A few weeks back, I wrote about the hidden wound. (See post here.) The pain inside parents whose children no longer believe is widely felt throughout the church. So, how should a leader respond?
Last time, I mentioned shame. Let’s start there. And let’s start with a well-known verse in Proverbs.
Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
Many now understand (correctly) that the book of Proverbs does not contain promises. Instead, it contains general wisdom for how to live life before God. Nevertheless, a verse like Prov. 22.6 lingers. It may not be a promise, but it seems to give the impression of a quid pro quo. I do this, God gives me that. Even though the thinking is flawed, it crawls into many parents’ souls. So, when a child goes “prodigal,” it hurts. Some of the pain can be traced to incorrect beliefs buried inside a parent’s heart. One of the most serious has to do with control.
The newborn arrives looking beautiful, and vulnerable. In those first few days, the babe depends on you for everything. Absolutely everything. Housing. Food. Clothing. Warmth. Affection. Voice. Touch. Warmth. Ablutions. Later, the dependency decreases, but it’s still there. Toys. Travel. More clothing. More food. Sports. More affection. And it’s not just the provision of physical things. It’s the vast number of decisions that parents make for their kids – the friends they visit, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the church they attend, the books they’re read, the holidays they take, it’s all supervised by the parent.
So, when it comes to faith, why not add it to the list? No wonder when a child becomes a teenager, the paradigm shift is hard to take. The move from decision-maker to advisor wrong-foots many. No longer can we tell our child what to do and enforce our will. Now we must make suggestions, and the thing is, when it comes to faith, that’s tremendously difficult. Because we’re not really suggesting Jesus. We’re preaching him. We’re sharing him. We long, from the bottom of our hearts, to instil belief and trust in our children. So, when it seems he’s not enough for our 18-year-old, that hurts. It hurts deeply.
We feel like we’ve lost control.
And that’s an illusion. It’s a massive error in our thinking. Because we never really had any control in the first place! When it comes to faith, the idea that parents can control the beliefs of their children is simply false. It was false when they were toddlers, it was false as they grew up, and it is still false once they’re fully grown.
How does an awareness of this flawed thinking help a parent grieving over a “lost” child? Well, it encourages us to change how we think about our children. And about God himself. He seeks primarily a relationship of trust. He calls us to trust him, and when we mistakenly believe that we can control our children’s beliefs, we display both pride and a lack of faith. Any parent who believes that a child’s beliefs can be controlled has attempted to usurp the place of God. And when we despair, we display hidden fears about the trustworthiness of God. We doubt his care. That’s why this issue does – and it certainly should – bring us to our knees in repentance and faith.
The second step is the need to examine the source of the shame. If it’s embarrassment which arises within church culture, then that’s to do with our own respectability. Ashamed to own up to the reason your children aren’t in church with you during the holidays? That’s about appearances, and must be immediately discarded. Respectability has no place in a Christian community. Such shame is based in law, not grace. It’s rooted in our pride and must be confessed.
If a parent is ashamed, however, because they feel they could have done a better job as a parent, that is something completely different. If there is guilt related to workaholism, harsh discipline, lack of discipline, emotional distance, poor conflict resolution – the list goes on – then it’s time to seek forgiveness and perspective.
We don’t live backwards, we live forwards. There is nothing to be gained by carrying our guilt and shame through life. We cannot change the past. Instead, we must take solace and comfort from the truth that God is gracious towards us. And he continues to be faithful and good. Indeed, his servants seem to have lived lives of spectacular parenting failure. From Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, David and many others, the characters in the Old Testament display remarkable parenting incompetence. Yet God rarely condemns them for their poor parenting. Instead, he deals directly with each one of them. He blesses each patriarch and leader, because he chooses to bless them. He never, ever, makes the blessing of their children contingent on their behaviour. He never, ever, does that. Each patriarch is responsible for the life of faith he lives. He does business directly with his God.*
That’s why God has no grandchildren.
He only has children – people of faith who deal directly with him. Our children, therefore, must approach God directly. They cannot live their faith vicariously through us, their parents. Intimacy with God is available directly. Not only do they not need a priest, they don’t need a parent either. Their heavenly father loves them and invites them to draw near. They approach the throne of grace just as we did when we came before the Lord to seek forgiveness and find new life.
When a parent feels shame over the loss of their child’s faith, four truths may be of comfort to them.
A child’s choice not to follow Jesus is not an indictment of their parents. It just isn’t. It is not a cause for shame.
God’s love for our children never stops. His love endures forever.
God is faithful. We must entrust our children into his care, because he is trustworthy. Do not despair.
God feels this particular pain, just as we do.
When did you last read Genesis 3, and consider the pain inside the Father’s heart? His beloved children, his image-bearers, rebelled. They rejected their creator. From before the creation of the world, God knew this would happen, but he had yet to live it. And when he did, it must have hurt more intensely than we will ever know.
God not only knows of our pain, he lives it every day. For though billions rebel and turn away, he continues to love them with an everlasting love. Parents whose children have departed the faith are not alone in their suffering.
They are cared for by a Father who knows their suffering intimately.
And he is faithful.
* By contrast, God treats the nation as a whole quite differently. See Deut. 28 for a list of blessings and curses, many of which find their fulfilment in the history of Israel and Judah.