Are you a good parent?

Looking at the amount of parenting resources available out there—from courses to books to videos—it seems like we should be.

But what happens when parents do their best . . . and their children still turn out bad?

Most of us know of folks who are model Christian parents, who work hard at raising their kids—only to see their kids breaking their hearts by rejecting God, walking away from church, and choosing to live worldly lives.

How are we to respond to situations like these?

No Guarantees

First off, we need to free such parents from unnecessary guilt. The mystery of free will means that all of us, including the children of “good” parents, have the right to choose how they want to live and whether they want to follow Jesus or not. As theologian R. Paul Stevens writes in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity:

  • Can Christian parents guarantee that their children will become believers? No, not even by “doing it right” in all spheres of parenting . . . Good parenting can facilitate a child’s growing up to become whole and open to God but cannot guarantee faith. That is the result of a miraculous and mysterious cooperation of human and divine wills.

If it is of any comfort, even God’s first humans, Adam and Eve, and Israel—God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22)—did not turn out well. All went astray.

The mystery of free will means that people can respond rightly or wrongly to the love they receive. And some, sadly, choose to respond wrongly.

Faithful, Not Successful

The truth is, parenting is tough even at the best of times. Christian counsellor Gary R. Collins sums it up well: “Parenting can be a difficult and sometimes overwhelming responsibility. On occasion almost all parents feel that they have failed, and most have periods of discouragement and confusion.”

All of us, including the children of “good” parents, have the right to choose how they want to live, and whether they want to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is good to remember that the Lord has called us to be faithful, not successful. As Christian parents, we do our best to nurture our children in His ways, because this is a vocation from God. The apostle Paul tells Christian fathers (and parents in general): “Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

While Paul appears to have been single with no biological children of his own, he had many spiritual children, and so can guide us in the area of parenting. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7–12 (emphasis mine), Paul models good parenting for mothers and fathers:

  • Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well . . . You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

This idea of loving and nurturing our children in God’s ways is also borne out—surprisingly—by secular research. A Scientific American article lists 10 competencies for good parenting, and they include modelling love and affection, healthy relationship skills, and religion—the last one by supporting the child’s spiritual development and taking part in spiritual activities. Even empirical research recognises the need for spiritual development as a key component of good parenting.

We May Yet Be Surprised

Our children are entrusted to us by God. We are stewards of their lives, and one day we will have to give an account to the Lord as to how we have discharged our duties. One day, our children will also have to give an account of how they have lived. They have their choices to make.

Our choice as parents is to do our best, in His strength, to bring up our children in the training and instruction of the Lord. Indeed, as we try to be faithful, we may find that the Lord may surprise us yet.

When I talk to parents who have difficult children, I usually remind them of the parable of the gracious father (Luke 15:11–32). (I prefer calling this the parable of the “gracious father” rather than “prodigal son”, because I think the father is the real hero in this story.)

Here was a caring father who seemed to have done all the right things. We can only imagine his heartache when his younger son demanded his share of the property while his father was still alive, took the money and went away to a far country, away from family and God.

We don’t know how long the prodigal son was away before he came to his senses. I can imagine a modern parent wondering what he or she had done wrong. The father in the parable, however, respected his son’s decisions, and continued loving him. And the prodigal son eventually came to his senses, and came home.

By God’s Grace, Don’t Give Up

Parents, if you have wayward or prodigal children, can I encourage you not to give up hope?

Some children, like the prodigal son, have to travel to a far country before they are able to appreciate home. And, sometimes, children of Christian parents have to take this difficult journey before they can claim the Christian faith as their own, and not just because it’s Daddy’s and Mummy’s faith. The waiting is tough, but we can surrender our children to God’s care—just as Moses’ mother surrendered the future of her newborn to the Lord.

My first son was a tough child, and I had a bad temper—which made for a potent combination. I recall with shame my anger and excessive corporal punishment as a young father. It wasn’t until much later, in a period of my life when I became a single parent, that I “grew up” as a father.

Somewhere along the way, my son changed, too. It was almost as if some switch had been turned on. He had an explosive temper in his younger days, but he was transformed into a man who was utterly serious about his faith and is now pastoring a fast-growing church in Melbourne. What switch was turned on in his life? Who turned it on? I have no idea, though I suspect his grandmother’s daily prayers had something to do with it.

All I know is that it is all because of God’s grace. And this means there is hope for us all.

Fellow parents, while there are no guarantees, may we make the choice to actively trust in a God who himself is a loving, faithful Father. May we surrender our wayward children to the Lord while continuing to love them and pray for them, as we beseech God’s grace to lead them home to Him and to us.

​​This article was originally published on IMPACT Magazine.
Adapted with permission.

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Rev. Dr. Tan Soo-Inn is a director of Graceworks, a training and publishing consultancy committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. Married to Bernice, they have four sons.
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