Letting Someone Hit Bottom Can Be the “Christian” Thing to Do

by Mike Duran · 16 comments

Christians love to quote the story of the Prodigal Son as an example of God’s lavish grace. And indeed it is! However, it’s also an example of God’s excruciating patience.

God is willing to let people go, let them hit bottom, in order to, perchance, get them back.

How unlike us.

My father was a recovering alcoholic. He led a local AA chapter. Someone once approached me and asked if I could have my father speak to their father about working on his drinking problem. I reluctantly agreed. When I asked my dad if he’d call the fella, he said, “If someone has to call him, he’s not ready. When he hits bottom, we’ll be there for him.”

It seemed kind of cold. But it also seemed very “Christian.” I mean, it’s exactly what the Prodigal’s father did. He let his son go. In fact, he enabled him by emptying the bank account of his son’s inheritance and surrendering it to the foolish youth. After a life of wonton excess, fueled by the money handed over by pops, the son finally “came to his senses” (Lk. 15:17) in that pig sty, and he began the long trek home. Much is made of the father’s tearful, embarrassing display of emotion at the prodigal’s appearance. But notice: The father did not run after his son when he chose to leave, but when he chose to return.

Often, we do the opposite. We refuse to let people go.  Rather than respecting their free will and handing over their inheritance, we perpetuate their prodigal state with more loans, handouts, bailouts, warm meals, shelter and freebies. Rather than letting their waywardness run its course, we ease our minds and their suffering with a “bottomless inheritance.” Which is why some prodigals never reach the pig sty, never hit bottom.

Even though hitting bottom is really the way home.

Loving someone often means letting them go.

  • Letting them go into bankruptcy.
  • Letting them go into prison.
  • Letting them go into poverty.
  • Letting them go into addiction.
  • Letting them become homeless.

Loving someone means releasing them to be a prodigal.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re actually loving people by interrupting their prodigality. You know, running after them to loan them a few bucks, giving them condoms on their way into the brothel, or footing the bill for the STD treatments afterwards.  Bailouts, handouts, and welfare programs can feel like the right thing to do. But do they really show love?

I realize this is not the politically correct approach. I also realize that each situation is different. Unlike the prodigal son, many people are in situations that are not the result of willful reprobation. They ARE victims. Furthermore, we are commanded to care for the poor, visit prisoners, empathize with the plight of widows and orphans, and confront injustice.

Helping the hurting does not come with a stipulation. I will feed you only if your hunger was not brought on by your own stupidity. The Gospel does not contain such clauses. We feed the hungry whatever their circumstances.

But if the Prodigal Son story is any indication, running to the rescue is not always the right thing to do either. Nor is it always loving. And this is where I wonder that many welfare programs and the social justice gospel fail. It keeps people from the pig sty. It keeps them from genuine repentance. It keeps them from coming to their senses.

Where that line is between intervention and abandonment, I don’t know. It’s case by case, I’m sure. Nevertheless, we ignore this aspect of the Prodigal Son narrative to our — and our prodigal’s — detriment.

  • Assistance is not necessarily compassion
  • Inaction is not always indifference

Sure, it’s hard to see people suffer. especially when it’s the result of their own bad choices or rebellion. But repeatedly bailing them out is not loving. It may make you feel good. However, it potentially creates a cycle of folly and failure, replacing long-term wisdom with short-term fixes. Hey, why should junior ever return home if mom keeps swooping into the pig sty with another “loan”?

Love is about helping prodigals get home, not keeping them prodigals.

Jill October 3, 2012 at 8:08 AM

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the dad gave his son his inheritance and let him go out and do what he wanted with it. When the son came back for help, the father opened his arms. The father didn’t stipulate that the son had to wallow in the pig sty first–that was the choice of the wayward son. It makes me wonder whether the father might have been just as pleased, if not more so, if his son had asked for help before he ended up in the sty. It’s an interesting question you propose. I suppose the only way to answer it is through holy spirit guidance and through scripture. I’ve always been just a little uncomfortable with the idea of tough love, so I don’t accept it at face value.

Erica October 4, 2012 at 8:34 AM

I agree, Jill.

Charise Olson October 3, 2012 at 8:25 AM

Enjoyed your post, Mike. It’s a great and often, overlooked, facet of the parable. Hitting bottom is critical for recovery. Impossible without it, actually. Sadly, most of the time a person’s bottom is much deeper than the loved ones can imagine.

You lost me at welfare programs and the social justice gospel. As someone with a 20 year career in social and education programs, I never-not-one-single time thought I was preventing someone from reaching their bottom. In fact, I have many more stories of where the system as a whole worked to “raise the bottom”.The system is called a net- typically a net is woven of many strands. Another phrase: checks and balances. It is not a handout with no qualifiers. And while there are food stamps, there is also child protective services, law enforcement and other parts of the “system” that construct that net.

We can not use one parable to construct God’s thoughts on loving our neighbor. If we’re going to use the parable of the Prodigal, then we also need to give equal measure to the Samaritan. And do we want the government deciding which is which?

Yes, the father did not chase his son. But there was a farmer with a pig sty that gave him a job.

Mike Duran October 3, 2012 at 9:54 AM

Great comments,, Charise. Of course this isn’t the only parable on the subject. I use this because it gets much mileage, and rightfully so. Social programs raise the bottom, definitely. But they can potentially keep one locked in a perpetual cycle of dependency, which isn’t loving or respecting the individual. Yes, thank God there’s a pig sty available. But if that’s really our societal bottom, we should be concerned that so many people live there so long. Thanks for commenting!

Bobby October 3, 2012 at 8:40 AM

I think the point being made is very broad, so it’s easy to bring in the exceptions as qualifiers. Of course, Mike qualified the post a few times, and it’s important to keep in mind the broad idea and that is sometimes decisions must simply run their course, usually through the insistence of the people making them.

I don’t think God wants to give anyone “tough love” but by our stubbornness we force His hand. That’s why things like addiction are so hard to break. We have some something so ingrained in our psyche that only a trip to the “pig sty” can wrench us out of it. Wouldn’t it be great if porn addicts, drug users and alcoholics acted out, got high, or became drunk once, realized the negative effect, and immediately stopped. If only.

Keanan Brand October 3, 2012 at 9:42 AM


My father did some things that affected — and broke — our family. Devastated, we tried to keep our arms open to him, but his behavior and his words made it very clear that what was offered wasn’t what he wanted. He kept wounding us: In his mind, we were the bad guys who wouldn’t just let him do whatever he wanted.

In the end, we had to let him go. In fact, my brother agonized over a letter that spoke for all of us: “We’ll always love you. You’ll always be our Dad. But, until you truly change, you can’t come home.”

Hardest time of our lives.

But, a decade later, Dad’s back in our lives, his own life is turned around, and our patched-but-never-perfect family is moving into new paths we never anticipated.

Jessica Thomas October 3, 2012 at 8:45 AM

I come from a family that’s not afraid to practice tough love, so I’m not afraid of it either. My Dad was also a recovered alcoholic and his rock bottom was when my Mom served his divorced papers. Her tough love kept my father from dying a drunk. All I can say is, What a blessing and thank you Mom!

As far as drunk father’s go, mine was amoung the best, because his rock bottom was not very low compared to many other addicts I know. And unfortunately, I do know a lot because the alcoholism/addiction problem rampent in my family. In in terms of addicts, yes, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say.

Right now I’m watching as two family members are being enabled to death, literally, and I can attest, it’s NOT wise or profitable behavior for either the enabler or the enabled. Addicts have to hit rock bottom, and you have to let them go there, praying all the while that their rock bottom isn’t very far down.

This is different than offering social services to people who need the temporary help to get back on their feet. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to quantify who is using the social services to better themselves and society, and who is using them to buy more drugs. Prior to the recession, I know the abuse of the system by addicts was (and I’m sure still is) very very bad. The stories I hear from local teachers, about parents who sell their food stamps to buy drugs, leaving their children to go hungry are heartbreakingly common. Our government is enabling these adults and it will be the ultimate demise of our country if we don’t reign it in somehow.

And, when I say addiction, I’m talking very broadly. Refined sugar is a gateway drug. Calling it “kiddie crack” may make us chuckle, but it’s proven to induce the same addictive responses as heroine. What a sugar addicted child moves on to in adulthood is anyone’s guess. They are primed for all kinds of abuses, alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, overeating, self mutilation (for the “high” of the beta endorphin release)…need I go on?

Our country is in big trouble, but it all comes down to the human condition. We’re broken and our societies will always reflect that. Safe to say America’s pretty much plunged into the deep end though.

Barb Riley October 3, 2012 at 10:17 AM

I just don’t believe you can qualify or define rock bottom. Some people hit it, “recover,” and then relapse even deeper. So I’m glad you pointed out the necessity for a case-by-case awareness. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to deal with addicts; it depends on the person. For some, it’s unconditional love and mercy that pulls them out, for others, it’s intervention and a no-mercy approach.

Karen October 3, 2012 at 11:22 AM

As the mom of an addict and prodigal, your post resonated with me. Your ” hitting bottom is really the way home” strikes the same cord as a word that was given to me several years ago – “each step away brings him closer home”

I like the wording of these two simple phrases:
“Assistance is not necessarily compassion..
Inaction is not always indifference..

A new mantra, perhaps….

Cherie Clayton October 4, 2012 at 7:18 AM

Great post Mike! Really puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? The only way one can truly come home and live the life of a loved son, is to be able to taste the slop of their decisions. Powerful message…and much needed, I will add. I’m dealing with a situation with my own daughter who is wayward from me. Although she is not an addict or dealing with some of the issues the prodigal did…she has run from me. As hard as it was to learn this lesson, I had to let her go. It’s a long story which includes a divorce, an abusive husband, and four children…however, as she runs my heart strings are pulled to run after her and rescue her. Then I stop myself and say, “What kind of saving can I do?” She doesn’t need a mother to rescue her…she needs a savior to rescue her. Then, and only then….can I gloriously embrace her when she returns (and I pray often for her return to me) How much sweeter, how much deeper the relationship can be when the prodigal is welcomed, in all the splendor of love for them, when they still have the taste of slop in their mouth. Definitely a “ponder upon” post!

Erica October 4, 2012 at 8:32 AM

Oh wow. I’ll keep this extremely short: When someone is wayward…I totally get why they should hit rock bottom.

However, in this day and times, telling Christians to continue being the way they are, a.k,a selfish- is unacceptable to me. I am only saying this because as someone who has hit rock bottom and received zero help, it hasn’t helped my relationship with family or so-called friends at all and I can only atrribute my strength and gain to God being so faithful and loving because I have been faithful to Him in opening my home to people in my past and helping them any way I can. To not receive that help in return hurts to the core.

The economy is bad. The love is sour. And we need to be there for one another. If someone is constantly needing help(finances, home, etc.) then the issue is deeper than our pockets. Perhaps it isn’t money they need- but prayer and hard core truth. Again, I understand your position as far as a wayward person goes, but allowing people to hit rock bottom whatever that may, be I strongly disagree with.

An engaging post, however Mike. Keep it up.

Lisa Godrees October 4, 2012 at 9:01 AM

Great post, Mike. I have a friend that says that sometimes you have to come to the end of yourself before you can let God work in your life. It’s only when you realize that you need to be saved that you start looking for a Savior.

On a more global scale, a similar sentiment is approached in the book When Helping Hurts (Corbett and Fikkert). Sometimes when we intervene we’re making things worse instead of better. The challenge is to know when and how to step in.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) October 4, 2012 at 11:08 AM

Yeah, some people consider us unchristian and/or judgmental because we are letting a daughter in poverty stay there. She made the choices we told her a multitude of times would lead to poverty, and surprise! surprise! We intervened once to keep her out of prison, and we think now that was a mistake. We continue to pray for her and her children and will give our grandchildren opportunities when we can. And we hug and praise and kiss what we can. After that, it’s her and God, even thought it breaks my heart.

Rebecca LuElla Miller October 4, 2012 at 3:59 PM

None of this is easy. We are to be generous and to share, but are we to enable? When is help enablement? Was the farmer enabling the young man by hiring him? We know the end of the story, so can easily say, no, that was the guy’s bottom, but the farmer didn’t know, though he wasn’t exactly handing out charity.

I can’t help but wonder if we wouldn’t see things more clearly if we attached work requirements to charity. In the Old Testament, the poor were allowed to glean in fields so they would have food. They wouldn’t starve, but they had to work for their food. Is that an unloving approach?

Thanks for this post, Mike.


Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) October 4, 2012 at 4:39 PM

Oh, and next week, I am going to prison and picking up a friend to drive him to his new home far away from his old home. Some people are never talking to us again because of that. He did a bad thing and deserved to go to prison. He has repented and wants to serve God the rest of his life. Is he fooling us? Don’t think so, but it is possible. He has parole conditions, and as long as he is around us, he is adhering to those conditions.
He has been our church friend before crime, during prison, and now out of prison. Is that hating the sin and loving the sinner? Is that letting someone hit bottom? At the time, we had no idea he was committing the crime. If we had known, we would have reported him to the police. Oh help me here, I’m trying to make a point, but I can’t seem to say it.
Maybe I’m trying to say that whether you intervene or don’t intervene, somebody will tell you that you’re offending God.

Cindy July 17, 2015 at 1:17 PM

I had to let someone become homeless. Was very hard for me. Yes I enabled him..I called the police on him he went to jail and after a few months of jail and sober in there he is in salvation army rehab gave his heart to the Lord.he is doing great and has a way to go but he is worth it…..

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: