On this edition of Truth in Love, Dr. Lambert speaks with Dr. Jim Newheiser about how parents should respond to having a child who is lost. Dr. Newheiser begins by listing the factors that lead to a child’s salvation which include the influence of the parent, the decisions of the child, and the sovereignty of God. Dr. Newheiser also gives some practical instruction for parents of older lost children.
Dr. Heath Lambert: I am joined this week by Dr. Jim Newheiser who is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship and a Fellow at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. One of the most difficult problems that a parent can face is with a grown child who has left the faith. They have walked away from the faith that they may have professed as a child or maybe they never professed faith and that has sort of solidified itself in adulthood. Parents can feel guilty, they can feel ashamed and one of the questions that they face is, “is it my fault that my child is not a believer?”
Dr. Jim Newheiser: The question you raised Heath is one that families have faced since the beginning with the very first family of history, Adam and Eve, with their first two sons Cain and Abel. One served and honored the Lord and the other one – who grew up in the exact same family, with the same influences, having no internet, smart phones, MTV, or bad influences – rebelled against his parents because of the sin in his heart. Even when the Lord himself, admonishes Cain, Cain will not listen and chose to rebel.
My understanding from Scripture is that there are three factors which determine how a kid turns out. One is that we as parents have an influence on our children; “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).” All these verses in Proverbs describe the responsibility that we have as well as in Ephesians 6 concerning disciplining children, instructing them, and to avoid provoking them to anger. The faithfulness of parents in doing that is a wonderful influence and God so often uses that to save children. You see Christian families who rejoice over children like Abel who honor the Lord, but the statement in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” is not an unconditional promise. It is a maxim. It is a statement of the way things are generally. For example in Proverbs 10:4 it says, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” However some sluggards win the lottery, some people who work very hard have calamity occur to them. And so generally speaking, God blesses faithful parenting and we are responsible; we can contribute to our children’s ruin by neglecting our duties.
The Bible also teaches that children are responsible for the choices they make. In the very book of Proverbs where we quote these maxims, the whole point of the first nine chapters of Proverbs is a young man or young women making this fundamental choice in life; whether he is going to follow wisdom or live in folly. Wisdom is pleading with the young man and crying out in the streets, but that young person is going to have to make his own choice whether he or she is going to believe. When you get to Proverbs 9 you have two banquets; in the beginning Lady Wisdom invites you to her banquet but at the end of the chapter Madam Folly is spreading her own feast and the young man is having to decide, ‘where am I going to eat?’ Parents can’t control the choice of a child. In Ezekiel 18 you have an example of three generations where in the first generation a man honors the Lord. He follows the law, he does all the right things and doesn’t do the wrong things. Then he has a son who doesn’t follow in his father’s ways. The father isn’t blamed for the wickedness of his son. In spite of the good example and the godly instruction of the father, the son rebels and he suffers for his own sin not his father suffering for his sin. Then in the third generation, the wicked father has a righteous son who rejects his father’s wicked ways. And so the second factor clearly in Scripture is that children choose whether to follow the wise instruction of their parents and of the Lord, or whether they are going to go their own way.
Finally it is ultimately the sovereignty of God that our children are born dead in sin and being born in a Christian family doesn’t make you regenerate. They have to be regenerated like anybody else. So we are desperately pleading with God to show mercy to our kids and to bless our efforts in spite of the fact that our efforts fall short. We are not going to save our kids by the merit of our good parenting; it is going to be solely by God’s mercy.
Dr. Heath Lambert: That is very helpful and as true and as biblical as it is, there are going to be parents who experience the lost-ness of their child and feel tremendous pain. What should we say to parents who are struggling with that kind of difficulty?
Dr. Jim Newheiser: The most comforting thing I have found in Scripture is the fact that God himself is a father who himself has wayward children. In Exodus the Lord says, “Israel is my son” but then in Isaiah 1:2, he says, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.’” So the Lord himself knows what it is like to be a father who’s children rebel and he has compassion on those of us who have had these experiences. We can’t understand all the mystery of why things are as they are. As long as our children are alive we pray and have hope, but it is good to know that God genuinely has compassion for us in our sorrow and sadness. As we respond to these trials – and in my own life I have written three books that addressed the kind of the various stages of struggles with kids who have not believed as we believe and at various stages of their life turned away – He has been sufficient to comfort us. Actually, one of the wonderful lessons God has taught me through this pain is that loving children who aren’t what I dreamed they would be has taught me how to love in the way God has loved me. Scripture says I am to love my wife in the way Christ loves the church; I am married to the easiest women on earth to love. Everybody loves my wife. Marriage has been easy; I have never had the concept of sacrifice in loving her. But when my children have broken my heart and disappointed me and I am called upon as they are now adults to reach out to them and to care for them, that difficulty and heartbreak has taught me a lot about how God loves me when I was wayward. What has also taught me this truth is still praying for them, loving them, reaching out to them, and caring for them. I want to reflect that love to Him and I still hope He will show them mercy.
Dr. Heath Lambert: You are a parent who has kids that are hostile to Christianity, they don’t want to hear anything about Jesus, they don’t want to hear anything about church, they don’t want to hear about the Bible. You want to be faithful and love them well and you want to point them to Christ, what do you do when they are hostile?
Dr. Jim Newheiser: Yeah, I have had practice at that and it kind of depends on the age. When they are still in your home and they are still minors, there is a level of expectation that if we are going to have family devotions, then we expect you to be there. If we are going to go to church they are still a minor living in our home and I know this is hard for them and I think one thing that helps is to say, “I can’t make you believe anything. As you are becoming an adult you are going to have to make up your own mind. As a part of our family this is how we do things. When you are out of the house you will have all your own decisions to make in life and I won’t control those decisions, but I still believe this is my responsibility to God.” As they become adults, one thing I think is important to tell yourself is that they already know what you think. They grew up in your house for eighteen years, they know what I believe. I have read the Scriptures to them, I have shared the gospel with them, they have heard hundreds of sermons (mostly from me) and repetition isn’t necessarily going to make me more effective.
I really believe a wise strategy is to surprise them with love and grace. I think my kids expected that when they turned away from what I believed and they did certain things that I would judge them, shun them, and my wife has really helped me to surprise them with love. There is nothing they can do that will stop me from loving them and continuing to reach out to spend time together, to be generous with them, and to be kind with them. The problem with our kids isn’t their behavior and their morality, the problem is they are unregenerate and they are just living the way unregenerate people do. Scolding them for their immorality isn’t going to save them, repeating the plan of salvation to them over and over again isn’t going to regenerate them either in that they have heard it already. God must work in their hearts; but it is important to surprise them by being accepting, loving, nonjudgmental. They know what I think of what they are doing and they know what I think of what they believe. If there is something in their lifestyle that is inappropriate and they are outside my home I can’t control that. I don’t have to tell them I don’t like it; they know that. I think the best thing we can do is to show love to them and even other people in their lives and be gracious to them and show hospitality to them. We love because God first loved us. I would like for my children to see the gospel I proclaim to them exhibited in the way my wife and I treat them.