The bitter tears and anguish of soul caused by wayward children comes with a force akin to the worst kinds of grief. Just listen to David's lament outside his chamber door: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Sam. 18:33).
In many ways I feel too short-lived to give counsel deep enough for such grief. But God is the Ancient of Days and He has spoken. So let me use a few lines here to provide some solid footing for us all. I say for us all because these heartaches do not belong just to a mother or a father, they belong to the church too. As the church of Jesus Christ we carry each others' burdens - the burdens of personal sin and family sin - and in so doing we fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). It is inconceivable that we could walk closely with other believers without having to shoulder their sins and without having to lay upon them our own. The only communities Jesus makes are gospel communities of this kind. So I would like to address this concern of wayward sons and daughters for all of us at four points. May these help us keep one another's eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher our faith.
1. It is absolutely necessary to keep Jesus and the salvation He alone provides at the center of all our hopes for wayward sons and daughters. A well-ordered American life may be a blessing but it is not salvation. A well-ordered American life may bring us temporary relief but hide the lostness of a soul ("For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?" Mark 8:36). Parents must guard their own hearts against wanting a 'salvation' for their children that is no salvation at all. Laboring to rescue wayward children from the overt slavery of drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity is hard work. Laboring to rescue children from subtle slaveries like the fear of man, lust of wealth, and indifference to godliness is also hard work. But none of our labors should ever obscure the true gospel of grace: Jesus alone - through His love and lordship - is the only true Deliverer. Sobriety is not salvation. Virginity is not salvation. Gainful employment is not salvation. No measure of moral straightness will save a child of Adam from the condemnation of God's holy law. In the redemptive kingdom of Jesus Christ moral straightness comes from the overflow of Life. It is not the source of Life. Jesus alone is Life and nothing short of vital union with Him through the Spirit wrought by faith is true salvation.
Parents, resist the temptation to swap out the only Savior for counterfeit saviors and substitute salvations. Your covenant hope is that your children would be far more than white-washed boxes hiding the bones of the dead. Your hope is for them to come to life. The old story of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners is still the only grace that makes men live.
2. Then there is the repentance required of parents. Repentance is the practice of forsaking anything that does not conform to the will of God - habits, traditions, thoughts, hopes, etc - and taking up those things that do conform to the will of God, all for the love of Jesus Christ who has redeemed us. What might parents need to forsake especially in the event of a wayward son or daughter? Some parents may need to repent of a deep desire to see their children stay within the boundaries but without Jesus. Thus it is in a child's rebellion that a parent may first discover that what they really desired for their child was not a life of faith, hope and love in Jesus, but a life that didn't embarrass mom or dad. Some parents will need to repent of their long refusal to train and instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. Thus it is in a child's rebellion that a parent may first discover that they themselves have been rebelling against a sober life of God-centered faith and obedience. Some parents may need to repent of a presumption that their children would stick with the Lord because they, the parents, were always doing the right thing. Thus it is in a child's rebellion that parents may first discover that their years of faithful service to God were always suppose to be for God alone and not a series of down payments on a life uncomplicated by wayward children. Children are saved by grace not by the good works of their parents. Not even God, who always does right, has not lived free from the complications of wayward children.
Parents, be prepared that your child's waywardness may very well be a brightly lit road sign that God is calling you to pull over and turn around. "Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," C.S. Lewis said. Is He rousing you to repent for wanting something for your child more than His salvation? Is He rousing you to awake and repent for wanting a godly child while still indulging in secret sins of your own? Is He rousing you to repent of thinking your years of service for Him earned you uncomplicated children?
3. Never conclude your child's wandering means he or she has shaken off the hand of God. And more importantly never conclude that your child's wandering is evidence God has taken his hand off your child. There is, in fact, a noticeable way in scripture that a child's waywardness may actually be the work of God. I am thinking of that "work" that God has begun and that God will surely finish (Philippians 1:6). Consider Abraham. When God called Abraham out of Ur (Gen. 12:1), did Abraham became permanently fixated on God as the most compelling and sovereign reality in his life. Not at all. When God called Abraham the first thing Abraham did was believe and obey, but the second thing he did was doubt and disobey. It's not long before Abraham finds the nearness of Pharaoh and Hagar more compelling and sovereign than the presence of God. Thus began a circuitous, tortuous, slow life of faith. Abraham's life of faith, like the apostle Peter's, is far from Disney perfect. Progress in genuine faith suffers significant interruptions. Listen to our Westminster Confession explain the strange path the elect may travel:"...they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 17.3).
What parent would sign their child up for that? We wouldn't but God does. If I were God, I would never put up with the bad publicity of prodigals squandering a fortune only to end eating pig slop. But God does. Why? Why does God allow the children of faithful parents to make our most holy faith look so easily discarded? Because God is not out to flatter men - mere onlookers - with cookie cutter, plastic yes-men. He is not making poster boys, but men and women who grow to truly love Him and deeply trust Him. Becoming one who loves God, who trusts God, is a mysterious process, no less mysterious than coming to love and trust another mortal. Nevertheless it is a process that God never fails to complete once He has begun.
So when we see a son or daughter begin to rebel and throw off the faith of their parents, what we may really be seeing are the first signs of a search for real faith. The child may just be pushing beyond the borders where everything has been decided by others. The child may be throwing off the tidy and apparently safe faith of her parents only to accidentally discover the living God who is always good but never safe. The prodigal who comes home - yes, soiled and over-experienced in sin - may have more love for the Father than the tidy child who never left (Luke 15). As Peterson says in his excellent book, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up With Your Teenager, "What the parents must know is that this doubt and questioning and rebellion is evidence that something deeply significant is taking place in the personality of their offspring. Their teenagers are wondering what it is going to be like to maintain adult relationships with God....If parents will not permit the possibility of dissent they also prevent the possibility of a free yes."
Parents, God is sovereign in the salvation of all men, but His sovereignty does not produce Disney characters who follow our scripts. The prostitute who wiped the Savior's feet with her hair was somebody's daughter. When she stood and walked away radiant in Jesus' pronouncement that she had been "forgiven much," she had become a true daughter of an everlasting Father.
Even as I close this letter I can think of a lot I didn't cover: prayer (try reading Augustine's, Confessions, where his mother Monica prayed for years that her son be converted); church attendance (keep bringing them even if they don't like it, the Word is still a means of grace even for the most hardened); hospitality (don't follow your child into spiritual isolation, open your front door to gospelized feasts and fellowship).
There is much more to talk about than just the above. Feel quite free to call me and talk and pray about questions or holy strategies to keep trusting the Lord and waiting on Him.