Mystery and Lament: When It Looks Like Your Child’s Life is Falling Apart

One of the benefits of doing youth ministry in the same place for twelve years is you get to see the long-term development of a kid’s life from middle school to college into adulthood (and even marriage and parenting). As I listened to a pair of parents lament the habitual self-destructive behavior of their child, I had one thought: the Lord is up to something in what otherwise looks like a tailspin of self-sabotage.

I have seen the sweet, “good,” youth ministry insider – the type who answers every question in Sunday school and never misses a youth event – become the pot-smoking atheist. I have seen the rebellious high schooler become a Jesus-loving man of the Gospel, the quietly skeptical girl become a consistent church-goer in college, and the kid with superstar Christian parents never give Christianity a second thought.

When it’s not your child, you can more easily perceive God’s long-game vision and wait a little more patiently for Him to write the story of a kid’s life. However, when it is your child, it’s close to impossible not to collapse into fear when his or her life seems to be falling apart right before your eyes.

I write this article with the hope of fortifying patience and trust within the parent who is fretting because your child’s life just doesn’t look a thing like what you hoped and prayed it would.

The Mystery of God’s Work

In the introduction of The Parables of the Kingdom, theologian Robert Capon synopsizes all of scripture with this phrase: “the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” The “kingdom of God” part probably doesn’t surprise you. But Capon dedicates most of the content to explaining his insistence that the term “mystery” be included in his encapsulating phrase.

He argues that the Bible starts with the creation of a perfect world, which human sin quickly blemishes. Over one thousand chapters later, the Bible ends with the world restored to a glorious holy city. What lies in between these two utopias includes an erratic, unpredictable story-line of failures, back-sliding, suffering, and disappointments, mixed with redemption and healing. There is nothing linear or clean or expected about the progression of God’s grand narrative in the universe.

Take the story of God’s promise to Abraham for example. A normal parent writing Abraham’s story would write it like this: Abraham, this is God. I am going to be your God and your children’s God. You are going to be a legend and blessing to all nations. You are going to faithfully obey me. I plan to give you a kid and a great land. Your wife will soon be pregnant and then you will move into that promised land.

Unfortunately, this is not how the story transpires. Abraham blows it to scandalous proportions with Hagar. Sarah and he must wait years and years before God fulfills his promise of progeny. And the promise of land? That occurs over three centuries later after his offspring spend generations in slavery in Egypt, before a miraculous deliverance. Oh, and on the way to that land, they fight battles, worship pagan idols, and get suspended from entry before finally reaching Canaan.

In our lives and particularly the lives of our children, we tend to expect clean, linear stories. Child learns lessons. Child complies with rules. Child performs to full potential in school. Child advances to college. Child finds career. Child earns income sufficient to ensure that they leave parent’s home. Child finds spouse. Child marries. Child produces grandchildren. Everyone is happy.

I challenge you to find one major biblical character with a life that predictable, that easy, that painless in all of Scripture. As Capon says, the redemptive storyline of Scripture possesses endless mystery (and drama to boot). For whatever reason, and I include myself in this crowd, we tend to expect the opposite in the lives of our children. We struggle to accept that the hopeful promise of God’s involvement in our children’s lives means they are called up into the biblical narrative. Like Abraham, David, Saul, Samson, Deborah, Ruth, Tamar, and Rachel, they become a character in God’s story of redemption. As a result, their lives will likely be characterized by the same mysterious, difficult, messy bits as both the micro and macro stories throughout scripture.

Words of Encouragement

I wish I could conclude this article by telling you that in the end, everything is going to be okay. Your child will get his or her act together. They will get sober. They will learn from their mistakes and become a wiser, smarter, godlier person. They will eventually get on the right track. They will be saved. But that would be dishonest and untrue. God makes no guarantees that in this life, we will get to look back and see all of the trials in the rear-view mirror of life and understand His purposes.

But I can promise two things: regardless of how messy, painful, and hopeless things look right now, God is at work in your child’s life. He pursues him or her. And whether your child realizes it or participates in it, God is using your child’s life for His ultimate glory.

Your child’s life is a part of a grander story that points in some mysterious way to the day when every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I also can promise that God is doing much more than you realize. Imagine the confusion and despair of Mary, the mother of God, as she watched her son nailed to a Cross. A major chasm swelled over thirty years between the good news that she carried the Messiah in her womb to the violent, unjust murder of that same Messiah, her child. While Mary saw her son resurrected and likely witnessed the early birth of the Jesus movement, she could never have imagine the cosmic and worldwide impact, meaning, and value of her son’s life. God’s purposes were far greater than she could ever have conceived at the time.

Acceptance of the unpredictable nature of God’s redemptive work can give us a little more patience in the challenging moments. Faith in his often invisible and always good work frees us to see beyond the fearfulness of this present moment into our child’s God-glorifying future, whatever it may hold.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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