Parenting a Prodigal

You know the verse: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, KJV). Then in Ephesians 6:4, Paul wrote, “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” We Christian parents understand that our love for our children includes passing along that which we treasure most: a living faith grounded in God’s Word. We want them to know and serve their Heavenly Father, who cares for them more than we do and protects them from Satan’s schemes.

So, what are we to think when we’ve tried our best—when we’ve read and followed all the books, articles, and sermons—but our best seems not to have been good enough? We’ve eaten our meals together, had devotional times with our children, modeled the faith before them, brought them up in the church. And yet as they grow older, they appear to reject what we most wanted to give.

We’ve been there; it’s a crushingly painful reality. It feels much like Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance. At the first signs of trouble, we want to believe it’s just a phase they are going through. They tell us everything is fine, and we hope it’s true. But it isn’t fine. Instead, we see growing expressions of resentment when we can’t approve of their choices, and in turn we too might lash out in hurtful ways.

Then, in desperation, we might resort to bargaining and manipulation. But this is counterproductive, and so the pain only increases. Why is God allowing this to happen to our child, and to us? We did the right things the best we knew how. Where did we go wrong? About this time a friend wisely reminded us, “If you take the blame for what has gone wrong with your child, you should also be able to take credit for the things that went right.” True, we mustn’t do that. In the Bible we see that God did everything right, and yet he often wrestled with his wayward children. Why should it be any different for us? God doesn’t force himself on us, and we can’t force our will on our children either. They must choose for themselves the path they will walk and live with the outcomes. Each of us does battle with an old sinful nature, and it’s only by his grace that any of us are walking in faith.

But knowing this doesn’t make the journey easier. There were days when we unexpectedly burst into tears in front of others or had to pull out of traffic until we could regain control. There was the time when the thought surfaced, “If only I didn’t believe.” In a way, it was our beliefs that made this so hard.  Our children’s choices were outside of God’s will for them, while our heart’s desire was to see them faithfully walking in his way. Without a strong faith and strong belief in a lifestyle rooted in God’s Word, we still could have been disappointed, but it wouldn’t have been as painful as having to choose between God and our child. Our convictions were being tested. Another wise friend counseled us that we needed to not waver in our biblical faith and convictions. Then, if we were so blessed to see our children turn back to the Lord (and to us), they would see us as the “strong rock that never moved.”

We also discovered that a child’s rebellion often results in conflict between the parents.  We each grieved differently and on a different timeline. As a mother, it may have been more difficult to face the hard facts. It was crucial that we didn’t blame each other (though we still did sometimes). We needed to stay on the same page in responding to our child’s choices. We set aside regular times as a couple to talk through the issues together and listen to each other.

On the positive side, we saw other Christian parents with similar experiences open up to us. This is a topic we don’t often talk about in church, and so parents can feel like failures when they find themselves unable to keep their child growing in the faith. And then there are those families where all the children grow up blossoming in their faith; why is that? How do we respond without envy when God blesses other families this way? (And similarly, how do families so blessed respond in humble compassion toward families living through the pain of a child’s rebellion?)

And what about forgiveness? We would hear from others, “You just have to love and accept them.” But instead, we found forgiveness looked more like avoiding getting stuck in bitterness and anger as we tried to carry on with daily life. It amazed us that while our Christian convictions required us to say, “No, we cannot approve of, let alone celebrate these choices you are making,” it was this same Christian faith that gave us the strength and power to love and forgive while working toward reconciliation with our children.

We also learned that if there are other children in the family, we need to be sure we don’t let our grief over the one child become the “elephant in the room” when we’re with other family members. Our family times and decisions mustn’t be governed by the actions and decisions of the rebellious child. To let that happen is to penalize the others unfairly.

What kept us sane? For one of us, it was lots of crying, but it was also seeing we weren’t alone—others, too, were in hard situations. Our small group from church surrounded us with loving encouragement and prayer. We enjoyed mentoring relationships with other young adults the same ages as our children and saw them grow and mature in their faith with Jesus. And we were reminded by God that he loves our children more than we do, that in fact he loves everyone as much as he loves our children.

Above all, we need to remember that our God of forgiveness and mercy knows the end from the beginning, and we do not. The last chapter on our family is not yet written. We continue to pray daily for our children and grandchildren and strive to be a loving and positive witness in our interactions with them. We have seen God answer prayer and bless our family in ways we could not foresee. But even if that were not so, we remember that while we strive to disciple our children as best we can, it is not in our power to determine our children’s lives for them. Proverbs 22:6 is a general observation, not a promise of God. We leave all things in his hands.

“His works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, the author has requested to stay anonymous.

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