Having wandered away from my own spiritual roots as an adult for almost 15 years, I returned to my faith just four years ago. I may be in the somewhat unique, if unenviable position, of being just the right person to write this article about helping wayward children.
What do we mean by the term "wayward?" Webster's dictionary defines wayward as being resistant to guidance. Accepting that definition, and for the purposes of this article, wayward will be used to mean a person of any age who resists spiritual guidance.
Why do people lose faith?
So why is it that people resist spiritual guidance and wander away from their faith? I believe that the reasons vary from unexpected tragedy that shatters unseasoned faith, to creeping doubt, to a lack of spiritual commitment, to pedestrian physical desires, to being blinded by addictions.
Faith is a deeply personal and emotional part of who we are. Faith is emotion, not reason. It is a choice we make every day.
The loss of faith seems to require some intellectual justification on the part of the person leaving. So often, when a person leaves faith behind they pepper family members with a litany of arguments for leaving a faith he or she may have embraced for years.
The emotional catalyst for disconnecting from faith is likely a much more important motivator for that person's subsequent actions than intellectual reasons are. I say this because well-intentioned family members may be tempted to counter the intellectual arguments when they should be trying to understand the more basic emotional pain behind the decision.
A loved one's sudden shift away from seeing life through a spiritual lens may confuse and surprise concerned family members. So what can broken-hearted parents, grandparents and siblings do to facilitate the return to faith of their wayward loved ones?
Please note that I used the word "facilitate" intentionally and did not use the word force. I believe that agency, or the ability to choose one's path, is a spiritual law that cannot be broken even by God - let alone mere mortals.
How can you show support?
You can love, pray for and stand by wayward family members. You cannot force, and should never shun, intimidate, judge or threaten them. I can promise you that those actions will not help and will almost certainly serve to drive those you care about even further away from you. Don't do it.
Perhaps one of the worst things you can do is to allow your own anger, fear, worry or concern make your loved one's loss of faith about you instead of him. This is not about your failure as a parent, sibling or friend. Nor is it about how your family looks to friends and relatives. It's about your wanderers. They won't care how much you know about your religion until they know how much you care about them.
Jill (names in this article have been changed) has a brother Jeff who abandoned his faith after he graduated from high school. He may have been sad, disillusioned or both. Who knows? Jeff eventually moved away from his family to a remote area of the country. Jill rarely saw or spoke with her brother anymore.
She didn't let that dissuade her from staying in touch with him. Every month, rain or shine, she wrote him a letter. She told Jeff about what she was doing and kept him updated on the activities of her children, his nieces and nephews. She told him she loved him and missed him.
Jeff never wrote back to Jill or even acknowledged her monthly efforts to stay in touch in any way. The years wore on - more than five of them, in fact. Then, one day, Jeff reached out to let his sister Jill know he had saved all her letters. It was a beginning, whose ending has yet to be written.
Mary also recently left her faith behind. No one in her family understands why. She has provided lots of intellectual justification, some of which makes little sense, but she hasn't really shared her feelings with them. It looks like Mary may have someone else in her life of whom her family openly disapproves. Her sister-in-law still stays in touch with Mary's old boyfriend, even friending him on Facebook.
If and when Mary thinks about coming home, is this the family to whom she will reach out, when the way back looks awfully long and very far away?
This is not to say that we should ever condone inappropriate behavior. We cannot do that. We can, however, love the person behind the behavior. Punishing those who hurt or disappoint us is not productive. The goal is to get them to come back someday, right?
It's never too late
You want your wanderer to know that it's never too late to come home. You'll be waiting for her with outstretched and open arms - just as my family was waiting for me, when I finally returned to my faith.
Love your wayward family members even when their behavior - which you cannot control in any event - breaks your heart. Accept and love them warts and all, even when they don't deserve it. And, when they're listening and the time is right, remind them that you love them. Hug them often. Let them feel the full love of their family.
Your wayward wanderers should always feel that there's more love to be found inside their family than outside of it. Encourage them to participate in small events that may touch their hearts and spirit. Then wait, watch, and hope.
Until one day they, like me, come to themselves and find their way back home.