“A silhouette of a person walking on a pathway during a sunset in Góðafoss” by Mahkeo on Unsplash

6 Real-Life “Prodigal” Stories to Encourage You and Strengthen Your Faith

Have you ever experienced the life-changing effects of a story?

Have you ever been touched, inspired, or challenged by someone’s personal history?

Faith is often fed through (true) stories. Because stories teach us far more effectively than any objective lessons.

Sometimes, when my own faith is flagging, it is encouraging to read stories about (and usually by) people who have struggled — usually with tougher situations than mine — and overcome.

When I feel discouraged because either I or other Christians have fallen short, I am reminded, through stories like the ones listed below, that it is not about me:

Not I, but the grace of God. — 1 Corinthians 15:10

We are all prodigals, in some ways, and at some times. Lost and running in the wrong direction.

But it helps, when we hurt, to be reminded that others are on this path too. And if they were able to survive, thrive, and encounter God’s goodness in their troubles, so can we.

Some of the following stories are by people who were true prodigals, in every sense of the word. Others were not outwardly prodigals, or were not aware perhaps that they were missing God in their lives.

All of them, however, have lived powerful stories of transformation, hope, and faithfulness.

All of these people’s stories have encouraged me at various points in my life, so I’d like to share them with you now:

CHRISTOPHER YUAN — Out of a Far Country* by Christopher and Angela Yuan

“God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them.” — Christopher Yuan

When “good student and obedient son” Christopher Yuan turned his back on his family and embraced drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and rebellion, his mother Angela (who was struggling through a failing marriage) decided to kill herself.

But a priest gave her a pamphlet describing God’s love — something Angela had never heard before. Something that changed her life completely.

So began the arduous, years-long journey of one determined mother who prayed and trusted God to save her drug-hardened, cold-hearted son, even while Christopher ran further and further into sex, drugs, and illegal activities.

This book is written by mother and son, alternating between Christopher and Angela’s perspective. Today, the family travels around the world telling their story and encouraging others in similar straits — but it is a hard-won victory, one you can read for yourself in this gripping duo-biography.

What I learned: Never give up on those you love — keep praying. Even if it takes many years, there is hope, and the final result may be more beautiful than you ever dreamed.

Christopher, Angela, and Leon Yuan, courtesy of LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church

ROSARIA BUTTERFIELD: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield

I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed…Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect. — Rosaria Butterfield

Rosaria’s story is unusual in that it is one of the few in which a “prodigal” had “everything to lose and nothing to gain” by turning to God. Yet she did it anyway.

And indeed, the first few months (perhaps years) after Rosaria chose to believe and trust in God, she lost everything — her job, her friends, her students and colleagues’ respect, her partner, and her (old, comfortable) life.

Rosaria was an English professor at a small liberal arts college, who hated the way Christians spoke against her beliefs and community. But when she wrote a scathing criticism of one of the local Christian gatherings, to her surprise, she received a thoughtful and kind reply from a pastor who invited her to call him. Curious, she did so.

Eventually, through her interaction with the humble pastor and his wife, and her study of the Bible, Rosaria came to the conviction that God was real and worth believing.

What I learned: Hospitality and respect for those who believe differently than you do are powerful forces for change. The Bible can speak even to people who are antagonistic to it — as long as they are willing to study it with an open mind. And: God is worth the sacrifice.

Rosaria Butterfield, courtesy of Christianity Today

LOUIS ZAMPERINI: Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand

“In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humilliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.” —Lauren Hillenbrand, Unbroken

Louis Zamperini was an Olympic runner and talented mischief-maker whose incredible survival story (30+ days floating in the open ocean after his plane crashed into the sea; then a year in a brutal Japanese POW camp being tormented by a sadistic guard) became a best-selling book, then a movie directed by Angelina Jolie.

But the movie only tells the first half of Louis’s story.

Despite his amazing endurance, and the hero’s welcome he received after returning home, Louis Zamperini struggled hard with the demons of PTSD and revenge. His marriage began falling apart and he nearly hurt his baby daughter and strangled his wife Cynthia. But then Louis heard the message of the gospel, and turned into an entirely different person…

I once had the privilege of hearing Louis Zamperini speak, before his death. He was humorous, kind, and inspirational. It was hard to believe that he had once gone through such horrible experiences, and that they had twisted him into a hate-filled, bitter man for a period of time. He was so cheerful and sweet!

It was also hard to hear him (the crowd was large and he was an old man at that point). But it was such a privilege and joy to see him in person, even from a distance 😃

What I learned: Bitterness and vengefulness is vain — it destroys us from the inside out, and hurts those we love as well. Forgiveness is freedom. But forgiveness is not something we can (or want to) muster up on our own. It comes from God.

Louis Zamperini courtesy of Wikimedia commons

CHAD WILLIAMS: SEAL of God by Chad Williams

“I had reached my mountaintop, only…the view disappointed me. And there was no higher step to take…Why did I feel so disappointed?” — Chad Williams

After his mentor Scott Helvenston was brutally killed in Iraq, and his death televised, the young Chad Williams vowed to become a Navy SEAL and avenge Scott’s death. Williams was one of the very few who managed to actually complete SEAL training on his first try.

But Chad found that his victory was strangely empty. He began to party heavily with friends, and lost control of himself, so much so that he frightened his own parents…until he found out about God and His plans for him, and did a total 180 with his life.

SEAL of God is the story of how Chad Williams came to find a mission even more meaningful than the initial dreams of revenge that drove him through the harshest military training for only the most elite soldiers.

What I learned: Even the greatest worldly accomplishment is empty when you are empty.

Chad Williams, courtesy of Valley Vegas Church

ASHLEY SMITH: Captive by Ashley Smith

“Even though I was fighting the drugs, I still woke up every morning and read a chapter in my Bible…If nothing else good happened in my life, at least I was going to hear God every day.” — Ashley Smith

In 2005, widowed single mother Ashley Smith was in the middle of moving when she was apprehended by an escaped murderer and held hostage in her apartment for seven hours.

Ashley, herself a drug addict who had lost custody of her daughter, had been reading the Bible and The Purpose Driven Life…and when Brian Nichols captured her, she spoke to him and read to him from the book, resulting in Nichols eventually releasing her to go to her daughter. Nichols later peacefully allowed himself to be re-arrested.

During that process, Ashley Smith broke free of her own drug addiction and not long after, regained custody of her daughter. Ashley’s story was eventually made into a movie.

What I learned: Even people who behave (very) badly are not beyond hope (including ourselves). We too often cut ourselves off from God’s help because of shame or self-reliance, when He really does want to help, if we let Him. But we have to take responsibility for our choices as well.

Ashley Smith, Courtesy of twelve thirty media

NABEEL QURESHI: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

“All suffering is worth it to follow Jesus. He is that amazing.” — Nabeel Qureshi

Unlike most of the people on this list, Nabeel was not a prodigal in any outward way. The son of loving devout Muslim parents, Nabeel Qureshi was clean-cut, well-educated, kind, respectful, and quite happy with his life.

But then Nabeel met David Wood, a staunch Christian who had once spent time in jail for attempting to kill his father, and who came to know the love of God through the challenge of a fellow inmate.

For six years, best friends and debate partners David and Nabeel argued back and forth, challenging each other and digging deep to figure out whose beliefs were actually true. Nabeel, like Rosaria Butterfield (above) had everything to lose and seemingly nothing to gain for rejecting his Muslim roots and turning to Christ. But in the end, he chose to follow where he saw the evidence leading him…this is his story.

Besides being a fascinating autobiography about a powerful evangelist who sadly passed away last year, this book gives readers a helpful look into Christian apologetics, Islam, and evangelism. Though Nabeel has graduated from this life, his ministry continues to live on in his wife, and his friends.

(After the knowledge gained from his experiences debating Nabeel, David today continues to wrestle with Muslim ideology through his ministry, Acts 17 Apologetics).

Nabeel’s story has been updated and is about to be re-released (preorder link, non-affiliate).

What I learned: The most powerful friendships are those without ulterior motives. In other words, don’t befriend someone to “convert” them — everyone can tell. But true friendship also means trusting each other enough to wrestle with uncomfortable topics rather than smooth them over and pretend they don’t exist. And, as with Rosaria Butterfield’s story: God is worth the sacrifice.

Nabeel Qureshi, courtesy of Juicy Ecumenism

*Book title/movie links are affiliate links unless otherwise noted.

Ready to become a powerful writer?

I’ve created a Write Purpose Manifesto to help you clarify your goals, discover your purpose, and change the world through your words.

Get the manifesto here!