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It can happen to anyone: a baptized child grows up and appears to reject the faith for reasons you can’t explain.

Somewhere along the way—when he or she went off to college, perhaps, or graduated and entered adulthood—your pride and joy discovered that there is no scientific evidence God exists. You, on the other hand, know there’s no proof that God doesn’t exist, and you believe in your heart that he does.

A line in the sand.
Parents grieve deeply when they have an unbelieving child. I’ve observed seven stages for processing such grief that can take years to move through.

1. Shock. You know you shouldn’t panic—after all, this isn’t your adult child's last word—but you can't help yourself. This situation would toss any parent into a tailspin. My child doesn't believe? Rejects everything we stand for? All those years in church, all those family devotions, that Christian education . . . for nothing? Feels like someone just hit you over the head with a two-by-four.

You’re numb.

2. Denial. This can’t be happening. He doesn’t really mean it. Other families lose their children, not ours. Surely he knows better. Something we taught him must have sunk in. The other kids still believe. This makes no sense.

You hope that you’ll wake up one morning to find that the nightmare has blown over.

3. Blame. But the nightmare rages on. Someone is to blame. Is it my fault? Did I not spend enough quality time with him growing up? Was my life so inconsistent that he saw me as a fraud? Did he see too many warts on the church? Is there a liberal professor at college who preys upon impressionable kids? Are we dealing with the prodigal of Luke 15 squandering a spiritual inheritance?

Maybe the devil made him do it. Or dare I pin this on God for not granting the gift of faith?

4. Engagement. Maybe you can talk sense into him. You’re determined not to let him fall through the cracks. But the conversation doesn’t go well. Emotions that arise from the parent-child dynamic sink all efforts at reasonable discussion. He feels he knows your talking points and has made up his mind.

Engagement threatens to damage the relationship, something neither of you wants.

5. Silence. This is when the parent enters what Saint John of the Cross named “the dark night of the soul.” Woulda, coulda, shoulda—all irrelevant now. My God, why have you forsaken me? What was all that covenant talk about? Don't tell me God works everything for good. Are you there, God?

Regardless, it’s a moment of decision: write the rebel off or embrace him.

6. Acceptance. This doesn’t mean endorsement. Your child knows where you stand. Treasure the relationship, though you may be worldviews apart. Respect his position and abandon all schemes to “rescue” the grandkids. Appreciate your child’s gifts in new ways. At his house, follow his lead. At your house, he won’t expect you to deep-six your Psalm 23 plaque—unless you make an issue of it.

An uneasy truce, to start, but blood is thicker than water and covers a multitude of sins.

7. Onward. Never lose hope. In uncharted waters, focus solely on God’s covenant promises to mark the course: “I will be God to you and your children” (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). Cling to your child's baptism and to yours. Pray that he finds his way. Keep your bearings straight and walk humbly with your God.

You both may be surprised to discover where this path leads. Our God reigns.

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