Question: Should Mormons reject "wayward" family members or those who leave the Church?

Table of Contents

Question: Should Mormons reject "wayward" family members or those who leave the Church?

The Saints are encouraged to love everyone, particularly family members, despite their choices

Some insist that the Church teaches such principles as:

  • those who are less faithful to Church teachings should (or inevitably will) receive less love
  • we should reject those who reject the Church
  • children reject the Church through the fault of parents who "don't have enough faith."

These issues are also more generally relevant for those who seek help from FAIR, since readers may be struggling with family members who have left the Church because of anti-Mormon materials.

The Saints are encouraged to love everyone, particularly family members, despite their choices. They must never seek to control or compel another, and must leave matters of faith to the influence of God and His spirit.

There is no Church doctrine which teaches that sincere parents are condemned for their childrens' choices

There is no Church doctrine which teaches that sincere parents are condemned for their childrens' choices; indeed, there is great hope for family members who reject the Gospel.

The charges that family members must 'force' others into obedience for fear of their own salvation turns LDS doctrine on its head.

One third of God's spirit children rejected Christ

LDS doctrine considers humans to be the literal spirit children of God. The LDS doctrine of premortal existence also mentions the fact that a third of God's spirit children rejected Christ to follow Satan (D&C 29:30). Biblical patriarchs such as Isaac (Genesis 26:34-35) and Jacob (Genesis 38:7, Genesis 38:12-26) had descendants who brought them great grief through wickedness. Book of Mormon prophets, such as Lehi (1 Nephi 2:11-12), Mosiah , and Alma (Mosiah 27:8) had "wayward" children, as did many unnamed parents (Mosiah 26:1-2, 3 Nephi 1:30).

Thus, a "wayward" child is clearly no sign of parental failure: if so, God and some of His greatest prophets would stand condemned.

Modern leaders of the Church have taught the same doctrines:

If couples live their married lives properly, training their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord as they themselves will live, it is quite unlikely that their home will produce delinquents, transgressors, or criminals. [1]

Not "impossible," but "unlikely." President Kimball also taught that even the “finest youth can fall" (p. 230). He recounted:

Parental training often brings rebellious children back…. The current of our life, as defined and developed in the lives of a family by the righteous teaching of parents, will often control the direction children will go, in spite of the waves and winds of numerous adverse influences of the world of error.

I have sometimes seen children of good families rebel, resist, stray, sin, and even actually fight God. In this they bring sorrow to their parents, who have done their best to set in movement a current and to teach and live as examples. But I have repeatedly seen many of these same children, after years of wandering, mellow, realize what they have been missing, repent, and make great contribution to the spiritual life of their community. The reason I believe this can take place is that, despite all the adverse winds to which these people have been subjected, they have been influenced still more, and much more than they realized, by the current of life in the homes in which they were reared. [2]

Note that many, not all, of these children of “good families” “are likely to” return. Present failure does not mean a parent is unfaithful. President Kimball makes the point explicit:

There is no guarantee, of course, that righteous parents will succeed always in holding their children, and certainly they may lose them if they do not do all in their power. The children have their free agency ... What we do know is that righteous parents who strive to develop wholesome influences for their children will be held blameless at the last day, and that they will succeed in saving most of their children, if not all. [3]

The influence of a parent’s faith may well only be seen “in the next life”

The influence of a parent’s faith may well only be seen “in the next life.” And, it is only “at the last day” that this can all be judged aright by God.

Cautioned Elder Marvin J. Ashton:

With heavy hearts and broken spirits the parents of a wayward child were recently heard to say, "Where did we go wrong? What have we done to displease the Lord? What is the Lord trying to tell us? Is this the reward for trying to be good parents? Why us?"

These were among a flood of questions that came as they agonized over the serious misconduct of their child. Their comments and attitude reflected a frightening blend of resentment, frustration, and self-condemnation.

It was evident that this distraught couple was not to be calmed or reassured by scriptures or personal observations. Because the child had transgressed, they were adamant in their feelings that God was displeased with them. Their attitude reflected bitterness and loss of self- respect. Momentarily they were letting themselves be consumed and destroyed by the trying circumstances.

In their present tragedy they were not seeking counsel or comfort; rather, it appeared, they were looking for someone who would suffer with them and join in the chorus of "If there is a merciful God, why does He allow this to happen?" We must remember that all suffering is not punishment. It is imperative that we do not allow ourselves to be destroyed by the conduct of others. [4]

"Wayward" family members are not always children

Through all ages of the gospel, family members who reject the Gospel have not only been "wayward" children. The person in Abraham’s family who seems to have struggled most with living the gospel was his father, Terah. Abraham 1:5 Adah and Zillah had a "wayward" husband in Lamech. Moses 5:53 Jacob “did mourn out [his] days” Jacob 7:26 because of the apostasy of his two oldest brothers, Laman and Lemuel. Of course, these kinds of relationships continue today. They were prophesied by the Lord himself. Matthew 10:21 Many of us can find "wayward" family members by looking up and sideways on our family trees as well by looking down.

When family members who are not our children take leave of the gospel, those left behind experience the same kinds of feelings of pain, remorse, and guilt felt by parents of such children. We question ourselves and our way of life and wonder what part of the "waywardness" might be our responsibility. In our own ways, we cry like King David, "would God I had died for thee." 2 Samuel 18:33 These are not the feelings of unloving people. These are the feelings of people who love very deeply.

Coping with this situation is very much a grieving process where we spiral in and out of complicated cycles of denial and sadness and even anger. In addition, people who face the rejection by family members who those were once their teachers and mentors in the gospel can experience senses of betrayal and abandonment. All of this is painful but none of it can be equated to a loss of love. These feelings are common and normal and they can be overcome through the grace of Christ. It's a sublime process that defies reason and perhaps psychology but we can feel happiness after our loved ones "strayed from the path" even if it takes a miracle.

Parents should have an increase of love toward "wayward" children

Parents should have an increase of love toward "wayward" children:

What kind of a mother [or father] are you that you only love her when she does what you want her to do? That is selfish, self-centered, qualified love. It’s easy to love our children when they are good; but when they make mistakes, they need our love even more. We should love and care for them no matter what they do. It doesn’t mean we condone or approve of the errors, but we help, not condemn; love, not hate; forgive, not judge. We build them up rather than tear them down; we lead them, not desert them. We love when they are the most unlovable, and if you can’t or won’t do that, you are a poor mother [or father]. [5]

Note the prohibition of “qualified” love, and anyone who exhibits such an attitude is a “poor” parent. Unconditional love, contrary to what some claim, is enjoined upon Church members especially for wayward children:

It is absolutely essential that people embrace the saving principles of the gospel if they are to enter the presence of the Lord pure and clean. The catalyst which moves them to embrace these principles is always love—unconditional, unfeigned, felt to the very core by the giver and the receiver. It is the kind of love shown not by what people say but by what they do. This kind of love has the power to melt the hardest heart, to create a change in the most vile sinner, to bring men and women to their knees in humble worship. [6]

One must use no force, no compulsion, no efforts to control

Above all, one must use no force, no compulsion, no efforts to control (D&C 121:35-44).

Trying too hard to be helpful, some parents set their children’s goals for them, and then they don’t allow them the freedom to make mistakes—or the blessing of learning from them. They attempt to maintain their power and influence by force, instead of “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge…“We were to blame for a lot of our son’s behavior,” one mother laments. “All we meant to do was correct him, but we were always on his back, always putting him down.”… “Any forcing would drive our daughter away from us,” another parent says. “We want to keep her close, so for now, we’re just taking it easy.” [7]

Is this a difficult task, to love a family member with whom we do not agree? Not at all. It makes personal interactions more complicated and can change the emotional charge on them but that is not the same thing as diminishing feelings of love. Loving someone who's wayward is very much like the feeling of loving someone who is physically ill. The spiritual peril devout Church members perceive their "wayward" family members to be in actually intensifies our feelings of concern and charity.

We yearn for those who have distanced themselves from us just as the father in the Lord's story of Prodigal Son Luke 15:11-32 yearned for his missing loved one. In the parable, the father sees the son coming toward the family home. "And when he [the son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." The expression of love from the father happens before the son has any chance to open his mouth to show why he's approaching. The father doesn't know yet that the son has come home to repent. For all he knows, the son might be approaching to rob or mock him or entreat for more money. But it doesn't matter to the father. He runs out anyway without any conditions. That is the Christ-like ideal for which family members strive. While the beliefs and behaviors that make someone "wayward" remain abhorent, the person him- or herself is cherished. If anything, departure from gospel living makes them even more precious to the believers in their families.

However, getting along from day-to-day with someone with whom we don't agree can be challenging.

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.” [8]

Such forbearance is not easy, and comes only as a gift of grace:

47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him. 48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen. Moroni 7:47-48

What will happen to family members who reject the Gospel?

Lorenzo Snow taught a doctrine of hope:

If you succeed in passing through these trials and afflictions and receive a resurrection, you will, by the power of the Priesthood, work and labor, as the Son of God has, until you get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory. This is just as sure as that the sun rose this morning over yonder mountains. Therefore, mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them, or give heed to your counsels. Inasmuch as we succeed in securing eternal glory, and stand as saviors, and as kings and priests to our God, we will save our posterity. [9]

President Snow is very clear: this promise applies in the eternities—unless the critic believes he is already a “king and priest to [his] God” who has received “a resurrection” there are no grounds for despair.

This doctrine goes back to Joseph Smith, as Orson F. Whitney taught:

You parents of the wilful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours—long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fulness of knowledge brings the fulness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend…the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. … They will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God… [10]

And, President Howard W. Hunter gave perspective and reassurance on these issues:

[E]veryone is different. Each of us is unique. Each child is unique. Just as each of us starts at a different point in the race of life, and just as each of us has different strengths and weaknesses and talents, so each child is blessed with his own special set of characteristics. We must not assume that the Lord will judge the success of one in precisely the same way as another. As parents we often assume that, if our child doesn’t become an overachiever in every way, we have failed. We should be careful in our judgments. [11]

Statements by Church leaders about how to treat "wayward" family members.


Notes

  1. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969), 236. ISBN 0884944441. ISBN 0884941922.
  2. Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 334, emphasis added.
  3. Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 334.
  4. Marvin J. Ashton, Be of Good Cheer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 16–17.
  5. Jack H. Gosland, "Reach Out to Our Father’s Children," in Conference Report (April 1981), 79. or Jack H. Gosland, "Reach Out to Our Father’s Children," Ensign (May 1981), 60.
  6. F. Melvin Hammond, "Parents, Never Give Up," Ensign (January 1994), 47.
  7. Marvin K. Gardner, "Keeping the Door Open and the Stew Hot: Loving and Helping a Wayward Child," Ensign (August 1982), 9.
  8. Anonymous, "I Won’t Give Up on Them!," Ensign (February 2004), 44.
  9. Lorenzo Snow, "Preaching the Gospel in the Spirit World," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 3:364. [Discourse given on 6 October 1893.] GL direct link
  10. Orson F. Whitney, "Afternoon Meeting: (A Word for the Wayward)," in Conference Report (April 1929), 110.GL direct link
  11. Howard W. Hunter, "Parents’ Concern for Children," Ensign (November 1983), 63.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims