We went up the hillside on a small path. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Clasped to my hand was the small hand of my four year old, a slim, sunburned, blond little girl with bright, blue eyes. At that time we lived in a small town on the edge of a forest. It was perfect surroundings to rear children. When we reached the edge of the woods we sat down on a bench. It was warmed by the sunshine and the place offered a beautiful view of the valley below. We listened together to the birds' songs in the trees and watched bees, bugs and ants at our feet. We talked about how beautifully God had made all the things around us. She asked a thousand questions and it was fun talking to her. When we went back home, I decided that this was one of those memorable events in life, and that surely children were a gift of God.
When she was thirteen years old, on the way back home from a retreat, our daughter told us she wanted to be baptized. However, when school began, she never said anything about it anymore, and when I asked her about it she let me know that this was her very own decision and that I should leave her alone. In the meantime, we once again had to move and at he new school she had a difficult time finding friends. She finally found some who were smoking, and that seemed to be the only link between them. She began smoking and lying about it, and being a sensible girl, she concluded that she could not get baptized under such circumstances.
We sent her to an Adventist school, not knowing her problem. We just wanted her to be among Adventist young people. There she got baptized but told me later that she had "tried hard to believe but couldn't." She did not get along well with some of the teachers. There was wrong on both sides but being young she only saw that she was wronged and she connected her experience with the church as a whole.
We then sent her to another Adventist school although we would have preferred to keep her at home but it wa, not possible because of the curriculum. While the first school was very conservative, the other one was extremely liberal. Here she met many other Adventists who did not live an Adventist life, and that was her alibi for living like that herself. Finally, she went too far and had to leave the school. Now she is at a public school. She gets along very well there. The teachers like her since she is a very polite person and does well in her school work. Her Christian upbringing is evident. Besides that, she gets along wonderfully with her classmates. She does not go to church anymore, has a weekend job in a bar and enjoys a life of many worldly parties. Lately she has declared that she does not believe in God anymore, and that the Bible is just a story and history book for her.
As a minister's wife, I have often had talks with parents whose children have turned away from the church. I've always tried to comfort them. When people told me stories about parents whose children went wayward I tried not to find fault. I used to tell them that I did not dare judge, since my own children were not grown. I could not predict how they would turn out, No one can believe or make decisions for someone else. The only thing parents can do was to try to do their best and put their hope in God.
These are wonderful theories as long as you are not involved yourself. Eyed though I always thought that something like that might happen, I was absolutely dumbfounded and struck with horror when it happened to me. Theory and Bible texts are one thing, emotions are another. For a while all the good advice I had always held for others did not help me one bit. From a first hand basis I offer this advice:
Theory #1: Stay friendly in spite of the trying circumstances.
The children should know that you love them anyway. The problem was, though, that at the first shock, I was hardly able to talk to her without crying. Besides that, I just did not know what to say. This is something that often happens when people mourn, and you have to accept that this is a type of mourning. As a Christian who believes that there is a better life to come, it must be one of your foremost aims in life to have your whole family with you when Jesus returns. Losing someone for that life (and that is what it looks like at first sight) is like having someone lost for eternity. I had to do a lot of talking with my husband and I talked to a friend who has teenage children herself and also happened to be a counselor. After that I could talk normally with my daughter again. Not everybody has a counselor for a friend, but it would be good to seek counseling with someone you can trust.
Theory #2: You have not done anything wrong, so it is not your fault.
The question all parents ask themselves under such circumstances is "What have we done wrong?" And even though there will be many friendly people who will try to tell you that you did not do anything wrong, that you actually did a good job educating your children, you will know in your heart that you have made many mistakes and that you have not always been a good example. Satan probably rejoices reminding you of all the wrongs you have ever done concerning your children. So the best thing is to admit that you are not perfect and then go to God and ask. Him to forgive. This does not mean that you really have done a bad job. But when sinful people have to raise sinful children in a sinful world it is impossible to do a perfect job. Admitting the wrong things you can remember, and bringing them to God makes you free of them. It even is possible to talk with the child about it. This could he important because children tend to find someone to blame since they actually don't feel comfortable in a situation like this either.
Theory #3: It does not matter what other people think.
This is certainly right but it is still a theory because it always causes sensation to see the ministers daughter smoking some place in town. Sometimes people won't judge, but they still begin thinking what went wrong. In our case there are some who think that we might have been to narrow. I have learned to admit my grief and now there are some people praying for us and really caring. There always is the question of having to be an example for the church members, and once again you have to make clear the fact that preachers children are just like other people's children. The thing is, though, that never before did it hurt so much.
Theory #4: Job regularly brought an offering to God, lest his children had done something wrong. What you can do is pray.
This certainly is true. This is what you can do, should do and surely will do. But it was a big problem for me which probably not everybody has. I am not a very patient person, and therefore, in the past I always expected quick answers. I had experienced quick answers to my prayers. And since my daughter was leaving home within six months to study at the other end of the country at a state college I set myself a limit. I thought I had to work hard, praying as often as possible, because this half a year was all the time I had. Not hard to see how wrong this approach was! You can't set God a limit. Now that my heart has become a little quieter, I can pray without being in panic.
Theory #5: Try not to show how hurt you are.
I once met a mother who cried almost constantly, did not talk to her daughter anymore or when she did talk it was always on the same subject: Why are you leaving your faith? This might not be the right approach but the other way around, not showing how hurt you are, is not the right way either. A lot of talking is probably useless but I think children must know you are hurt because you deeply believe in an everlasting life. When I was not able to talk, I wrote her a letter and I got an answer. There is another problem I noticed with parents in this situation: Strangely enough they give up their own positions, some which they had held all their lives. Even if my daughter does not care a bit about the Sabbath right now, I asked her to respect our Sabbath life as long as she lives in our home. A young minister once told ine that it was most important to him that his parents did not compromise their beliefs in any way when he distanced himself from the church. They were friendly but faithful.
Theory #6: Preachers kids are especially endangered to leave the church because they see too many negative things and maybe are reared too strickly.
The first thing is, the statistics are against it. Statistically compared, there are more preachers children who stay in church than children of church members and some of them become ministers themselves.
On the other hand, we have tried hard to have our children grow up normally, and as far as it was not possible to keep church problems away from them, we talked about them and always explained the difference between human action and God's will.
Anyway, I think that excusing a worldly way of life with the action of other humans is just an alibi. Let's face it—it's not easy to be a young person in our times. There are many more temptations than there used to be. Our children actually grow up in a heathen world. When I was a child I was surrounded with Catholic children who were my friends. They believed in God and they knew lying was a sin. Nowadays children have to defend their faith in kindergarten and nobody wants to be lied to but almost everybody lies. This is just one example of how times have changed. I believe that the main reason our children leave the church is because they are fatigued with the church way of life. Like the prodigal son they want their inheritance now. They want to live their life now. They don't want to wait for all the "good things" life that the world seems to offer them. This is a sociological slogan suggested everywhere.
I once met a mother who had six children and only one of them was in church. In her bitterness, she told me if she could start over again, she would not have any children at all. I know now how it hurts to have prodigal children but if this would be a theory, it surely would be a bad one. I have had wonderful times with my children. Educating them was educating myself. I would not want to have missed that part of life. Letting children go and live their own life always hurts. Letting them go to live a worldly life hurts even worse. But they have to make their own decisions and as I wrote in a letter to my daughter: "Now I know how the father in the Bible object lesson felt. Now I know how God feels about the millions of people who don't believe in Him. They are all still His children. Alll can do is wait just like the father in Christ's example waited." I used to pray that God might give my children a good life here, if they won't inherit everlasting life. This was not a good theory either. Now I pray that God will lead them back, and I only hope their journey will not be as lowly as the way of the prodigal.