Twenty-eight years ago I became a mother. No antenatal classes, baby book or podcast could have prepared me for the utter transformation that event would bring to my life.
Author Elizabeth Stone writes, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Overnight I found that to be true.
I could no longer look at world events dispassionately, and my mind was filled with thoughts of what the world had in store for this vulnerable new life. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their child – for their careers, health and relationships. But most Christian parents have a hope that’s deeper than all the others: we want our children to become followers of Christ.
My husband, Richard, and I have four adult children and I think I can say that we gave our very best efforts to our role as parents – not just in getting our kids through cut knees and chickenpox, more exams than I can count, and the occasional broken relationship, but also in seeking to nurture their faith in God. God has no grandchildren – each child of Christian parents has to find a personal faith. And for that reason we’ve known times of great joy in seeing that happen, but also times of pain and tears when it seemed, at that point in our children’s lives, that they’d chosen a different path. At the moment three of them have an active faith, while one appears to have put faith on the back burner. We know that situation may change – either way – and that knowledge has led us to a greater dependence on God for each of their lives.
When they were small, I remember thinking that our children would, without doubt, all grow up to follow Christ. We’d take them to church every Sunday, read all the Christian parenting books, and, of course, we had that lovely verse from the book of Proverbs to rely on: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (22:6) It was sobering to realise that this verse is not a guarantee but a general principle. After all, even God – the perfect parent – has trouble with his children.
If, as Christian parents, we find that our child has walked away from the faith, we are by no means alone. Statistics about the drop-out rate from church-going among young people are hard to find, but an analysis by researcher Peter Brierley reported that “of every class of ten 0-9-year-olds in Sunday School in 1985, only three were still connected with church in 2005. That’s a loss of 70%."
So if, despite our best efforts, our children decide not to follow Jesus, how should we respond? How can we live in the tension of their decision and still leave the door wide open for them? Here are some general principles:
"Many parents are weighed down by a false guilt that they should not carry"
LAY DOWN THE GUILT
The overwhelming feeling for many parents of prodigal children is guilt. We ask “Where did we go wrong?” and wonder “If only…If only we had prayed with them/read Bible stories to them/hadn’t made them go to church/ had made them go to church/had belonged to a different church/hadn’t moved house/had encouraged them to do a different course at university.” Perhaps we believe that if we identify a reason for them turning away from God we can at least find someone or something to blame. The problem is that even if we did find a reason, it doesn’t change the present. The guilt
can feel overwhelming. The difficulty is that there are godly parents who, despite providing secure, loving homes with God at the centre, find that at least one of their children puts faith on hold. And even more puzzling are parents who, by anyone’s standards, break every rule in the book, yet whose children seem to follow God fervently. It follows then, that many parents are weighed down by a false guilt that they should not carry.
STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHAT OTHERS THINK
If we are feeling guilty, shame is often not far behind. Society encourages us to measure our significance by our children’s achievements and this way of thinking has subtly invaded our church culture. We believe that family life matters to God, and it does, but sometimes we raise the bar so high that ‘success’ in family becomes an idol. We judge each other by how well our children are doing spiritually, and if they are not engaged with church we can feel that they haven’t quite made the grade. A few years ago a friend whose children are pursuing God for all they are worth said to me, “If any of my children decided faith wasn’t for them I would feel I had completely failed as a mother.”
I’m sure she didn’t mean to be hurtful, but did she really think that her children’s response to God was a direct result of her parenting? If I’d been in her shoes I may have been tempted to feel the same, but that kind of comment brings little comfort to parents who may have persevered and prayed just as much as she did, but for the time being have not seen any fruit in their children’s lives.
We can do our very best as parents, but there is no formula. Ultimately – in the same way as God deals with us – we have to leave the outcome open. Our feelings are real and we have a God who feels with us.
Our children are his children too, and as our father he knows the pain of seeing children go their own way. Our ultimate goal is to seek to be the kind of parents to our children that God is to us. His total desire is for us to be in relationship with him.
RELINQUISH THE DESIRE TO CONTROL
In our desperation for our children to find a faith of their own, we can sometimes become controlling and manipulative. Many of us have sought to help the Lord along a bit in keeping our children on the straight and narrow: the book helpfully placed by the bed or by the loo, the lunch invitation we ensure they’ll get during the first week at university. While linking our children with mentors and recommending good reading material is never a bad thing, sometimes our efforts are more transparent that we’d like to think and our children can feel pressurised. If they are to find their own faith, it is vital that we give them space to do it.
Joelle and Tony’s story
Joelle and Tony have two daughters aged 21 and 19. Meredith, the eldest, was raped when she was 16. This precipitated a downward spiral as she lashed out against God and her church and became self-destructive in the process. She was promiscuous, stopped attending school and ran away on several occasions for days at a time. She fell in with a group of friends who Joelle describes as “a bad crowd of disaffected teenagers”, got into debt and began to steal from her family. When things got particularly bad, they asked her to leave home, feeling the need to put in boundaries to protect their younger daughter and themselves. She was gone for six months, and it was torture for the whole family.
In reflecting over the past few years, Joelle says, “We haven’t felt anger towards God. He never promised us that hard stuff wouldn’t happen, but that he would be with us through it. There have been times when my interaction with God was non-existent, when I was merely coping and getting through the day. However, he has shown me that he knows what it is like to have rebellious, ungrateful and hurting children, and his heart breaks for us. I found this very comforting and I have been learning to truly hand the girls over to him.”
“I believe that God has his hand on both my girls – they have had encounters with him and they know in their hearts that he is there for them. My prayer is that they are both totally captivated by him and that they start to work out their own relationship with him. However, I love them as they are and accept it must be their decision.”
"Even god – the perfect parent – has trouble with his children"
Helen stopped going to church as a teenager. She writes: "I used to spend Sundays going into London, to Camden and Covent Garden. It seemed vibrant, colourful and full of life in contrast to church, which to me was grey and claustrophobic. My parents never put pressure on me to change my decision, and I really think that if they had I wouldn’t have come back. It was something I needed to do, and it was an important part of my journey. I found out afterwards that they’d been horribly worried about me and had been praying their hearts out. It was a sacrifice for them not to do anything to try and pull me back in, but I do think it paid off.
SHOW THEM UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE
As hard as it can be sometimes, it is vital to love and accept our children unconditionally and to stay connected, even when they make decisions that disappoint us. Tamsin writes about her reaction when her son Seth told her he no longer had a faith. “At first I felt devastated. I felt like having nothing to do with him, turning my back on him or running away from the situation. However, I read once again the story of the prodigal son and I realised that God’s way would be to wait expectantly for his child to come to his senses and that he wouldn’t recriminate, criticise, blame, scold or judge.”
Even pastors’ kids stray
Raising children is hard enough without the spotlight that comes with church leadership. Pastors’ kids often feel pressured to be ‘super Christians’ and don’t always have the space to make mistakes without a congregation looking on. Here are three leaders’ kids who have drifted away from church, some permanently and others only for a season.
John Piper’s son had a time away from faith resulting in him being excommunicated by his father’s church. He has since returned to the Christian fold writing a popular article, ‘Twelve ways to love your wayward child’.
Bill Hybel’s daughter didn’t go to church for a long season in college. Although this wasn’t because of a lapse in faith she writes in her book, Bittersweet (Zondervan), that she needed that space after growing up as a pastor’s kid at Willow Creek church.
In 2013, Bart Campolo revealed to his father that he was an agnostic humanist. Tony Campolo said, “I don’t know what’s going on in Bart’s heart or mind or soul. I have faith in God and I have faith in prayer, and I have confidence that this thing is not over until it’s over.” A documentary film which features a dialogue between the father and son about faith and doubt (campolofilm.com) is currently in production.
Our children are growing up in a world that teaches them that they need to earn acceptance, but we have the opportunity to show them a different story. They may not be involved with church, but let’s not overlook the wonderful qualities in their lives – kindness, gentleness, compassion for the poor – qualities that delight the heart of God. We can give our children the foundation of being accepted for who they are irrespective of academic achievement, good looks, sporting prowess or leadership qualities…and even engagement with the things of God.
"Prayer is our great hope"
KEEP ON PRAYING
Teresa of Avila said, “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of him,” and what greater thing can we ask of God than for his children to know and love him. Every parent of a child who has walked away from faith will know that ultimately prayer is our great hope. We can run to our heavenly Father who longs for our children to come to know him and return home.
And there are many other wonderful things that we can pray. We can pray for God’s blessing on every aspect of our children’s lives and that he would use every opportunity to speak to them. We can pray for Christian friends and people of influence to come across their path, for their safety and protection, for their choices, their character, their future relationships, for the fruit of the Spirit in their lives…the list is endless.
Ella and Paul have four children, two boys and two girls. She recalls: “I remember being on holiday and saying to God, ‘I want my boys back.’ I committed to pray for them in earnest for six weeks. The girls were faithful in praying as well.” The story was not straightforward, but five years later both boys have found a faith of their own. Many other parents have a different experience; their prayers seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Brian has been praying for his two sons for many years. He comments, “At times I have been tempted to give up, but I do not believe for one minute that God is finished with either of our sons. Our part is to pray.”
Whatever decisions our children have made, and however challenging the circumstances, we can look through God’s lens of unconditional love and seek to make it the hallmark of our family life. Out of the overflow of the extravagant love that our Father in heaven lavishes on us, we are able to reflect the relationship that God designed us to have with him and to be the parents to our children that God is to us.
Katharine Hill is the UK Director of Care for the Family, and an author and speaker. She is the author of a number of family-related books including Keeping Faith: Being Family When Belief is in Question, written with Jo Swinney (Scripture Union)