Held by Grace: When a Child Walks Away from the Faith

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March 7, 2024

Held by Grace

Held by Grace: When a Child Walks Away from the Faith

By Alice Trebus

Note: This article will discuss why children turn away from God; reveal the author’s own story of what happened in her daughter’s case; and offer some suggestions as to what parents can do when they find themselves in a similar situation.

*The following is a true account. Pseudonyms have been used  to protect the identities of specific individuals.


Every child faces different challenges as he or she grows up. When that child rejects Jesus after being brought up to know Him, we may have no idea why. Only the Lord can examine our hearts and discern the answer (1 Samuel 16:7).

Even pastors are not immune from having a child walk away from the Lord; in fact, pastors’ kids can rebel in spectacular ways. As a P.K. (pastor’s kid) myself, I remember being acutely aware of my parochial school teachers’ high expectations of me, even when I was just five years old. Pastors themselves tend to expect more of their own children than they do someone else’s, although they may not always realize it.

So, you can imagine my parents’ horror when their oldest daughter, *Rachel, at age 17, began visiting a Buddhist temple. If she had not been stricken with terminal cancer a year later, her soul might have been forever lost to our greatest adversary, Satan. Thankfully, she did reclaim her faith in Christ before she died, but the emotional and spiritual cost to our family was very high.

In other homes, children may feel their parents are beating them over the head with religion, without allowing them to ask questions or voice their own concerns. The Holy Spirit does not come in by force, so an overly-legalistic approach simply will not work.

There are many other factors that influence adult children to leave the faith, and every family deals with different circumstances.


Now, fast forward a few decades to the first year of my marriage. My husband, *Tony, never wanted children. I had been told by an Ob-Gyn doctor that I was unlikely to conceive, so any discussion of procreating seemed moot. However, within a year, God blessed us with a beautiful baby girl.

*Tony loved our baby, but he also resented the constraints that come with having a child. This resentment set the tone for the next several years, and his attitude toward me underwent a seismic shift. He became emotionally and verbally abusive and started drinking alcohol excessively. On one frightening occasion, he assaulted me. I filed a police report and began consulting an attorney.

I longed to repair our marriage, but Tony refused to seek counseling, so we could never move forward as a couple. He remained involved as a father to Sophie even after we divorced, but there was significant dysfunction.

When Sophie was five years old, I was diagnosed with a catastrophic health condition. Treatment prolonged my life, but the process was exhausting and scary for both of us. We did meet with several counselors over the next decade or so, which helped quite a bit.

Tony would not go to church or read the Bible, so, to my knowledge, he was not praying or hearing God’s Word. His mother, *Rosa, is a very devout Catholic who raised her children with a legalistic, works-based view of Christianity, so Tony became very resentful towards religious institutions.  In addition, he had been badly humiliated by a Catholic brother in high school, and never got past it. In fact, any time he felt wronged by someone, he was determined to “sever the relationship.” This attitude left no room for forgiveness or healing, of course.

Tony frequently said that he didn't need a church because he could worship by himself, except he didn’t (at least, not until the end of his life).  His rationale was that all churchgoers are hypocrites, so why go? Well, we go because we need forgiveness from our many sins, including hypocrisy! Obviously, Tony’s excuse for avoiding worship would never hold up before a holy God; besides, it violates the command given to us in Hebrews 10:24-25a: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…

My upbringing was very different from Tony’s. I was blessed to be raised in a loving home by Christian parents with very deep faith roots. They lived their faith, and in spite of enduring some terrible trials (the death of a child and painful betrayals by church leaders), they kept their eyes on Jesus.


When Sophie was a teenager, I faced one of my worst health crises, ever. When I was about to “circle the drain,” so to speak, God provided a way out of the medical treatments I had been enduring for years. Sophie and I reveled in the Lord’s grace during this time, and were very thankful. The solution did not last as long as we hoped, but it provided a welcome reprieve for some years.


Sophie attended church with me regularly, until Covid hit in 2020. In-person worship was put on pause for several weeks, and she just never went back. At first, I thought she was just being extra cautious, but she still didn’t return. I was alarmed because I sensed a disconnect in our relationship; she wasn’t bringing up God in conversations or asking me to pray about anything anymore, and our talks seemed rather superficial. My spiritual antennae were quivering in distress-- where were the incoming faith signals from Sophie? So, after much prayer, I asked her what was going on. She never described exactly what happened to her faith, only that everything she had learned about Christianity no longer “felt right” to her, and she wanted to be her “authentic” self. I was devastated, of course, with Proverbs 14:12 running through my mind on a loop: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.


Over the past several months, my health has deteriorated significantly. I am currently on home hospice, with a life expectancy of likely no more than two months. Sophie and I have had some very meaningful conversations during this time, a welcome change from recent years. She has been visiting me daily and helping me a lot at my home, and has been very loving. I still don’t know exactly what she believes, but our relationship is definitely stronger than it has been for some time. I did calmly tell her that I probably wouldn't care what her specific beliefs were, if I were not fully convinced of what the Bible teaches: there are eternal consequences for those who reject Jesus.

I am striving to let the light of Christ shine through me to her and others (Matthew 5:16; John 1:8), which the Holy Spirit will use to bring her back to the Lord. Sophie knows that I am at peace with whatever I face in the days ahead, and I am trusting that “…he who began a good work in [her] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). While I may not get to see her transformation in this life, I am leaving her in the hands of the One for whom nothing is impossible (Matthew 19:26).

(By the way, Sophie’s father did make peace with God before he died several years ago, which was a wonderful answer to prayer.)


Pray without ceasing!

Only the Holy Spirit can change a person’s heart and bring him or her to saving faith in Jesus Christ (1 Samuel 10:9; Ezekiel 36:26). Parents must turn the problem of a loved one’s unbelief over to the Lord, immediately. This can be very hard to do, but the Bible promises that the Holy Spirit will “guide [us] into all truth” (John 16:13).

Love your child, without any conditions

It is very important to let your adult child know how much you love him or her, even when that child is in a state of rebellion. Our children need to know that their parents' home is a safe place for them to come to when they are hurting. (This does not mean that you should enable harmful behavior, such as giving your children money if they have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.) You may need to set boundaries to prevent your child from repeating undesirable behaviors, but do all you can to keep the lines of communication open.

Scorn the shame, and don’t keep the problem to yourself. 

Many Christian parents feel a false sense of shame when their child forsakes Christianity. They blame themselves, thinking they must have done something wrong.

It’s human nature to hide the problem from others because you don’t want anyone to know that you are, in your view, bad parents. You cannot think this way. Even if you have done something to alienate your child or children, they still make the choice to walk away from the Lord. “The person who sins will die. A son will not be punished for his father’s sins, and a father will not be punished for his son’s sins. The righteousness of the righteous person will be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be his own” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Parents may also fear that fellow church members will gossip among themselves and pass judgment on them, certain that they set poor examples for their children, causing them to fall away from the faith. These reactions are understandable, but unhelpful from any perspective. Don’t let pride keep you from sharing your pain with other Christians.

God certainly values honest, humble, private prayer from any individual in any situation. But, when a child walks away from the Lord, the parents’ pain is uniquely difficult, even crushing. Moms and dads face a Herculean battle, so it’s important to bring out the heavy artillery required for a spiritual battle.

Before engaging in spiritual combat, you’ll need some unique armor (see Ephesians 6:10-18) and a army of fellow believers. Inform your pastor and seek his help in praying together for your child. Form a “prodigal ministry,” a small group comprised of others fighting for their children’s souls. Pray for and with one another, encourage your group, and hold on to your hope. Remember that “…hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Be prepared to fight indefinitely; spiritual battles can last a lifetime. Strive to trust the Lord to answer your prayer on His own timetable. Be aware that when your prayers are answered, it may happen in ways you don’t expect (see Isaiah 55:8).

Make use of the opportunity to engage in corporate prayer. 

The body of Christ is already assembled during worship, and each member is very important (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). When the prayers of the church are said, include a specific one for prodigal relatives.

Acknowledge your own pain and the emotions that accompany it (griefhurt, resentment, frustration, or anger)

Expect to experience a wide range of emotions at this time. Do not allow negative thoughts to take root in your heart, and do not blame God for the fallenness of this world. We all inherited a sin nature when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord in the Garden of Eden (Romans 5:12), so we will repeatedly fall short of God’s glorious standard (Romans 3:23).

Consult the Lord in private, meet with fellow believers in your small groups, and collaborate with other Christian parents going through this same trial. Share what you’ve learned along the way with one another, and lift one another up in prayer, often.

If possible, try to have an honest conversation with your child. 

In some families, the estrangement is so severe that the son or daughter will not communicate with the parent(s) at all. A friend of mine has not heard from her two adult sons for over five years, and she is in agony over it. Consequently, it will likely be harder and take longer for such children to reclaim their faith. Be aware that resentment towards one's parents is often one of the biggest obstacles to reconciliation.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

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