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5 Things for Parents to Remember When Your Child Doesn't Choose the Church

My wife, Shauna, was talking with a friend one morning when the conversation turned to children. The woman spoke rather unkindly about a family she knew and of the problems some of the daughters had had. "What kind of parents would let their children do such things?" the woman asked very pointedly. My wife timidly suggested that we really ought not make those kinds of judgments. The woman replied, "No, what I mean is, there's no way my children would ever do those things." Shauna responded, "I hope you're right. But I wouldn't say that if I were you. Children can change overnight."

It's so easy to jump to premature (and often inaccurate) conclusions when we know so little and have available so few of the facts. It's natural to attribute motivation, assign intent, and designate guilt when we really have no idea what's going on in the souls of other people. It is likely that few Latter-day Saint parents who bounce their little ones on their lap, read scriptures with them, kneel in prayer with them, and diligently try to embody the principles of the gospel ever suppose that their children could grow up to be indifferent or hostile toward sacred or eternal things. But sometimes things just don't work out as we plan. 

Bearing One Another's Burdens

We must learn to rejoice with mothers and fathers whose children excel and whose loved ones develop into model citizens. We must learn to feel deep gratitude for the young ones who are not our own but whose lives bless the lives of their parents and grandparents. On the other hand, we must, as a part of our Christian covenant, be "willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light; yea, and . . . willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:8-9).

It is a wrenching thing to lose a loved one to death. It is perhaps even more wrenching to lose a loved one to the influences of the world, to watch helplessly as one over whom we have prayed and longed and yearned turns a deaf ear to counsel and wanders away into the mists of darkness.

It seems so natural to show up on the doorstep of a friend whose child has been taken in death and grieve with our friends in their loss. It seems so much more difficult to respond in like fashion when our friend's child has gone inactive, has turned to drugs, or has become immoral. We would never think of criticizing a parent whose baby daughter contracted leukemia and died, but we are tempted to place blame at the door of a parent whose son or daughter breaks the law and seems to have died spiritually.

It is a sin against charity and a crime against human decency to ignore or belittle or speak unkindly——to judge——those whose children stray. I believe God will hold us accountable if we do so. Mormon warned: "Wherefore, take heed, . . . that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil" (Moroni 7:14). Likewise, Alma counseled: "Therefore, . . . see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again. For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored" (Alma 41:14-15). Maybe there is not much we can do; we probably cannot turn our neighbor's child around on our own. But we can care. We can hurt with our brothers and sisters. And we can pray for them. That's a start. Catchy clichés and platitudes seldom bring comfort, but genuine expressions of love and concern do much to ease the burdens of troubled hearts.

Making Space to Forgive

We can be Christians, followers of the lowly Nazarene who ate and drank with sinners. We can reach out, welcome people back, and help them feel the warmth and security they once knew. Alma the Younger took a major detour. But he returned and was welcomed back. Corianton left the strait and narrow path for a time, but he came back. He repented sincerely and was allowed to continue his ministry. He labored faithfully thereafter in the Church (see Alma 49:29-30; 63:10). We can be forgiving and allow people to change. If Johnny strays from the path for a few years and disqualifies himself for a mission but eventually returns to the path, we can greet him joyfully. God can forgive him, and so must we. If Jennifer leaves the strait and narrow, loses her virtue, has a baby out of wedlock, but chooses eventually to come back to church, we can rejoice in her return. God can forgive her, and so must we. When people have repented, they want desperately to put the past behind them; we as followers of Christ are under covenant to help them do so. In short, if loved ones wander for a time, miss some glorious opportunities and forfeit some blessings, we can still run to meet them while they are yet a great way off (see Luke 15:20). That they can be forgiven, that they can have their sins remitted, is an indication that they can yet inherit the celestial kingdom. Humble followers of Christ will treat them, and their parents, accordingly.

That spirit is illustrated in an incident related by Elder Boyd K. Packer: "A few years ago, it was my sad privilege to accompany President Kimball, then President of the Twelve, to a distant stake to replace a stake leader who had been excommunicated for a transgression. Our hearts went out to this good man who had done such an unworthy thing. His sorrow and anguish and suffering brought to my mind the phrase 'gall of bitterness.'

"Thereafter, on intermittent occasions, I would receive a call from President Kimball: 'Have you heard from this brother? How is he doing? Have you been in touch with him?' After Brother Kimball became President of the Church, the calls did not cease. They increased in frequency.

"One day I received a call from the President. 'I have been thinking of this brother. Do you think it is too soon to have him baptized?' (Always a question, never a command.) I responded with my feelings, and he said, 'Why don't you see if he could come here to see you? If you feel good about it after an interview, we could proceed.'

"A short time later, I arrived very early at the office. As I left my car I saw President Kimball enter his. He rolled down the window to greet me, and I told him I had good news about our brother. 'He was baptized last night,' I said.

"He motioned for me to get into the car and sit beside him and asked me to tell him all about it. I told him of the interview and that I had concluded by telling our brother very plainly that his baptism must not be a signal that his priesthood blessings would be restored in the foreseeable future. I told him that it would be a long, long time before that would happen.

"President Kimball patted me on the knee in a gentle gesture of correction and said, 'Well, maybe not so long . . .' Soon thereafter the intermittent phone calls began again" (Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, 118-19). 

"God does not look on sin with allowance," the Prophet Joseph Smith explained, "but when men have sinned, there must be allowance made for them.

"All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind, and hinder our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness. The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs" (Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 240-41). "Through the history of the generations of man," President Gordon B. Hinckley declared, "the actions of rebellious children have been ladened with sorrow and heartbreak, but even when there has been rebellion, the strong cords of family life have reached out to encircle the rebellious one" (in Conference Report, Apr. 1991, 95).

Recognizing Family Pain

There is yet another area in which we must not judge or condemn, and it is a different angle on the same problem. Parents who have had wandering children are more than eager (and grateful) to welcome back the straying one. They may also be a bit impatient with siblings who are not as excited and welcoming as Mom and Dad. Let's face the facts: it's tough for a child who is honestly trying to live his or her religion to watch the rebellious son or daughter destroy the home, chase away the peace of the family, make emotional basket cases of their parents, get all the time and most of the family resources, and still feel loving, accepting, and tender toward the prodigal. It's one thing to preach and teach that we ought to be ever ready to forgive; it's another thing to be able to do so. It usually takes some time for the wounds to heal, and "faithful children" and parents may both need to exercise patience and understanding in the process.

A dear friend of mine shared the following experience. At a time when he and his wife were suffering over a wandering child, he prayed and prayed for the strength and the heart to love his errant son, no matter what. That was terribly difficult, for he desperately wanted this boy to become all that the father knew he could become. He wanted to be honest with his son, so he prepared and waited for a time when he felt his expressions could be heartfelt and genuine. On one occasion he waited up for his son until about two o'clock in the morning, when the son came in. The father said, "Come in, Bill. Let's talk for a moment." The young man back-peddled. "I know I'm late. I know I said I would be in earlier." The father cut him off. "No, no, Bill. That's not what I wanted to talk with you about. I just wanted to tell you that I've missed you. It's been a long time since we sat down and spent a few moments together. Do you have some time right now?" Startled, the son said, "I guess so."

"Bill," the father continued, "I need to tell you something, and it's really important to me that I say just what I'm feeling. I know that for the time being you have chosen to travel another direction, to go in a different path than the rest of the family has chosen to take. I would be lying if I said anything other than it hurts your mom and me deeply to see you go this way. But I've come to realize something in the past few days. As much as I want you to be active and involved in the Church——and I want that more than anything in the world——that decision has to be yours. And so I want you to know even if you should decide that you never again want to be associated with the Church, we'll still love you, love you with all our hearts. You're our son, and you'll always be our son. And nothing will ever change that."

Bill was touched by the honesty of his father and, more especially, by the rich outpouring of a love now devoid of rules and conditions. Through tears, my friend explained that that moment was a turning point in their relationship.

Knowing Where to Turn

Our family pain may best be faced with perspective, particularly the perspective provided by the great plan of happiness. On occasions when I have been most discouraged by family matters, I have engaged in two essential activities.

First of all, I have spent a great deal of time on my knees. A petition in the Book of Mormon has taken on new meaning for me. Alma and his missionary companions were stunned by the perverseness and apostasy of the Zoramites. After expressing to God his utter disgust with their pride and idolatry, Alma prayed: "O Lord, wilt thou give me strength, that I may bear with mine infirmities. For I am infirm, and such wickedness among this people doth pain my soul. O Lord, my heart is exceedingly sorrowful; wilt thou comfort my soul in Christ" (Alma 31:30-31). Prayer becomes a means of gaining comfort, additional strength to bear up under our burdens, and divine direction in dealing with specific problems.

Second, I have spent many hours in the temple, the site of intersection between heaven and earth, the holy place where we can come unto God. The temple provides perspective on time and eternity. It serves for me as a gentle slap in the face, a sobering reminder of what matters most. I may come into the temple with what seems an unbearable burden——concerns about finances, children, or church matters. I may not leave the temple with any more money in my pocket or even an idea of how to come up with more (though such things do happen). I may not understand any more clearly how to deal with a rebellious youngster (though certain impressions may come). And I may not know exactly who should be called as the Relief Society president or the Scoutmaster (though such knowledge does come to us on occasion). But almost always I leave the temple built up, strengthened, fortified in what must be done. My mind and heart have been refocused on eternal things. Covenants. Ordinances. Family. Sealing power. Righteousness. There is consummate peace to be found in perspective.

Holding on with Hope

The hope of which the scriptures speak is not just wanting good things to happen. Hope is a settled condition, a rest and a peace that allows us to proceed confidently in the midst of turmoil. It comes to us by the power of the Holy Ghost, who is the Comforter. Elder M. Russell Ballard stated: "Many feel helpless to deal with the chaos that seems to prevail in the world. Others anguish over family members who are being carried downstream in a swift, raging current of weakening values and declining moral standards. Children particularly are suffering as society drifts further and further away from the commandments of God.

"Many have even resigned themselves to accept the wickedness and cruelty of the world as being irreparable. They have given up hope. They have decided to quit trying to make the world a better place in which they and their families can live. They have surrendered to despair.

"Admittedly we have ample reason to be deeply concerned because we see no immediate answers to the seemingly unsolvable problems confronting the human family. But regardless of this dark picture, which will ultimately get worse, we must never allow ourselves to give up hope! Moroni, having seen our day, counseled, 'Wherefore, there must be faith; and if there must be faith there must also be hope' (Moroni 10:20)" (in Conference Report, Oct. 1992, 42).

To hold on, to hope on in regard to the family is to face life and its challenges with courage and conviction, recognizing that God is in his heaven and knows of our sufferings. To proceed with hope is to live the gospel the best we can, to trust in the infinite power and never-ending mercy of Jesus Christ, and to surrender our burdens to him. Jesus is the Balm of Gilead. His is the soothing ointment that heals the wounds of the brokenhearted. To a degree, we each have wandered, just as do some of our children. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6). But thanks be to God, "he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4). Because he has taken upon him our infirmities, he is filled with mercy and knows how to succor his people according to their individual needs (see Alma 7:12).

Truly, anything upon which Christ places his hand is healed——individual, family, or nation. The Savior may not take away our problems, and he certainly will not shield us from all pain, but he will provide us perspective and strength to bear up under them. As we submit cheerfully and patiently to the will of the Lord, he will "ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, . . . that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions" (Mosiah 24:14).

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When a Child WandersFind more resources and insights on this topic in Robert L. Millet's book When a Child Wanders, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

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