Monica was a woman who feared for her son’s soul. She had good reason: Augustine saw Monica’s faith as foolish and weak. He rejected her Christianity, turning to pagan philosophy, violent entertainment, and sexual indulgence. Yet, this early church mother followed her son around the Roman Empire, hoping that she might maintain an influence and somehow lead him to Christ.
Monica is not alone. Fear for our children is as old as Adam and Eve. It seems to come with parenting as blisters come with a marathon. We worry about our children’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. And fears tend to grow with a child: we worry that learning to walk will end with a lump on the forehead; we worry that learning to drive will end in a hospital emergency room.
But fear that a child is not saved is our darkest fear. Our child’s behavior can confirm and fuel our fears, deepening them with time and unrepentant sin. And this fear is a complicated one. We are afraid not only for our child’s soul, though that is primary. We also fear the damage that they will do to themselves and others, that they will discredit the name of Christ and the church, that no one will understand our grief, that we are losing our contact with the child as they seek to escape our influence. We fear that this trial will be lifelong. Even in grief, fear of what other people think of our parenting or family can cloud our minds and hearts.
In order to save His straying people, the Father sent His only begotten Son—one who was obedient to death, even death on the cross.
Monica’s concern for Augustine made her weep as she cried her way from place to place. Prayers and tears ought to be there, flowing out of love for our child and grief at their accumulating guilt before God. But our tears can never comfort, give confidence, or remove our child’s guilt. What if we’re not weeping enough or weeping for the wrong reasons? What if we’re praying with a wrong emphasis? Our parental actions are never meritorious. As the great hymn writer Horatius Bonar would say, all our prayers and sighs and tears cannot bear their awful load.
A love for our children that is greater than ours must intervene. God has not promised to save every covenant child (Matt. 10:34–36). But He is still the faithful, covenant-keeping God whom He proclaimed Himself to be to Abram (Gen. 17). Our experience does not change God’s character. Our child’s failure to take hold of covenant promises is theirs, not God’s. God is the same unchanging heavenly Father who saves everyone who comes to Him. He hears our prayers, answering them in His own hidden wisdom.
But He does more than that. God understands what it is like to have a straying child. In Hosea, the Lord speaks: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away” (11:1–2). God knows rejection by a people whom He cared for and loved.
In order to save His straying people, the Father sent His only begotten Son—One who was obedient to death, even death on the cross. You and I would never sacrifice a faithful, loving child for people who hated us. This is beyond the scope of human love. But if we are in Christ, this is our experience: we were once “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21), now reconciled to the Father through the Son’s atonement. The God who reached out to us has not changed despite our circumstances.
A straying child is a great test of faith, partly because the situation exposes the level to which we walk by faith, not sight. When all we see is our straying child, with the world, the flesh, and the devil successfully working on him or her, fear is a natural response. Living by faith sees this reality. It sees the spiritual danger, but it focuses on who God is. It looks to Christ, who can say to the Father, “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one” (John 18:9). In grace, God brings many prodigals home. Christian parents must come to the place in their faith where they meekly yet wholeheartedly affirm these most difficult words of our Lord:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:37–38)
Rebecca VanDoodewaard is author of Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth and the Banner Board Books series for children.