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True story. There once lived a woman whose son had abandoned the Christian faith he was raised in. She was far from perfect and had married a difficult man, but she had striven to bring up her son well. However, he fell in line with a bizarre ideology that rendered him “woke” within his circle of influence, and he began living with a woman who was not his wife. His mother prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. Her son was willing to talk with her, but she couldn’t get through to him. In tears, she sought out a wise and holy man. If only he would talk to her son! If only he would take hold of the young man and refute his errors – rebuke him for all the wrong in his life!
Curiously, the wise man refused. He told the mother that her son was still too preoccupied with his own desires to listen to reason – still too prideful, too infatuated with the newness of his “woke” beliefs, for the wise man’s intervention to do any good. He advised her to pray for her son, and, since the young man was still in pursuit of the truth, he would eventually find it again, himself. Those who seek to know the truth with all their heart will find it.
The woman pestered, weeping and imploring the wise man to change his mind. Finally, he lost patience, saying “Go, go! Leave me alone! Continue what you are doing! It is not possible that the son of all these prayers and tears should be lost.”
That must have sounded too good to be true, but it happened. The wise man in this story – a local bishop – is known to us as St. Ambrose. The yearning mother is known to us as St. Monica. The woke ideology that had ensnared her son was Manichaeism. Her son, Augustine, did eventually return to his faith, and he became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Christian Church – not a bad outcome from many prayers prayed and tears shed.
This occurrence took place at the turn of the fifth century. For generations, this story has encouraged parents of children who have lost their faith. Even though this story delivers a restorative and uplifting message, it still raises questions for modern-day listeners. For example, even during the most wanton period of his life, Augustine didn’t lose his interest in finding the truth. Today, the youth are told that there is no truth, or they are told that the truth is “whatever works for you.”
Yet this story – and countless other stories of “reverts” who return to their faith – may still offer hope to parents of wandering children. Many more helpful lessons can be drawn from Augustine’s story than one might think – lessons applicable even in our current time.
Why do people lose their faith? Some are raised in an excessively emotional form of faith, which doesn’t satisfy their minds, or they are raised in a cold form of faith, which doesn’t satisfy their hearts. Some were never really raised in faith to begin with, but they believe that they were. Some were treated badly by religious phonies. Some – much like my own younger self – didn’t want God to be God and arrogantly preferred to make gods of themselves. There are many other reasons why young people lose their faith, and human beings find themselves in curious relationships with sin. Few of us find reasons not to believe in God and then begin sinning. Most of us get wrapped up in sins we don’t want to give up, and then we look for reasons to deny our belief in God. That may have been Augustine’s problem, considering his romantic relations outside of marriage.
So what can parents do?
The first part begins before we even have children. Augustine’s pagan father made it difficult for his mother to raise Augustine in Christian faith. Monica’s marriage might have been arranged, leaving her with little choice, but the ideal calls for both spouses to participate in a life of faith and to commit to the faithfulness of their marriage. So future parents must work hard to have a faithful marriage, for a life lived in faith is much more difficult for children to adhere to when they don’t see both parents living in that same truth. Even if you haven’t lived this way prior to becoming parents, it is never too late to begin.
The second part begins after our children are born – but before they reach an impressionable age. Have high moral standards for them, and hold yourself to those same standards as well. You won’t be perfect, but you can admit when you have done wrong. Don’t leave your children’s religious instruction up to the surrounding culture – or even solely up to religious teachers. As the Holy Bible urges, speak to your children about God “when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 11:10). Make sure you haven’t quietly lost the faith yourself – not only for your own sake, but also because your child will see through your pretense. Don’t make worship an option; children are too young to know what is at stake. Worship together as a family. You may be surprised. When I returned to my discarded faith in my early thirties, I thought my children would resist going to church. It turned out that they had always wanted to but never knew to tell us.
The third part begins as children are reaching the impressionable age. Long before temptations come, be sure to discuss with them not only how to keep their faith, but also how it can be lost. Don’t waste time rearing them to be indifferent to peer pressure. That’s impossible, for God made us social beings. They need to know that the important thing is to have the right kind of peers surrounding them, friends who will exert the right kind of pressure and influence. No one follows God alone.
The last part begins if a child does lose their faith. Love them, and don’t be afraid to tell them lovingly what you think. Don’t underestimate your influence just because you can’t always see it. Don’t nag them about their lack of faith, rather continue speaking freely and positively about your own. You don’t have to know everything, but you can learn as much as possible. Be an example not only to them but to their children, and if permitted, take your grandchildren with you when you worship. As Ambrose knew, third parties, although discussion with them can sometimes be helpful, are almost never welcome if the children don’t seek them out themselves. They will sometimes read into something you suggest, however, even if they don’t outrightly admit to it. Ambrose depended on the fact that Augustine was a reader.
As Augustine’s return to faith from Manichaeism shows, worse things can happen than falling for a depraved ideology. It matters far more that a child is still seeking truth. Even if a child seems to have lost their interest in seeking the truth, don’t lose hope, for God can break even through that form of callous indifference. People may tell themselves that they don’t long for truth and meaning, but this doesn’t mean that the longing has been suppressed too severely to be reconciled; our longing for truth is too deeply built into God’s design of human nature for it to completely go away. Every now and then it will break through again. Maybe God will permit you to be present at one of these moments when it does.
Above all, don’t give up prayer, and don’t give up hope. As I know from my own experiences, God specializes in hopeless cases.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
J. Budziszewski is a professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. He has written numerous books including How to Stay Christian in College , On the Meaning of Sex, and the just-published How and How Not to Be Happy.