This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 2 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Grandma, how can I know I’m going to heaven?” I’m not sure what prompted the question on that particular day, but before I knew it, my grandmother was on the phone with the pastor of her life-long Baptist church, asking him how quickly he could come over. A few minutes later, he was by my side leading me in a confession of faith.
The whole event left me feeling a mix of embarrassment, betrayal, and relief. On one hand, I felt more secure having had the conversation and feeling like I had said the right things. On the other, had I known my question would thrust me into such an awkward situation with someone I hardly knew, I doubt I would have asked it. Regardless of how bumpy a start, that moment marked the beginning of my Christian journey — one that would look more like the erratic dance of a bee than a steady march on the straight and narrow.
I was seven years old when that first conversation took place; just a decade later, I would become a full-blown prodigal. After years of Christian school, weekly chapel, Scripture memory work, Patch the Pirate, and DC Talk cassette tapes, I abandoned the faith of my childhood.
Moving Forward. I imagine there are few things more heartbreaking than watching your beloved son or daughter wander away from the faith you worked so hard to instill. Wayward literally means “turned away from,” and this outward-facing posture can wreak havoc on family relationships. Parents often struggle with feelings of helplessness, guilt, anger, and depression. Wayward children often feel misunderstood and isolated as they battle for independence and autonomy. The unique and tender nature of these parent/child dynamics creates challenges that are distinct from other evangelistic endeavors.
So how might parents (and grandparents) best witness to a wayward child? As a former prodigal, and now a parent to my own four children, I offer some ideas to consider.
The Role of Deconstruction. First, understand that some level of deconstruction is a normal part of lasting, transformative faith. As J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, “not all those who wander are lost.”1 Because so much of our faith is often tangled up with family traditions and culture, including dysfunction and brokenness, it can be healthy to sort through the teaching we received and re-evaluate what is true. Not everything I grew up believing was worth holding on to.
This process can look frightening to watching parents, especially in a culture where deconstruction is seen as a virtuous end unto itself. But if your child is open to sharing their questions or struggles with you, try to resist the urge to feel personally rejected. Seek to understand. Ask questions. Accept criticism. Not all prodigals are outright rejecting Jesus or Christianity. Sometimes, it is God’s mercy to clear away the clutter so true faith can flourish. You may even find your own faith is strengthened and refined.
God used my prodigal journey to reveal life-giving truths I had overlooked in my childhood years. In all my years of wandering, I never fully grasped that I was breaching a relational covenant I had made with God and He with me. Ironically, the sense of security I received from praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” as a child led me to easily absorb the lie that what I did with the rest of my life was not all that important. It took a few years of wallowing in pig slop to better understand the deeply personal nature of my sin.
The Value of the Imagination. Second, consider the role of the imagination in evangelism. From social media, to podcasts, to streaming services, today’s prodigals are inundated with competing truth claims and worldviews. In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway reminds us how overwhelming this flood of data can be. “It may be,” she says, “that the last cry of those drowning in nonsense is ‘What does it all mean?’” (emphasis in original).2
Though it’s tempting to pummel your prodigal with truth, Proverbs 29:19 reminds us that we “cannot be corrected by mere words.”3 We aren’t brains simply assenting to a list of facts, we are human beings in search of meaning. We long to taste and see that the Lord is good, not merely hear about it.
It is here stories can be of great service. Stories awaken the imagination and invite us to see truth lived out. They can appeal to our mind, will, and emotions in ways that facts alone cannot. Reason is the organ of truth, says C. S. Lewis, but the organ of meaning is the imagination.4 Is it any wonder Scripture is revealed to us in the form of a story?
Your child has a front row seat to your life — both the good and bad. You might consider opening yourself up to sharing more of your story. The truths of Scripture revealed in your own life can be a powerful apologetic for the Christian faith. The great St. Augustine, once a prodigal himself, was lovingly ushered back to the faith, not by rational arguments alone, but through stories. It was upon hearing the testimony of others who had unflinchingly given their lives to God that St. Augustine’s imagination was awakened, and he could truly “see” the folly of his own wandering.5
The Reality of Sin. Third, remember that Proverbs 22:6 is a general principle and not a promise. When it comes to wayward children, perhaps no verse has caused greater confusion. Yes, the Scriptures tell us that if we “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). But in no way does this Scripture promise children will always be protected from the consequences of their own sinful choices. A misunderstanding of this verse can place blame on parents who will likely see their wayward children as glaring evidence of their own failure. It is indeed more likely that a good foundation in the faith will protect children from wandering away from it, but this Scripture is not meant as a guarantee. Adam and Eve had a perfect parent in God, and they still rebelled.
Having said this, I can speak from personal experience that trying to depart from the training I’d received as a child did indeed prove incredibly difficult. Poets call God the great Hound of Heaven for a reason.6 God relentlessly pursued me in my prodigal years, and the faith of my childhood haunted me. My conscience was tender, and my sense of right and wrong kept me from feeling fully at home in the world. It’s probably truer to say that the training I received would not depart from me. I simply couldn’t shake it off no matter how hard I tried. Though my childhood faith was imperfect, it provided a good foundation. Trust God’s heart for your child and know that He is pursuing them, likely in ways you cannot see.
The Importance of Prayer. Lastly, know that your child’s homecoming is ultimately a job initiated and completed by the Holy Spirit. This is true no matter who we are witnessing to, but it may be hardest to remember when it comes to those closest to us. Watching your children wander is heart-wrenching, and the temptation to rescue can be overwhelming. Depending on the severity of your child’s rebellion, issues of codependency can arise, especially if your child has wandered into addiction. In some cases, it might be helpful to seek counseling to maintain your own spiritual health. Give yourself space and grace to process the grief you’ve experienced.
Children know when they are disappointing their parents, and the guilt can be overwhelming. Prodigals may carry a lot of shame. Ultimately, they should return because they long to please God, not because they want to make their parents happy. The prodigal’s father in Luke 15 never forced his son to leave the pig slop. Instead, he lovingly gave him the freedom to make his own choices.
Regardless of how far your wayward child has wandered, prayer is our most powerful and often most underused weapon. St. Augustine’s spiritual awakening came after years of faithful petition from his mother, Monica, whose tears for her son “gushed forth and watered the ground beneath her eyes wherever she prayed.”7 When St. Augustine’s story comes to an end, we see it was the work of the Holy Spirit that ultimately brought him home. Monica saw him get baptized shortly before she died.
If your child has wandered far from the faith, there may be spiritual strongholds that are beyond the reach of any human effort. In this case, prayer is not just a good recourse; it is often the only one.
We Are All Wayward. We have all, like sheep, gone astray (Isa. 53:6). The good news of the gospel is that none of us is beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd. In Christ, we are redeemed, restored, and returned. Do not grow weary in doing good, especially when it comes to praying for your wayward child. It was ultimately prayer that brought me home from years of wandering. My grandmother’s faith was flawed in many ways, but she persevered in praying for me every single day. I am so thankful she did. I had wandered so far away I was no longer sure how to get back. But when I was ready to come home, it was prayer to which I turned, as well. “Lord, please don’t let me go” was all I knew to say. And the Father came running.—Nicole Howe
Nicole Howe holds an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She is a regular contributor to the quarterly apologetics publication An Unexpected Journal and a co-editor and regular contributor to Cultivating magazine.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 2012), 278.
- Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 19.
- All Bible quotations are from NIV, unless noted otherwise.
- C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 306.
- Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, (New York: New City Press, 1997), 8.7.16.
- Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven” (1893), Poetry Nook, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/hound-heaven.
- Augustine, The Confessions, 3.11.19.