What I’ve Learned From Having A Son Who Is An Atheist

When I started having children I was going to do everything right as a mom and my children were all going to grow up and live committed Christian lives. That was the plan at least. So many things didn’t turn out the way I planned, but the Lord has used some of those difficult things in my life.

My oldest son Jonathan was an intelligent and determined kid from the time he was quite young. He was an early talker and once he started, he never stopped. He’s almost 21 now and we’re still listening. He always loved to sing the Psalms and hymns. Before he was three he could sing through all verses of his favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. On Sunday evenings when our church would take hymn requests, his hand was the first up. He had many favorites, oftentimes it was whatever hymn we’d been working on in family worship.

As a little kid he loved playing pretend church. He received a children’s microphone and mic stand for his fourth birthday. He would set it up in front of the fireplace and say, “We’re doing church now.” He’d get frustrated with his little brothers when they wouldn’t sit still while he led music and preached a mini sermon. It wasn’t just the playing though; he liked to talk about the Lord and things from Scripture and discuss what he was learning from the children’s catechism.

At four-and-a-half years old he came to me and said, “Mommy, if Jesus paid for all my sins, why did he only die on the cross once?” I tried explaining but he looked at me puzzled and said, “Can you call Pastor now and get the right answer?” He wasn’t satisfied with Pastor’s answer either, declaring it was “too much.”  When an OPC Pastor friend was visiting, he gave Jonathan an answer that made sense to him and that he finally understood. These were the sorts of things he was thinking about and trying to understand at an early age.

I was encouraged from the time he was young that he was thinking through things of the Christian faith. During family worship he was excited to learn, loved to ask and answer questions and prayed fervently. He was determined to memorize the Children’s Catechism and had all 145 answers memorized by the time he was six-and-a-half. We    sometimes even wondered if he would be a pastor one day. As he got older he became increasingly passionate about the Christian faith. He was unashamed and would talk to anyone who would listen. By middle school he was learning more about apologetics and reading various Christian books. We continued to have these amazing conversations with him about the faith. We were convinced he had truly trusted in Christ.

Then everything changed.

I really can’t tell you exactly when, but sometime in high school he began questioning things. Our family had entered into a difficult season. I became very sick and was in and out of the hospital, and I knew he feared losing me. It changed our lives in many ways. He observed me in excruciating pain and physical misery.  We also suffered several losses close together. My children have been to more funerals than some adults. He witnessed the difficult and untimely deaths of several people close to us, both family and friends, including the suicide of a family member. We became well acquainted with the horrors of cancer and other life threatening ailments. He saw the suffering of many and he himself was suffering, as he had begun to struggle with depression and anxiety. And then he revealed something I’d began to suspect. One day he said something to me I’ll never forget. “I can’t believe in a God who allows those who love Him to suffer so much.”

I was crushed. What had I done wrong? Did he not see me trusting Christ in the midst of suffering? Had he not been listening when I shared of my comfort in Christ through this difficult season? What could I do to get him to understand? It’s been a few years since that day, when my mother’s heart broke. The Lord has used this in my life in so many ways and I’ve learned many things.

 

  1. The importance of grace in our parenting

 

Around the time I first found out he was questioning things, I knew it wouldn’t be long, a few short years, before he’d be 18 and possibly out of our home. I asked myself a question: “What is the most important thing I want my children to understand before they leave home?” The gospel was that thing, but how was I going to do that? I’d already been preaching the gospel to him since he was a baby.

It was around that same time that I had a conversation with someone I’d attended church with as a teenager. We had reconnected after many years. I learned he had left the church and so I asked him “why?” He answered, “I was never good enough for my parents. How was I ever going to be good enough for God?”

His answer shocked me because the church he and I attended was excellent about preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone. It made no sense to me how he obviously didn’t understand the gospel at all. I did a lot of research and spoke with several people about it and became convinced that we as parents can help or hurt our children’s understanding of the gospel by our parenting. So often, we are focused more on obedience itself than the “why” of obedience. We excel at preaching the law in our home, but the gospel is often an afterthought. This can be damaging to our children.

I learned from and was encouraged by the stories I’d heard through the years from both Rod and Ted Rosenbladt (father and son). They both have very specific stories of how they understood the gospel and God’s unconditional love for them because of the grace their earthly fathers displayed. Legalism isn’t the answer. All law and no gospel isn’t the answer. Getting your children to obey perfectly apart from the gospel is not the answer.

I’ve noticed whenever I talk about grace-centered parenting, some people get nervous or uncomfortable because of assumptions that are sometimes made about what it looks like. We had Dr. Scott Keith on the Theology Gals podcast to talk about his book Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. He said something that I believe to be extremely important in this discussion: “Permissiveness is not the opposite of grace.” Parenting in a way that demonstrates the gospel in our home is not some “hyper-grace” or antinomian parenting model. It’s not permissive parenting. While we’ve attempted to demonstrate grace in our home while preaching the gospel to our children, there are still rules and punishment for indiscretions. But there are also opportunities for demonstrating grace. Dr. Keith’s book tells many of those stories, a couple of which he shared on our podcast. Dr. Keith in his tribute to Dr. Rod Rosenbladt on Being Dad says:

“Though I have always wanted compliant children, I am proud to say that I think I have throttled that sinful desire enough to have raised gracious and kind children instead who know that they are forgiven on account of Christ.”

  1. Trusting in the Lord for my children’s salvation

I didn’t realize it immediately when my son confessed his unbelief, but sometime later it hit me: I was trusting in myself for my children’s salvation and not in the Lord. I thought I was trusting in the Lord for their salvation, but I really wasn’t. I believed the lie that if I just did everything right, took them to church, taught them the Bible, prayed with them, protected them from the world and so on, that of course they’d trust in Christ and walk with the Lord and never live in rebellion.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the things I mentioned, we absolutely should train them in the Lord, but we must not forget that salvation is of Him. We must trust in Him for our children’s salvation. When the Lord convicted me of this and through repentance, prayer, and His work in me, I began to trust Him and something amazing happened: the Lord gave me great peace. God’s power is far greater than we often realize and there’s great peace and joy in trusting in His work in our children’s lives, and trusting in our Lord’s goodness and sovereignty.

I know that by even writing this and revealing I have a son who doesn’t walk with the Lord that some people may be asking, “I wonder what they did wrong that their son rebelled?” I probably would have thought the same thing once upon a time. And it’s not because I have a son who rebelled that my views have changed. I was wrong to believe that my children’s salvation was a result of the things I did.

Someone asked a question in a large Reformed Facebook group about whether it’s the parents’ fault if a child rebels. Had you asked me 20 years ago, I would have answered the same way most of the other parents of young children did, “Of course.” There was a clear difference between the way young parents commented on that post than parents with older children did. While yes, the Lord can and will use our obedience in training our children in “the way they should go,” those things do not promise they will never rebel. Even if we have a child in rebellion now, it doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t working in their lives to bring them to salvation. I’m grateful we taught our son Scripture, that he memorized the catechism, and understands the gospel. I pray the Lord uses these and will bring him to saving faith in Christ. I find comfort in the sovereignty, wisdom and love of God.

  1. The idol of obedient children

Our homeschool mom’s group did a study together and we talked about idols women can have: a good marriage, a clean house, and obedient children. Some women objected to the idea that good things could become idols, but they absolutely can. Michael Horton says:

“We picture idolatry as the worship of something evil. However, most of our idols are good servants, that we have made lords.”

The Heidelberg Catechism on idolatry:
    Q. What is idolatry?
    A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.

Obedient children was one of my idols. And I was trusting in myself over God to work in my children’s lives to bring them to salvation. I was often more concerned with what other people observed than I was with my children’s hearts. I even gave myself credit and was proud of myself when my children did seek the Lord and live in obedience. When our children do come to saving faith, it is because of the work the Lord has done in their lives. It is He who makes one alive when they were previously dead in their trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:5

  1. He’s still my son

One day an old friend of mine asked me in a general way, “How’s Jonathan doing?” I explained that he was doing well, had a good job, a new apartment, was hoping to marry his girlfriend one day. In response she said, “Oh, I thought he didn’t believe in Christ and wasn’t going to church anymore.”

I understand she may have been referring to how he was doing spiritually, but I sensed it was more than that and it brings up something which concerns me. There’s an attitude from some parents when their children rebel, something I’m not sure I can describe well, it’s like they’re being given the message that they just aren’t good enough. The thing is, none of us are good enough, that’s why we need Christ. I think if we give our children this message, we’re neglecting to really give them the message of the gospel.

My son is still friends with several people he grew up with from our homeschool co-op and many of them have left the church. This response from their parents is something that these other kids sense. Jonathan has told me on several occasions that some of these friends will speak poorly of Christians, I think in part because of this attitude, and because of the legalism they grew up in. Jonathan tells me about these conversations he has with his friends who have also left the church. I was a bit surprised when he explained that he tells them, “Not all Christians are like that. My parents aren’t like that.” I think many of them view the heart and theme of Christianity as a list of rules rather than the gospel.

The same things that were important to teach and demonstrate to my son in his teenage years, continue to be important now. Being good enough is not the right response to our non Christian children, the gospel is. Unfortunately in some of our circles, I see lots of law and little gospel. This creates the hopelessness the friend I grew up with felt when he told me, “I could never be good enough for my parents. How will I ever be good enough for God?”  

Why would we show less love in our interactions with our own child than we do to our non-Christian neighbor?  Of course our relationship with our non-Christian child will have some differences from our relationship with our Christian child. I am grateful however to have a good and close relationship with my son still. I think that, because we’ve maintained that close relationship, he has felt free to continue to ask us questions about Scripture and the Christian faith. I have failed at times though, in my responses to Jonathan, and become defensive when it feels like an attack on my faith. I’m still learning.

The Lord will use this for my good and His glory

I don’t know what the Lord’s plans are for my son, but I can tell you the Lord has already used this experience in my life. I have told those close to me that this has been an exercise in trusting in the Lord. This has been a sort of trial in my life and I’ve experienced some suffering because of it. On the Theology Gals episode on suffering, we talked about some of the reasons laid out in Scripture for suffering, along with the ways the Lord uses our suffering and trials. I’ve witnessed some of those things first hand through this season which has included a difficult illness, the loss of people I love, and my son’s unbelief.

While my heart is still broken by my son’s lack of faith, the Lord has used this to teach me to trust Him and to draw me closer to Himself. It’s easy for us to blame ourselves when our children make bad decisions and fail to walk with the Lord. I’m sure many parents have had occasion to ask themselves, “What did I do wrong?” There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had failures in their parenting since we are sinners. The good news is, the gospel isn’t just for our children, it’s for us parents too.

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8 Comments
  1. Susan 3 months ago

    Oh, Coleen…I, too, have walked this out. I completely relate to everything you have said here and so appreciate that you have taken the time to write this. It was sooooo devastating when I first learned that our youngest (our daughter) was only keeping up appearances (for us, her parents) because she knew how disappointed we would be…so much I could say here, but basically the Lord did a DEEP work in me through this…because yes, I felt like a failure…but then also I saw my pride…what would others think of us as parents/how would we be judged? In the beginning I would cry myself to sleep pleading with God to bring her to a place of Salvation. I still pray for her and look for opportunities to share the Gospel, but I too, now have peace. God is sovereign and I will rest in this truth and in Him. My heart aches to think that I may never spend eternity with my daughter…as I type this it brings such heartache and grief to the surface…but as Amy Spreeman so often says, “God doesn’t have any grandchildren, only children”.

  2. Mandy L 3 months ago

    Thank you for sharing this. I don’t have children, but a few years after my husband and I married, we began dealing with something relatable. I am close to my cousins, and the oldest of the group. In a way I feel I have spent some of my life feeling “motherly” toward some of them. The one who is closest to me in age also had the more difficult childhood out of all of us, but in his teens “accepted Christ.” Fast forward a few years and he went through a rough patch, including a failed engagement to one girl, joining the military, marrying a different girl, being deployed, and coming home to a subsequently failed marriage. After going through a bit of rebellion also, he met a Mormon girl, to whom he is now married. He has converted, of course, and they now have a son. He’s known for going through weird phases, so amid my concern, a lot of family members urged me not to worry because he probably would move on to a new phase soon.

    When he invited everyone to his Mormon baptism, my husband and I felt we could no longer be silent and “wait out” this “phase.” We tried to talk to him and discuss his decision, virtually, since we could not do so in person. It didn’t go so well. I’m convinced that his wife was doing a lot of the typing. We learned quickly that it’s really better to confront things like this in person if at all possible. But I felt a responsibility for him, somehow. A lot of the people in our family don’t really study the word or theology, and probably believe him (them) when he says “We’re Christians, just like you guys.” I don’t think any of them really know anything about Mormonism. In fact, I had to learn a lot in a short period of time, myself, when we found out he had converted.

    But this has been a few years now, and it seems apparent to me that he won’t be swayed. I know God can do anything, and I continue to pray for the three of them to know the truth. I also pray that the rest of our family is not deceived by what they hear from them, and that they will know God’s truth as well. What you’ve shared here has encouraged me quite a bit, because I tend to feel more responsibility than I probably should about this situation. I’ve slowly been coming to the place of realizing it’s not “up to me to save them,” and while there is a time to speak up and a time to simply pray, that God is in control of even this. Thank you for the reminder.

  3. SarahBradford 3 months ago

    Holding my firstborn, 13 week old boy, it pains me to think this could be a possibility in my family. I’m really praying for your boy Coleen and anyone who shares this pain- may they be a living example of the prodigal son. It is so true- live the gospel in front of your children for His glory. Lord save your sheep! Please pray for my family also.

  4. Joann Mejia 3 months ago

    Our homeschool mom’s group did a study together and we talked about idols women can have: a good marriage, a clean house, and obedient children.
    What book?
    Thank you!

    • Author
      Coleen Sharp 3 months ago

      Hi Joann, it was in the book Peacemaking Women. I appreciate all the books from The Peacemakers organization.

      • Joann Mejia 3 months ago

        Thank you so much! This article was encouraging, brought me to tears because its exactly how I feel. Being a homeschooling mom of 16,12,9 year olds. I often wonder if they have learned anything we have taught them. I sometimes regret homeschooling, because they often act as if they went to public school anyway if not worse! I do blame myself, and now seem to struggle with failure. Why am I doing this? Is it worth it anymore? Where did I go wrong?I am haunted with regret. The only thing that keeps me going is reminding myself whyI did it in the first place. God called me to it and out of obedience I want to endure and finish it. Hoping to seek areas that need to change in me first. Knowing it’s not up to me. So thank you for writing this, I am glad I am not the only one.

        • Author
          Coleen Sharp 3 months ago

          Dear sister, please remember God’s grace for you.

          All of us as parents have failures as parents and it’s easy to focus on our failures and see them as the reason for anything bad in our children. Remember God’s power. He can work in their lives in spite of us. And He is using you in your children’s lives more than you know.

          The son I talk about, now that he’s a little older, he has apologized to me. I cried when he said to me, “I’m sorry I’ve been a disappointment.” That’s not the message I wanted him to get.

          He also told me, “I want to parent like you guys have.” Something I wasn’t expecting to ever hear.

          I really believed somewhere if I homeschooled my children wouldn’t rebel. My two youngest are now in school. I became very ill and couldn’t homeschool any longer. My boys are in a small math/science charter school. Our experience has been good.

          I’ve been surprised at the amount of rebellion among the children from our homeschool group. From some of the best parents I know. It’s heartbreaking.

          You hang in there, keep preaching the gospel to your children. You are making a difference in their lives.

          I keep thinking, my story isn’t over yet. Neither is my son’s.

  5. Adam 2 months ago

    This is a tough and emotional topic. I am the son of a Holocaust Survivor who was a staunch Atheist, and while he didn’t understand it, felt that a Communist lifestyle was an excellent alternative to Free Market Capitalism and the capitulation of religion. Fortunately, Jesus radically transformed his and my mother’s life just before I was born. They raised me to be an outward focused follower of Jesus Christ.

    We seemed different from the “religious thumpers” in our church and I was grateful. My parents led many to Christ. All that to say, Atheism is one the weakest, most corrupt, and vacuous form of life that can exist.

    As I raise my teenage boys to discover more about faith and move farther than I have thought possible, the expression about Hymns and Catechisms stand out to me. I don’t think the “types” and language of the 1600s is relevant for emerging generations no matter how in tune they seem in grade school. Keeping a form of Christianity and avoiding its power is a formula for confusion. I am quite sure that grace-based argument, transparency, and a deep thinking approach to the weak challenges from other worldviews is adequate for helping our teenagers come to the right conclusion. Jesus is the only reasonable, beneficial, and joy-filled way to live.

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