“For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:10a).
Over the years I have observed hundreds of Christian families who seemingly did all the right things in raising their children, yet one or more still walked away from the faith of their parents once they were old enough to make their own decisions. No parent wants to go through all the trouble of training his or her children in the way they should go, only to find them turning around to head in the opposite direction.
It seems that the response to this on the part of the parents is to either blame themselves entirely or claim they did absolutely nothing wrong as a parent. I remember one father saying to me, “My wife and I did everything right, and our four children still want nothing to do with us.”
Really? You did nothing wrong as a parent?! Ever?! I think that attitude may speak volumes about why your children aren’t interested in seeing you. But to give the man the benefit of the doubt, I hope what we meant to say was that he did the best he knew. That would probably be a fair and accurate statement, not just for him, but for most of us as parents.
Some people rather glibly say in response to prodigal children, “God is the best parent in the universe, and His children went astray!” That is certainly true, but I’m not sure that gives comfort to the heart of a grieving parent or helps them to understand what they may have done differently to prevent such an outcome.
We all make choices—good and bad—which alter the course of our lives. Knowing that adult children make decisions over which we have little to no control may leave us feeling hopeless and helpless in this parenting process. How do we know our labor will not all be in vain?
I cannot make promises to you or present you with formulas that offer sure-fire outcomes of success. There is not always a one-to-one correlation between the actions of a child, and the actions or reactions of their adult children. I’ve talked to make young adults who wandered away, and then cycled back to the faith in their mid-thirties. Many of them have told me their decisions had nothing to do with their parents. They admit they didn’t have bad parents, they just wanted to sin. So, I do not believe that sin and rebellion on the part of the child is always caused by bad parenting. That would be a terrible fallacy to assume that.
However, I do want to share some fatal mistakes that I believe often contribute greatly to the breakdown in relationships and in a child’s desire to follow God. As a parent myself, I humbly appeal to you to consider these stumbling blocks.
They Refused to Say “Yes” to God
As we begin traveling on the path of the righteous, God progressively asks us to submit every area of our lives to His Lordship. For many families, they recognize God’s call for them to be fully engaged parents. They begin to die to themselves and submit their will to His. Soon they begin to experience the freedom that comes from surrender and are happy they made the choice. Then God asks them to give up something else or asks them to join Him in a certain work. Sometimes, the cost of that sacrifice is more than the parents are willing to pay. In such cases, it almost always leads to their children rebelling against God and parents. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Children follow the example of their parents, and if we want our children to be obedient to God in all things, we must teach them by our lives.
They Allowed Their Children to Have Fools as Companions
Do you remember when we discussed the two most powerful factors in influence? Young people crave acceptance and usually find it in a peer group or clique (or gang). If a child is allowed to spend large segments of time around bad influences, they travel the path of disobedience and rebellion. I don’t believe I have ever seen an exception to this rule. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20; NKJV).
“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Cor. 15:33).
It is not wise to allow your children to spend large segments of time, unsupervised, with other young people. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15a; KJV). When you put three children who all have foolishness bound up in their hearts together, they make a very strong bond and often will engage in destructive behavior they would never consider alone.
“And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:10).
It is very hard for young people to resist negative peer pressure. You should know who your child’s friends are and, ideally, spend time with your children and their friends (rather than sending them away from you for “socialization”).
They Refused to Discipline Their Children
Even after their children have run away from home and are living on the streets, I’ve heard parents say, “I loved my children too much to discipline them.” Often, because of bad experiences they had as children with abuse or improper discipline, they choose to ignore God’s Word and believe a lie that it is loving to avoid disciplining their children. Refusing to discipline a child is one of the surest ways to send him or her to Hell.
They Disciplined Their Children Inconsistently or in Anger
Many parents were not raised in Godly homes themselves where loving, consistent, predictable discipline was implemented. Far too many parents struggle with understanding the right way to apply correction to their children. When discipline is done in anger, in excess, or simply to execute wrath on the child, it leads to a heart of rebellion in the child.
They Refused to Demonstrate Love or They Belittled and Verbally Berated Their Children
Very few parents understand the awesome power of their words. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37). Part of the dominion mandate God gave to Adam in Genesis was to name the animals. Adam even named his wife. In the Old Testament, parents seemed to have an almost prophetic ability to predict or determine the child’s behavior and lifestyle by the name he was given. Examples are Abram, Jacob, Jabez, etc. Children tended to become what they were named.
I believe this is still the case today. I don’t mean that if you are named “Bill” or “Suzy” you will become what your birth name means. However, as parents, we “name” our children every day. We tell them who they are. “You are such a pain! Why are you so lazy? Why can’t you do anything right? I’m sick and tired of dealing with you!”
These comments are lodged deep into the heart of a child and shape who they become. A refusal to speak and demonstrate love and affection leads to a distant, cold, and often resentful relationship. That is why it is so vital to speak words of truth and healing into your child’s life. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).
I constantly tell our children things such as, “You are a blessing! We love you. Jesus loves you. You are special to us. I am very pleased with you.” It is wonderful to watch them become the true things my wife and I speak into their lives.
They Love the World
Some people claim to be Christians and yet are enamored by the world and things of the world. They are fed by a secular pop culture—a steady diet of worldly movies, worldly music, worldly games and activities, worldly reading material, worldly heroes and idols, etc. Children who are engrossed in the things of the world will not love God. You can’t love the Creator and the commercial pop culture at the same time.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
There is no way you can underestimate the power of 10,000-15,000 hours of anti-Christian indoctrination that students receive in godless government schools from K-12. My education-focused books go into extensive research and theology on why Christian children need an explicitly Christian education. I strongly encourage you to read my other titles on this topic.
They Gave Their Children Freedom Too Early
There comes a time when parents need to let their children stand on their own two feet. However, this is not at the ripe old age of 14. Often when teens are allowed to work outside the home, spend a lot of time away from home, or make too many important decisions before they are truly prepared, it instills in them an independent spirit that wants to be away from the family all the time. They begin to think of themselves as adults, or as equal with their parents, and they reject parental authority. Obviously we are all working towards this goal, but don’t let go too early! The exact age will vary for each family since every child is different. Determining when your child is ready to be launched requires a lot of prayer, wisdom, and counsel from godly influences in your life.
They Were Hypocrites—Holding Up a Standard They Refused to Live By
Some parents care only about their image and reputation. They lack proper character, so they try to compensate for that by having a good veneer of religiosity. Children see this as it truly is—repulsive and disgusting. They reject the faith that their parents supposedly embrace because they see that the life of Christ isn’t real in the private lives of Mom and Dad. If you are a hypocrite, the best you can hope for is for your children to emulate your hypocrisy. More likely, though, they will be more honest than you and will be blatantly and openly rebellious. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
They Were Legalistic (Strictly Adhering to Laws That Aren’t Biblical Laws)
We must obey every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. We must do everything He commands. However, some parents have created a litany of pharisaical rules, guidelines, and principles that are not Biblically based. We want our children to understand what God is like and to walk in the Spirit, emulating God’s nature and character. But we must be careful that we don’t cross a line into judging others or thinking of ourselves highly because we follow a bunch of self-made rules.
For example, a man once told me that his little boy blurted out in a restaurant, “Daddy, those people over there don’t love Jesus!” When asked how he could be so sure, he confidently replied, “They are eating white bread, not whole wheat.” Admittedly, wheat is healthier than white when it comes to bread, but children can grow up confused about what is essential to the faith and what isn’t. Parents need to clearly outline to their children the choice they make that are based on personal preference, and which ones are based on Scriptural commands.
We all have what I call “house rules.” We have to make decisions about what foods we will allow our children to eat, what media they can access, what clothing styles they can wear, etc. In our home, for example, we don’t allow our children to drink caffeine. We explain to our children that this decision has nothing to do with God’s commands; we just think it is best for their overall health (and our overall sanity!).
We explain to them that it doesn’t make us better or worse Christians because they don’t drink caffeine. We teach them not to look down on other families that allow their children to do so. It’s a preference. But we teach them that bearing false witness against their neighbor is wrong for all people, in all places, at all times. That is God’s command. If children recognize the difference, you can still have conservative standards without being legalistic or creating little Pharisees.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:23-24).
They Had Other Priorities Above Their Family
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Children know what their parents value. When we spend our time and energy pursuing our career, our golf game, our friends, or our own comfort and pleasure to the exclusion of our children, they are pained by the rejection. Even if we are home every day, our hearts can be far from our children. We can be busy chatting with friends online, reading a book, or simply caught up in our own plans or routine. “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Yes, we need to provide for the physical needs of our family, but it is even more important that we provide for their spiritual needs.
They Never Repented of Dishonoring Their Own Parents
I have been noticing lately what appears to be a kind of law of the universe. In every case where I have seen a man or woman rebel against their parents when they were young, unless they repent and try to reconcile with their parents, their children rebel and repeat the cycle. The only thing that seems to deter this process is a parent who grieves over the sins of his youth and intercedes in prayer on behalf of his own children so they will not repeat the same sins. Obviously, there are many cases where parents have died and reconciliation cannot be made, but in those cases the parents can still express their remorse to their own children, and let them know how shameful it was that they did not honor, respect and obey their parents when they were growing up. “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (Prov. 30:17).
They Neglected to Model a Godly Marriage
I’ve seen dozens of situations where a family looked picture perfect until the children went off to college (or thereabouts). Then the parents split up. Upstanding church families often have constant fighting and upheaval behind closed doors. I’m not talking about an occasional argument or disagreement. That is part of any household. But constant tension and stress between a husband and a wife takes a definitive toll on the emotional stability of a child or youth. In such homes, the youth often reject the faith and many times struggle in their single years with relationships of their own.
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is to work on your marriage. Most children would rather their parents be okay with each other than with them. They know that if Mom and Dad can work things out, that provides stability for their future. But if Mom and Dad are constantly on the brink of divorce (even if only in the child’s mind) the lack of peace and harmony disrupts their sense of well-being. When parents model disunity, anger, bitterness, and frustration, children often look at such a scenario and think, “I’m not sure why this Christian faith is supposed to be so great. I have friends whose parents don’t profess to believe anything, and they like each other and get along.” Our witness for Christ in our own home is the most powerful sermon they will ever hear.
“And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. ‘For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless’” (Mal. 2:13-16)
They Failed to Equip Their Children with a Biblical Worldview
Children don’t acquire a fear of the Lord or a proper understanding of life by osmosis. “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11). Do you know that you can teach your children the fear of the Lord? You do this by the example of your life. Parents must emphasize Godly character and teach their children to put on the mind of Christ. We must learn to think as He does. If a child has a secular philosophy of life, he will eventually live out the beliefs he holds in his heart.
Sometimes it is hard to know what your children really believe, especially if they are complacent, compliant types. They may not be outwardly rebelling or rejecting your instructions, but inside they may be quietly denouncing everything you believe in. You need a catalyst or a tool to pry the sealed lid off of the container of beliefs your child is keeping bottled up. You can and should institute systematic teaching and training, but you need to get feedback. Keep open, relational dialogues going with your children.
Look for opportunities to draw out your children. Do they express the same opinions and beliefs when talking with their friends as they do in discussions with you? Are they consistent in their views, or do they merely say what they think you want to hear?
You want to really get to know the heart of your child. Study the art of asking good questions. I learned a lot about the importance of questions as a means of teaching when I was studying the material for my books Questions God Asks and Questions Jesus Asks.
If you discover unexpected rebellion in your child, by all means take it seriously. Thank God that He was kind enough to let you see it so that you can pray and begin to deal with the problem. My book Education: Does God Have an Opinion? is a great resource for knowing how to apply a Biblical worldview to all areas of life.
I mentioned earlier that 70% of all students who go to secular colleges or universities bail on their faith by the end of their freshman year. What many Christian parents don’t consider is that not all so-called Christian colleges promote a Biblical worldview. I can’t tell you how many stories I hear from Christian parents who invested years of their lives in their children only to watch it get dismantled by Humanistic professors in private Christian colleges. Before you send your child to college, make sure you read Ken Ham’s essential book, Already Compromised. It exposes the Humanism that has deeply infiltrated even Christian colleges and universities.
Is It Too Late?
For the parent who has a wayward child who has left home and has wandered from the faith, you may wonder, “Is there any hope at this point? What can be done to change her heart?” I need to confess that I am woefully unequipped to speak authoritatively to the issue of the prodigal at this point in my life. I do know that God has it in His heart to forgive wayward sons and daughters when they come to themselves and return in repentance. I know that we must pray that God will do what it takes to break their stubborn will. Praying that prayer may result in incredible pain and suffering for them in this life, but in eternity it could be the difference between Heaven and Hell.
There are many other writers who have produced materials better than I can write on dealing with rebellion in children. I would recommend investing in these teaching resources and carefully considering anything the Lord would speak to your heart related to this matter. We don’t have unconditional guarantees of success as parents. We can’t assume that our children will automatically choose the right path. But we should not be fatalistic either and assume that the enemy is stronger than our Savior. We have great and precious promises in God’s Word, and we should cling to them with everything we have in us. By the grace of God, we will be united with all our children in God’s Heavenly Kingdom.
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4).
This is a chapter excerpt from Israel’s new book: “Raising Them Up” and speaks to the concern expressed by many regarding the breakdown of the Christian family culture in world, but especially within the church… Please buy this book and support his important ministry!