Focus on the Family Broadcast

Offering God’s Hope to Families With Prodigals (Part 1 of 2)

Offering God’s Hope to Families With Prodigals (Part 1 of 2)

Representing three generations of prodigals, Pastor Bill Putman and his son, Pastor Jim Putman, candidly discuss the difficult challenges they and their families have experienced, and offer practical advice and encouragement to families with prodigals. (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date: July 29, 2019



Woman: My sister’s a black sheep in our family.  She was raised a Christian, but gave it all up one day.

Man 1: We don’t really talk about Jamie anymore.  I mean, we still pray for her but it’s hard to have hope.

Man 2:  It broke my parent’s heart when Dave left.  He was always in trouble, doing drugs, stealing — you name it.  We don’t even know where he is right now.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Hmm, well, maybe you understand the pain and sorrow in those comments when a child grows up and wanders off or totally goes off the rails. We call them a prodigal. And we’re going to talk about how you can love your prodigal child today. This is Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, this may be one of the Number 1 topics for parents, right? This is that sore spot, that weak spot in us when we feel like failures because our kids have gone off the rails, whatever that means. And we’re going to help define it, first of all, and then speak to the attitude of the heart. You know, when you look at God’s attitude toward us, it’s amazing because in some ways we’re all prodigals until we make that proclamation of faith and begin a sanctification process. And even along that journey we’re gonna fall. We’re gonna have our difficulties, but the Lord encourages us. He keeps us, hopefully, from stumbling in the future. But it’s going to happen. And he is there to pick us up and to help us. And for us as parents to try to do that, I think it’s that human factor. It’s hard to continue to love someone who’s struggling, especially when it’s our own child. I am looking forward to a really tough topic and discussion today.

John: Yeah, and this is something that affects so many Christian parents. I think, Jim, most of the folks that I know from church and even a number of here at Focus are struggling with this. Dena and I have had some real wrestling with concerns about where is this child going to go, how are they going to land, will they ever come back to the Lord? So these are serious things, but you look to the Lord, you trust him. And we’ll hear more about doing that today with our guests.

Jim: Well, the Bible is so clear. All of us have the responsibility to help restore a brother, sister, son or daughter who is struggling in sin and walking away from their faith. The question is how to go about doing it. And today we have two special guests – pastors actually – Bill and Jim Putman, who are father and son. And I understand, Bill, that you’ve been a pastor for more than 50 years. That’s big!


Bill Putman: Well, you know, it’s easy to call yourself a pastor, and sometimes those sheep listen and sometimes they don’t. (Laughter)

Jim D.: That’s right. And, Jim, you’re 30 years pastoring!

Jim Putman: Yeah.

Jim D.: So 80 years between the two of you, father and son. That’s incredible! You know, thanks for being here at Focus!

Jim P.: We’re glad to be here.

John: Hm. Well Jim Putman is the co-founder and senior pastor of Real Life Ministries, which is a thriving church in Idaho. And Bill serves as part of the ministry as well.

John: Jim and Bill have each written several books. And they’ve written one together. It’s called Hope For The Prodigal: Bringing The Lost, Wandering And Rebellious Home.

Jim D.: All right – let’s get into it, um, and we’ll get into more of the prodigal story. And for those that may not be believers, that’s simply that great story in the Bible where the son leaves, takes his inheritance and goes and squanders it all and is deemed the prodigal. He comes back with the loving father embracing him…

John: One of my favorite stories.

Jim D.: …And he’s restored. Yeah, it’s a great story for all of us because we’re – like I said – we’re all in that role until we embrace Christ and bend our knee to him and follow him. And that’s part of the human experience.

So let’s go to the definition, I think, of prodigal. I think that’s a good place to go. Bill, um, how do you define prodigal? I tend to look at more the behavior and say if you’re, you know, doing drugs, premarital sex, drinking, acting out in those ways, that’s the classic definition of the prodigal, but you go a bit further.

Bill: Well, my – my belief is that there are some children that are – are not prodigal but they’re broken, circumstances have happened in their life that caused them to doubt God and their parents or their church, and they’re the walking wounded.

Jim D.: Yeah.

Bill: And then there are those who rebel, those who see and feel and understand but reject what you’re offering, whether it be the offering of God or the offering of your family.

Jim P.: Well, when you look at the national statistics for the church – Barna does those, and I think we see that all over the place – people are going to church one time a month, 20 percent are involved in any kind of Bible study or whatever, kids from those families are leaving the faith.

Jim D.: Well, just to put – I think 18 to 29 year olds it’s, like, 70 percent – it might be 18 to 24 – but 70 percent roughly – Dr. Kara Powell there at Fuller.

Jim P.: Yeah, well, and when you look at it, Christians are almost as likely to get divorced, just as likely to get depressed, just as likely to be addicted. So the question is who’s really a prodigal?

I would say the story of the prodigal sons is more like the name of it because you’ve got – you’ve got the son who ran away, but you’ve got the son who stayed at home but still didn’t love his father, didn’t have the heart of his father, didn’t have, uh, what – you know, I remember he said, “Your son – he’s not my brother – has come back.” He wouldn’t even come into the party.

Jim D.: He was a rules follower, the older brother.

Jim P.: Yeah.

Jim D.: He thought he got there that way.

Jim P.: Yeah. Well, he said, “I’ve slaved for you. I didn’t do this because I love you. I didn’t do this because there’s any relationship.”

So you’ve got those who are outwardly prodigal and those who are inwardly prodigal. So from my perspective,  when you think about this story, I would almost have more hope for the one who is prodigal out there in the world – broken – than the one who thinks he’s fine but doesn’t really have the heart of God. And when I look at Christians, in general – even the ones who don’t leave – because there’s a big debate over how – what’s the percentage of kids who actually leave. If the statistics for the church are accurate, those who stay, I think, oftentimes are still prodigal. They just go to church once a month and, uh, say they’re Christian, but they don’t have a real relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jim D.: Yeah, that’s interesting. The good news for – and I think it’s important to mention this …

Jim: And again, Dr. Kara Powell at Fuller has done that longitudinal research. And, you know, a good deal, about 50 percent, of those who leave do come back by at least age 40. I think they’re studying further into those, uh, 40-plus years to see where those young people are at. But many come back.

Jim P.: Yeah.

Jim D.: And that’s – that’s the hope we all have.

Bill: Well, the question that comes to my mind is, uh, were they ever there?

Jim D.: Well, that’s fair. I mean, uh…

Bill: In other words, did they ever really known love the Father?

Jim D.: Yeah.

Bill: Or did they – they were just raised in a home. He was the one who provided for them. But in a – from the Christian perspective, so many of these people that are sitting on a pew, they really do not know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. And so to say, are they a prodigal or are they a prospect?

Jim D.: Yeah – interesting

Jim P.: Great question.

Jim D.: You also mention in the book this idea – and, again, the terminology – I want to make sure we define it for people who may not be familiar with it but, uh, the spiritual fruit. And for a Christian, that’s the fruit of the spirit as we call it – love, hope, joy, kindness, mercy, patience, goodness, all those attributes of Christ. How do you uh, view the fruit of the spirit or the spiritual fruits of a person? It’s pretty critical to know if you’re walking with Christ that you possess these things.

Bill: Well, I – my son was raised in a home by parents who didn’t have a clue how to be a parent. And… I was molested at 10.

And I thought my parents and my God and my church knew. And it was by a pastor. And I withdrew myself from everybody from that point on to the point of suicide at 21. And then my wife comes from a broken home with a broken parent and a mother who raised her by herself. So we had no clue. And all of a sudden, we have five kids in six years.

Bill: And here we are. We’re parents. We don’t have a model. We don’t have – the model was there, but I had rejected it. We don’t have any clue on what we’re doing except making babies.

Jim D.: Well, Bill, I mean, this is important because a lot of people come into marriage with brokenness. I would say many, if not, all. There’s some bit of brokenness in this. And sometimes there’s a lot, like in your story. How do you begin to say, “OK. I may come from that background, but I’ve got to move forward?” What were some of the signs in your own parenting that you knew you had a deficit?

Bill: Oh, I felt as though I didn’t have a clue. And so I put my investment in helping other people’s children…

Jim D.: Mm.

Bill: …By being a pastor. And that was my emphasis. And my wife was left trying to be the parent. And until Jim was, uh, needed – it needed for him to be out of the home. And a daughter was, uh, raped. And a daughter was pregnant at 14. And I had a nervous breakdown. And we had $96,000 in uninsured doctor bills 34 years ago. We came to the point where we had to decide that we had to work on our self.

Jim D.: Why? Define that. ‘Cause we’re gonna turn to Jim in a moment here.

Bill: Because, you know, I had the feeling that if I lose my son, I’ll lose the other four children. And if I lose my son, I’ll lose my credibility as a pastor. And if I lose my son, my primary goal was to be a good dad.

And so when my wife and I came to that place, the elders came to us and said, you guys are in trouble, yeah. So they took care of the kids, and they sent us to a conference. And we didn’t go to any of the things. We went to interview people that were significant witnesses to us, asking them what would you do the same, what would you do the difference? And then we would go and talk about that, and we came home with some goals that not just I could have or she could have, but we could share. And that was the beginning of healing in our home.

Jim D.: Well, we’ll come back to that, because I want to hear some of the great advice, like Proverbs – wisdom, it sounds like.

Jim, you’re the son. You’re a wrestler. You’re an athlete in high school. And, uh, doing your own thing. Describe it from your vantage point as the son who is not embracing the faith, breaking your parents’ hearts, I would believe. Uh, what was going on for you at that time?

Jim P.: Well, you know, looking back, part of this is a discipleship problem. My dad had a Bible college degree, but he was a first-generation Christian, and he wasn’t discipled. Discipleship is…

Bill: No, uh, I want to correct that. My parents were Christians, but it wasn’t transferred to me because I rejected them at 10 years old. And when they wanted to try, I wouldn’t listen. And when I wanted to listen, my father was so defeated, he had nothing to say.

Jim D.: OK. Wow. That’s a big statement there.

Jim P.: Um, yeah. I’m not gonna disagree with him in public. (LAUGHTER) Uh…

My version of what Christianity is is a little bit different than just taking people to church and not – and praying at dinner. So they were that, but he was – he didn’t know, uh, what even parenting – for whatever reason, he didn’t know what it was supposed to look like. But he got a Bible college degree because you’re mature, if you have a Bible college degree, in that culture. And so he’s trying to figure out balance. My biggest issue with my dad was my dad was sincere. He was always sincere. He was always trying his best. Now – but I don’t remember a meal growing up where we didn’t get a phone call or somebody didn’t come to the house in the middle of that meal.

Jim D.: So your time was always interrupted by others.

Jim P.: Yeah. And it was because my dad didn’t understand saying, “No,” to the church is not saying, “No,” to God, but he didn’t understand those priorities. Now, as time went on, uh, he starts to figure that out, because he’s asking people, he’s doing all this stuff, but by then it’s too late.

Jim D.: You know, Jim, let me ask you this. And we’ll continue with your description. But so many times, I think we as fathers particularly, we think, well, this is – you know, this is life. This is how life is busy. And the kids will understand. We justify it because we don’t think it’s that harmful. We don’t think it’s going to be a long-lasting impact on them. It’s only going to help somebody tonight and maybe Wednesday night and maybe Thursday night (laughter). But we tend to justify it, is my point. How did you feel as that child, that you weren’t getting that time with your dad? Did you recognize it?

Jim P.: Well, I was angry at the church. Plus, here’s the other part of it. My dad was sincere. He lived out what he said.

Jim D.: Uh-hm.

Jim P.: But then as you start to – as you’re in the church, you start hanging out with other people in the church. They’re not. They’re going to church. They have one language at church. They have a different language at home.

Jim D.: Right.

Jim P.: Or at work. And so you’re starting to hang out around these kids, you’re spending the night at their house, you’re doing this stuff, and you start to go, “My dad’s a freak.” Maybe he’s like one of those wacky guys because he’s really committed. You know, he believes in Jesus. He’s talking about Jesus. Every answer is Jesus, right? But  he’s the only one.

Jim D.: How old were you when that distance became palpable for you? You knew you were on a different road, and you were kind of rejecting God.

Jim P.: Well, one of the things that goes with the story is my dad and my mom both had to work. They weren’t paid very well by the church. Five kids. We had a lot of alone time. And when I was a very young child, things got into my house that should’ve never been in a house of an 8-year-old.

Jim D.: And you’re the oldest of the kids?

Jim P.: Yeah.

Jim D.: OK.

Jim P.: And it started things in our – my sister’s and my life, and the neighborhood kids and things that should have never been there because my parents were so busy working, and things got in.

Jim D.: Jim, let me say, though, I mean, how does a parent – now that you are one…

Jim P.: Uh-hm.

Jim D.: How does a parent build a sufficient fortress that those forces don’t get in? I mean, we’re all pulling our hair out with social media and digital stuff and pornography that’s available at the fingertip. How do you succeed at blockading those things?

Jim P.: Well, there are different things now, obviously. Uh, I think nowadays people don’t have as much relationship, so it comes through the media and all the different kinds of things – the television and all that, all the attacks come. Back then, we lived in a culture where we had relationship with a lot of kids, with very little, uh, attention by the parents. You know, kids got to run all over, do whatever. And so through the relationships of the kids in our neighborhood, things got in. And so I had a lot of shame and a lot of guilt in my life added to, “My dad’s overly busy, and I feel like I’m a zero.” And I have to find something that I’m good at. And I don’t – and I’m a pastor’s son, so I don’t want to be good – I don’t care about being good at what he’s good at. That – to me, that was something completely different. So I chose athletics.

The problem was, because of the shame and, um, the anger I felt towards God, what had been – come into my life, my dad, mom, constantly busy, people abusing my parents, you know, because they were pastors, they didn’t preach the right sermon, they didn’t say it the right way, but then they’re not serious about what’s going on in Christianity, but my dad is.

Jim D.: So you would hear and see that?

Jim P.: Well, yeah. You’re in a glass house, but you’re also involved in seeing people have conversations about your parents. There’s all these things that are attached to this. So I’m going, OK, I don’t care about any of that. I don’t like any of that. But I have to have something that I’m focused on. So it became athletics. The problem was that because of the shame and the guilt, because of the anger, didn’t matter how much I won. And I won a lot. It didn’t satisfy. And so…

Jim D.: ‘Cause it wasn’t solving the problem.

Jim P.: No, it – now, it gave me intensity to push towards my goals, but then the more I would achieve my athletic goals, the emptier I felt, like this isn’t the solution either, but I’m not going back. And so then that led to, uh, a lot of alcohol and drugs and premarital sex. All the things that the culture says you need to be a man, I started going after those, but then that just sucked me in deeper into a hole.

Jim D.: Yeah. Bill, let me turn back to you, as Jim was experiencing that departure. I’m not sure what age – 15, 16? How old were you when that…?

Jim P.: Ah, I probably started when I was 13, 14 years old.

Jim D.: 13, 14. You and your wife, how were you emotionally managing that? I mean, we have a rogue child here. What are we gonna do?

Bill: I have a strong wife. `

Jim D.: Right.

Bill: And she has a weak husband. And she would get up at 5:00 in the morning, and she and the Lord would have her devotions. And she would read books to me, and, uh, sometimes she’d get in a paragraph, sometimes a chapter, and my wife was my pastor. I had a couple of mentors that never let me go, never gave up on me. Uh, I – I’m sorry my strong son had a weak father. But, uh, out of all of that, it didn’t start to get well until I went and got some help. And I began to, instead of focus on my defeats, start asking the Lord to rebuild me. And then my wife, she said, “Lord, whatever it takes, that’s what we’re gonna do.” And we didn’t realize how much it was gonna take to reclaim our children.

Jim D.: Bill, uh, if you’re willing, really talking into those conversations with you and your wife. I mean, again, many people are in that spot. And I don’t think there’s a formula that produces a good child, a perfect child. There are things you can do that have greater predictability that your children will be healthy. That’s for sure. Love – all those important components. But what were those discussions like between you and your wife, as Jim was going astray? I really – uh, because I want to touch the hearts of those listening because they’re having those discussions right now. And they may not recognize that they’re weak, like you did, Bill. I mean, they’re still in the forefront of this battle.

Bill: And I think they’re hiding in their own addictions, whether it be TV or sports or jobs or false goals.

Bobby and I, there were times when all we had left was to hold onto each other and cry in our bed. And then whichever one could get control first would ask the Lord to take our children. But until I recognized that the only one I could change was me, and I began to ask God to make me a miracle and then to bring love back into my marriage, which we’d taken so much time off for our children. And then to be able to come to the place where we were able to turn our children over to the Lord who loved them more than we did. That was the beginning place. But if we hadn’t had the church, and the real deal – there’s a bunch of phonies out there sitting there just so broken. They want to believe, but they don’t. And they want to practice on Sunday, but they go home on Monday, and they screw up.

Jim D.: Well, and…

Bill: And it was true.

Jim D.: …Yeah, but it’s true, I mean, when we talk – and, Jim, you mentioned this – I mean, the things that you see in the church that are hypocritical. The reality is Christians are hypocrites because we can’t live a perfect life. We’re trying. We’re striving. Some do better than others. But the – the real label is we all fall short of the glory of God. We’re sinners saved by grace, so we’re gonna have times that we fail.

But in this regard, um, I like what you’re saying there, that we have to concentrate on ourselves. And that’s what you did. That’s the message today. And this is part 1 of part 2. We’re gonna come back, Jim, and talk more with you about this relationship. But what I’m hearing you say today is it’s really fruitless to try to straighten God out or straighten your kids out. You got to straighten yourself out.

Bill: I would say having that experience at 10 years old where I lost my father God, and I lost my father and I lost my church, the people that I respected, because of the molestation and my withdrawing into myself — my growing up was when I came to Christ after an attempted suicide at 21, it was God that I was afraid of. And it took me years to come to the place where I could understand who he really was as a father and let him be my – my father and that I could begin to copy him instead of trying to live up to unrealistic expectations for myself and putting them on my children or on the church.

Jim D.: There was one point – and this may be a good way to end today, with a little ray of hope. And we will come back next time and talk more, if you’re willing to do that. Um, but there was a wrestling match that you went to I think in Chicago that really changed the tone of your relationship between the two of you. Set that up and – and describe it. Then, Jim, I want your response as the son. What happened?

Bill: Well, he was in national championships in wrestling. And we were so far in debt, but my mother loaned me the money to fly out there and go to the tournament. And when I got there, it was just one more thing I didn’t think was going to work, one more way I could try to support him in his goals and hoping that he would see how much I love him, how much I needed him in my life. And when I arrived the plane was late. And I got there in the middle of the tournament. And he saw me come in through the door. And he ran across all the mats. And he picked me up, and he kissed me. And I would say that that was one of the best times in my life as a dad.

Jim D.: Man, that’s powerful. I feel it. And, Jim, what was going through your heart? Why then? Why did that make such an impression on you?

Jim P.: Well, I mean, to kind of set the context of this, my dad’s dad was an authoritarian, never told him he loved him once in his life. Well, maybe just near the end of his life, that he was proud of him. And, uh, so my dad told me he loved me every single day. So – but, again, that was like – like, a given. Your dad tells you he loves you every single day. He swung the pendulum from being a disciplinarian to being overly loving and trying to – to chase and pursue and all those things.

So it didn’t mean anything until prior to that, I had come to the place where alcoholism and everything had taken over. And all the friends that I thought I had weren’t really friends. And I wasn’t a believer. And he – because he never quit on me and he did love me in practice, when the rest of the world falls apart, like the Prodigal son, you know, nobody would give him anything after he’d spent all his money and everything on all these so-called friends,

the guy I’d hurt the most was the only one left standing. And the only reason he was left standing is because he didn’t allow me to pull him off the rock, so to speak. When he started working on himself and his relationship with God and Mom, there was a stability that he had that everyone else I knew out there in the world didn’t have. And as I started to live that life, I was drowning. But the one guy I’d hurt the most was still on a rock, still on – had a relationship with Jesus or something real about that that I couldn’t deny. And even though he should not love me after everything I had done, the humiliation – a lot of times I did it on purpose – he was still the one who showed up. And it, you know, it starts to dawn on you, whether you agree with his faith or not, something’s strong in him that normal people and I didn’t have. And he still loves you. And no matter how I tried to burn down the bridge, he would never let it be burned down, enough that he would take time away and come all the way over to watch something that he really didn’t understand. My dad didn’t understand wrestling. Didn’t…didn’t know…but he wanted to be there for me. And so this being on the rock, focusing on Jesus, being strong enough to keep loving, even when they don’t love you back, is what finally built a bridge that now he could start putting things across. Like, he could start answering my questions on how he knew there was a God. He could start answering questions on how do you know Christianity’s true?

But it was built on a continued relationship that he never let be burnt down, continued love relationship that finally I said, “You know, I will listen to what you have to say. Even though I’m not sure I agree, you have at least earned the place in my life to – to pass over to me the reasons why you believe what you believe.”

Jim D.: There’s so many, uh, good things going on in this relationship. I mean, that’s what I’m sensing underneath all of the tough stuff. I mean, there’s objectivity between the two of you. You really know where you’re at. And so often people aren’t there. I want to come back next time and kind of uncover that, where people are still living in a bit of a cloud. And the ability to see yourself is so critical.

I love this quote – and I’ll end with this – in the book that you wrote, Hope For The Prodigal. You said this, “If our children could become spiritually mature Christians by our parenting alone” – which is so often our attitude – you go on to say, “They wouldn’t need Jesus to be their Savior.” And so many of us as parents are trying to have perfect children. But kids need to walk what God has for them so they can experience his salvation, as you’ve done, Jim.

This has been terrific. What a great opening, uh, to the discussion. Let’s come back again and talk more. Can we do that?

Jim P.: Great.


John: Our special guest today on Focus on the Family pastors Bill and Jim Putman, and we’re hearing part of their family story, and we’ll look forward to next time and the continuation of that story. Right now though, order an audio copy of our entire conversation along with their book Hope for The Prodigal when you call 800232-6459. That’s 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Or, stop by to learn more.

Jim: John, I wanna recommend our listeners get a copy of the Putman’s great book. It’s so powerful and filled with so much Bible based encouragement for today’s families. We can give you a complimentary copy of Hope for the Prodigal when you send a financial gift of any amount to Focus on the Family. It’s our way of saying thanks for partnering with us to equip and strengthen hurting parents. Hopefully like we’ve done today, and I also want you to imagine how many more could be touched through God’s hand of providence when we work together to bring hope and practical resources like the Putman’s book to hurting families. So please, be generous with you support today.

John: We really appreciate your partnership, and you can donate today at or when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. We can also connect you with one of our Christian counselors if that would be beneficial to you. Call so we can set up an initial consultation, and they can hear your story, pray with you, and direct you to resources in your local area. Coming up next time, more from our guest about what you can and cannot do for your wayward child.


Jim P.: You can do your part. God’s gonna do his part. If they won’t do their part, then you’re gonna end up in this place where eventually, they have to choose that.

End of Teaser

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Hope for the Prodigal

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