In this series of articles, we have looked at how the children of believers belong to God’s family, growing up into the faith of their parents and being included in the sacraments of the Church—baptism and communion.
But it would be wrong to conclude that this is always a straightforward process with a guaranteed outcome. Yes, the Bible urges parents to bring their children up in the Christian faith, trusting that ‘even when they are old they will not turn from it’ (Proverbs 22:6). But at the same time, the Bible acknowledges that sometimes, children do walk away.
A real experience for many parents
Ann Cunningham from MU Sydney knows firsthand what this feels like:
You can feel alone—as though you are the only ones whose child has rejected the faith. You can also feel a sense of shame—as if you have somehow failed your child and God. Sadly, there can be perceived or real judgment from other parents or church workers.
At home, you can feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your child—trying to discern when to talk and when to stay silent, how to love unconditionally but not condone their new set of beliefs and associated behaviour. It teaches you about God’s love—God loves us wayward creatures, so how much more should we strive to love our children!
You’re in good company
The Bible—even the formulaic book of Proverbs—admits that raising children doesn’t always go to plan:
A foolish son brings grief to his father
and bitterness to the mother who bore him. (17:25)
There were many kings of Israel and Judah who did not follow in their fathers’ footsteps, like Ahaz: ‘Unlike … his father he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ (2 Kings 16:2). Ezekiel 18 is all about a hypothetical family where a father, who is just and righteous, has a son who turns out to be the exact opposite.
Even God—the most perfect, loving and patient Father there is—had children who rebelled, which caused him deep grief:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. (Hosea 11:1)
Pre-empt troubles and distractions
Jesus’ parable of the farmer sowing seed sheds light on the things that can steer a child away from God. One group of seeds doesn’t grow much because they have no roots—they stop believing when trouble or persecution comes. Another group of seeds doesn’t mature because they are choked by thorns—‘the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4:19).
As parents, we can help our kids to develop a resilient faith by giving them realistic expectations: being a Christian isn’t always fun or easy or popular. We can read our kids inspiring biographies of Christians who have stood firm in the face of difficulty and show them how knowing Jesus is more precious than any earthly ‘treasure’.
We can help our children to resist ‘the desires for other things’ by setting good habits of meeting with God and his people, even when life gets busy with work, sport or other distractions. If family devotions or church attendance are the first things to ‘give’ when we’re under pressure, our children will see where our true priorities lie.
Finally, we can help our children to stand firm by having some Christian peers at school or church. Ann says that a church youth group is a great place for our children to make friends who give them confidence, support, encouragement, guidance and accountability. Teenagers need to be in a group or ‘tribe’ and it’s best if that’s a bunch of Christians who can help them explore the big ideas of life from a Christian perspective. It’s like embers in a fire—if you take one out, it soon goes cold.
Ann has seen how crucial it is for kids to have solid Christian friends when the time comes to leave school (and youth group): ‘Our 16-year-old has recently changed youth groups so that she has more peers in her year group. I’m thankful she has changed because it will hopefully provide a strong cohort of friends to socialise with once she leaves school. I can’t make these connections happen, but I can drive her to youth group, encourage the friendships and pray very specifically.’
Give permission for questions and doubts
Our children need to know that they can always come to us with their questions and doubts about God without being dismissed as silly or ‘heretical’. Ann thinks it’s important to know about the teenage brain:
Teenagers’ brains are less developed in the areas of impulse control, complex planning and the ability to make sound judgments in complex situations. Their brains are still maturing and they don’t yet think like adults. So it’s best not to engage in a debate with your teen, because they experience strong emotions that they can’t always control. We need to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry ourselves. Our teenagers need to have the freedom to choose their viewpoint (even if it’s wrong in God’s eyes). It’s also important to hear the story behind what they are saying—the ‘why’ behind their often black-and-white statements.
As parents, we can provide a safe place—a supportive relationship where teenagers can explore their questions and criticisms of Christianity. This happens through an ongoing respectful conversation where they feel heard and valued (while not necessarily agreed with).
Provide other role models
Another key to help our kids persevere in faith is to include them in a church community, where they will be able to see examples of men, women and children of different ages, personalities and backgrounds living out their faith in different ways. As kids enter their teenage years, it’s particularly important that they have older Christians, apart from their parents, as role models and mentors.
And what if they don’t want to go to church anymore? Here’s some helpful advice from Al Stewart.
Persevere in love
If, despite our best efforts, our children do walk away from the faith, it’s important to keep loving them and commending the gospel to them by our life and words. Treat your kids like you would treat any unbeliever:
• Win them over with the beauty of your life (1 Peter 3:1–2).
• Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6).
• Ask questions rather than preaching.
• Always be prepared to give the reason for the hope you have, but do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
Even if our children don’t want to hear about God’s love, they should still be able to see and feel it through us. Keep spending time with your children doing things that they enjoy. Keep working hard to get to know your children, their interests and their friends. And keep being someone they can admire and emulate, even if they don’t accept the faith that drives you.
Ann says, ‘Your children may dismiss what you do and say but they are watching all the time. If you have a child that is particularly anti-God and living accordingly, one of the most powerful things you can do is to show them that you love them regardless, always offering them grace to return to Christ. (Note that loving your kids does not mean forgoing your boundaries, such as no swearing, no blaspheming or no boyfriends staying overnight.)’
Ann remembers: ‘Every night I would say goodnight to my daughter and tell her that I loved her. Often times she wasn’t speaking to me at all and for years she would never reply. But every night the Holy Spirit convicted me that as I have been loved, so should I love.’
In the end, we can’t give faith to our children, but we can exercise our faith for them—by entrusting them into the hands of our loving and faithful God. We can trust that God is still working all things for good, even if we don’t understand his ways. We can trust that God hears the deepest cries of our hearts. And so, like the persistent widow, we ought to keep praying and never give up:
Dear heavenly Father,
You love us as the perfect Father. You know our needs and are full of mercy and grace. Help us to love our children with the same love you have for us. Please forgive us for the times when we have not loved our children as we ought. Give us patience, wisdom, kindness, energy, compassion and strength to care for our children both physically and spiritually. May this bring glory to you in our homes. We ask that through your Spirit, you may give our children hearts that turn to you. Graciously use us to nurture our children in their faith.
Ann Cunningham, a mother of three, co-ordinates Mothers Union Sydney’s education program. She develops and delivers seminars on parenting and child development for churches and other organisations.
Harriet Connor is the Content Editor for Growing Faith and the author of Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life (Wipf and Stock, 2017). She lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and four sons.
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