Today’s sobering question comes from a mother of a teenager, who asks this: “Hello, Pastor John. What would you do if your 14-year-old says she no longer wants to pray because she is no longer a Christian, doubts the existence of God, and doubts that Christianity is better than any other religion? She considers the Bible to be true just for Christians, considers church not essential, but has to attend and attends politely because of being a part of a family that values God and the things of God. As parents, how do we proceed wisely?”
Maybe the most helpful thing I could do is recommend a book that meant a great deal to me at one point in my own parenting when one of my children was in exactly this situation. And the book is called Come Back, Barbara by John Miller and his daughter Barbara Juliani. I think his daughter was 18 when she ran away, moved out, got involved with a guy, and wanted nothing to do with the family’s faith. The book describes what her parents felt and did, and then Barbara, who subsequently has returned, wrote responses to each of those chapters, which gives the book an unusual realism for how parental efforts were coming across.
Maybe the second best thing I could do is to point this mother to an article my son wrote back after that period of wandering, and we published it at Desiring God called, “12 Ways to Love Your Wayward Child.” The things he felt were significant while he was on his departure. But here are my front burner thoughts for right now.
“Build periodic times of prayer and fasting for your prodigal, and ask some of your friends to join you.”
1. Realize that this is something you utterly and totally have no control over. Faith is a gift of God. Perhaps a better way to say it would be that the eyes of her heart, not just the eyes of her head, must see Jesus as true and beautiful and desirable in order to be a Christian — and only God can open those eyes. That is the point of Ephesians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 4:6, 1 Corinthians 2:13–14, and Ephesians 2:8. God does use parents and pastors and teachers and friends to point children to Christ, but none of that pointing is decisive. God is decisive. It is utterly crucial that you as a burdened parent not bear more than you should or can. That is number one.
2. Therefore, since only God can do this, prayer is absolutely essential and indispensible. I would suggest even building into your lives periodic times of fasting for your daughter and, perhaps, asking some of your friends to join you in that fasting and prayer. I still do this. To this very day I still do this for critical relationships in my own family.
3. One of the most essential things to pray for is the seemingly impossible balance between brokenhearted concern for your daughter and indomitable joy in the face of this suffering: joy and grace and power and goodness of God. I know this sounds impossible, because it is humanly impossible, but nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37). Your daughter, indeed, your own conscience, needs to see that she does not have the power to nullify the hope and joy that you feel in Christ. She does not need to feel that she has that power. That would be extremely false if she felt that. She needs to feel that she matters and that you are deeply sad at her spiritual condition, but she also needs to see the reality of what she is missing; namely, your indomitable enjoyment of the grace of God, the peace of God that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7), and the goodness of God and the power of God in your life. That is what she needs, and she needs to see it. That is a miracle. And only God can help you do that.
“Pray for both brokenhearted concern and indomitable joy in the face of your suffering.”
4. It is perfectly right and good that, while she is under your roof and under your authority, she would live according to the rules of your house. You can expect that of her. She should give it. But you must labor to make sure that this compliance on her part is not, emphatically not the essence of what you are longing for. Many children think that being obedient and being compliant is what the parents really want of them so the parents won’t be embarrassed at church or among their friends. So, they perform. She needs to realize that is not the main thing you care about. What you care about is the gospel of grace. You don’t want to communicate to her that her behavior is the main issue. The main issue is seeing Christ as supremely valuable and enjoying his forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life. So, make the gospel central. Always communicate that there is hope for her future in Christ.
5. Don’t turn every evening into a grilling about her faith. And beware of outbursts in some hostile moment when emotions are so raw. It is a terrible time to talk about anything rational about Christ. Instead, make periodic lunch dates with her on a Saturday, and ask her ahead of time for permission to talk about spiritual things. She will probably give you permission. She will say there is no point in it, but ask her. These are like state of the soul lunches. When you listen to her heart, ask the Lord to help you know what things to ask about, what things to say. Especially ask about her heart, her emotions, her struggles at school and in relationships. Dig into the core, where deep decisions are being made.
6. Feed your own soul with the food of biblical truth, especially stories about how present sorrow and seeming hopelessness is a prelude to joy. There are so many of them. I am thinking of Abraham and Sarah, too old to have children: suddenly, Isaac. I am thinking of Job, lost everything and yet he saw God — and God restored his family. Joseph, languishing in hopelessness in Egypt for years and years and years — and suddenly he is the savior of Israel. Ruth, widow, poverty-stricken, picking leftovers in the barley field, not knowing tomorrow there is a husband and a child, thinking all was lost. Esther, ready to be destroyed with the Jewish people — suddenly Haman, her archenemy, is hanging on the gallows meant for Mordecai.
Or Jesus, most of all, right, most of all. Good Friday looked like an absolutely lost cause, like your daughter. And within days he was exalted to the King of the universe. That is the point of the Bible, that the situation you are in now isn’t the last word.
“Make the gospel central for your prodigal. Always communicate that there is hope in Christ.”
7. So, go ahead and have family devotions as you always have, but in general don’t put her on the spot. Everybody knows. This is not artificiality. She is not a full participant. That is the agreement. But she needs to see her parents loving Jesus in the word. Let those times be times in which you exult in Christ and the gospel. Let her see your faith and your concern for larger issues in the world besides your family. Pray about Syria. Pray about the unreached peoples in the Middle East. Pray about Ebola. Pray about AIDS. Pray about the government. Let her see that Christianity is large and ennobling.
8. And the last thing I would say is don’t despair. God loves to hear your prayers. He puts your tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), and he pours it out with his grace in due time.