A Prodigal Speaks
By Constance Fink
Carol Barnier’s questions about God, the church, and faith made everyone uncomfortable, even her Christian college professors. At home, her mother thought she was doomed because of her questions; her father clung to the hope that even though she wandered, she would eventually return to faith.
Most of her childhood was spent in church. Her father became a pastor when she was 15 years old, but his pastoral career had little effect on the family’s church involvement. They had always been in church even when he was a military man. Their social life and church activities had been one and the same.
Carol describes her childhood faith as a “coattail faith” – she tagged along dutifully with her parents’ beliefs. However, when she became a teenager and sought to make her parent’s faith her own, the questions began. Though her questions were not new, they were an affront to the faithful saints in her world. Questions like, How can proof for the Bible be the Bible itself? Why would a loving God send anyone to hell? Isn’t God an egotist when he says “Worship me”?
The further she got from finding answers, the closer she moved to atheism. Though the shift was gradual, one incident that stands out in her mind was the healing service of a man in her church who had bad knees. He had the closest relationship to God of anyone she knew. In the days prior to the service, Scripture was quoted that seemed to guarantee success: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7). “If you have faith small as a mustard seed, say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matt. 17:20). “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11). Carol knew God kept His promises, so she anticipated the man’s future with healed knees.
Yet the service did not heal him. Folks said God could not have made a mistake so it must have been that the man did not have enough faith. This posed a problem to Carol. His faith seemed as strong as the Old Testament characters cited in Hebrews 11. If his faith wasn’t enough, she was in deep trouble. This incident put a “tear” in her coattail faith.
She began to search for God in places other than the faith of her parents. She visited every belief she could find, including philosophy. In the end, she found all of them lacking. She was empty-handed and became a full-fledged atheist. God allowed her to pursue her pointless direction for 13 years, until her need for Him became as apparent to her as it was to Him.
Her journey to and from atheism is the basis for a new emphasis in her speaking and writing ministry. Carol’s seminars are packed with heavy-hearted parents who have a child struggling with doubt or a child who has rejected the family and church. They come with burdens, but they leave with hope and strength.
JBU asked Carol to share her experience in order to help other families understand the prodigal, especially if it is their child.
JBU: How did your parents respond to your decision to step away from it all?
Carol: Confrontation always made my father uncomfortable. This was confrontation with a capital “C.” However, I appreciated that he gave me space to develop my thinking. Later when I asked him why he didn’t argue with me, he said he always clung to the belief that I would return. My mother, however, did not share his hope. We had many high-pitched yelling battles in the parsonage. She would repeat things over and over to me in the hopes that I would finally “get it.” I didn’t, and eventually went to a state school to create my own belief system.
JBU: What were the reasons for your choices?
Carol: I didn’t move away from my parents to hurt them intentionally. However, my mother could not get past the possibility that it wasn’t personal. It truly wasn’t. I was self-absorbed in my compulsion to grasp a reasonable and cohesive worldview. I could not shrug something off as “divine mystery.” I needed to understand. Not understanding caused pain. Unfortunately, in the effort to relieve my suffering, I caused pain to my parents.
Not all prodigal kids struggle so blatantly with theology, but often in less obvious ways. Something in the worldview taught to them does not match up with something else they believe to be true. In fact, many Christian kids struggle, albeit not to the point of being labeled a “prodigal,” but they struggle on some level.
JBU: Who kept the relationship intact during the time apart – you or your parents?
Carol: At some point, we went into an uneasy truce. I neither hid my lifestyle choices from them, nor did I flaunt them. After I moved away, they stopped trying to change me and allowed me the freedom to find the value, or lack thereof, in my decisions. When I showed up for holidays, they gave the same grace and wide berth they would have given to any non-Christian guest in their home (most of the time). I can’t say the relationship was intact during those years; it just wasn’t severed. In the end, there remained enough of a thread for us to reconnect.
JBU: What other significant events or people helped lead you back?
Carol: When I initially became an atheist, I felt empowered. I was the captain of my own ship. I was no longer encumbered with meaningless rituals of an illogical belief system. I was now one of the thinkers of the world, able to shed thousands of years of ritualized emotional slavery. I assumed atheists could be gracious to the less enlightened souls who still clung to their simplistic magical solutions to life’s questions. I was taken aback to learn that this was not the case. Most of the atheists I met were bitter, angry, and even vitriolic.
After joining the American Atheistic Association, I attended a meeting where the speaker was none other than Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who was the face of the burgeoning political movement of atheists. She was the catalyst of the Supreme Court’s decision to remove prayer in public school. She went so far as to disown her son who had become a Christian. In her words, the severed relationship was a “postnatal abortion.” She had always been confrontational, combative, and rude, but I assumed this was simply her public persona, an attention-getting media tool. As she spoke, however, I observed she was every bit what her public image portrayed, if not more so. I saw a bitter, caustic woman, and it was a surprising disappointment. In time, I came to view atheists as cowards with a penchant for ridicule, even though I was still one of them.
If one takes a position where he or she basically believes in nothing, there is nothing to defend. It’s a vantage point from which to take shots at every other belief system. I came away seeing atheists as people who love to take cheap shots, but want nothing to defend. I moved away from atheists, but not from atheism. One step at a time.
Then, I married a man who had a faith. The birth of our first child was a tough experience. My son had his first of 13 surgeries when he was 36 hours old. When I headed down the hall to see him in ICU for the first time, I felt emotionally disconnected from him. I blamed it on the post C-section medications, but in the back of my mind I worried that I was going to be one of those mothers who struggled with bonding. That was about to change.
When I looked at my son after his surgery, the protective wall crumbled. I saw a newborn that had been cut open and sewn shut. He had tubes coming out of him in too many places. He had been hurt in ways that day-old babies should not be. At that moment, I would have died for him. I wanted to drape myself over his little bassinet and dare anyone to touch him.
It was through this event, and the many surgeries to follow, that I came to the horrifying conclusion that I wasn’t captain of my ship because if I were, I most certainly would have steered us to other waters.
JBU: How did you get to the point of “owning” your own faith versus your parents’ faith?
Carol: When I became a believer, I simply believed in a God. I wasn’t a Christian; I was a deist. I had to take apart Christianity’s claims to determine if there was good cause to believe in Jesus Christ. I found a pastor who came to Jesus from the hippie movement. He welcomed my questions. In fact, he’d once had them himself, so he gently walked me through the answers and guided me to helpful resources, which included C. S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, and G. K. Chesterton.
JBU: What has your prodigal journey taught you about God?
Carol: One of the unexpected blessings is the realization of how much mercy was required on my behalf. I appreciate the full weight of Christ’s sacrifice for me. It amazes me that I am permitted to participate in Communion. There are some who have grown up in the church. In their hearts, they believe they aren’t so bad, which translates into missing how far Christ came to meet them. In contrast, my unworthiness is palpable.
JBU: What do churches do right and wrong in relating to prodigals and their parents?
Carol: I’m thankful for the activities that kept me in church during my childhood. However, the church needs to be a place where the wounded are welcomed and need not be afraid to show their pain. That’s important not only for kids struggling with faith, but also for their parents who are ashamed to speak of the family crisis. My father often said the church is the only army that shoots its wounded. The problem in keeping issues hidden is that it sends an unspoken message to the prodigal: “Helping you find yourself and the answers you need is not quite as important as maintaining a good image among Christians.” That message is powerful and, I believe, wrong!
JBU: What is your advice to parents about raising their children in the faith?
Carol: In my years as an atheist, I tried to disarm Christians. My favorite preys were those recently out on their own. It was easy to knock them down. Our kids must be better prepared. Now, my passion is to teach kids to present their faith to a cynical world.
I also advise parents to focus less on behaviors and more on the heart. If you get obedience to the rules, but still see an unsubmissive heart, the child can put up walls that may become a hindrance later when he or she desires a personal relationship with the Savior. If love and affection are given or withdrawn based upon worthiness, then we’ve missed the point. God loves us every unworthy moment of our lives. We may withdraw privileges, money, or resources, but love should never be a negotiable item. In fact, love should be on the table when all other things are discussed.
I read about Carol Everett, an abortion clinic owner who came to faith. When she first became a Christian, she still provided abortions. Many Christians would proclaim all her sins, but Carol had wise mentors in her church. They simply hugged her, and said, “Just keep loving and seeking Jesus. If He wants you to change your mind, you’ll know.” She did and became a powerful voice for the pro-life movement in later years with a unique understanding of the abortion industry. Had those Christians responded differently, she may not have had the opportunity to be a voice for life.
JBU: How can a parent pray for and relate to their prodigal?
Carol: There are many books on how to pray, but I am writing a book on how to relate to your prodigal. I cover ways to keep the arguments from becoming overheated and unproductive. I share the value of having a shared activity with your prodigal which you vigorously defend from tension. If you play tennis together, then play, and don’t let angry discussions encroach. Whatever it is, make it the one area your prodigal knows is safe. You need to create a portal through which your prodigal can stay connected to you through the differences. It may be the only portal through which they can return when they reach the end of their chosen philosophy.
JBU: What would you say to parents who are struggling to serve when their own hearts are breaking?
Carol: The initial instinct is to bury it and go through the motions, but that is a lost opportunity to minister, for it is in showing others how to go through difficult times that you teach. You must look past those who criticize you. They are not your audience. The folks you can minister to are the ones who take you aside and say, “Me, too! Me, too!” They are the ones God has uniquely equipped you to reach.
JBU: Do you have a prodigal?
Carol: I have three children (20, 15, and 9). I wouldn’t call my 20-year old son a prodigal, but I would say he and I are both strong-willed, and we have interacted in ways that have been tension-filled (make that very tension-filled). He is in the process of making a coattail faith his own. So it’s too early for me to proclaim, “No prodigals here!” Talk to me again in a few years.
JBU: How do you help parents not feel crushed by shame and guilt?
Carol: Many parents carry unwarranted blame. If they don’t take it on themselves, other Christians put it on them. The often-quoted Scripture verse is, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it.” Proverbs is not a math book, as in A + B = C. If so, then every instruction in Proverbs would be true in all cases.
On the flip side, I cannot give blanket absolution to all parents because they may have consistently violated God’s principles through alcoholism, abuse, abandonment, uncontrolled tempers, etc. Even though these parents carry valid guilt, there is encouragement for them. True repentance is the most powerful bridge builder. Never underestimate the regenerative power of the blood of Jesus Christ. I believe it is God’s greatest delight to take a mess and make something beautiful out of it. He is an artist, and His favorite medium is a broken life. That’s why He promised, “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (Rom. 8:28).