Too many pillows are soaked by the tears of parents who have tried to be consistent, to keep their kids in church, and to raise them in obedience to God’s Word, only to see them leave home, leave church, and leave God. It hurts.
So, do you know what else hurts? Watching your parents go through anguish over your spiritual decisions and feeling utterly and completely helpless.
This is a theme I’ve noticed in Christian articles for parents of children who have left the faith: they only recognize one side of the pain. Let me tell you—feeling like you are losing your parent because they cannot come to terms with you making different decisions about religion is excruciating.
And no, “just go back to their religion” is not the answer, because that is not how this works, particularly when we’re talking about a religion like evangelicalism that is beliefs-based. This isn’t the sort of thing where you can recite some prayers and go through some actions and they’ll be happy again. It’s about what you believe, inside.
Rand Hummel, the author of this Answers in Genesis article, draws on a series of verses from Jude to inform his three-part analysis of how parents should respond when their children leave the faith. Here is the first:
Some Are Playing with Fire and Must Be Warned
“And have mercy on some, who are doubting” (Jude 22, NASB).
You must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Show the same mercy and compassion that God has shown you. Hear them out. Tell them why you believe what you believe rather than demanding blind allegiance. It is especially vital to help them see the flaws in the secularist reasoning that surrounds them. Solomon said, “My son, give me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26). If you don’t have the heart of your children, you will never impact their lives. Go on a vacation and take time to win back their hearts. Through their times of doubt, they need patient listeners and biblical direction.
This sounds great, but in practice it doesn’t always work out that way. The problem is that because of the pain Hummel already mentioned, parents can’t always effectively initiate this process. It’s too easy for the child (of whatever age) to tell what the stakes are, which makes the conversation uncomfortable (if not impossible) from the outset.
When I began questioning some of my parents’ beliefs—starting with young earth creationism—my questions caused them so much pain that they could not talk about it. I’m not sure I could have talked about my questions with them even if they could have engaged in a conversation, because I could tell how upset they were, and that hurt.
I think it also matters that I was raised in a home that required immediate and complete obedience. When I began questioning, I was still new enough to adulthood that my parents still felt like authority figures. That meant that conversations couldn’t be equal, with true give and take. Asserting myself even in small ways, when I knew they were extremely upset with me, was like grinding gears.
Also, it’s not generally a good idea to go into a relationship assuming you can change someone. That’s not how give and take works. “Hear them out” doesn’t mean anything if you’re not willing to actually listen and consider their perspective.
Ah, but we’re not done, are we?
Some Are Falling into the Fire and Must Be Helped
“Save others, snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23a, NASB).
Until kids are 18, you have the opportunity to put as many restraints and reminders in their paths as you can. They may hate you for it at the time, but they will thank you later. Don’t be afraid to lovingly limit their entertainment, filter their computers, or question the foolishness of their friends. Our fear of God and our love for our kids should motivate us to rescue them from even the possibility of God’s judgment.
Um … let’s just say that I’ve known multiple cases where something like this happened, and it did not go well. And no, the individuals involved did not thank their parents later.
I wonder if part of the problem here is the category questioning religion is being put in here. There are circumstances where it absolutely might be merited to put the controls in on a teenager—say, if they’re abusing drugs or into petty crime—but them questioning their faith is not one of them, and honestly, censorship isn’t going to make them for questioning your beliefs is not going to make them think any better of your beliefs.
(For the record, I’d want to talk to some experts before putting the controls down on a teen for drugs or criminal behavior, because even there I’m not sure how much external control actually helps. You can put a vase a two-year-old won’t stop knocking over in the top kitchen cupboard and have done with it, but teenagers are not two years old.)
Finally, Hummel offers this:
Some Are Being Burned by the Fire and Must Be Committed to the Lord’s Grace
“And on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23b, NASB).
EVEN IF YOUR KIDS HAVE LEFT HOME, THEY ARE NEVER OUT OF GOD’S REACH.
Even if your kids have left home, they are never out of God’s reach. When you pray, make sure God is the object of your faith. If He can change the heart of a king, He can change the heart of your child. Release your kids into His care to do whatever is necessary for them to be reconciled to Him—whatever is necessary. Be careful not to fund their sin, soften God’s chastising hand, or rescue them out of the pigsty. And always guard your own relationship with Christ against contamination. As Bible commentator William Barclay notes, “He who would cure an infectious disease always runs the risk of infection.”
I was okay until I got to those last few sentences! We’ll come back to those in a moment.
The bit about releasing your kids to God and praying for them is the one redeeming bit here. It’s what I wanted my own parents to do. I knew that I could not control my parents’ belief that I would go to hell if I were not saved any more than they could control my questioning. I wanted someone to remind them that God is in control and God is sovereign and all you can do is pray.
But then there’s the contamination and infectious disease bit, come to spoil the party. What does that mean, exactly? Is atheism contagious?
I do have one point of reference. When my parents found out I was questioning things their first response was “what are we going to tell the other kids?” I had younger siblings, you see. That comment was like a punch in the gut. It made me feel exactly like the picture Hummel is painting here—contagious. Dangerous. Something that needs to be kept at an arm’s length.
Funny, I don’t remember Jesus refusing to go near lepers or sinners for fear of contagion.
Anyway, Hummel offers this final paragraph:
Even the best parents will make mistakes, but in the end our children are responsible for their own choices. We can prepare our kids for judgment, but they will kneel alone before God. The only perfect Father is our heavenly Father, yet consider how we treat Him. “Lord, we need Your mercy for our kids and ourselves.”
Hummel suggests that parents compare the relationship between them and their children to the relationship between God and them. I understand what he’s trying to do—he’s trying to suggest that the parents in this scenario fall short of God’s desires for them too, and God is a perfect parent, so they shouldn’t be too terribly hard on their kids for failing their desires for them—but this, too, feels off.
Parents are not in the place of God in their children’s lives. Look, in general I’m pretty much okay with talking about God as father and encouraging parents to be as forgiving and loving toward their children as God is to them (although that really depends on exactly what they believe about God), I get that that’s a metaphor and metaphors can be helpful to understanding our place in the world.
But this isn’t in general.
Here we’re talking not about parents disappointing children (i.e. parents striving to be more like a loving God construct toward their children), we’re talking about children disappointing their parents—and the parents in this scenario being compared with God—when we’re talking about beliefs. This isn’t about one of your teens staining your couch after you told them not to eat on it.
Adult children’s disobedience to their parents is being equated with their people’s disobedience to God—and that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps Hummel’s readers will focus more on the bit about praying and releasing your young adult children to God than on this, or the part about contagion, polluted garments, and infections disease.
I mean, I can hope, right?
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