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Q&A: How can parents encourage adult children who wander from the faith?

Some of my adult children have wandered from God’s path. Society has convinced them that everything they learned is false. What advice can you give to us grieving parents?

Growing up, I remember asking my mother, “What do you want for your birthday?” Her answer was the same every time: “That all of my children remain close to their Savior.” It was a frustrating answer because I still didn’t know what to get Mom for her birthday!

As I have gotten older and raised children of my own, I realize more and more how beautiful an answer it was. It is the only thing I want.

But what if you do not get that for your birthday?

How do you go on in joy?

What do you do? You weep. When Jonah was pouting because Nineveh was turning toward God, God asked him a rhetorical question, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). The meaning of the word concern here is “to have pity” or “to weep over.” If God weeps over those far from him, then his people have reason for weeping. God’s pity for Jonah led him to reach into the belly of a fish to save him. His pity for you led him to a cross to save you. Your pity for your loved ones will lead you to do whatever you can to keep them close to Jesus. It’s okay to weep over them. God does too.

What do you do? You take comfort in God’s Word. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Proverbs are principles, not promises. However, you can still take comfort in this verse. You start your children off in the way they should go when you bring them to their Savior in Baptism. Baptism is not a one-time event with one-time implications. The water of Baptism does not dry out, nor do the promises God gives there. You train your children in the truths of God’s Word and remind them of their Savior often. Even if they wander like the prodigal son, they still know the love of the Father, who is eagerly watching and waiting for their return.

Your joy comes in the knowledge that in heaven Jesus “will wipe every tear from [your] eyes” (Revelation 21:4). You may weep now, but soon Jesus will brush away those tears. Remember that your children are in Jesus’ hands, not yours. “My sheep listen to my voice; . . . no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

Therefore, what do you do? You let go of your guilt. Jesus said, “Whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Every parent is imperfect, but it is not your fault when a child rejects your training. Paul says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Your children are in a battle against something far more powerful than you. Only Jesus can win them back. Jesus has taken away your guilt. Take joy in his rest (Matthew 11:28).

How do you witness?

Generally, children stray from God for three reasons: falling into a sin they do not want to give up, being influenced by scientific claims that call into question the truth of Scripture, or apathy. No matter what the situation, remember these points when you confront your children:

  • Really listen. Listen before jumping in with God’s answer. Show that you are concerned not only with their salvation but also with understanding their struggles.
  • Truly sympathize. Who can say they have not felt their hearts leading them away from God and his truth? Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
  • Ask questions. Ask them questions to draw out their thinking both for your own understanding and to compel them to verbalize why they think about things the way they do.
  • Always bring it back to Jesus’ love as the motivation. You may need to use reason to defend the Bible and Christianity if your children have been led astray by certain scientific claims. You may need to apply Matthew 18 if your children are trapped in a sin. If your children are apathetic, you may use C. S. Lewis’ argument that Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or your Lord. The only thing you cannot be is indifferent to him. No matter what, tell your children about the love of Jesus. It is the only thing that will change hearts. Lead your children to see that Jesus is their Savior and Lord. On the cross, Jesus loved your children to death, and he wants only the best for all his followers.

How often do you engage?

Many well-meaning Christians think, I don’t bring it up because I don’t want to burn a bridge or I don’t want to push them away. Scripture does say there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Knowing the best time to engage people on the topic of walking away from God is not always clear. Pray for a heart of wisdom!

That said, consider that your apprehension may be the devil’s tactic to keep you from ever bringing it up. Remember that the only conversation the devil does not want you to have is one about the Christian faith. Sometimes, parents are waiting for the perfect time to bring it up. If the devil is a roaring lion prowling around and looking for someone to devour, how often do you think you will get a perfect opportunity? Not often!

You may be the best or even the only person to reach out to your children about taking the Christian faith seriously. God has given you a trusting relationship with your children. Your children know you are loving even if you bring up an uncomfortable topic. I once lamented to my father-in-law about how difficult it is to discipline children because their facial expressions make you feel like an ogre. He said, “They may not see the love behind the discipline, but they know that the one disciplining them loves them.” When you understand how important the conversation is, it is worth the risk of burning the bridge.

No matter what, tell your children about the love of Jesus. It is the only thing that will change hearts.

Remember that for as much as you need to point to what is wrong, you so much more need to point to what Jesus has done right for you. Let the gospel predominate because it is the power of God to change hearts (Romans 1:16).

Finally, remember Jesus’ promise as you continue to make disciples: “Surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). God bless you as you witness to your children. You are never alone as you do.

Have a question, ask it here!

Author: David Scharf
Volume 110, Number 5
Issue: May 2023

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This entry is part 3 of 63 in the series question-answer

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