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Good Parents, Prodigal Kids

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Matt Chinworth
Can you be such a good parent that your children won't ever stray?

Arianna was heartsick over the immoral choices her adult son was making. She asked him where he saw Jesus in all of them.

“I’m having to rethink that,” her son said. “I’ve had questions about Jesus for a long time.” Those were the most painful words Arianna had ever heard. Her son’s behavior was one thing, but losing faith in Jesus was something else entirely.

As we talked, Arianna wondered where she had gone wrong as a mother. Should she have home-schooled her son? Had she let him get too busy with sports? Had she not emphasized faith enough?

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

No guarantee

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 assure us of any particular outcome. Oh, how I wish I could promise that our faithful efforts will result in our kids loving and following God. But we’re not programming computers here. 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 13:12-13, where Jesus, while talking to believers, says, “Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”

In promises no one wants to claim, Jesus foretold that some believers would see their children rebel, not only against them, but also against Him. Our sharing in the sufferings of Christ may include the heartbreak of seeing loved ones walk away from the truth.

One promise seems to focus especially strongly on children: “From now on in one house there will be five divided, 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 her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53).

Arianna’s response to these promises was classic: “I guess I prefer the verse about training up a child in the way he should go, and in the end he won’t depart from it.'”

Don’t we all?

A line of division

It’s not a truth most parents want to dwell on, but being a follower of Jesus doesn’t guarantee our children will follow Him. In fact, Jesus says that He can actually become a “sword” of division, a clear line between parents and children, faithful and unfaithful (Matthew 10:34-36). That’s not a mark of failure for Christian parents. And the reason Jesus says this — and perhaps one of the reasons God included it in Scripture — is so parents recognize that a child’s rebellion doesn’t mean they’ve failed as parents. In other words, Jesus said this not to condemn us, but to prepare us.

Dr. Steve Wilke tells grieving parents, “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? ”

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 can’t, as a parent, create a perfect Garden of Eden experience for your kids. And even if you could, they’d mess it up anyway.

The Samuel syndrome

Samuel was a seminal figure in Israel’s history and, by all accounts, a faithful servant of God (1 Samuel 2:35; 12:1-5). Yet both his kids rebelled against God: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:1,3).

Some Christian authors have put the blame for this on Samuel, suggesting he failed as a father and that ministry can sometimes get in the way of parenting. Scripture doesn’t support this assumption. It just says that Samuel’s sons turned out to be miserable characters. Yet 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’ choices to lead ungodly lives.

As parents, we ultimately wear our kids’ failures as though they were our own. No, I’m not saying we should, just that 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. Yet, on the more encouraging side, none of us can mess up so badly that our children are somehow beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

Consider Judah’s King Asa, who began his reign as a God-fearing king, but fell from the Lord’s favor when he relied on foreign powers rather than on God to defeat his enemies. Asa then imprisoned the prophet who spoke God’s truth to him. Yet in spite of his rebellion, Asa’s son Jehoshaphat turned out to be a faithful man (2 Chronicles 17:3). Mercifully, Asa’s poor example did not pollute his son.

Ultimately, this is the lesson: The Bible records instances of faithful servants of God, like Samuel, who raise ungodly children. There are also examples of those who abandon God, such as Asa, yet have faithful, God-fearing offspring. It even records egregiously wicked kings (Ahaz) with heroic, God-following sons (Hezekiah).

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. Guilt is a given for an imperfect parent called to raise sinful kids; none of us will be perfect mothers or fathers.

The hope

If, like Arianna, you’re wondering if you’re to blame for your kids’ choices, here’s your ultimate hope: The one Person more concerned about your children’s spiritual welfare than you is God. He is neither silent nor limited in His power. I personally find a lot of encouragement in remembering this truth. If God can win and keep me, is anyone beyond His reach?

You may not know where your son is with God, but you do know where God is with your son. God, our Savior, loves your child and wants him to be saved. He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

If, as parents, we focus our thoughts on our children and their choices, we will trap ourselves in fear and despair. But if we redirect those thoughts to faith in God, to His character and His power, we will be buoyed by hope.

A 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 that the moral choices my kids were making wouldn’t rob me of walking in the joy of Christ,” he said.

But that joy doesn’t erase a very real sadness, and just as we don’t expect people who have lost a loved one to death to “just get over it,” we shouldn’t expect a hasty recovery when we feel like we are losing someone to rebellion. People follow their own path through grief and at their own pace — one parent can slough it off while the other may feel an ongoing paralysis of hurt and fear. If you and your spouse have differing responses to your children’s rebellion, don’t allow it to be a point of disdain and distance in your marriage. This is a time for extra grace and understanding.

As you pray for your child, fix your eyes on Jesus more than your son’s or daughter’s 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 situation, letting the potential consequences become the driving concern of your prayers. This is like attacking the symptoms rather than the disease, which is separation from Jesus. God could very well use an addiction, jail time or a broken heart to bring a prodigal home. A sinner is not ultimately damned by his behavior; he’s damned by not seeking forgiveness and healing from his Savior. Pray that your child will be overwhelmed by the beauty and glory of Christ.

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. 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 win them 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 you lack and rebuilding what has been torn down.

 

Gary Thomas is an international speaker and the best-selling author of 19 books, including Sacred Marriage and Sacred Parenting.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

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