Of all the painful experiences I’ve faced in nearly a decade of ministry—the death of a mother, couples enduring miscarriage, strife, abuse, divorce, scandal—walking with godly parents through a child’s rebellion may be the most difficult. Perhaps it weighs heavy on my heart because I was a rebellious child raised in a Christian home. But though nurtured in a spiritually and theologically solid environment, I ran from it—to spiritual darkness and sin—as fast as I could.
Not long after my conversion, people often asked me to reach out to their own children who were living prodigal lifestyles. I started to realize a few things as I brought the gospel to young adults strung out on pharmaceuticals, cocaine, acid, crack, meth, and MDMA. First, I realized how true my Calvinistic beliefs really were (unless the Lord—in sovereign mercy—redeems, all is hopeless); and, second, I realized most parents were at a loss to know how to pursue their rebellious child.
Today when I’m counseling the parents of a rebellious child, here are five things I tell them:
1. Pray explicitly for your children’s salvation.
Incessantly ask the Lord to extend redeeming grace to your children. While their rescue ultimately depends on his sovereign mercy, the prayers of godly parents often play an vital role. Such was the case with Augustine of Hippo, who attributed his conversion to the Lord answering the prayers of his mother, Monica. That account has been a constant source of encouragement for Christian parents.
2. Pray God will surround your children with strong Christian friends.
Through all of my years of rebellion, I knew my parents were asking the Lord to bring godly people into my life—and that’s exactly what he did. I’d often find myself working with Christians who reached out to me with Scripture and the gospel. My sister introduced me to new believers who’d been saved out of similar lifestyles of rebellion. I’ll never forget how, on one occasion, a biker at a bar witnessed to me and asked if he could pray for me in front of my unbelieving friends. That experience will forever be etched in my mind as a direct answer to the prayers of my parents.
A month before I was brought to saving faith and repentance, I met my best friend, Stephen. I saw something in his eyes—the joy and satisfaction in Christ for which I longed. Stephen tried to get me to go to church with him one Sunday night. I went—but left immediately before the call to worship. Still, I remember thinking, I wish I had what he has. A month later—after the Lord gave me a new heart—I called Stephen. Stephen was a direct answer to my parents’ prayers and efforts to surround me with strong Christians.
3. Pray God will do what it takes to bring your children to himself.
Though no one likes the thought of asking God to “do whatever it takes,” this is a prayer we should all be willing to pray for our children. The Lord often brings individuals to rock bottom in order for them to see their need for the Savior. When the prodigal son finally hit rock bottom, he “came to himself” (that’s shorthand for “repented”) and returned to his father (Luke 15:17).
Better to have redeemed children who’ve suffered hardship than healthy and prosperous children who perish eternally.
A similar dynamic lies behind the practice of excommunication. When persons are excommunicated, they’re “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that their spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Godly parents should pray that the Lord does whatever is necessary to save their children. Better to have redeemed children who’ve suffered hardship than healthy and prosperous children who perish eternally.
4. Pursue your children with God’s Word.
This is arguably the most significant thing my parents did through my decade-long rebellion. My dad was faithful to read the Bible to my sister and me. As I was getting into deeper and deeper spiritual darkness, my father was more and more intentional about reading Scripture to me.
I distinctly remember how, on one occasion, I’d been out all night partying and was still under the influence of drugs the next morning. My dad woke me up and called me to the living room. He read John 8:12, where Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” I sat there knowing that Jesus, the living Word, was speaking directly to me through the written word. Though I wasn’t converted until many years later, the Lord used it.
When I was a young boy, my dad taught us the significance of Romans 9. In the weeks leading up to my conversion, I asked myself, What if I am a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction? The truth of Romans 9, interestingly, encouraged me to cry out to God for redemption. The Lord used my dad’s teaching of even difficult portions of Scripture to bring me to himself.
The truth of Romans 9, interestingly, encouraged me to cry out to God for redemption. The Lord used my dad’s teaching of even difficult portions of Scripture to bring me to himself.
In addition to reading Scripture together, parents can write out particular verses in a letter or on an index card and give it to their kids. There’s something special about a handwritten letter. It demonstrates personal and specific spiritual care.
God has promised to use his Word to bring men and women to himself. As he declares through Jeremiah, “Is not my word like a fire . . . and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). Only the Word of God can break a heart hardened by sin and rebellion. Christian parents, continue to set his Word before your rebellious child.
5. Be loving yet firm with your children.
Far too many parents think they can love their children into the kingdom by being soft on them. Nothing is further from the truth. The Bible is serious and firm in its teaching against sin and rebellion. When I was at the height of my rebellion, my dad told me: “Nick, you choose this day blessings or curses. If you continue living the way you are and continue to reject Christ, you are choosing covenant curses.”
This was a powerful warning I needed to hear. My dad knew saying hard things might drive me further away from him and my mom, but in the end, he knew God uses such things to bring individuals back to Christ.
Far too many parents think they can love their children into the kingdom by being soft on them. Nothing is further from the truth.
That said, it’s possible for parents to swing the pendulum from the one extreme of enabling and weakness to the other extreme of heavy-handedness. There must be a balance between sternness and tenderness. The apostle Paul warns fathers against provoking their children to anger by being too heavy-handed (Eph. 6:4). We must always have hearts full of tender affection for our children, but we must be direct and firm in bringing the warnings and the promises of Scripture to bear.
When I hear that one of the children in our congregation is straying, my heart swells with sorrow. I think of the many hours godly parents have spent teaching them the Scriptures, praying for them, and having them among the congregation of the saints. I think of the pain they’re experiencing as they know they cannot change their child’s heart. I think of my own inability to change their hearts. I think of the hardships the children might face if they don’t repent. I think of the years of my own rebellion—and my powerful enslavement to sin.
Then I think of how God, in amazing sovereign grace, saved a wretch like me. I think of the many others he has redeemed late in life, and I’m encouraged to pray more fervently for the rebellious. I think of the fact that the gospel is for rebellious prodigals whom God loves to welcome home with inexpressible joy.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at Feeding on Christ.
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