My phone rang at 2 a.m., jarring me awake. I had been asleep for two hours in my hotel room, 1,000 miles from home. Not again, I thought. Which will this be—hospital or jail?

It was jail. My son was calling to tell me it was all a mistake; he shouldn’t have been taken to jail and could I help him with bail. And so I faced one more event in a long and challenging journey.

Ten years before we opened our home as a foster shelter to a 9-year-old boy who had been taken from his alcoholic, drug-addict mother.  With slight trepidation, we were excited about the privilege God was entrusting to us. We were sure this boy was a gift from God.

The next years were not easy. The neglect and abuse he had experienced overshadowed everything we did for him. Fetal alcohol syndrome spawned significant reasoning issues. Abandonment fears led to reactive attachment problems. Spotty school attendance robbed him of reading and writing skills.

Most of all, he was sure we would be just one more in a line of those who left him.  His need to be the center of attention shattered peace in our home. Our daughters were deeply disappointed—this was not the little brother they were anticipating.

Nevertheless, his mother’s rights were terminated, and we were encouraged to adopt him. Much prayer and family conversation convinced us he was a gift from God, so we welcomed him fully into our family.

The challenges of the early years paled in comparison to the difficulty of his teen and early adult years. The calls from jail and hospital evolved from middle school bullying, gang membership, drugs, alcohol, mischief, stealing, girls, and wrecked cars.

We encountered people and situations we would never have known. Every way we tried to help him toward a safe and productive life failed. He was failing, and we felt like failures.

This was a gift? If so, it was a grievous gift.

But he truly was a gift. Perhaps more a gift to us than we were to him.

How? For me, this became the question God kept before me: Could I continue to receive this boy as a gift? Slowly the Father opened my eyes and heart to see the many ways God had blessed me.

He drove me into God’s arms.

We tried everything: Fun family times together. Church youth group. Appropriate boundaries and consequences. Counseling. A residential program. Yet, our only hope became God himself.  

My heavenly Father welcomed me into his loving arms, captured all my tears, listened to me cry out, yell at him, and beg him. When I was ready to give up, he held me up with his righteous right arm, sharing his strength and courage with me.

He taught me to pray.

I’m a ministry leader. I thought I knew how to pray. But this boy kept me on my knees. Yes, I asked, beseeched, and pleaded. And I lamented. I confessed. I reminded God what his Word said. I thanked. I listened. All of the above, almost all the time.  

Prayer became breath, an ongoing, intimate conversation with this God I was knowing so much more deeply.

He taught me about unconditional love.

Along the way on this journey I fell in love with this boy—that love also a gift from God. As years passed, I asked, “Would it be so hard for him to be able to say those words—‘I love you, Mom’?”  

God’s reply, in essence, was: Judy, unconditional love, by definition, doesn’t require love in return.

So I kept loving, and when 12 years had passed, I heard my son say, “I love you.” Those words come often now, and I am grateful. But I am also grateful for a small grasping of God’s unconditional love for me—and that he wants that love to flow through me to others.

He taught me God is always working.

Sometimes this boy/man made good choices. He wanted to turn his life around, to follow Jesus, and to have a good future. But those periods were brief, and his deep pain, fear and anxiety, his lack of coping skills, and his equally confused friends consistently drove him back to his destructive lifestyle. Despair hounded me.

But God would remind me time and again: Judy, I am with him. I started a good work in him, and I will finish it. Remember, “I am the Lord. In its time, I will do this swiftly” (Philippians 1:6; Isaiah 60:22b).

He taught me to give thanks.

The admonition to “give thanks in everything” became a way of life. When he came home drunk again, I thanked God that he was home safe. When he and his friends stole from me, I thanked God that he was working in them, even if I couldn’t see it. When he cut his head open with a chainsaw, I thanked God that my son’s first reaction was to thank God that he was not seriously injured. When I spent an hour texting with him to put down his gun and not take his life, I thanked God that long years of loving him prevailed.

And now? How is he now?

Prayers have been answered. Love is winning. God continues to give good gifts. He is married, with an angel of a wife, an artistic stepdaughter, and a new baby girl. He works harder than I have ever seen him work. He asks for prayer, advice, and sometimes a listening ear.

But any parent of a prodigal knows to be alert. I still live on my knees. This young man himself said, “Pray I can stay on God’s path. It’s narrow, and it’s easy to fall off.”

And how am I?

I’m grateful. I am such a different person because I received this gift. And as hard as the journey has been, my gratitude overflows.

Judy Douglass
Judy Douglass is a writer, editor, speaker, encourager. She partners with her husband, Steve, to lead Campus Crusade for Christ globally. She writes at www.judydouglass.com. You can find her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/JeedooDouglass) and follow her on Twitter @jeedoo417. Her most recent book is Letters to My Children: Secrets of Success (http://www.judydouglass.com/books-by-judy/)

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  1. Yes, to all of it. So very well said of a journey that has pressed you deeper into the person of God, the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the obedience of Christ. To God be the glory.

    1. I feel like you were living my life. The exceptions are no adoption and no abuse. It is my youngest son. In and out of jail and prison for many years. In fact last week he was sent back. Drug abuse, theft etc.
      His brothers want nothing to do with him. Me, I will never give up. I know God will make a way for his sobriety.
      Prayers for our family please.

      1. Lord, I pray for Debbie and her family and her son. May your love and grace cover and draw them all to places of rest and trust with you.
        Debbie, I have a safe, online prayer community called Prayer for Prodigals. We would be glad to pray your son and for you. If you would like an invitation, let me know.

  2. Judy! My gosh. What a testimony, and we read between the lines so so so much that you’ll never be able to express. You have helped me with this testimony, so much… Emmanuel.

  3. Hi Judy, Thanks so much for sharing this part of your journey. Am going through tons of stuff with my 96 yr. old mom as I type…nothing like what you went through in the article above. But have learned like you, that my dementia ridden mom is and always will be a gift. sigh Again, thanks for your insight, wisdom and caring….hugs, Kathy

  4. Grateful with you for the growth of inner strength, perseverance & unconditional love through the years of pursuing your prodigal. May God use your testimony to encourage many more, ate Judy!

  5. thank you.
    I have my own grievous gift. I find many of the above to be true. The Lord uses it/him to draw me to Himself, to keep me oh so humble, to see how I treat Him so often.
    Thank you for leading our ministry in such a beautiful way.

  6. Great article, Judy! It was amazing how you could extract the essence of all those years and a myriad of experiences into such profound truths. Thanks for being a testimony to so many of us. Thanks for being my friend.

  7. Judy, I embrace your term “grievous gift.” Thank you for sharing that raw witness of God’s work in yourself and your child. As a mother of a daughter with mental illness, I have asked similar questions-painful, guilt ridden questions. Parenting challenging children can be a lonely, emotionally wrought journey. But keeping your eye on the Giver, as you did, reminds us that nothing is lost on Him. In fact, we driven to prayer, knowing that “our only hope is God himself.” I have learned so much about the character of God through our experience and my lens through which I view life has been transformed. Thank you from someone who identifies with much that you have written here and for the encouragement to be thankful for the gifts with which we have been entrusted.

  8. So beautiful and grace-filled, Judy! Just like you. I’m inspired by you and the life you live and lead, even though I’ve never met you in person. It is obvious that being driven into the arms of God Himself has shaped you even more into the image of His Dear Son. Love and peace!

  9. Tears in my heart, so encouraged to love, love even deeper. ” This sentence, this sentence helps me see the heart of Jesus.
    “Judy, unconditional love, by definition, doesn’t require love in return.”

  10. Thank you Judy for your transparency of your journey with your grievous gift, a gift the Lord sent you and unbeknown to you at the time how much deeper you would go. Our children put us on our knees and breathing prayer so much more which truly causes us to depend on the Lord and be thankful for everything……I would have never known how deep I loved if not for receiving my precious Shane as a grievous gift and such a blessing in my life at the same time especially now that he is a citizen of Heaven. In my pain I have truly seen the Hand of God upon me during these last 33 months in a way I would have never experienced if not for Shane. I am excited for Josh and for all the Lord has brought to you through him and Him!

  11. Judy,
    This is beautiful and painful. I resonate with it so deeply as we are well into the fourth year our adopted son has made us a family of six. He is only 10 years old and we are dealing with the center of attention and issues of abandonment by family and for him, a country as he has been adopted internationally. The brutal truth is I ask myself weekly, if not daily, if we really heard God correctly? Were we really suppose to go to these lengths? And I’m reminded as I read back over journals and daily drop to my knees on behalf of him, on behalf of us all. God drawers near to me as I draw near to him. Thank you for sharing. So happy to celebrate with you the life your son lives in Christ today.

    1. Janna, it is hard. People ask me about adoption. I tell them it comes from the heart of God–care for the orphan, and He adopted us. But then I say, Make sure you have heard from God–that his is your calling. It will probably be challenging. I am grateful we persevered, but God’s grace. I trust He will meet your every need. Our son is in such a better place, but still shaky in his walk with God. So I never quit praying–and loving. May God grant you wisdom, comfort and so much grace!

    2. Hi Janna,

      I hope you don’t mind my commenting on your comment….My name is Shari Dragovich. I am an adoptive parent as well–two children from Ethiopia, adopted seven and a half years ago when they were 4ish and 5ish (practically 5 & 6). This made us a family of seven–three birth boys and two adopted. I want you to know, everything you said I’ve struggled with (still struggle with). As my kids hit their teens–especially my son–I’ve seen a renewed hardship in parenting them. I’ve gone in and out of living in God’s grace for me–for us, for us–and I won’t lie, right now I’m struggling hard core. I think the struggles are compounded by my oldest son’s senior year of high school–grieving his “lasts” and facing him leaving the nest. This has opened up a whole new bout of old grieving/mourning over adoption.

      Anyway, I just wanted to tell you, you’re not alone!! Of course, you probably already know that. I think adoption can feel very lonely. I am finally (after 7 years) going to a counselor–something I should have done years ago–to help me get through this season of parenting. I’m not sure anything I just said is very encouraging. I’m super thankful for Judy’s post, her transparency, and this forum we have to connect, encourage and pray for one another. 🙂

      I’ve been leaning heavily on Romans 8:28 lately. And, what you said: Drawing nearer to God–keeping my face fixed on Him and His Truths, and not what I see (and perceive on my own) in front of me.

      Grace and Peace to you, Janna!!
      Shari D.

      1. Shari,

        Words cannot express my gratitude for your transparency here. This is has been something I’ve struggled with for these last 4+ years, the lack of honesty about the true lives we live in the world of adoption – something that doesn’t go away or get “fixed” once you bring them into your home and into your life. I am determined to be honest and pray for discernment when I should stay silent to protect my family and especially my son. I’m praying for us here, in this sacred space of life, be it cyber-ly. I am thankful for it and for your reaching out to me.

        clinging to the One who saves,
        Janna

  12. I have goosebumps as I finished reading this story Judy. It is an amazing story of God’s gifts to you, what faithfulness and unconditional love really look like. God’s gifts come to us in many forms and I want to thank you for the role model you have been to me to exemplify the importance of staying on your knees before God. The ways you walk with God has allowed you to stay on God’s path and to step out and do the next loving thing that God shows you to do. What a journey you’ve been on! Your life and love spill out to those of us who know you! You are a GIFT as well. Love you!

    1. Thank you, Sheri, for those kind and affirming words. I/we have made many missteps along the way, but God give mercy and grace. And His Spirit strengthens us to keep going. To keep loving. To keep trusting. Blessings to you.

    1. Grateful that you are preaching and that my story can help. I told a little of that story today in encouraging a friend. May you have Spirit power and anointing for the words God gives you!

  13. In tears as I read. We took in a child who lived beside of us 7 years ago and while we were following God’s will, the pain and heartache have been almost unbearable. I know the feeling of holding your breath with phone calls. I know the what’s next feeling. I continue to hope even when I feel like my family is going to be torn apart. I was naive about the extent of his brokenness and it has literally driven me to my knees. Thank you for your encouragement to continue to trust.

  14. Judy, what a blessing you are to share your journey here! We are so honored and inspired by your faith. Thank you! As I watch my own son make challenging choices in his 20’s, I know from your testimony that God has good plans for him to walk in. All in his good time. What a blessing to have your faith and witness among us. Love to you today!

    1. Thank you, Margaret, for your kind and encouraging words. Our story–his and mine, plus the rest of the family–has been the hardest in my life, but so very worth the long pain. To see where he is now bring tears, yet still the need to keep praying. May your son soon choose God’s very good path! Bless you.

  15. Thanks, Margaret, for your kind and encouraging words. He has truly been a gift. I more and more discover that the hard times are truly gifts that create growth in me. Be blessed.

  16. I just happened upon this column today. Was it Dr. Bright that said “God-incidence” or was it Roger Hershey? Either way, it’s the truth.
    My FASD son is 15 and currently living with my ex because he was too physically aggressive for me to deal with. But my FASD son isn’t why I found you.
    It’s my 20 yr old daughter. Also adopted, but never acted out. A week ago, out of the blue, she started spending the night with some guy. She won’t tell me anything besides his first name. She comes home daily for an hour, to shower and change clothes.
    I know she was deeply wounded by my ex’s choices and her younger brother’s behavior. She’s very depressed but won’t get treatment. I’m cycling between shock and grief. I’ll be re-reading this column often.

    1. I’m just seeing your comment, Resa. May God give you grace and wisdom as you love your daughter (and your son). May He surprise you with evidences of His love for you and for them.

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