Patricia E. Clawson
The birth of a child is one of God’s greatest gifts to Christian parents. Moments after children are born, and often beforehand, we establish the habit of reading the Bible to them and praying for them. Images of how they will grow up as godly blessings to others captivate our dreams.
To encourage their godliness, we have family devotions, pray with them for their needs, help them to memorize the catechism and Scripture, surround them with hugs and prayer after discipline, send them to Christian school or home school, ensure attendance at Sunday school and worship, cart them to youth group and camp, and try to live a godly life before them.
Over the years, we hope and dream and pray and worry for them. We get to know their friends and steer them in the right direction as they head off to college or to make it on their own. Many take up the banner of godliness and go on to faithfully lead their own families—a parent’s greatest joy!
But sometimes our beloved children go down a different path. Sometimes our kids go astray.
What happens when our children stop going to church and hang out with fellow students or coworkers who draw them into drugs or excessive drinking? Perhaps they became pregnant out of wedlock, struggle with homosexuality or other sexual sins, marry an unbeliever, have financial or legal problems, land in jail, or simply withdraw, melting into the sidelines of life. Sometimes we see them only when they need money or don’t even know where they live.
Our well-ordered world becomes a swirling storm. We can’t see or think clearly. We know the Lord’s grace is sufficient, but it is so hard to let go of our dear children. When they got into trouble as kids, we sent them to their room, took away TV privileges, or gave them a time-out. But what can we do now, when they no longer live under our roof?
Are they backsliding believers who may not have counted the cost of discipleship when they made an early profession of faith, or have they never known God’s redeeming grace personally? We grieve and pray. We ask others to pray. We keep the communication lines open and reassure our children, time and again, of our love for them. Perhaps on Sunday we ask—in hope—where they went to church. We blame ourselves. We blame our spouse. We look back over the years and recognize the damage our sins may have caused. When we emotionally can’t handle it any longer, we let the busyness of life and denial push our fears to the back burner.
For pastors who have wayward children, grieving includes concern about whether the father-minister should step away from his calling as one who doesn’t manage his household well. Seeking the advice of fellow presbyters, the minister is usually urged to retain his post if the prodigal child no longer lives under his roof. But often the pastor and his family become isolated, reluctant to share concerns about their errant child, especially with judgmental folk, who may have unwittingly contributed to offending or alienating their child.
Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotions on Mark 9:19 offer the parent direction:
When (children) are grown up they may wallow in sin and foam with enmity against God; then when our hearts are breaking we should remember the great Physician’s words, ‘Bring them unto me.’ Never must we cease to pray until they cease to breathe. No case is hopeless while Jesus lives.
Ungodly children, when they show us our own powerlessness against the depravity of their hearts, drive us to flee to the Strong One for strength, and this is a great blessing to us.
Grieving, you read Scripture for comfort and wisdom. You pray, pleading for your child’s repentance and salvation. You ask forgiveness for the impact of your sins on your child’s life.
When grieving, Psalm 42 reminds us, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Slowly God assures your heart that your child’s struggles are not just your fault. Eventually you reflect on what you did right by God’s grace and consider less emotionally what you could have done better. In a sense, you are where God wants you to be. You depend on him.
“Prayer and our trust in the Lord’s goodness as found in his Word have been the biggest source of comfort,” said one parent. “It is he that is in control and we rest in him.” When parents blamed themselves, a counselor’s advice helped: “No parent has ever been perfect except God, and look at his children.” _Indeed, God tells us in Isaiah 1:2, “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”
We long for a magic formula to raise godly children. “We sometimes mistake a proverb from our Wisdom literature—such as ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Prov. 22:6)—for a law-like promise that depends on our performance,” said one minister. “We must remember that believers come from Christian and non-Christian families. Likewise, unbelievers come from Christian and non-Christian families. It is all God’s work—not ours—in which we must rest our hope.” John 1:12–13 says, “To all who did receive him … he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Coupled with prayer is the need to constantly surrender your child to the Lord. Without that, the parent may try to bury the unpleasant and pretend that all is fine. Rather than being content to plant the seeds of faith in our children and leave the harvest to God, we may try to grab control out of God’s hands, making a mess of things. “Ultimately we give them up to the Lord and ask him to draw them back,” said a parent. “Ultimately he is the only one who can.”
Time is a great healer. “The older we get and the more difficulties we encounter, the stronger we become because we learn with every problem that comes, to trust in him more,” adds another parent. “He has been faithful in so much; we know he will be faithful in this too.”
1 Peter 1: 6–7 tells us that the lessons of faith bring joy: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
How should the body of Christ support parents who are suffering? Advice and preachy sermons are not needed. “We’ve all preached enough to ourselves. Sometimes a listening ear and an offer to pray, if followed through, are the best medicine we can offer,” one parent said. When asked for counsel, however, it may help to share what you have learned through prayer.
Ask the parents how their child is doing, which shows interest in him or her as a person. Allow the parents to share whatever they wish. “A comment, such as, ‘I always pray for Sue. Is there anything specific I should include?’ could show you are not just being nosey, but really are concerned,” said one mother.
While parents wait, hope, and pray, God works in their lives. “It has strengthened our faith and given us compassion for other parents whose children are not walking with the Lord right now,” adds another parent.
Jeremiah 31:16–17 reflects on how God called his errant child, Israel, back to himself. “Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.’ ”
If we sought to raise our child faithfully, and that child early on demonstrated a love for God, but later strayed from the faith, Hebrews 6:10 reminds us that our work is not in vain: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.”
Psalm 46:10 reminds parents, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations.” Despite what our eyes see and our ears hear, the Holy Spirit may be working a dramatic change in our wayward child. Perhaps he has undergone church discipline, but evidenced significant repentance, which led to restoration into full fellowship with his church. The child may continue to struggle in the years ahead, but by God’s grace, he endeavors once again to walk with Christ. What an opportunity that provides to thank God daily for his sweet and abundant grace in our child’s life—and our own.
While we wait, we must remember that our covenant children have heard the Word. They have heard our prayers for them. They have seen our example. They have seen God’s work in others. Look to him to work through his Word in their lives—and be thankful!
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. This article is based entirely on information given by Orthodox Presbyterian ministers and their wives. New Horizons, January 2016.