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A Mother’s Path of Faith, After Her Children Lost Theirs

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No, we had not lost our home in a terrible fire. No, there had not been a life-threatening health diagnosis. No, there had not been a tragic or unexpected death. But when our young adult child told us they no longer wanted to be a part of our church, it surely felt as though, as a Christian mother, I had lost my definition of a home. It felt as though a serious spiritual illness had been exposed. And it certainly felt as though the death of our former family had occurred.

Outwardly I listened to our child delivering this news. Inwardly I struggled to breathe. There had been years of physical, emotional and spiritual investment as we tried to raise our children in a spiritually cultivated environment. I remember feeling an enormous weight of responsibility before God for having let Him down as a Christian parent, for having not been successful in raising our child in a manner that led them to Him. Were there parenting and spiritual flaws that had contributed to this outcome? How could I move forward as a Christian mother when our child’s decision could not be undone? And then there was that scripture that jolted me to my core, Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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. I had read it many times but never contemplated it from the perspective of failure before.

I felt driven to immediately seek His forgiveness and simply wanted to run far, far away to a quiet refuge to be alone with God—just the two of us. But would He want to be with me after such a revelation? My younger self was not so sure.

Well, little did we know this experience would repeat itself multiple times over. In a few years our other children followed suit and we completely lost an entire generation of our church-going family.

It has now been years since these crises in our lives took place and we are squarely settled on the other side of it. However, my friends, I will let you in on a secret: my heart still stirs with painful twangs when I permit myself to look back. In particular, the homesickness for the “old family” occurs each year at the Feast of Tabernacles and on many Sabbaths and Holy Days. These had once been meaningful family times for us and we now no longer share this dimension with our children. But, as the number of years has stretched into longer segments of time since we last experienced those times together, so has my perspective grown and each year the twangs diminish a little more.

Are you a family whose teens are questioning their faith and considering departure from your church? Do you fear this potential possibility with your now younger children? Are you a parent whose children have already left the spiritual nest and you still struggle to find clarity and resolution to this loss?

If you fit into any of these scenarios, then this article is for you. Obviously, there will be relationship complexities and nuances in each individual situation that cannot be addressed in this space. But hopefully by sharing a few insights that time, soul searching and perhaps maturity graced by God’s guiding hand have brought, you will be better equipped for a more balanced and measured perspective than what I had initially responded with many years ago.

Unravelling what occurs when our children question or leave the faith

1. Don’t blame yourself

As I did, you may struggle with feelings of guilt, anxiety or regret over where your child is in relation to God and their faith. You may wrestle with thoughts that tell you their decision is a result of your parenting or your personal shortcomings. Parents who have had their children leave the Church tend to look back and doubt all they did in raising their children, while sometimes parents with children who stayed may be tempted to think everything they did was right. Neither of these extremes is true.

Don’t blame yourself, but do take ownership of shortcomings because we are all flawed humans and therefore we are all flawed parents. Own your mistakes, confess them to God and also to your children. It’s amazing what depth of healing occurs when people apologize for their mistakes. But then, continual anxiety or beating one’s self up over the past is not helpful. Forgive yourself.

The truth is that God is not limited by parental failures, so release yourself from these thoughts. It is a myth that if your children left the Church you did everything wrong and if they stayed you did everything right. Even in the best and worst case scenarios, neither one of those is true. There are many fine families whose children have strayed from the faith. Likewise there are many troubled families whose children have stayed in the faith. There is no magic formula. Ultimately, parents are not to blame for their adult child’s spiritual choices. Their life is just that, their life.

I recall the peace that prevailed when I finally placed the internal turmoil before God’s throne and specifically asked Him to spiritually parent our children—His children—and guide them back to Him at a time when they would respond with fullness of heart. If ever the burden of guilt or regret raises its ugly head again, because it does, I simply repeat the process and lay it all before His throne once more. There have been times when I found that the only way I could let it go was to actually mentally visualize the act of taking my hands and dropping that burden right before Him.

Parents, read Acts 2:39 Acts 2:39For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call.
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and trust in God’s message of hope. His plan for your child will come to pass in His timing.

2. It isn’t always about you

It is very helpful to understand that as your child reaches adolescence and young adulthood it isn’t uncommon for them to want to develop their own identity. The questioning of their values and beliefs may be a part of this process.

Your child seeks to become their own person, but as it unfolds it can feel more like a personal rejection of you as a parent. In reality they are differentiating and becoming more independent before they graduate to adulthood. This is not nearly as personal as it may cause you to feel. To have cognitive understanding about what is transpiring leaves you much more equipped as a parent to walk your children through this period of time—and especially when this process overlaps with serious questions of faith.

How to navigate through this? First, remember this can be a necessary step towards your child’s establishment of an authentic and personal relationship with God. Strive to keep the relationship with your child intact above the issues. Remember the adage to seek first to understand. Wait for an appropriate opportunity to engage and use the moment to try to calmly understand their point of view.

This is the time to stifle the urge to lecture and to listen more than you speak. Model the same love, gentleness, patience and grace that you receive from God. Affirm your love for them so that they know you see their virtue even when you differ. Take time to evaluate how well you really know your child by asking them about their goals and dreams, and seek to learn what they feel most passionately about. You may be surprised with what you hear.

One thing is clear, no matter what our children may rebel against, including religion, forcing the issue will not work. But by loving them today we leave the door open to teaching them tomorrow.

After trying on different beliefs, many will return to the values they were raised with. And your child may very well come full circle and choose to do just that. But not always. And this is the moment when parents must be completely honest in answering this question: “Do you really want your child filling a seat next to you in church, making you feel warm, fulfilled and complete? Or do you want them there for the purpose of worshiping God with a heart that is seeking a personal relationship with Him?”

No, it is not always about you. It is about their relationship with God and the marvelous plan He has for them. We can trust He will work with them in His way and at His perfect time when our children will be most likely to respond.

Parents, don’t try to calculate the lives of your children using an earthly timetable. Ask yourself: “Can I accept the fact that God’s timetable may be very different from my own?”

3. See yourself and your child the way God does

We may think a rejection of faith is unique to our fellowship. It is not. One of my greatest sources of help during this difficult time did not come from my church family. Over a cup of coffee, a close friend shared with me her grief and shock over her young adult children’s recent revelation that they were no longer interested in their generations-long family faith of Catholicism.

After enough tears to flood the street in front of us and hours of sharing and discussion, we mutually determined to adjust our expectations. Instead of fixating on our disappointment with the spiritual choices of our children, we would focus on our love for them and celebrate their many good attributes. This was a first big step in the right direction.

I have often reflected back on this day and contemplated on the many times God has felt the same about me during my spiritually wayward moments—just as I had felt with our children. How many times has He shed tears of grief about me? Has He ever discussed with Christ His supreme disappointment in my choices and behavior? How many times have I broken His heart?

Asking myself these questions gave a tremendously different perspective. I came to see that our experience as parents is no different from what God the Parent has experienced with each of us as His imperfect children.

The fact is, the most perfect parent of all, God our Father, has already walked our walk. His children have been rebelling against Him since the beginning of time. His children have disappointed Him for thousands of years, rejected Him and even denied His existence. He has far more parenting experience than we do on these matters and completely understands the angst, pain and loss we feel. We, as His children, make choices that are contrary to His way. Yet He loves us still, He is quick to forgive our repentant hearts and His gracious and merciful plan for all has never wavered.

Keeping the proper perspective will help us see our children the way God views His children, and then we too will have an eternal perspective that will bring us comfort.

Parents, remember to simply love your children and appreciate them. If they have caused you hurt, forgive them. Because no matter where their choices have taken them, he or she is just one step back to a life lived with Christ and repentance. Just like you.

4. Don’t blame others

Regretfully, our youth have observed from front-row-center the ensuing ugliness when Satan stirs the pot. They have watched in bewilderment and anger as splits divided their Church family and already-limited circle of teen friendships. Additionally, when difficulties arise between brethren, our children are always watching and perceptively note if there is hypocrisy between what we say and what we do.

In their search for answers, parents may try to make sense of their child’s departure from the Church by trying to pinpoint some of these negative circumstances as contributing reasons for their decision.

Yes, as God’s people we need to do better in imitating Christ in all that we do. But let’s also acknowledge the reality that as long as Satan rules this earth, he will never cease trying to divide God’s people and there will be splits, deeds that hurt, words that slice, and behavior exhibited that is unbefitting of Christians. As parents, the tendency can be to point the finger at these experiences and harbor levels of bitterness against that which we perceive to have hurt our children and jaded their view of church and religion. But we simply cannot walk in a state of ongoing blame and un-forgiveness towards others who may not have acted as Christ would have us act. Contemplate Mark 11:25 Mark 11:25And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
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and Hebrews 12:14-15 Hebrews 12:14-15 [14] Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: [15] Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;
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, and forgive them.

Parents, human nature likes to look across the room and find another person or persons to blame, who we feel contributed to—or even caused—our child deciding our church was not for them. We may think finding someone to blame will ease our pain. It doesn’t.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

5. Comparing is never fruitful

Let’s be honest. Comparing your family circumstance to other families is an utter joy-thief. Confront these feelings head on and take them before God. In truth, there have been times when I have permitted myself to be affected by observing other families who are all together in the faith. If not kept in check these feelings will only succeed in taking you to an unchristian mindset where you do not want to linger.

In full application of the golden rule, let us not be envious of others who are able to experience a unity of Spirit with their families at this time. Likewise, let us strive to not be so sensitive to ill-spoken words that may cause our heart to feel troubled and dark. Most truly speak without guile and simply come from a place of having not experienced our loss. Thus, they have no clue as to the depth of grief their words can unleash in our heart.

When we learn to rejoice with those who rejoice, in return it opens the door for others to look beyond their own and want to better understand our Savior’s teachings about love, compassion and mourning for those of us whose family situations are very different from theirs. Romans 12:15 Romans 12:15Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
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, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

6. Don’t lose your own faith

Several years ago, a friend shared with me the difficulty they were having with their young adult child who was struggling in life, had turned away from church and was making poor life choices. This was a source of extreme concern, discouragement and shame for them.

Their circle of church friends could attest to the fact she and her husband had immersed their lives into raising their family properly. They were a wonderful, loving couple who had invested time and energy into church youth camps, and the many activities and connections which would assist in keeping their child “in the zone.” She wept and shared how this had erupted into a multifaceted life crisis. Why had her child had turned out so differently from those of all of their peers when they had followed the same model? She was fully grieved with God that He did not keep His promise as stated in Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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. This painful and personal trial began a journey of questioning her own belief system and eventually, as her child had, she also departed from the faith.

This poignant experience left an immense impact on me. I had taken the road of personal guilt in feeling I had not properly fulfilled Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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—and thereby did not reap its reward—but she had taken the road of moral disappointment with God for not upholding His promise in this scripture. Neither of our perspectives on this passage are isolated and so it certainly warrants further discussion.

Points to ponder

When our children wrestle with their faith, and sometimes even their belief in God, it isn’t a sign that all hope is lost. The present is not permanent in the mind of a young adult who will continue to formulate their thoughts as they mature. And it does not negate any of the implementations that create a healthy church environment to state: we simply cannot “will” our children into the Church through activities, summer camps, friendships or anything else.

One of the greatest acts of service we can implement on behalf of those who have left their faith is to offer specific prayers on their behalf. Praying for our children doesn’t “will” them into Church either, but we can ask God to work with our children and lead them to eternal life. As children of those with God’s Holy Spirit, they have unique access to God and His plan of salvation (1 Corinthians 7:14 1 Corinthians 7:14For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
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). We simply do not know exactly how or when our child’s story will develop or end. But we can trust God has a plan for our child and the seeds which were planted many years ago will one day grow. Philippians 4:6 Philippians 4:6Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
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is a tall order and yet so comforting if implemented.

Satan’s unmistakable calling card is division. Don’t permit Satan to use this situation as a tool to cause division between you and your child, you and your spouse, or between you and God. Satan delights in destroying relationships and preys upon our vulnerabilities—and certainly our children, marriages and faith are at the top of his hit list. He will do all he can to take your family out to the battlefield, so don’t permit yourself to be pulled into skirmishes over religion which will ultimately damage your family. Christian adults, the responsibility lies with you to not take the bait. And, the fate of your ultimate crown also lies with you. Stay firm in your faith no matter how much your heart is poked and your emotions are stoked (James 4:7-8 James 4:7-8 [7] Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8] Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded.
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).

It may seem as though you are the only one who has a spiritually wayward child but you most certainly are not. Many in our midst have children who have abandoned their faith. Seek them out, lean on them and learn from them. It will do your heart good to know you aren’t the only one.

Parents, ask yourself: “If I knew that my children would eventually return to God, would that change how I act in my story today?”

Addressing Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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This verse can be a tough one, because a cursory read of it is often viewed as a hopeful, gold-standard guarantee that if you raise your children in the proper way they’ll always stay in the faith and on the right path. This is a problematic interpretation for good Christian parents who put prayerful effort and loving sacrifice into parenting—and yet did not reap the desired reward of seeing their children stay in the faith.

We absolutely do have a responsibility to teach our children and do our best to reflect God’s image to them. But the fact is, parents may do their very best and yet sometimes the results are very different than what was anticipated. This cannot always be interpreted as parental failure. After all, we have all been given free will to make our own choices—and that includes our children. God does call them but they must choose—and sometimes they choose not to believe, just as you choose to believe.

Josh McDowell in his book titled, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, offers this perspective on page 50: “Proverbial sayings by their very nature offer only general guidance, not universal assurance. They are rules for life, but rules that admit of exceptions. Proverbs 16:7 Proverbs 16:7When a man's ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
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is a case in point. It affirms that “when a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” This statement obviously was not intended to be a universal truth. Paul was pleasing to the Lord, but his enemies stoned him (Acts 14:19 Acts 14:19And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.
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). Jesus pleased God the Father and His enemies crucified Him! Nonetheless, it is generally true that one who acts in a way pleasing to God will often attract his enemy to his side. Just look at how Paul was attracted to Jesus!”

In this context, Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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is a principle that should be followed with all of our heart and we should expect results. But Proverbs are principles and not necessarily promises. If this scripture was a promise it would take away individual choice and responsibility from our children. This scriptural passage is worthy of a much deeper dive into its other possible scholarly interpretations. Rather than rewrite the material, please refer to the chapter on this subject in our “Marriage and Family: The Missing Dimension” study guide at this link: ucg.org/bible-study-tools/booklets/marriage-and-family-the-missing-dimension/proverbs-and-proper-training.

Ingrain your brain with God’s encouraging Scripture

Sometimes when our children are no longer connected to their spiritual roots, Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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becomes the only scripture that seems to have seared itself into our mind. We say it over and over to ourselves and wonder what went wrong. Did we not only fail our children, but also God? Or has God failed us? Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:6Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
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is a powerful biblical principle that needs to be followed and embedded in the minds of all responsible Christian parents, but there are other scriptures that need to be firmly ingrained as well.

For those of us mourning our children’s spiritual choices, Scripture can be a powerful source of encouragement and hope. And especially those scriptures that speak to the rest of the story.

For example, in the middle of the book of Jeremiah—a book which tells the sad story of God’s precious children rejecting Him and everything that is dear to Him—are some of the most encouraging words for parents with a “prodigal son” or daughter.

To set the stage—in spite of His mercy and patience—God’s kids have turned their backs on Him: the only perfect parent. The children of Israel have been scattered for many years. Much of Judah, including Daniel and his friends, are already captives in Babylon. In only a few short years King Zedekiah and all but the poorest in the land will be captives there as well. In the middle of this turbulent time, along with a call to repentance, Jeremiah also gives these encouraging words:

“Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded,’ says the Lord, ‘and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future,’ says the Lord, ‘That your children shall come back to their own border’”(Jeremiah 31:15-17 Jeremiah 31:15-17 [15] Thus said the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. [16] Thus said the LORD; Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears: for your work shall be rewarded, said the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. [17] And there is hope in your end, said the LORD, that your children shall come again to their own border.
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, emphasis added).

Whose “work shall be rewarded?” The work of every single Christian parent, that’s who. Parents in our situation tend to second-guess everything we did as parents—including the things we did right—and so these words have been a source of tremendous encouragement to me through the years. I have memorized them and the verses that follow, ingraining them upon my heart and mind. No doubt you poured your heart into striving to give your children to God and to give God your children, just as I did. Because as Christian mothers, this was our primary goal and focus in life.

Parents, although freedom of choice will always be a part of the equation, we can take comfort in knowing that our work will be rewarded.

In the verses that follow, God goes on to proclaim that in spite of His son Ephraim’s sin and rejection, he is still precious to Him and that His heart still yearns for him. The son needed strong correction, but God knew exactly how to work with him—and it worked! His treasured son repents and is ashamed and embarrassed by his youthful rebellion and indiscretions. He eventually “comes to himself”—just like the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32 Luke 15:11-32 [11] And he said, A certain man had two sons: [12] And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided to them his living. [13] And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. [14] And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. [15] And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. [16] And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave to him. [17] And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! [18] I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, [19] And am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants. [20] And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [21] And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son. [22] But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: [23] And bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: [24] For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. [25] Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. [26] And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. [27] And he said to him, Your brother is come; and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. [28] And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. [29] And he answering said to his father, See, these many years do I serve you, neither transgressed I at any time your commandment: and yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: [30] But as soon as this your son was come, which has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf. [31] And he said to him, Son, you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours. [32] It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this your brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
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).

Why does God use a singular personal name and refer to Ephraim as a son? Perhaps He is personalizing the story of Israel to also apply to each of His children, and perhaps He intends for us to personalize it for each of ours too. God says He will surely show Ephraim mercy in the end, and He feels that same way about each of His potential children—and that includes your children and mine.

This encouraging section of Scripture ends with a very picturesque image in verse 21. It is a call to return, telling the people to, “Set up sign posts. Make landmarks.” This seems to be a command to the captive children but it is also applicable to us as Christian parents. We cannot control our children’s relationship with God, but there are still things that we can do.

We can break down barriers and set up sign posts and landmarks which will help our children find their way back to their spiritual borders. One bright and very powerful “Times Square” flashing neon signpost which cannot be missed is for us to always be a bright, burning example of uncompromising Christianity. Passionately loving God and His way of life, passionately loving our neighbor and our enemies, and passionately loving our children despite our differences with them, are all landmarks which will help to light their way home.

Psalm 126 is another scripture I would encourage you to ingrain in your brain. This psalm describes the joyous road trip back home from captivity, and it is a time of laughter, singing and rejoicing. Even people from other nations are in awe of the incredible things God has done for His rebellious children who have now repented.

But at the same time they are celebrating their return from their own captivity, the people also ask for a future restoration which has yet to occur (verse 4). The psalm ends with some of my favorite words and I repeat them to myself when I am in a state of grief. Verses 5-6 tell us: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

There are many parents who have spent their life living Deuteronomy 6:6-9 Deuteronomy 6:6-9 [6] And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart: [7] And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. [8] And you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. [9] And you shall write them on the posts of your house, and on your gates.
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and sowing seeds for future generations, only to grieve because the spiritual legacy and harvest seems to have ended with them.

Parents, you have simply not reaped the rewards—yet.

Our children are still captives of this world and captive to their own sin, just as we were (and still are in some ways). Although there are some with hardened hearts who will unbelievably choose not to live in a world with the most incredible Father, it is likely that Psalm 126 and Jeremiah 31 will eventually occur in your life and in the lives of your sons and daughters. Believe it! Your work will be rewarded and your present sowing in tears will bring an eternal harvest of joy. A harvest that will include your children, and indeed every person who has ever walked on His beautiful earth.

One of the most encouraging balms you can give yourself is to ingrain these scriptures, and other encouraging scriptures, permanently in your mind. Make them a part of your instant recall and long-term memory. Bring them back into the forefront of your mind when you are discouraged.

Right now you may figuratively be Abraham on the way to Mount Moriah, believing that somehow God will restore your child to you again. There will come a time when you will see God’s miracle occur in your life. These scriptures and others will help remind you of God’s love for your children—and not only your investment in their future, but His investment in them as well. We can rest knowing He knows how to work most perfectly with them. And just like His precious son Ephraim, they are each His precious sons and daughters and He will bring them home.

The cooperative of authors’ names are excluded from this article with the desire for the material to be representative of the process families walk through when they find themselves in a similar position. Privacy also permits our families to continue to grow and learn in their own time and way, away from the scrutiny of others.

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