Guest Blogger: David Hinkley, Director of Children and Youth Ministries at University Reformed Church

There are very few griefs for a parent greater than a child who turns away from the gospel faith in which they were raised. The anxiety and fear is difficult to put into words—it feels helpless, hopeless and often very, very lonely.

A strange illusion of competing commitments is created. On one hand is the Savior who has loved and saved the parent and on the other hand is the child He has given them to love. Luke 14:26 moves from the realm of abstract affirmation to a cold and heart-rending reality.

The enemy works overtime to foment despair and relational destruction. Quickly the parents’ heart assigns blame to the following: their spouse (“Why didn’t my husband read the Bible with him more?”), their church (“If only this church had a better youth program!”) and themselves (“Surely this is a punishment for the secret sins of my heart.”; “If only I had done family worship more consistently”; “If only I had prayed for them more”, etc.).

A sad reality is that because of fear and poor theology, brothers and sisters in the faith can be employed by our enemy to tempt us toward despair. We don’t really want to accept that each of our children will ultimately stand before the Lord on their own. We devise schemes: “If I catechize, school them right, make sure they don’t miss morning and evening service and don’t commit any grievous sins, God will take them to heaven.” Those schemes turn into judgments: “Their adult child has left the church, obviously they failed on one of their important tasks”. Satan’s desire is to make us think parenting is a mathematical function with regular outcomes. Or a magic spell with happiness at the end of it. Or a reward system built around good works.

But it isn’t. Even if you had been a perfect parent, you could not have created faith in their hearts. Many of the things you worry about are true. You should have read the Bible more. You should have prayed more. You should have discipled them better. But these actions would not have produced faith.

Christian parent of a straying child, you cannot save your child. If your good works aren’t going to save you, what makes you think that your good works were going to save your child? It isn’t that what we do isn’t important in to their salvation—God commands us to train them up and teach them His word in order that they might hear His voice and respond. Our job is to create the necessary conditions for the faith to ignite.

Your job has been to teach the faith and to show them your own faith. Ask yourself, do your children know the gospel? Do your children know where your hope is? Do your children know from your life that God’s mercy has changed you? If the answer is no, now is the time to get to work on that. That was your job, and it still is your job. Your job is not over. The enemy wants you to believe that the time of your witness has passed. As if turning 18 and moving out of the home has now altered your child to such a degree that they cannot be overtaken by the miracle of faith.

Stop despairing, stop recriminating. Stop spinning your wheels. Repent of what needs repenting and move forward with what has always been your task: showing your child with your words and your life the goodness and trustworthiness of your faithful savior.

They are watching you even now. They can’t help it. They are watching how you deal with grief and with this grief in particular. You have to show them that He is enough. If you want them to catch the faith from you now, they have to see that Christ is sufficient for you. He is their only hope just as He is your only hope. That was your job when they were in your home and that is your job now.

We can’t save our kids, but we can show them how to get off the sinking ship. Even still. How?

Keep the truth

There are things upon which you can indeed “bend”. Don’t forget that saved and joyful persons actually exist on the other side of non-essential beliefs. If you have a child who is floating to the other end of some smaller theological/philosophical/practical topic, fight for common ground! Affirm what is good about their convictions.

However, love does not pretend that theological non-negotiables are negotiable. Rejecting the authority of Scripture or the reality of sin or the exclusivity of Christ will encourage your child toward Hell. Your child cannot (and will not) return to a watered down faith that has no power to save. Don’t pretend that the truth isn’t the truth.

Keep the relationship

You don’t have to approve of their sin to be a part of your child’s life. This is far easier to say than to do, but have faith that it is possible to have a relationship that neither affirms their sin nor ignores it. Cutting ties with your straying adult child will not produce the change in them that you want. Speaking the truth in love and showing the sacrificial love of Jesus may, however, create the necessary conditions for change.

What is more, it is possible to be firm about the truth and not tell them about it every time you see them. Maybe we think that if we just say something enough they will finally catch it, but it does not work that way. If your child knows what you believe and there is no “bending” about the essentials, you are then free to show them love, understanding and compassion—even to spend time with them without reminding them where their beliefs are errant.

Keep the faith

Straying children reveal our hidden idols. Believing parents can even feel that their faith has been in vain if their children do not embrace it. Remember that whether they will face their Creator with the covering of faith or with their sins exposed will not be yours to choose. You do not and cannot dictate the directions of their heart. They must stand before the just judge who is deserving of your and their faith. He is worth every cost and He is worth this cost that you are paying now.

What is more, seeing a parent that you love and respect walk by faith and prayer through pain and uncertainty is exactly the kind of thing that the Spirit uses to turn hearts of stone to flesh. Stop thinking that just because they didn’t catch the faith before age 18 that they never will. Have faith that your testimony will be used by God for a good purpose.

Keep praying

We serve a merciful God who is really there and wants you to ask him for things. His timing may be mysterious and even hard to accept, but there is no doubt that he wants you to ask for your child’s salvation and not give up asking. Your experience is exactly the type of situation Jesus was thinking of when he told the Parable of the Persistent Widow. Just like her, you must knock on the door until He answers. The clarity of this command should give you much comfort. His purposes and timing can be mysterious but he is trustworthy. Your loving, merciful and tender Father is clearly telling you that He wants you to ask for your child’s salvation like a bothersome old woman. Why would He do so if it was not for some very, very good reason?