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The One Thing I Tell Moms of Wayward Children

My church inbox is normally nothing more than threads I’ve been copied on, an email asking our church’s position on an issue, and the weekly update message I keep meaning to unsubscribe from. About a year ago, though, I noticed an email from a concerned dad about his wandering young adult.

His son had moved from somewhere in Canada to Pittsburgh, and he was living with his girlfriend in an apartment near the church I pastor. He wanted nothing to do with the Christianity his parents had spent nearly two decades instilling in him. Uncertain of what to do, his father found my email and threw a Hail Mary. He asked if I would give his son a call and try to meet with him.

All this reminded me of Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). I was reading Augustine’s Confessions at the time of this email, trying to make sense of the young adults in my church. At one point, Monica reached out to a priest about her wandering son. She was worried about him, and she didn’t know what else to do. He had left his childhood religion, “swooped recklessly into love” (3.1), and begun exploring a cult called Manicheanism. Near the end of Book 3 of his Confessions, describing the conversation between his mom and the priest, Augustine wrote, “This woman asked him to be so good as to speak with me and refute any mistaken notions, to teach the bad things out of me and the good things into me” (3.21).

If Monica had lived in the 21st century, it would’ve been an email.

Worried Parents Should Pray

It’s a common story. As a young-adults pastor, I’ve had many conversations with parents of wandering children—with dads like the one who emailed me a few months ago and moms like Monica who contacted the priest 1,600 years ago. And, admittedly, it’s hard to know exactly what to tell them. Try too hard and you’ll probably push your kids farther away. Do nothing and it feels like you’re abandoning them.

Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

Monica, for her part, often leaned closer to the “trying too hard” end of the spectrum. Imagine a mom who would move into the dorm at her son’s college. That’s Monica. She followed Augustine as he moved around the Roman Empire, and sure enough, Augustine was often looking for ways to run away from her. Yet even as she nearly became the patron saint of helicopter parents, she did something I wish every parent of young adults would do.

She prayed for him.

Augustine spent his 20s messing around with a cult and chasing sexual experiences, but Monica spent the duration of that decade on her knees in prayer. He reflected to God:

Around eight years followed during which I rolled around in the mud of that deep pit and in the darkness of that lie, often trying to rise out of it but always taking a more forceful plunge back in. She, meanwhile a chaste, pious, and sober widow, such as you love, was already more lighthearted with hope, but she didn’t slack in weeping and groaning; she didn’t cease in all the hours of her prayers, to beat her breast before you, and her pleas were granted an audience with you; and yet you left me to wallow and be swallowed in that darkness. (3.20)

At another point, Augustine described his mother’s prayers as “rivers she addressed to you daily for my sake, irrigating the ground under her face” (5.15). She believed that God would eventually turn Augustine to himself, even as she felt he was walking farther away.

When Monica reached out to the priest, he told her to keep praying. He was unwilling to meet with Augustine because, as Augustine writes, “I was still unteachable, as I was full of hot air due to the heresy’s exciting novelty.” When Monica persisted, sending request after request begging him to have a conversation with her son, he became “sick of it, and rather annoyed” and told her, “Get out of here. . . . Just go on living this way. It’s impossible that the son of these tears of yours will perish” (3.21). If any one historical figure illustrated the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), it was Monica.

Wandering Young Adults Need Prayers

I told the dad who emailed me something similar. I told him it was unlikely his son would have any interest in a conversation with me, especially after finding out his dad had already told me everything about his life. I told him that for many young adults, there’s a period of wandering, as they’re searching for what they believe, when they won’t listen to anyone’s advice—no matter how insistently or eloquently it is given. And I told him that the best thing he can for his son is pray for him and be there for him when he runs out of options. He never replied to my email.

Wandering young adults, more than anything else, need moms like Monica, who will drench the ground with tears on their behalf. They need moms who will let them wander, believing—as Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited—that God has already caught them with an “unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let them wander to the end of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” I believe that behind many of the lives I’ve seen transformed in my years of young-adult ministry are moms who refused to quit praying even when it felt hopeless, pleading with the same kind of adrenaline-filled intensity of moms who have been to known to lift cars to save their kids.

Don’t Stop Praying

In his early 30s, when Augustine finally does convert to Christianity, the first person he told was his mother. He prayed, “She was thrilled and exultant and blessed you, who in your power do more than we ask or understand. She saw that you had granted her so much more, in me, than she had been used to asking for in her wretched, tearful groaning. You had turned me to you” (8.30). She died at 55, shortly after his baptism. Augustine spendt a large portion of Book 9 of his Confessions eulogizing her and praying for her, “so that all of them who read my account remember at your altar your servant Monica” (9.37). Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

I can’t promise that your young adult will convert to Christianity and write enough theological pages to fill three shelves of a seminary library if you just pray hard enough. What I can promise is that God is watching over your young adults, listening to your prayers, and working behind the scenes in ways you can’t see. Irrigate the ground with your tears. Often, it’s the prayers of moms like Monica that will open up the hearts of their young adults to hear the preaching of pastors like me.

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