What can we do to encourage our adult son to grow up? He's made some very poor choices in terms of lifestyle, jobs, living arrangements, and friends. After raising him in the Christian faith, we're deeply disappointed. At the same time we can't help feeling guilty and wondering where we went wrong. Is there anything we can do to reverse the situation without overstepping appropriate boundaries?
Your first assignment is to get rid of those feelings of guilt. Nobody is perfect. Every parent makes mistakes. You may have committed all kinds of errors and blunders, but that's not what makes your son who he is. He's defined by his own choices, not by your shortcomings. So don't blame yourself and don't assume responsibility for decisions he's made as an autonomous young adult. If love has been your guide throughout the parenting process – and the very tone of your inquiry leads us to suppose that this is the case – then cut yourself some slack and leave him in the Lord's hands. He's old enough to be his own person now. If you go around carrying a burden of false guilt, that will only hinder you from showing him God's love in the most effective way.
You didn't specify whether your son's problems are the result of a deliberate rejection of his Christian upbringing. If he's engaged in blatant sin, you should confront him following the guidelines laid down in Matthew 18:15-20. If he's simply irresponsible or immature, your response will be somewhat different. Either way, you're dealing with a prodigal; and since this is the case, we'd suggest that Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) can provide you with some helpful illumination.
As you may remember, the father in this story didn't assume responsibility for changing his son's heart and mind. He understood that all he could do in response to the young man's ill-advised choices was to wait. He waited patiently until the son finally "came to himself" (verse 17). And when at last the boy came home freely confessing the error of his ways, the father "ran" to meet him "while he was still a great way off" (verse 20). You should be ready to do the same at the first signs of a change of heart.
In the meantime, it's possible to communicate clear messages to your son about Christian values and biblical standards of behavior while still respecting his privacy and autonomy as an adult. This requires sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's leading, of course, and covering the entire situation with prayer. In practical terms it means keeping an eye out for opportune situations and teachable moments. It's a matter of speaking the right word at the right time. So start looking for creative and appropriate ways to assert and maintain your convictions while simultaneously assuring him of the constancy of your love. And don't hesitate to be honest and forthright if he asks for your opinion or advice.
You might also consider the option of enlisting the assistance of some objective third party. Is there anyone you know who might be able to come alongside your son and speak God's truth and wisdom into his life? A family friend, perhaps, or a relative, or a pastor or member of your church? An older male acting in the role of a mentor – a man your son trusts and whom he doesn't perceive as a threat – could be of great help to you in this regard.
Bear in mind that the Prodigal Son wasn't able to "come to himself" until he had come to the end of himself. It's possible that your son has not yet experienced enough personal loss and disappointment to be willing to listen to anyone. If and when he reaches a point where he is open to re-evaluating his life-choices, you can let him know that we offer Christian counselor referrals.
In the meantime, remember that there's a very real sense in which you are engaged in a deeply spiritual battle. You can find a tremendous amount of strength and encouragement for the fight in Beth Moore's book Praying God's Word. This volume can be ordered through our ministry by visiting our Online Store.