Keli, a mom, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I’m wondering if you would speak on the subject of dealing with rebellious children. How do you keep trusting God when you see no evidence of his working in a child’s life?”
Well, this is exactly the right question to ask, Keli. How do we keep on trusting God? The crucial need for every parent is to trust God: to trust God that he has work for us in Jesus to save us from our sins, to trust God that he will fulfill all of his promises to his children, to trust God that he will uphold us. “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed. For I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you” (Isaiah 41:10). That he will keep that promise, to trust God that he will withhold no good thing from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11), to trust God that he will give us only what is good for us and that all his ways are just and wise.
What our children need from us most is to see joyful, hopeful, peaceful, obedient, trusting God, resting in God. And the biblical answer to the question — How do we keep trusting God in this and every situation? — is surely given probably most clearly in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And I think that means not just that you get converted and get faith the first time by hearing Christ, but that you also get faith, strengthened every day by hearing. Faith comes daily by hearing. Right now in this podcast faith doesn’t come from John Piper. Faith comes from John Piper’s reading the Bible and applying the Bible. Or it doesn’t come at all.
So let me give a few texts that would, I hope, strengthen our faith in respect to our children:
First, it helps parents, I think, to realize — strange as it may sound — that God’s own children rebel against him. Isaiah 1:2–3, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lᴏʀᴅ has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’”
No parent on earth has ever been a sinless parent or a completely wise parent or a completely loving parent or a completely patient parent. The sins that we have committed as parents in the presence of our children, and against our children, are countless, and we must constantly repent and seek forgiveness — from both God and them. But even the very best parent in the universe — God himself — has rebellious children (Isaiah 1:2–3). So don’t let Satan load you down with faith-destroying guilt greater than you can bear or should bear.
Second, remember that the apostle Paul gave himself as an example of the worst sinner. And that means not only that he did the worst things, but that he sinned against the greatest light. He grew up at the feet of Gamaliel, the best teacher of the Old Testament there was in those days. And he gave us this illustration to encourage us that none of us, and none of our children, is beyond conversion.
So he wrote in 1 Timothy 1:12–16, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
That means that all of the people listening to me who know somebody or who are somebody that have sinned so grievously, so long, grew up in such a wonderful home, and threw it away so often, are not beyond the power of the patience of Jesus to reach them. So we preach that to ourselves and we strengthen our faith with that amazing statement of the apostle Paul.
Third, meditate often on the truth that God is sovereign over the human heart and, therefore, is able to put a camel through the eye of the needle, which is impossible. And I say that because when the rich man turned away from Jesus, he did so because he was in love with the world — and you may think that is who your kids are. That is what they have done. They have turned away and they are in love with the world now.
Well, Jesus says about him, “‘How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!’ . . . And the disciples were amazed and they said, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Mark 10:24, 26). They were astonished. And Jesus responded in Mark 10:27, “With man it is impossible.” And that is the way a lot of parents feel. They shouldn’t dwell on that. They should dwell on the next half. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Parents, we must preach to ourselves over and over again in the salvation of our children, “With man it is impossible, but not with God, not with God. All things are possible with God. All things are possible with God.” And he is talking about getting a person who is in love with his riches or his worldliness into the kingdom of God. And he says, “I can do that. I can do that.” I can’t. You can’t. “But I can. So trust me.”
Fourth, focus your attention on delighting yourself in the Lord, not on delighting in the conversion of your children. Now don’t take this in the wrong way. It is right to delight in the conversion of your children. If you don’t, something is deeply wrong. But I am simply talking about what gets the focus in your life.
I am thinking, of course, of Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Focus your spiritual energies on cultivating a robust, deep, unshakable, satisfying delight in God as God. And only then will we be in a position to receive the rest of this verse. “He will give you the desires of your heart.”
Fifth, let the longing, the aching, the praying, the weeping for your children, let the longing that you feel for the conversion and the obedience of your children become the measure of your longing for other lost people. This has been a great lesson to me as I have raised children and how deeply I long for them to follow Christ. And then I wake up to realize: I am not longing for others quite that way. This is a convicting thing. Let God’s good work of producing desire in your heart for the conversion of your children produce a desire for the conversion of other lost people in your life as well.
Sixth, pray. Pray, pray, pray. Jesus said keep on knocking (Luke 11:9). He loves it when you knock. He will never grow weary of the prayers that you would launch his way for your children.