Elder Nielson and the dawn of the prodigal #ldsconf

Elder Brent H. Nielson spoke about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: interacting with people who no longer associate with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Mormonism burrows deep. Its roots spread throughout our soul’s soil. Disaffiliation can lead to heartache, anger, confusion, or shock for those who remain in communion with the Church as well as for those who don’t. Pulling up roots is disruptive and messy.

Elder Nielson talked about his sister who disaffiliated from the church, a decision that hurt his family, but which they ultimately decided they must come to terms with and honor, even as they hoped she would return. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son they waited. Things worked out; Susan did return. Their happy ending demonstrates that honoring a person’s agency and manifesting unconditional love is perhaps the best way to bring someone back.

At the same time, the catch here seems to be that unconditional love is also not conditioned on the loved one returning. The love itself transcends religious difference. Elder Nielson motioned in this direction when he talked about the realization that Susan wasn’t the only prodigal. One morning during morning scripture study, Elder Nielson heard the story of the prodigal son differently than he ever had. And thus his conference address ended on a surprise note:

“For some reason, I’d always related to the son who stayed home. As [my son] David read that morning, I realized that in some ways I was the prodigal son. All of us fall short of the glory of the Father. All of us need the Savior’s Atonement to heal us. All of us are lost and need to be found. This revelation that day helped me know that my sister and I both needed the Savior’s love and His Atonement. Susan and I were actually on the
same path back home.”

The Savior’s love reached beyond affiliation with the Church and placed Brent and Susan on the same path. After years of familiarity with the story of the prodigal, it finally dawned on Elder Nielson that he, too, was the prodigal. I love the phrasing, the stark moment in Luke 15 when the prodigal “came to himself,” or as the NIV puts it, “he came to his senses” (v. 17).

I experienced a similar moment of “coming to my senses” about the real identity of the prodigal while serving a mission. I was supposed to be the Lord’s servant, I was living according to the expected values and preaching the gospel all day. Regular prayers, scripture study, following the rules. I was nailing it. But still there came a moment one morning when I came to my senses about the prodigal, about me, and a new meaning of Luke 15 dawned on me. I’ve never looked at it the same.

I really enjoyed hearing my experience repeated in the experience of a church leader who also belatedly came to his senses about his relation to this parable, and thus to God and others. The prodigal son is us.


  1. Jason K. says:

    Realizing that we’re on the same path with people who are not currently active in the church is huge. May this talk invite us all to greater charity!

  2. Angela C says:

    Je suis prodigal.

  3. I LOVED this talk!

  4. John Harrison says:

    Very hard to return without first realizing that we are prodigal. I think that Mormonsim prefers to identify with the elder son, which has a worthwhile lesson as well.

  5. I love this way of weaving the talk together with the experiences that so many of us have had. I see so many families torn apart by members turning on each other because one portion of the family believed that they have the duty/right to designate a prodigal, and kick them out long before they would have left on their own.

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