spiritual battle that’s going on, but it is also such a sweet time of sensing the Lord’s desire to redeem, to reach out, to rescue these kids, to take them down going after the one and even leaving the 99 to do it. And so, it’s, those things were all important. One other really important thing for me was a friend. A friend who lived down the street, and all I had to do was call her, and she’d be here. And she would listen to me and mostly listen, occasionally give some input, remind me of Scripture, hold me, pray with me, let me cry. Whatever was going on, she was there, and she did that for a number of the hardest years. So I consider that such a treasure as well. It’s good to have people in the walk, in the journey, in the fight with you.
Tera Melber: That’s so, so true. Well, you had shared that you learned through this process of parenting Josh that you were really weak. What has God taught you through these weak times and through your weakness in parenting him?
Judy Douglass: Well, He says He gets more glory when He uses his weaker vessels. So, I figure I’d given Him lots of glory through my many weaknesses. I didn’t know enough of what I was doing. Our girls were mostly good. We had a few bumps in their teen years, but not many. And so I just had no idea what I didn’t know and what it was going to require. So I had to depend on the Lord. I did a lot of reading and asking more knowledgeable people trying to figure out how do we do this. And God showed me some incredibly important realities that even were not how most people were addressing prodigal issues, prodigal children or loved ones. And it’s made all the difference I think.
Lynette Ezell: Wow. That’s great. I know that for me and Tera and I in this journey just building community has just, like you said, having that friend who will let you just talk, doesn’t try to fix it, just will let you talk and pray with you because if you don’t have that, Judy, for me, fear can give way in my life.
Judy Douglass: Oh yeah.
Lynette Ezell: And I know you talk about that some in your book and seeing Josh walk in that day in an orange jumpsuit, fear had to have just welled up within your soul. How do you face that fear when you’re in a really dark, deep struggle that just doesn’t seem to let up?
Judy Douglass: Well, probably the most important thing is the time with the Lord and letting Him, through His word, just assure me over and over. I spent amazing amounts of time in the book of Isaiah. There were so many words that God gave to the children of Israel that I was able to hold onto looking at our son. There were plenty of times in the Psalms that were especially helpful. Verses like in Psalm 34:6 where He says, “Come to me. Tell me what you want, and I will take care of your fears. Bring all of them to me, and I will answer.” And so, I’ve seen Him answer time after time. It actually came down probably to understanding the character of God.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, I totally agree. Yes.
Judy Douglass: And grabbing hold of how God worked with me, how He handled my sin and my rebellion of which there has been plenty. And He gave mercy. He just said over and over, “Your sins are forgiven. They are buried in the deepest sea. They’re as far as the east is from the west.” I said, “Thank you, Lord.” Then He said, “My love for you…” Oh my goodness. If you read in Psalm 103, which is such a rich Psalm, it just talks about His love is higher than the heavens. And that’s the love that He has for us and for those we love who might be wandering far away. And so just to grasp his love is relentless. There’s a song out right now called Reckless Love, and I love it. It’s like He’ll always come to… He’ll climb every mountain. He’ll go across the deepest chasm to rescue those He loves.
And then, finally, grace. Oh my goodness. That’s why the subtitle of the book is 90 Days of Grace because what more than anything I began to understand is God works with grace. He is able to forgive our sins and to pour out His love and to just operate so entirely with His gracious attitude. He says, “Come on up to the throne of grace.” So, I picture that as a throne made of grace that God had.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, that’s beautiful. Yeah.
Judy Douglass: And that’s what He’s going to give me, and over and over in scripture we hear about His grace. One of the writers that really ministered to me was Brennan Manning, and the last book he wrote in his life was called All Is Grace. That was just an encouragement to me. I read a lot of books about grace. Chuck Swindoll, Bill Yancy, and others as well. So that has been probably the most important thing in dealing with our son. He needed to know that in spite of all that he had experienced in his early life, that we would not abandon him, and that we would not reject him for all the stupid things he did. And he would agree, he did a lot of stupid things. Yet we did not reject him, and God just really helped me.
In fact, He told me this earlier in the whole journey He said, “When you make mistakes with this boy, and you will,” and of course I have. He said, “Make them on the side of grace.” And what people are normally told is make them on the side of being tough and showing them that they have to measure up to what’s expected of them. I’m just like, yes, you need boundaries. Yes, there are consequences. But how we handle those is so important that if we can do it with love and grace as opposed to with our tough attitude, then they’re going to believe even when they make bad choices, even when they’re gone for some length of time, maybe a long time, that they have a welcoming, loving place where we still care about you. You can’t do anything to make us stop loving you, just as God says to us.
For our son, that was huge. He needed to know that even when he was making bad choice, spending time in JDC, a little time in jail, wrecking cars, drinking and drugs and all those things, that we still loved him. And we would accept him. There were consequences that would come from bad choices, and there were definitely some boundaries. But there was always love and grace for him.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, Judy. I’m so grateful for the Lord steadfast love. I know for me, I learned this so much deeper and it becomes so rich in times of pain and suffering. This morning I was reading Psalm 145:8, and it just reminded me of your book that the Lord is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger and bounding in steadfast love. There’s that parenting on the side of grace that you were talking about. If we fail as parents, let’s do it gracefully. I really love that. I also love one of the days that was my favorites in the book was day 30, and it really made me stop and think because you talk about a really tough season of Josh’s lying and just how he would speak to you. And it would just break your heart. And you share that you had to learn to rest in forgiveness. Can you just-
Judy Douglass: Oh yeah.
Lynette Ezell: … share with us how you were able to rest in such deep pain?
Judy Douglass: Yeah. There is a whole chapter on rest.
Lynette Ezell: Yes.
Judy Douglass: One of the ways of rest is forgiveness, which is what God has given us through Jesus. So we have this amazing experience, and if we’ll stop to think of our own sin and what God has given us and what Jesus paid for, that helps me to look at my loved one hurting me tremendously in a different light and say, “Well, the gap between me and our boy is so far, but the gap between me and God is huge. So if God can forgive me, then I can forgive him.” In the book, there is a prayer for forgiving. In fact, I put it in in two different chapters because I think it’s so important. Is learning to forgive those who have hurt us, especially someone we love, especially someone who lies. None of us like to be lied to. So we have to learn to forgive. And how do we do that? We go back to the fact that we’re forgiven. Just as we are able to love because God first loved us, we’re also able to forgive because God has forgiven us. And Jesus modeled it on the cross with, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
So even though this boy I love is making terrible choices that are scary for his future and painful for us, I can forgive him for the lies and for the deceit and for the wrong choices. I can forgive him for those things because God has forgiven me for those things or worse or different, but still, always forgiving. And I think it’s important to realize maybe we need to ask forgiveness of our loved one, too, because we make mistakes.
Lynette Ezell: Oh yes, we do. I’ve made many. And to go to my child and say… Tera and I have talked about this so much. “Look, I really messed up. Will you forgive me?” It really takes them off guard because they’re not expecting that. I also love how you share that God is working for us and for our prodigals, and he’s working behind the scenes.
Judy Douglass: Oh yeah.
Lynette Ezell: I wonder, Judy, about you’ve talked about the lavishing of grace and the forgiveness and all of that and unconditional love that you’ve chosen to give, and I just have to ask how’s your relationship with Josh now? What’s going on with him and with your relationship after all these years?
Judy Douglass: Well, we have a great relationship. He is in a much different place. It didn’t start to change until he was 28. Yeah, around 28, 29. He started to make some better choices. But then he was married, and that it was never a good marriage and it fell apart. He almost took his life after that. And he crashed and went back to his old go-to for handling pain, which was drinking. And God just did two things that turned his life around. One, his grandfather who he loved greatly died. So when his grandfather died, we were sure he might take his life because he was so devastated by it. But instead, he said, “I want to make my grandfather proud.”
Lynette Ezell: Oh wow.
Judy Douglass: “I want to make sure that the life that I choose from now on will please him and honor him.” And so he began a turn. He wanted to be responsible. He wanted to do well. Those things didn’t come easily, but they did. The other thing is he sent this wonderful young woman into his life who he’s married to now. And she believed in him. So he also wanted to be responsible as they got married and became… He went from what we call the most creative work avoider we’d ever seen to one of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen.
Lynette Ezell: Only Jesus. Only Jesus.
Judy Douglass: Only Jesus.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right.
Judy Douglass: He went from trying to be a bully and tough and make people think he was dangerous to being one of the kindest, gentlest, tenderest people I know. There’s only one explanation and that’s God.
Lynette Ezell: That’s exactly right.
Judy Douglass: So he knows the Lord. He met Christ in the middle of all that. It wasn’t consistent for a long time. But he loves the Lord. He prays a lot. He doesn’t read his Bible much because he doesn’t read anything if he can help it. They’re out in the country. They both have jobs and they have a little farm. So he’s either working the farm or doing his job. So they’re not in a fellowship. So we are their main fellowship, but he text me two or three times a week. He says, “Pray about this please. Pray for me today.”
Lynette Ezell: That’s wonderful. That’s great.
Judy Douglass: And when I told him the book was coming out, he said, “I hope it helps a lot of families.”
Lynette Ezell: Well, it certainly will. It really will. Judy, we are so grateful for the wisdom and encouragement you have so candidly shared with us today. We’re grateful that the Lord sustained you and carried you and drew you close and whispered His love in your ear and that you continued and still continue to love and pursue a relationship with your son. It’s a picture of the prodigal’s father standing and looking every day for his son-
Judy Douglass: Every day.
Lynette Ezell: … to arrive. And when he did, he gathered up his clothing and ran to him. I know that your story of the father’s redeeming love will be a deep well of hope to our families listening. We are so appreciative.
Tera Melber: Thanks, Judy.
Judy Douglass: Thank you. God bless.
Lynette Ezell: I know you enjoyed Judy’s story today and how she continues to pursue a relationship with her son Josh. Judy is a woman of prayer and truly believes that prayer moves the hand of God. And we’re going to include in the show notes information about Prayer for Prodigals, how you can be a part of that private community if you need that kind of support and want to join in in prayer and praying for maybe a prodigal in your life. I also want to share something else with you.
On February the 15, we are going to have a simulcast event to unite women to pray together, and it’s entitled She Loves Out Loud. Now foster and adoptive moms, you guys love Out Loud. You love richly every day of your life, and this is a National Day of Prayer for Women. So please consider gathering your friends, joining us from your living room, your neighborhood clubhouse, your church, wherever you want to join together and hear stories of encouragement, testimonies of how God has healed in women’s lives, and join us on February the 15 for She Loves Out Loud.
Announcer: You have been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit sendrelief.org.