“I Won’t Give Up on Them!” Ensign, Feb. 2004, 44
As a young woman, I was an achiever—a straight-A student, product of a strong Latter-day Saint family. I suppose I saw myself as a valiant spirit on the fast track to the celestial kingdom.
But after I married and had children, divorce temporarily derailed my journey. Now, instead of speeding along smoothly toward success, I have spent years painstakingly trying to rebuild my track one tie, one step, at a time.
In the aftermath of divorce, I took comfort in the fact that my children were young and innocent. I expected their pure hearts to recognize and cling to goodness. I naively thought the choice between their father’s immoral, apostate lifestyle and my gospel-centered lifestyle would be easy for them. I was devastated as one by one, three of my four children turned their backs on the Church.
Now adults, they are still loving. They work hard at honoring me and letting me know that they care. They are responsible, productive people who manifest the basic values of Christian charity and honesty. But they have made their emotional and intellectual home in a culture that is foreign to me.
Without question we love each other, but sometimes finding common ground is difficult. I go back and forth with my feelings—missing them and wanting to be a part of their lives, yet being relieved at not always having to participate in their lives. It is painful to remember the dreams I used to have for them. But I don’t want to torture them or me with my disappointment, so I work hard at living my life in the present instead of the past.
I feel torn between trying to love my children as they are and wanting desperately to help them change. In 3 Nephi 18, Jesus was about to leave the Nephites after sharing experiences so powerful they defied description. He gave them one final instruction, knowing the sweetness of that moment would not last indefinitely. He taught them how to treat those of their congregations who may not be worthy, the ones who have fallen away, like my children and perhaps some of yours. He said:
“If he [the wayward soul] repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered.
“Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them” (3 Ne. 18:31–32).
Emotionally, I am struck by the force with which Jesus instructed the Nephites regarding these wayward souls, both in terms of condemning their behavior and in terms of ministering to them. His counsel highlights the contradiction I feel as I interact with three of my children. When I visit them, am I polluting myself by spending time in “Babylon”? Do I give them a false message of approval by sharing parts of their questionable lifestyle? Or am I ministering to them? What meaning does 3 Nephi 18 have for me?
The last time I visited one of my daughters, I declined her invitation to go to an amusement park on Sunday. Instead, I attended sacrament meeting in the local chapel. It felt strange to be attending church in my daughter’s neighborhood—in what should be her ward—participating in an experience now foreign to her. I sat there with her neighbors, realizing that the way she dresses and behaves is probably offensive to them; these members of my church would see my daughter as foreign. They would look at her walking down the street or drinking with her female partner, and they would feel uncomfortable. It probably would not occur to them that she was raised in Utah, a descendant of Latter-day Saint pioneers.
I was sympathetic with their probable discomfort. But there was also a voice inside me that was crying out to these people, my daughter’s neighbors, to recognize her as a daughter of God and to minister to her. This was a testimony meeting, and I could not restrain myself from speaking to the congregation. As nearly as I can reconstruct them, these are the thoughts I shared:
“Brothers and Sisters, I am here visiting my daughter, who should be a member of your ward but has not been inside a chapel for many years. In fact, three of my four children have fallen away from the Church. I want to apologize to you good people on behalf of my children. I suspect that you may have seen them as you walked down these streets, and I am sorry if their behavior has offended you.
“But let me leave you with an additional thought. The next time you are confronted with someone in your neighborhood whose appearance or behavior is offensive to you, remember that person has a mother, and it might be me. So thank you in advance for not judging and for remembering that this child of mine is also a child of God.”
I think my comments were a synthesis of my struggles for many years in going back and forth between verses 31 and 32 of 3 Nephi 18. That balancing act pretty much sums up my life.
I used to think my faith alone would be sufficient to bring my children back. I wanted to be like Alma the elder; because of his prayers, an angel appeared and changed his son’s life in a dramatic, miraculous way (see Mosiah 27:10–16). I thought that if I could just exercise enough faith, I could call down a miracle from heaven on behalf of my ex-husband and, later, my children. But to now, it has not been so.
My heart was broken by the decisions of my children, and in a very real sense my life fell apart. But I want to share three lessons I learned as a result. Perhaps the best way to elaborate on these lessons is in the context of the fourth article of faith, which identifies the first principle of the gospel as “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” I discovered that faith and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ mean different things to me. I used to think of faith as the power to accomplish anything—to move mountains, walk on water, and certainly to bring my children back to the fold. But faith, no matter how powerful, will not take away agency. When I face my disappointments, however, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ allows me to acknowledge His mercy and longsuffering as those gifts relate to both my children and myself.
Lesson number one was the realization that I cannot change others; I can only change myself. As I have matured in facing the lifelong challenge with independent children, I find that my prayers are different than they used to be. I used to try to exercise faith by saying, “Heavenly Father, please help my children to change. Help them to become aware of the harmful effects of alcohol or sexual promiscuity, and help them to recognize the truths of the gospel.” But now I am more likely to exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by saying, “Heavenly Father, I know Thou lovest my children. Help me to feel about them the same way Thou dost. Help me to love them better. Help me to understand Thy plan as it applies to them. And help me to be patient.”
Lesson number two, for me, was that becoming completely stripped of pride freed me to make spiritual progress. It was humiliating when I divorced to go from being a strong member of the ward to someone who suddenly needed help. I was embarrassed when people learned that my 14-year-old daughter had elected to live with her father, who had chosen a homosexual lifestyle, instead of with me. (What was I doing wrong? I was a good mother. I paid tithing, fasted and prayed, attended the temple. What more could I do?) Later, it was even more embarrassing to admit that my daughter had chosen her father’s lifestyle for her own.
But as I learned more about exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, my broken heart became not a crushed heart but a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (see D&C 59:8), a heart broken open to receive help, guidance, and wisdom. I was open to learn, to grow, and to change; pride was no longer a barrier. During that time when my heart was so tender, I couldn’t sit through a sacrament meeting without weeping. People saw my tears and felt sorry for me, but those tears were more than tears of grief. I was overwhelmed with many feelings—including feelings of gratitude, joy, and love. The Lord was aware of my plight, and His grace was at work in my heart.
Lesson number three was that Christ will never stop loving His Father’s children, and neither should I. Loving my children will never be inappropriate, no matter what they may have done to cut themselves off from the Church. I take comfort in reading any scripture that helps me understand the profound love Christ has for all of His Father’s children. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 49:15–16:
“Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
“Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.”
While Christ hung on the cross, I feel He was engraving the image, the names, of my children and me in the palms of His hands.
Faith is a belief that through fasting and prayer all things are possible—even a change of heart in our children so that they will repent and return to the Church. For me, the additional dimension of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is trusting in the reality and the power of Christ’s love for all God’s children regardless of our mistakes. Faith in Christ is knowing that His Atonement makes repentance possible.
I am deeply grateful for my testimony of the power of the Atonement. I don’t know what will be required of my children, to what extent they will be held accountable, how painful repentance will be for them—or even how long until they will recognize the need for change. But I do know that my responsibility right now is to love them.
I will never quit hoping that my children will again embrace the gospel. I love to ponder verse 32 of the 18th chapter of 3 Nephi: “For unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.” I particularly appreciate the promise “and I shall heal them.”
It has sometimes been difficult for me in testimony meetings to listen to faith-promoting stories about a miraculous healing, a surprising conversion, or a son or daughter who came back to church. I could become cynical if I allowed myself. What about all the righteous people who die tragically? Faith doesn’t always cure. And why does Heavenly Father seem to answer other parents’ prayers and not mine?
But I choose not to be cynical. Instead I rejoice with my brothers and sisters when their prayers are answered, and I accept the fact that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is much more than being able to pray down a miracle from heaven. In the final analysis, such faith is really faithfulness. What really matters is that I remain true to the knowledge and testimony I have and that I stay open to the growing and learning process by acknowledging my limitations and seeking divine guidance.
Along with my decision to avoid cynicism, I have decided not to wallow in guilt and misery. I could torture myself with “if only”—if only I had married someone else, if only I had been a stronger influence when my children were young, if only I had recognized some of their concerns earlier. But “if only” doesn’t make any difference now, and berating myself doesn’t accomplish anything either. Rather, if I truly believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the plan of happiness, then it is my responsibility to be happy. The best way I can be a missionary to my children is to radiate the joy of the gospel by the way I live.
I no longer see myself on the fast track to the celestial kingdom. There is no fast track. When I was skimming along the surface of the straight and narrow path in my youth, I had lofty goals, and I knew success; but I didn’t really know Christ until I was confronted with “potholes” in the road. I am sorry my children have left the Church, but I am not sorry for the potholes that have brought me to my knees.
There is no way to get through life unscathed. For each of us, the only track to the celestial kingdom requires a humble recognition of our dependence on the atoning sacrifice of the Savior Jesus Christ. We must recognize the love of our Heavenly Father and develop an unwavering commitment to keep His commandments.
I will continue to exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by loving Him, loving my children, and striving to be an example of the gospel as the true plan of happiness.
Read the first three paragraphs and ask family members what they would do or how they would feel if this were to happen to them. Read the second section, “Longing to Help,” and discuss the words and phrases of 3 Nephi 18:31–32. How can we show tolerance and love for those who believe and live differently from ourselves?
Read and discuss the three lessons this sister learned from her experience. Invite family members to use the Topical Guide to find scriptures that relate to each lesson. Bear testimony of the power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in your life.