Pastor Marc Lambert looks at how parents can lovingly walk alongside their children as they doubt, question and rebel against Christianity
One of the most heartbreaking experiences a Christian parent can go through is to have a child who rejects the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Yet, sadly, this an all-too-common experience.
Most Christian parents understand that faith is an individual choice and that salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit, but when it is one’s child making the choice, the impulse is to blame oneself. What did the parents do wrong? What should they have done differently?
The reality is that like many other things in life, often all that can be done is to equip children with the tools they need to see and accept the truth of the gospel and pray they use them well. However, as the parents, they have tremendous influence in the life of their child, and they can use that influence to guide children in their journey as they seek to determine what they should believe.
Keep some of these thoughts in mind. They may help.
Maturing into faith
First, remember that we are all sinners. No one is born trusting in Christ. Rather, disbelief and pride are the default settings of fallen humanity. Unfortunately, your child is not the exception. Add to that the fact that young adults naturally challenge the status quo and seek to assert their own independence as they try to figure out the world and their place in it.
As individuals mature, their peers begin to have an increasing influence on their perspectives, and the influence of their parents is comparatively reduced. Frequently peers have a rewarding effect on a youngster who begins to challenge or question the status quo. What one must understand is that ultimately, their faith has to be their own. Trusting in Christ is not something that can be inherited.
Second, seek to understand why they do not believe. The natural impulse may be to dive right in with showing them that they are wrong and why they need to change their mind and follow Christ. However, often the underlying issue is not one of ignorance or mistaken information. Here are some things to consider that may be driving their disbelief (this is by no means a complete list).
Understanding why they disbelieve
Have your children been riding your religious coattails? Perhaps they are expressing disbelief now because they never really accepted it for themselves. Children who are raised in churches and Christian families frequently identify as Christian, not because they have fully understood and internalised these beliefs, but because this is the only worldview they know.
Is their primary motivation trying to meet a need, and Christianity just isn’t getting it done?
Are they seeking friendships or social acceptance and see belief in God as an obstacle to that?
Are they wanting to avoid conflict and faith in Christ creates tension for them in important relationships?
Are they wanting a relief of self-guilt or the feeling of failure to meet a standard? The reality of our own sinfulness and failure to be righteous can be a heavy burden. Unfortunately, rather than turning to Christ some people find denying the truth an easier option.
Have they been discipled by the world? Children are surrounded constantly by sources of information and influence trying to sell them on different ideas and values. Despite every effort to teach the truth, the false ideas of the world can still find their way into the minds of children of Christian parents. Sometimes once they have adopted some false foundational beliefs the deck is stacked against the truth, and when a conflict between those beliefs and Christianity arises, Christianity is the underdog.
The instinct of most Christian parents is to try to shelter their children and keep them unexposed to non-Christian views, ideas or influences. However, the opposite may be the better solution. If this child emerges from the Christian cocoon as a young adult only to be exposed for the first time to these new ideas and views, they have to deal with them unprepared. It may be a better approach for parents to inform their children of the prevalent ideas and views while they still have some influence in their children’s lives. Guide them in understanding what these views look like as accurately as possible so that when they meet them head-on, they do not have the impression that something was being hidden from them.
Also, as much as parents often want to think of their child as being a good person, sometimes the motivation is just good old-fashioned temptation to sin. They want to do something that God says not to do. The easy solution is to deny the rule-giver. No God means no rule, which in turn means they are free (in their mind at least) to go for it.
Understanding the reasons behind their rejection of God may help bring a modicum of peace to you, but it can also give you a starting point to know how to help them in their journey to understanding the world and their place in it.
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Responding to their disbelief
Since helping them is what any loving parent wants to do, how should one respond to children proclaiming their disbelief?
It may sound a bit cliché for a seasoned churchgoer, but first and foremost: Pray. To quote Rev Stanley Kirk Burrell: “I tried to make a way, but nothing happened till that day I prayed.” There are two parties involved in the salvation of a teenager: them and God. Why leave God out of it? He has the power to change their heart. It only makes sense that their earthly parents and their heavenly father be in conversation about the issue.
It is fine to inform the teenager of your concern and your prayer, but it should not be done combatively or with a tone of desperation, nor need it be constantly repeated to them. This young man or woman has likely developed an aversion to all things religious, and constant reminders of your prayers are not the comfort they would be if the youngster were still a believer. The prayer is directed to God, and is a concern between him and you.
One thing that can go unrealised is the importance of maintaining the family’s religious order. You are the parent. The family agenda with regards to religious practice is set by your faith, not their doubts. As a young adult, they are seeking and exploring, trying to understand. While you cannot believe in God for them, let your faith remain a stable constant in the chaos of their searching. Also, keep praying.
If you find yourself with an unbelieving child in your home, treat them like you would any other non-believer. Love them. Be open and available to them in their search for understanding. Push when and where necessary, but also give space for the Holy Spirit to work. Ultimately it is up to them. However, some continued prayer wouldn’t hurt.
Avoid any impression that you have rejected them or distanced yourself from them by virtue of their disbelief. A feeling of isolation or rejection is frequently a catalyst to bitterness or regret on the part of a former believer. If children know that they continue to be accepted and loved by the religious community, even when they do not share the same beliefs – if the religion does not seem hostile or distant – the youngster may not stray far. Everyone seeks an environment where they feel safe and accepted. If that environment is not with their family and friends, they will seek those things elsewhere.
Do your homework. The role of a parent is often to teach and guide our children. However, you cannot teach what you do not know, and you cannot lead where you do not know the way. What is their motivation? What are they seeking? Why do they not believe? When you discover these things, become an expert in them. Seek out godly teachers, authors and experts. Find other parents in your church who have gone through the same thing. Learn from what they have gone through. And also, keep praying.
Do not expect or demand that the child do their own homework if they have made up their mind. If the child is expressing doubts or asking questions, by all means encourage them to seek and explore. However, if the child has already announced disbelief, your job is to continue the conversation. This conversation will go best if you are informed.
Above all, this should be a conversation: not a lecture or a sermon. If the child is not given the opportunity to express their doubts, questions, concerns or objections, they may feel as if they are not being heard, and may be unwilling to hear you out. If they feel they are respected, that their ideas are being given a decent hearing, they may be more likely to respond with respect and to listen in turn.
The last recommendation for this list (though certainly more could be added) is to use questions rather than seeking to instruct. Read Greg Koukl’s book ‘Tactics: A Game Plan for Defending your Christian Convictions’. In that book Greg gives a masterclass in the use of questions to get people to think and to drive the conversation. Questions can be a non-offensive way to challenge ideas. They can invite your child to think and consider something, rather than attacking ideas head-on and trying to spoon feed them information. Your teen is seeking to understand the world and their place in it. Questions can help to guide their search in directions that will lead them to the truth. And of course, do not forget to pray.
A final encouraging thought is that of all the influences in a child’s life, for good or for bad, the parents’ impact is the most significant influence of them all. God designed the family for the raising of the next generation. Built into the family dynamic is the deep connection between child and parent. So powerful is the connection that a careless word can tear down into despair, and a loving word can be a comfort so impactful that they can weather great personal storms. Your child is likely to encounter heartbreak, anxiety or fear throughout his or her life, and knowing that you will always be there to comfort and support them makes you an enormous influence even after they leave the nest. Moreover, if you are the first person your child wants to call when they have good news, you remain an influence on them.
Love your child. Pray for your child. Guide and assist them on their journey to discover the truth about the world and their place in it. All the while, remember that it is their journey to make, and ultimately what happens is between them and God. So pray, be prepared to answer their questions as well as ask questions of your own, gently push, mostly guide, and whatever you do, remember to pray.
Marc Lambert is a pastor whose approach to apologetics is not usually academic, but rather he aims to answer questions in a way that people can understand and apply. Some apologetics questions require a bit of unpacking, but it is Marc’s goal to focus on answers that cut to the point and maintain a conversational tone.