How Did I Fail My Unbelieving Children?
We hear from grieving parents a lot. And I suppose that to parent in this broken world is pretty much a guarantee of parental grieving. So what do you do when your children grow up in the church, but then leave the faith, and you are left with the linger question over how you failed them in the process. Today’s email comes from a father: “Pastor John, does God promise to save my children? Some teachers say that I need to have faith and that I should claim it and that God would save them. I have four children. All raised in the local church. All walked away from the faith. Two seem to be returning, but both struggle with sinful lifestyles. The other two are very far from God. I’m so depressed over my children’s spiritual condition and have asked the Lord to forgive me for being depressed. Do you have any advice for me?”
There are two painful questions here: (1) Does the Bible promise to save our children? (2) What do I do if I feel like I have failed or I’m just depressed because I don’t know?
Promise to Save?
First, does God promise to save my children? That’s the way some people construe Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” I doubt this is an absolute promise but is a generalization that we can hope for, pray for, and work for.
“I don’t think the Bible gives any absolute promise that faithful parenting will result in faithful children.”
In fact, there is another vying possible translation of this verse: “Bring up a child in his own way” — that’s a literal translation — “and when he is old he will not depart from it.” “His own way” might be bad, which means it’s a threat, not a promise. Bring up a child in his own way, and you’re going to lose him. So don’t bring him up in his own way; bring him up in God’s way.
But in either case (I’m not going to argue for that translation), warning or promise, I don’t see the nature of Proverbs or the rest of the Bible suggesting that this is an absolute guarantee of believing children to believing and faithful parents.
I’ve got three reasons for that and more, but here’s three:
1. In Isaiah 1:2 God says, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.’” Now, if it were true that good parenting always resulted in faithful children, that would be a very strange thing for God Almighty, who is the perfect parent, to say.
2. I’m reading right now this long, sorry history of the kings of Israel — with bad kings being followed by sons who turned out to be good kings, and good kings who were followed by sons who turned out to be bad kings. It is a simply stunning mixture of good and evil and gives me great pause not to make quick and easy assumptions that the bad always produce bad kids and the good always produce good kids. It’s simply not true. It’s not so simple — not in the Bible.
3. The third is the most important for me. Jesus said about family relations and the effect his gospel has on them,
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51–53)
Even more strikingly, Matthew 10:21: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”
Now, all in all (as I look at those and lots of other things), I don’t think the Bible gives any absolute promise to parents that faithful parenting will result in faithful children. It’s likely to produce faithful children — and we should pray and hope that it will. But I don’t think an absolute promise exists, which leads now to the last part of the question.
Hope for Failed Parenting
What am I going to do with the horrific discouragement? He’s talking about depression here that is undoing him over the unbelief of all four of his children. What are we to do?
“We must hand over the souls of our children to the sovereign goodness and wisdom of God and forsake anxiety.”
The first thing I would say is that none of us can pass final judgment on our own parenting, and neither can our children. Their memories and our memories are fallible. Situations are very complex. We can know for sure that there will always be some sins against our children that should be confessed to God, confessed to them, and made right as far as they will allow us to make it right. But that is no final judgment about how we did. That will only come to light at the last day, and that’s true for our children in their assessment as well as our own assessment.
This means that the possibilities of peace, joy, hope, and love in the present moment cannot depend decisively on our assessment, or how we did as parents.
We all sinned. We all did less than we could. None of us prayed as much as we could. None of us fasted as much as we could. Did you fast at all? None of us humbled ourselves as much as we could. None of us was consistent in our life as we could have been. None of us was faithful to the word of God as we could have been. None of us in exhortation, kindness, meekness, or gentleness was as good as we could have been. It is hopeless to base our present peace and joy on the assurance that we did a good job as parents. That is building a house on sand.
Covered in Christ
Our hope in the present moment to survive emotionally and even thrive amid the profound, gut-wrenching disappointments of life is the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners — to save parents from their sins and to save children from their sins.
We must build our present lives on the gospel and not on parenting successes and not be undone by parenting failures. That’s a denial of the gospel. The key is to seek — to ask God — by the Holy Spirit, to give us the faith and the wisdom to weave together the following three passages of Scripture and walk in the footsteps of the apostle Paul. Here they are. These seem utterly impossible, but hear me out.
1. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2–3).
We do have anguish over those we love who are not believing.
2. “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).
We do devote ourselves unstintingly — morning and night, day after day — to earnest prayer that those we love will be saved. We engage in special seasons of focused prayer. We draw friends into that. We, as led by the Lord, fast for our children.
3. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
We hand over our souls and the souls of our children to the sovereign goodness and wisdom of God and forsake anxiety.
Now, in the natural, human heart, this combination of emotions is impossible. It certainly seems so to me from time to time: (1) unceasing anguish in your heart because of the lostness of your loved ones, (2) daily earnest intersession to God on their behalf, (3) peace that passes all understanding because we entrust ourselves and our loved ones to God.
I suppose that is precisely why Paul calls it “peace that surpasses all understanding.” It isn’t based on rational deduction.
The peace of God in these kinds of situation — painful situations — that peace is a miracle. It is a gift. It cannot be produced by the natural reasoning mind. So, may the Lord give us (give our friend who wrote this painful note), grace to live in this kind of peace in spite of all our troubles, so that our children can see it, because that’s what they need more than anything.