Your Best Parenting May Not Work

Why Children Still Walk Away

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Pastor, Glen Mills, Pennsylvania

I used to think if Christian parents did everything right, our kids would turn out fine. Now I know that Christian parents will never do everything right. There is no such thing as perfect parenting. And even if we did everything “right,” our kids still may wander away.

My son Nathan is a twin. We parented him and his sister Emma identically. Our daughter became the model Christian daughter, following our Lord faithfully from a young age. But Nathan rejected God. Watching them grow taught me that I couldn’t take credit for Emma’s salvation. God had ultimately done the work. It took longer to learn that I wasn’t responsible for Nathan walking away.

Parenting on Our Knees

When our children reject the faith they’ve known all their lives for the lifestyle of a prodigal, parents are left with serious questions. How can a child who grew up in a solid Christian home turn away with such resolve? Why didn’t my parenting work? Self-blame follows as the Enemy, our accuser, reminds us of our many failures, like the times we’ve sinned against our kids in anger or the days we neglected family devotions. The resulting condemnation pulls our gaze from God onto ourselves, robbing us of our own hope and faith and joy.

We all make enough mistakes that, if God allowed it, the consequences of our sins would ruin our children and land them in prison. I can remember the message God impressed upon my heart through our long and challenging season with Nathan, “I don’t want you parenting standing up. I want you parenting kneeling down.” God designed my parenting trial to humble me and draw me into a closer relationship with him through prayer.

Together with my wife, we learned that parenting is a stewardship from God to be worked out with God’s sovereign help and strength. Solomon said it this way: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalms 127:1). We were never meant to parent alone. We need God’s strong hands to build our house, and we need his all-seeing eyes to watch over our children, guarding the walls of the city. We fail our children if we attempt to parent them alone.

Sorrow of a Wandering Child

I can remember looking down at my pastoral calendar and seeing Maria’s name next to four o’clock. Her son, Destin, was a longtime prodigal. When the receptionist announced her arrival, I tried to remember if Destin was still in jail, or back with his mom, or in rehab for his heroin addiction.

A deep current of compassion flooded my soul before she walked it. My own son recently had his own run-in with the police, exposing a prodigal double life. I never imagined I would get the call: “Mr. Machowski, can you come down to the station? We have your son.”

Maria sounded a friendly greeting, but sorrow colored her words. She sat in the chair across from my desk and shared an update and raised her questions through tears. Should she welcome Destin back home again or allow him to experience the consequences of his sin?

God Understands Your Pain

The good news for parents like Maria and me is that God knows what it’s like to parent rebellious children. Consider what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). Isaiah goes on to write, “They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Isaiah 1:4). And then the God of the universe describes himself in three words that are all too familiar for parents of prodigals, “I am weary” (Isaiah 1:14). God knows what it is like to work, and plan, and provide for your kids’ spiritual growth, only to see them reject all you have said for a life of sin.

How does the Lord respond to his rebellious children? The first chapter of Isaiah gives us the gospel answer, a clear reference to the forgiveness that comes through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). If the gospel is the only answer that our all-powerful God has for saving his children, who are we to think our kids will be rescued any other way?

Never Lose Hope

Our prodigal experience lasted five years, until God mercifully rescued Nathan. Maria waited through ten trial-filled years for God to rescue her son. God used multiple arrests, more than two dozen rehabs, and finally a gunshot to the back in a drug deal gone bad to humble Destin and bring him back to the Lord.

In the months following Destin’s recovery, a group of singles from our church welcomed Destin to a weekly Sunday night bonfire prayer meeting. Three of my own children were there. We all watched as God took hold of Destin’s life. He began reading and even memorizing Scripture. He finally turned away from drugs back to Christ, and began preaching the gospel and helping others with similar struggles.

I had no idea when I sat across from Maria during those heart-wrenching appointments that God would one day weave our families together. My daughter Emma and Maria’s son Destin met at one of those bonfires and fell in love. Two years ago, they were married.

Today, as we hold Destin and Emma’s month-old son in our arms, we marvel at the grace of God. God has taught us never to lose hope or give up. God’s plan is bigger and better than we can imagine. So, weary parent, never give up on the gospel and God’s power to work through it to save your prodigal.