Of all the painful experiences that I have had to face through nearly a decade in ministry–the death of a mother, couples enduring the heartbreak of miscarriage, strife, abuse, divorce, scandal, etc.–having to walk with a godly father and mother through the dark shadows of having a child rebel is among the most difficult. There are many difficult and painful experiences that ministers face, but the spiritual rebellion of a child of a believer weighs heavily on the heart of any true minister of the Gospel. Perhaps it weighs heavy on my heart because I was one such rebellious child brought up in a Christian home. Though I was nurtured in an extremely spiritually and theologically strong Christians home, I ran from it–and to the spiritual darkness and sin of this world–as far and as fast as I could.
Not long after I was converted, news of my conversion spread through the church that I began attending in Greenville, SC. People would frequently approach me to ask if I would reach out to their son or their daughter–children who were living prodigal lifestyles akin to that which I had lived. The first year of my conversion exposed me to the prevalent nature of such rebellion among children who had grown up in Christian homes. I started to realize a few things as I labored to bring the Gospel to young adults who were strung out on pharmaceuticals, cocaine, acid, crack, meth, MDMA, etc. First, I realized how true my Calvinistic beliefs really were (i.e. unless the Lord–in His sovereign mercy and grace–redeems, all is hopeless); and, second, I realized that most of the parents were at a loss to know how to pursue their rebellious covenant child. The only example that I had was that which was etched in my mind by the actions of my father and mother. Today, whenever I am counseling the parents of a rebellious child, there are five things that I always remind Christian parents with rebellious children:
1. Pray the Promises of God for Your Children. Incessantly ask the Lord to fulfill his covenant promises on behalf of your children. God has given believers large promises. While the salvation of your children is ultimately dependent on the sovereign grace and mercy of God, the agency of godly parents often plays an important role. Many times, the Lord has answered the prayers of the parents of rebellious children in order to bring them to salvation. This is part of the mystery of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Such was the case with Augustine of Hippo, who attributed his conversion to the Lord answering the prayers of his mother, Monica. That account has been a constant source of encouragement for Christian parents. The mother of one of the greatest theologians in all of church history incessantly prayed down the promises of God from heaven for her son. So too ought Christians parents of rebellious children.
2. Pray that God will Surround Your Children with Strong Christian Friends. Through all of my years of rebellion, I knew that my parents were praying that the Lord would bring godly young men and women into my life–and that is exactly what He did. I would often find myself working with Christians who reached out to me with Scripture and the Gospel. I would see God answering that prayer by having my sister introduce me to new believers who had been saved out of similar lifestyles of rebellion. I’ll never forget how, on one occasion, a biker at a bar I was at began witnessing to me and asked if he could pray for me in the bar in front of my unbelieving friends. That experience will forever be etched in my mind as a direct answer to the prayers of my parents. A month before I was brought to saving faith and repentance, I met my best friend, Stephen–who had been strung out on Ketamine (a cat tranquilizer and club drug) and had been enslaved to many of the same things to which I had been enslaved. Stephen had been converted at a conference under the preaching of John Piper. When I met Stephen, I saw something in his eyes– joy and satisfaction in Christ for which I longed. Stephen tried to get me to go to church with him one Sunday night. I went and then left immediately before the call to worship. Still, I remember thinking to myself, “I wish that I had what he has!” A month later–after the Lord gave me a new heart–I called Stephen to come and get me and take me from Asheville, NC to Greenville, SC. Stephen was a direct answer to the prayers and efforts of my parents to surround me with strong, spiritually minded Christians.
3. Pray that God will Do What it Takes to Bring Your Children to Himself. Though no one likes the thought of asking God to “do whatever it takes,” this is a prayer that we should all be willing to pray for our children. The Lord often brings individuals to rock bottom in order for them to see their need for the Savior. This is certainly the testimony of the Gospels. It is remarkable that the majority of those who trust the Savior are those with afflictions or who have been enslaved in prodigal living. In fact, this is the very teaching of the parable of the prodigal son. When he finally hit rock bottom (eating the pods that the swine ate), he remembered the love of the Father and the comforts of the Father’s house. The prodigal son, Jesus tells us, “came to himself” (that’s shorthand for “repented”) and returned to His Father. In many cases, the Lord brings covenant children back to Himself by striping them of the comforts that they once experienced. This is also the teaching of excommunication in the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul says that when one is excommunicated for unrepentant sin, they are being “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that their spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Godly parents should pray that the Lord does whatever is necessary to save their children. Better to have redeemed children who have had to suffer hardship than to have healthy and prosperous children who perish eternally.
4. Pursue Your Children with the Word of God. This is arguably the most significant thing that my parents did through almost a decade of my rebellion. My dad (though he will tell you how unfaithful he was) was extremely faithful to read the Scriptures to my sister and me. We had many copies of Bagster’s Daily Light (the most purely biblical devotional in print!) sitting around our house. If my dad was not reading to us out of a book of the Bible, he would be teaching us out of the Daily Light. When I was getting into deeper and deeper spiritual darkness, my father was more and more intentional about reading the Scriptures to me.
When I was a young boy, my dad had taught us the significance of Romans 9. In the weeks leading up to my conversion I remember asking myself, “What if I am a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction?” The Lord used the strong emphasis that my dad placed on the significance of even difficult portions of Scripture to bring me to Himself. The truth of Romans 9, interestingly, encouraged me to cry out to the Lord for redemption.
I distinctly remember how, on one occasion, I had been out all night partying and was still under the influence of drugs the next morning. My dad woke me up and called me out to our living room. He began to read from the Daily Light. The first verse that he read that morning was John 8:12, where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” I sat there knowing that Jesus, the Living Word, was speaking directly to me through the written word. Though I wasn’t converted until many years after that experience, it was still formative and the Lord used it in bringing me to Himself in the end.
In addition to reading Scripture together, write particular verses out in a letter or on an index card and hand it to your children when they are in your home. There is something special about handing a handwritten letter–or card–with Scripture in it to you son or daughter. It shows personal and specific spiritual care for them. God has promised to use His word to bring men and women to Himself. The Lord declared through Jeremiah the prophet,“Is not My word like a fire?…And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29)? Only the word of God can break apart a heart hardened by sin and rebellion. So, Christian parents, continue to set the word of God before your rebellious child.
5. Be Firm but Loving in Addressing Your Children. This is the last thing with which I try to encourage Christian parents with rebellious children. Far too many parents think that they can love their children into the Kingdom by being soft on them. Nothing is further than the truth. Surely, the goodness of God bring us to repentance–and He often uses the kindness of Christian parents to reflect His goodness (even toward rebellious children). However, when we read the Scriptures, we find the Savior and the Apostles being serious and firm in their teaching against sin and rebellion. There is a seriousness with which we ought to address our children when they are rebelling. When I was at the height of my rebellion, my dad and mom came to visit me. I will forever remember my dad looking at me and saying, “Nick, you chose this day, blessings or curses. If you continue living the way you are and continue to reject Christ, you are choosing covenant curses.” This was a very powerful warning that I needed to hear. It was a loving thing for my dad to confront me in this way. He knew that saying hard things might drive me further away from he and my mother, but in the end, he knew that the Lord uses such things to bring individuals back to Christ. In fact, this is precisely what the Lord said to Israel: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). The Lord used my father’s forthrightness and sobriety in bringing warnings and promises before me.
That being said, it is possible for parents to swing the pendulum from the one extreme of enabling and weakness to the other extreme of heavy-handedness. There must be a balance between sternness and tenderness. The Apostle Paul warns against fathers provoking their children to anger by being too heavy-handed (see Eph. 6:4). We must always have hearts that are full of tender affection for our children. We should weep much when they rebel. We should show them affection in the midst of their rebellion, but we must be direct and firm in bringing the warnings and the promises of Scripture to bear upon them.
Whenever I hear that one of the children of believers in our congregation is straying–or has been straying from Christ for quite some time–my heart fills with sorrow. I think of the many hours that godly parents have spent teaching them the Scriptures, praying with and for them and having them among the congregation of the saints who are worshiping the Lord week in and week out. I think of the pain that they are experiencing as they know that they cannot change their child’s heart. I think of my own inability to change their hearts. I think of the hardships that they might face if they do not repent. I think of the years of my own rebellion–the powerful enslavement to sin. Then I think of how God, in his most amazing and astonishing sovereign mercy and grace, saved a wretch like me. I think of the many others that He has redeemed late in life and I am encouraged to pray more fervently for them. I think of the fact that the Gospel is for rebels–that God loves the prodigal and receives and welcomes them home with great joy and rejoicing. I think of my own need for the Gospel today and my need for the word of God.
When I hear about the spiritual straying of the children of believers, I remember that everyone of us needs the same thing–the grace of God in the Gospel. I remember the power of the message of Christ crucified. I remember that part of my task, as a minister of that Gospel, is to remind Christian parents of these things. With grief, I remember watching my mother–who is now with the Lord Jesus–age significantly on account of the burden that I placed on her from her having to deal with over almost a decade of my running to the world. But, I also remember how the Lord finally brought me to repentance and enabled me see my need for the pardoning and cleansing blood of Jesus. I remember calling home to my mom and telling her, “I now know what Paul meant when he wrote, ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.'” I remember the joy she experienced as we watched the Lord restore the years that the locust of sin and rebellion had eaten (Joel 2:25).