December 18, 2019

From Guilty Parent to Hopeful Parent

Gary Thomas — 

Arianna was heartsick over the moral choices her adult son was making. Even more heartrending was his answer when Arianna asked him where he saw Jesus in all of this.

“I’m having to rethink that,” her son said. “I’ve had questions about Jesus for some time.”

Those were the most painful words Arianna had ever heard. Her son’s behavior was one thing, but losing his faith in Jesus? That was something else entirely.

Arianna launched into a self-directed diatribe about where she had gone wrong as a mother. Maybe she should have homeschooled him? Maybe she let him get too busy with sports and didn’t emphasize faith quite enough?

Is this my fault? she wondered. Was I a bad parent?

As a pastor, it’s always difficult telling parents that loving Jesus, raising children in a solid church, and taking time at home to instill the basics of the faith doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome. I wish I could promise that our faithful efforts will result in our kids loving and following God, but we’re not programming computers. We’re raising young adults made in the image of God, and that image rests on humanity’s ability to make choices.

I took Arianna through Mark 13:12b-13a where Jesus, talking to believers, says, “Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of my name…” In a promise none of us want to claim, Jesus foretold that some believers would see their children rebel, not just against them, but against Him. Our sharing in the sufferings of Christ may have to include sharing in the heartbreak of loved ones who walk away from practicing the truth.

Arianna’s response was classic: “I prefer the verse about ‘train up a child in the way he should go and in the end he won’t depart from it.’”

We both laughed. Don’t we all?

Another severe promise from Jesus seems to focus particularly on children: “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53).

Jesus is telling his followers that following him doesn’t guarantee our children will follow him. In fact, Jesus could actually become a dividing line separating parent from child. That’s not a mark of failure, but in one sense, a mark of faithfulness.

Admittedly, this is not a truth most parents want to hear, but the reason Jesus says this and perhaps one of the reasons God sought to include it in Scripture, is in part so that parents who watch their children rebel know that doesn’t mean they’ve failed as a parent. Jesus said this not to condemn us, but to prepare us.

Dr. Steve Wilke tells grieving parents awash in guilt, “When God created the perfect world for Adam and Eve and even that wasn’t enough to keep them from sinning, do you think the Trinity asked, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”

We could also consider King David, whom God called out of nowhere and made a man of great significance, even putting him on the throne of Israel. David responded by committing adultery and murder. Do you think God asked, “What could I have done differently? If only I had been a better father!”

When Jesus lived as the perfect Messiah, giving Judas copious amounts of wondrous teaching, perfect counsel, and absolutely the best example anyone could ever offer, and yet all that proved not to be enough for Judas, did Jesus ask, “What did I do wrong as a rabbi?”

Everyone makes his or her own choices and thinking that we can be such good parents that our children will never stray is to think we can “outdo” the Trinity. You cannot, as a parent, create a perfect Garden of Eden experience for your kids, but even if you did, they’d mess it up.

The Samuel Syndrome

Samuel was a seminal figure in Israel’s history and, by all accounts, a faithful servant of God (see 1 Samuel 2:35 and 12:1 – 5). Yet both his kids rebelled against God:

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges over Israel…However, his sons did not walk in his ways–they turned toward dishonest profit, took bribes, and perverted justice.

1 Samuel 8:1, 3

Some Christian authors have put the blame for this on Samuel, assuming he failed as a father (warning that ministry can get in the way of parenting), but nowhere does Scripture even hint at this. It just says that Samuel’s sons turned out to be miserable characters. Eli — ​whom Samuel succeeded — ​is specifically charged with not restraining his sons (1 Samuel 3:13), so the fact that the Bible remains silent about Samuel’s alleged failure likely means that God doesn’t fault him for his kids’ choice to lead ungodly lives.

Yet here’s the hard truth: as parents we ultimately wear our kid’s failures as though they were our own. I’m not saying we should; I’m just saying we usually do. We tend to take too much credit for kids who turn out well, and too much blame for kids who rebel. It can be a difficult truth that none of us can be such good parents that God becomes obligated to save our children’s souls. On the more encouraging end, none of us can mess up so badly that our children somehow extend beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

Consider Judah’s King Asa who began his reign as a God-fearing king, but he fell from the Lord’s favor when he relied on foreign powers rather than on God to defeat his enemies. When challenged about this, Asa imprisoned the prophet who spoke God’s truth to him. Yet in spite of such wicked rebellion, his son Jehoshaphat turned out to be a faithful man: “Now the Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he walked in the former ways of his father David” (2 Chronicles 17:3). Mercifully, Asa’s poor example did not pollute his son.

The Bible records instances of faithful servants of God who raise ungodly children (Samuel), and servants who abandon God but who yet have faithful, God-fearing offspring (Asa). It even records egregiously wicked kings (Ahaz) with heroic, God-following sons (Hezekiah).

Even if you were a perfect and wise parent always at your best, you have no guarantee that your children would always choose wisely. And just because you have many weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean your kids will suffer.

This is the “Samuel Syndrome”: It is possible to be a faithful servant of God who has one or more kids go bad. And consider the “Ahaz Syndrome” as well: It’s possible to be a wicked parent with very godly offspring.

I am not saying that children can’t be led astray and even damaged by deficiencies in our parenting. But the failure of kids does not necessarily mean we have failed as parents, even though it does probably mean we’ll feel as though we’ve failed as parents. Guilt is a given for a fallen parent called to raise sinful kids; none of us will be perfect mothers or fathers.

The Hope

Here’s your hope: the one person more concerned about your children, especially their spiritual welfare, is God. He is neither silent nor limited in his power. Here’s where I personally find a lot of encouragement: if God can win and keep me, is anyone beyond his reach?  

My final three words of advice to Arianna were these.

First, you may not know where your son is with God, but you do know where God is with your son: He loves him and wants him to be saved. “God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God isn’t just the author of our faith; he’s the finisher (Heb. 12:2).

If Arianna focuses her thoughts on her son and his choices, she’s going to be trapped in fear and despair. If she redirects those thoughts to faith in God, His character and His power, she will be buoyed by hope.

Last weekend, I preached at a church and afterwards two different mothers told me the same story involving their two different sons: both were imprisoned and initially, the mothers thought this was the worst news possible. Both sons became believers in prison and now both mothers believe prison is the best thing that could have happened to their boys. God can reach our children in places we can’t, with methods that are beyond us, using people we don’t even know. Put your hope in Him.

Second, a very wise Christian leader whose heart was broken by one of his children walking away from God told me that it took a full year for him to be able to find joy apart from the choices of his children. “I finally decided,” he told me, “that the moral choices my kids make won’t rob me of walking in the joy of Christ.” We don’t expect those who lose a relative to death to just “get over it,” and we shouldn’t expect those who feel like they are “losing” someone to rebellion to just “get over it.” Grieving takes time and everyone follows their own path through it. One spouse may be able to slough it off while the other may feel paralyzed with hurt and fear. Don’t let your varied responses to your children’s rebellion become a point of disdain or distance in your marriage. This is a time for extra marital support, extra grace, and extra understanding.

Finally, many parents have found that prayers for prodigals should focus more on Jesus than the sin. If your child is addicted or in trouble with the law or making miserable relationship choices, it’s easy to focus too much on the troubling situations, letting the potential consequences become the driving concern of your prayers. But that’s like attacking the symptoms rather than the “disease,” which is separation from Jesus. God could use an addiction, jail time, or a broken heart to bring a prodigal home. A sinner is not ultimately damned by his or her behavior; he or she is damned by not seeking forgiveness and healing from the Savior. Pray that your child will be overwhelmed by the compelling truth, stunning beauty, and rightful glory of Jesus.

Here’s my final word: ultimately, our children’s salvation never depended on us; the glorious news that gives us hope is that our prodigals’ return doesn’t depend on us either. God has many ways and many workers to bring his children home to himself, to the truth. It is our right and privilege to pray with hope and expectation while simultaneously allowing God to choose his preferred method to win our kids back (or for the first time).

You’ll never be alone in this battle. You’re partnering with the God of the universe who is more than capable of making up for what we lack, healing what we have hurt, and rebuilding what we have torn down.

(Part of this post is taken from Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls.)

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11 responses to From Guilty Parent to Hopeful Parent

  1. Gary, thank you for this – it’s exactly what I’m going through right now. Just this morning I told myself that I am not going to allow my kid’s choices to steal my joy and peace in Christ! This was just a confirmation of that thought and I feel so blessed. Thank you.

  2. That is a good word, Gary! Thank you!

  3. I shared your blog with some friends who have gone through this painful yet God conforming journey, with me, as some of our children fell away from the way we taught them and are now in the clutches of the world and it’s deception. Her response was so encouraging, edifying and powerful I wanted to share it with anyone who may need hope! She gave me her permission so here it is:

    Hi Barb… (in the night) I just read this article – very good! It’s interesting how in the desperate drive I’ve had to find truth, understanding, and comfort regarding our lost children, I’ve discovered the same truths with scriptural references the author has…in other words I’m very familiar with everything that was researched and said.

    Years ago the Lord gave me insight to see He was using the desperate situation with my children to draw me to Him – the God of all comfort! In a moment of conflict with my daughter Lisa, and with faith and assurance of this truth, I boldly made this pronouncement and confidently bellowed out, “ It’s been because of you children I’ve been brought face to face with God!” She had no comeback, and I dare say she’s probably never forgotten that God-moment of truth!

    I’ve had to remind myself of that truth many, many times! How that it’s not on a bed of roses we are conformed to the image of Christ, but it’s through affliction, suffering, and heart-wrenching tears of sorrow. Returning over and over and over again to the throne of mercy and grace to find help and relief in our time of need. Our sweet Jesus, always faithful and true, there, at the Throne of God making intercession for us because He’s very familiar with our human suffering. Not one time has He ever let me down-never, as I’ve followed His lead down the path of death… death to SELF, and everything I value more than Him-MY pride, MY reputation, MY children, MY fears, My desire for other’s approval rather than God’s approval! Of course, the GOOD NEWS, as we both know, is through that death comes LIFE in Him…what a mystery!!!

    Thanks for sharing! ~R❤️

  4. So thankful for this! I read Sacred Parenting so long ago… time to brush it off!! Since I am appreciating other books you have recommended, I would like to share here another title that has blessed my soul: by Jodie Berndt, Praying the Scriptures for Your Adult Children. Excellent resource of encouragement and guidance which is on the same vein as growing ME while I pray for our children!

  5. Wow! Gary, this is a wonderful post. So true and so very needful for all of us to hear, no matter the age of our children. You said, “A sinner is not ultimately damned by his or her behavior; he or she is damned by not seeking forgiveness and healing from the Savior.” That is a statement straight from the Throne. Scripture is clear that we are damned because we reject Christ. If only we could remember this on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing this wealth of knowledge and understanding with us. Blessings, Debbie B

  6. These words are so very comforting and healing for me with 3 prodigals. I am battling hopelessness and depression re this situation…..have had to come off FB to avoid seeing posts glorifying drinking and containing bad language.
    I feel heartbroken ….so will be reading and re reading Gary’s words…..thank you for reaching out.

  7. Oh, how my heart needed this consolation. I can’t thank you enough for the healing balm on my soul. Thank you so much, especially for exonerating Samuel.

  8. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We cannot save anyone–even ourselves. So how can we think we can save our kids? Thank you for this loving and thoughtful reminder.

  9. Gary, your words are a balm to this mother’s heart. My once committed to Christ son, has wandered away. Many years have passed. I thank you for reminding me God’s love is eternal and he loves him more than I ever could, and perfectly at that!

  10. Perfect timing for this. It’s been almost a year since my daughter’s spoken to me, due to a bad relationship choice on her part. But even with her estrangement, I am more at peace this Christmas than last year since I know she is no longer with that monster. God is using this time to bring me closer and deeper in my relationship with him, and I have faith he is working in her life as well.
    For every feeling I’ve had about this, God reminds me that he’s been through it. He’s been misunderstood, taken for granted, unappreciated, ignored, unacknowledged as father. He has walked this earth and truly understands our pain.
    Satan is hard at work in our children’s lives, but our God is able to overcome those lies in ways we can’t even imagine. As long as my daughter is still alive, that is the hope I hold onto.
    I would appreciate prayers for our situation and for everyine else dealing with this. Thank you, Gary, for being one of the few Christians to bring up the truth that parents can’t control what their adult children choose to do, and that we should not be blamed for their choices.

  11. Such a good post Gary. As a parent with young kids, 11, 8, and 5, I am not yet to this stage of having adult children who make bad decisions. But having young kids I am constantly in fear of that turning out to be the case, especially considering how my walk with Christ strayed so far off the path in my early adult years. I especially love the line “thinking that we can be such good parents that our children will never stray is to think we can “outdo” the Trinity”. I have never thought of it this way but that is absolutely right. I cannot control what my children might eventually do. But I can trust the One who already knows what is going to happen and what the outcome will be.