Dealing with Despondency In Christian Parents of Grown Children
The Bradford’s 18-year-old daughter isn’t just irritable in relation to them. She’s testing all their boundaries. She insists that going to church is “a waste of time,” because she no longer believes the Bible or Christianity.
Albert, the Rogers’ 33-year-old son, also grew up in the church, and like the Bradford’s daughter, made a childhood profession of faith. Even now, when his parents visit their two grandchildren, he hugs them and says he loves them, so there’s no animosity. Yet since his wedding a decade ago, neither he nor his wife have attended a local church. Neither their son or daughter-in-law ever broach the issue of faith. The Rogers lament the lack of spiritual nurture in the lives of their grandkids.
Both sets of parents, staunch conservative Christians, struggle with guilt and self-recrimination. Roiling around in their minds are these questions: “Where did we go wrong? What did we do, or fail to do, that eroded our child’s beliefs?” Their burden prompts a lot of prayer, but also a nagging sense of delinquency in relation to their parenting.
Why do they blame themselves?
One reason may be a misunderstanding or erroneous interpretation of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
A typical reasoning of a parent who reads or hears this verse goes like this: “The second half of this verse contains a promise. So if my grown child shucks his faith, or perhaps never believed, the cause must be my failure to obey the first half of the verse–to train properly. I didn’t meet the condition for the fulfillment of the promise.”
I want to assuage parents’ false guilt and self-reproach. I label such guilt “false” because I don’t believe Proverbs 22:6 is an ironclad, absolute promise that a child will not stray spiritually. The reason for a lack of faith in grown children is not necessarily a deficit in the way they were raised, or in the example set by their parents. Obviously, parents exert a powerful influence, both negatively and positively, on the spiritual outcome of their children. But that doesn’t mean they are automatically culpable when a child rejects Christianity.
I’ll admit that in some cases, God’s Word clearly lays the blame for a wayward or morally-bankrupt grown child at the feet of parents. Two prime examples involve fathers: David, in relation to Adonijah (1 Kings 1), and Eli the priest, in relation to his sons (1 Samuel 2-4). In both instances the father deserved criticism for not confronting his sons early on. And in Eli’s case, for honoring his sons above God.
Nonetheless, I’ll explain four reasons why parents’ self-condemnation is often misguided.
Not Grasping the Nature of the Literature in the Book of Proverbs
In Jewish thought during the Old Testament era, a proverb was a short, pithy statement that conveyed a truism or general principle about life.
It is illogical to interpret all proverbs literally. For instance, Proverbs 6:29 asserts that whoever touches another man’s wife will be punished. Yet he wouldn’t go to prison or get punched in the nose if he accidently bumped into another man’s wife while standing in line at the synagogue’s potluck supper. The word touch is a soft way of warning against having sex with her.
Hyperbole, a figure of speech which overstates or exaggerates in order to convey a message, is also characteristic of some verses in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 15:25 exaggerates when it declares, “The Lord will tear down the house of the proud.” The author isn’t promising that a hurricane or tornado will flatten the home of anyone who gets puffed up about his accomplishments. He is indicating that pride has painful consequences.
Another implication of the nature of proverbs is that we must not view all of them as absolute promises that apply across the board, in every situation. This isn’t an attempt to rationalize parental failure, or to water down Scripture so we feel better about ourselves. It’s just the nature of Jewish proverbs. God’s Word teems with timeless, absolute promises, rooted in God’s character, that are integral to spiritual formation (2 Peter 1:4). But let’s be careful how we interpret poetic statements.
According to Charles Sell, former professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “The Hebrews tended to make general statements without worrying about the exceptions, appealing to the reader’s common sense to see this.” John Piper piggybacks on Sell’s comment: “Proverbs by their very nature are generalizations about the way life usually is, rather than promises about the way it will be all the time.” In response to a question posed by a young mother on Proverbs 22:6 for his “Ask Pastor John” podcast, Piper adds, “I don’t think she should bear the horrific weight of thinking that if she could just do it exactly right, it guarantees that her 22-month-old daughter will be a solid believer when she is 22 years old. She cannot bear that burden.”
The truth of what Sell and Piper say is seen within the book of Proverbs itself. For instance, Proverbs 16:7 reads, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” The true principle here is that being rightly related to God normally keeps you rightly related to and accepted by others. But it’s obvious that God doesn’t guarantee that this will always be the case. In the New Testament era, Stephen, Peter, and Paul were pleasing to the Lord, but they were martyred. They weren’t killed as punishment because they backslid. And enemies crucified Jesus, whom God the Father Himself described as “My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Not Heeding the Record of Old Testament Kings and their Heirs
Examining the succession of Old Testament kings provides a riveting example that you can’t predict a child’s spiritual outcome based solely on the faith or character of a parent. In multiple cases, a good king produced an evil son, or a godly son had an evil father.
Though no king followed the Lord perfectly, Hezekiah “trusted in the Lord, so that after him there was no one like him in all the kings of Judah….He clung to the Lord, and did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, and the Lord was with him” (2 Kings 18:5-7). Yet his son, Manasseh, proved to be one of the most wicked rulers mentioned in the Bible. He did evil in the sight of God, and provoked God’s anger (2 Kings 21).
To reverse the sequence, though Manasseh’s son Amon walked in the evil footsteps of his father, Amon’s son Josiah “did right in the sight of the Lord.” Josiah’s tender heart in response to the reading of God’s law led to sweeping changes and a season of revival in Judah shortly before the Babylonian captivity (2 Chronicles 34).
Clearly, variables other than a parent’s character and spiritual habits affect outcomes among their offspring.
Not Acknowledging God’s Own Record As A Parent
Have you mulled over the fact that God is the only perfect parent who ever existed, yet His children went astray?
Despite all His love and fatherly interventions, Hosea 11:1-2 makes this point: “When Israel was a child, I loved him (God is talking), and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went astray.” What does a perfect Father get for all His pleading? The entire history of the Old Testament confirms the repeated rebellion of His children.
Jack Layman, Professor Emeritus at Columbia International University, says the same thing in relation to Adam and Eve. “They had a perfect environment, yet fell into sin. Did that make God a flawed parent? No! He gave them a choice in the garden, just as He gives each of us the power to choose. God’s father-heart was broken just as our hearts break. Yet God knew it would happen before the foundation of the world.”
What do these references to God’s parenting say about the nature of man and his responsibility? About the possibility of our children straying, no matter how consistently we love them and model faith for them?
Not Assigning Responsibility to Grown Children
Parents who badger themselves for the unbelief or moral defection of their grown children fail to assign appropriate responsibility to their sons and daughters. They’re saying that children are mere products of their environment. Provide the right stimulus or external environment, and a particular response inevitably follows.
Unwittingly, parents who adopt this viewpoint are buying into an atheistic philosophy that denies the image of God in their children. Their viewpoint holds that their children aren’t free moral agents, with a God-given capacity to make choices that either positively or negatively shape their futures. It’s tantamount to environmental determinism that removes the idea of freedom or free will from persons. Despite the undeniable reality of parental influence, this perspective goes too far and insists that the home environment is the only explanation for children who turn out poorly.
Perhaps an analogy from the realm of Bible teaching will clarify my argument. Decades ago, a renown Christian educator wrote, “The teacher has not taught until the pupil has learned.”
I affirm the point she tried to make: how someone teaches dramatically affects whether people learn. But she goes too far, and as stated, her remark is theologically incorrect and doesn’t match teaching experience. She put the entire responsibility of learning on the teacher, and none on the students. Produce the right classroom environment, or teach well enough, and presto–people learn and apply the Bible!
But what is the role students’ will, attitudes and choices play in achieving learning outcomes? Isn’t it possible for a teacher to prepare her heart, to study diligently, and to communicate clearly and creatively without some pupils learning anything? Concerning preaching, if 100% of congregants don’t heed the message, is it necessarily due to the speaker’s shortcomings? And if everything depends on the teacher or preacher, why pray for the Holy Spirit to open the minds and hearts of learners so they’ll be receptive to the message?
Similarly, it’s unfortunate that some parents blame themselves long after their children reach the age of accountability.
There’s a precedent in Old Testament law that assigns responsibility for evil behavior to the son, not to his father. Referring to a son who sheds blood, bows to idols, defiles his neighbor’s wife, and commits other abominations, Ezekiel 18:13 says, “He will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.” In verse 20 we read, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity” (emphasis mine). It’s clear that God didn’t lay the blame on the father’s failure, but held the son accountable for his own behavior.
I’m aware that grasping and believing these perspectives on Proverbs 22:6 won’t alleviate the pain of a spiritually-wayward grown child. Yet it won’t exacerbate that pain with a heavy burden of false guilt and self-condemnation.
We must accept God’s gracious forgiveness for mistakes we made as a parent, while ackowledging what we did right, as well. Let’s persist in prayer for what only the Holy Spirit can do in their hearts. Let’s demonstrate unconditional love toward our children that doesn’t hinge on what they believe, or don’t believe.
I know one father, whose grown son has left the faith, who occasionally broaches the issue of belief with his son in a warm, winsome manner. The dad can’t not discuss it, for his relationship with the Lord is the most important thing in his life. He always ends the letter to or conversation with his son with these words: “Nothing you do could ever cause me to love you any less than I already do. Nothing you do could ever cause me to love you any more than I already do.”
One resource I consulted before writing this post is John Piper’s “Does Proverbs Promise My Child Will Not Stray?” Prior to reading his article and hearing his brief podcast, I had already taught the essence of my post. Yet his material polished my thinking on the subject. Googling the title of his article will take you to it online.
If you know any hurting parents who could benefit from this article, please forward it to them.