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When Your Kids Reject God

By Rob Rienow
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A woman standing at the end of a pier in fog.
4 principles for encouraging faith in your adult children.

Leaving Home

After college, Gerry and Jen’s daughter, Melissa, moved hundreds of miles away. She not only left physically, but she also “left home” spiritually. She had been raised Christian and had always attended church. Because of a series of hurts, poor choices and spiritual battles, she no longer considered herself a believer. Like many other parents whose children have rejected God, Gerry and Jen were heartbroken and discouraged. Still, they knew that parenting was a lifelong mission, and they needed to continue to reach out to their daughter with God’s love.

They sent Melissa a letter. It was simple. They wanted her to know, in writing, how much they loved God and how much they loved her. There was no response, not even a polite acknowledgment that the letter had arrived. However, two years later, Melissa found her way back and embraced a relationship with God. When Melissa eventually shared her journey with her parents, she told them that God had used that letter to start the process of turning her heart back to Jesus.

If you have a son or daughter who is rejecting God, it isn’t too late for your faith to influence them. As Gerry and Jen knew, parenting is a lifelong mission. There are four biblical principles for you to consider as you embrace the mission of encouraging faith in your adult children.

1. Offer Your Heart to the Lord

Can we hope to lead a child in a direction we aren’t going? Consider Deuteronomy 6:5-7: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Parents tend to focus on that final thought—the command to help their children follow God. But in the larger context of these instructions, God calls us to personally love Him with all our heart before He addresses our parenting. We need to make sure that we aren’t rejecting God in any way before we can be examples to our children.

Prayer and Repentance

I believe there are two essential aspects for parents when it comes to offering our hearts to the Lord: personal repentance and praying diligently for our child. No one is a perfect parent. We’ve all made (and continue to make) mistakes. Have you taken those parenting failures to the Lord with a spirit of repentance? The purpose here is not to wallow in past sins, but to receive forgiveness and freedom through Christ’s work on the Cross.

Adult kids make their own choices and will be held accountable for what they choose. The parent is not responsible for those choices. But we also must reject the idea that how we have lived our lives hasn’t affected our kids at all. Our lives have a ripple effect through generations.

Next, when it comes to praying for your child, I encourage you to focus your prayers on the spiritual condition of your son or daughter. It may be that your son is struggling in his marriage or your daughter is experiencing stress at her job. These are important things to be praying for. But when one of our children is rejecting God, the focus of our prayers should be for the Holy Spirit to transform our child’s heart so he or she is drawn into a living relationship with God through Jesus (Matthew 6:33).

2. Turn Your Heart to Your Child

Next, ask God to “turn your heart” to your child. This principle comes from Malachi 4:5-6: “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of their children to their fathers.”

God speaks of a day when He is going to work in the hearts of parents and their children, turning their hearts toward one another. What does it mean to have your heart “turned” to your child? It means that the Lord has given you a passion, a fire in your belly, to see your son or daughter loving and living for God.

I was recently talking with a parent whose son had “come out” and was embracing a homosexual lifestyle. The father was crying as he told me the story. In a way, I was glad to see him crying because I knew his heart was “turned” to his son. I don’t believe that we will do the difficult work—spiritually, emotionally, intellectually or relationally—to pursue our prodigal children unless our hearts are fully engaged. 

We also must be on guard that our concern for our children does not turn to bitterness. It may be that your son or daughter has said or done things that have deeply hurt you. Begin by taking those things to the Lord in prayer, choosing to forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. Then ask God to remove anger from your heart. 

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

3. Draw Your Child’s Heart to Yours

The shortest distance between your adult child’s heart and Christ is your relationship with him or her. God created family and ordained parents as the primary spiritual influence in the lives of their children. Your influence may look different now that your son or daughter is grown, but it hasn’t ended. In Proverbs 23:26, Solomon writes to his son, “My son, give me your heart.” Solomon knew that he would have little or no influence if he didn’t have a heart-connected relationship with his son. 

Steve was 22 years old. His heart was hard toward God and his parents. In a counseling session with me, he expressed that his father had invited him out to breakfast in order to have a conversation with him. 

Steve said, “Now, when my dad says he wants to have a conversation with me, it means him lecturing me for an hour about all the problems in my life!” So Steve made plans to meet his father for breakfast, out of respect. His heart, however, was already closed to anything his dad might say.

In this situation, Steve’s father would have been far wiser to sit with his son and say, “Steve, I know that lately things have not been good between us. My purpose for asking you to breakfast was to listen to your perspective on things.”

Would you like to have more godly influence in the life of your adult kids? Influence flows through warmth, closeness, honesty and respect. If your children have rejected God, invite them to be honest with you about their perspective on spiritual things. The more you build loving relationships with your children, the more you can encourage them in their faith.

4.  Lead Your Child’s Heart to Christ

As God restores and rebuilds your relationship, look for opportunities to have honest, spiritual conversations. And trust that the message of the Gospel is powerful by itself. Remember Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” 

It’s not up to you to come up with the exact right words to say or the perfect actions to do. Remember that this isn’t your burden alone. God loves your adult children even more than you do. And as you share the Gospel message of God’s unmerited, unconditional love for your kids, the Holy Spirit is the one who softens their hearts and convinces them of the truth.

Talking With Your Adult Children About Jesus

If you are preparing for a spiritual conversation with your child, ask the Lord to give you the heart of Jesus. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). When we have Christ’s heart of compassion for our children, we don’t approach them with an attitude of forcing our religion on them. Instead, God can help us in these moments to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

We communicate grace to our children when we assure them of our love for them. “I love you, no matter what. There is nothing you can do that will make me love you any less.”

We communicate truth when we are honest with our children about their spiritual condition: “I am concerned for you. More than anything else, I want to see you thriving in your relationship with God.”

Having honest, personal, spiritual conversations will require courage. The Enemy would have you only talk about work, weather, movies and sports for the next 20 years. Perhaps you have heard this phrase: “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” When our children have rejected God, it is a desperate time. Ask the Lord for courage, boldness and faith.

God will not abandon you as you prayerfully seek to share the Scriptures and His love with your children. He has entrusted your son or daughter into your care. It is never too late for God to use you to lead your prodigal child back to Him.

Further Reading

Rob Rienow, Ph.D., is the founder of Visionary Family Ministries and the author of Never Too Late: Encouraging Faith in Your Adult Child.

Listen to our broadcast to hear more insights on how you can help your adult child reconnect with God.

Experts Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez shed new light on what Christian parents must do to reach their young adult children in their book Abandoned Faith.

© 2020 by Rob Rienow. This article first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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About the Author

Rob Rienow

Rob Rienow, Ph.D., is the founder of Visionary Family Ministries and the author of Never Too Late: Encouraging Faith in Your Adult Child.

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