I Couldn’t Change My Son

by J. Grant Swank, Jr.

When my wife and I adopted Jay, he was two-and-a-half months old. The only details we knew about his birth parents were some medical specifics provided by his birth mother to the social worker.

Bringing Jay into our family was such a joy. We were rightly proud the first time we introduced our new son to our church family. He was our second child, after our first child, Crystal. After Jay’s adoption, Heidi was born to us.


All went so well during Jay’s younger years that when he grew into his mid-teens, it was difficult for me to deal with his full-blown rebellion. He had known love from both family and friends. Our home was Christian; we enjoyed the climate of God’s presence.

Therefore, when our only son ran away on occasion, got into trouble with the police, or scoffed at our lifestyle, we felt a hurt that no one could express in words. Repeatedly we would reach out to him, yet he would pull back from us to go with his chosen friends.

Confusion and Pain

I never dreamed that life could be so bleak. Hardly a day went by that Jay didn’t plunge us into confusion and pain. He would knock holes in walls, throw furniture across the room, bash in a door – and scowl and curse.

I had had dreams upon dreams for our three children. I had not expected everything to go perfectly, yet I had never prepared for the wounds my heart was enduring because of our son.

As to his schooling, we tried everything: public school, Christian school, and then homeschooling. None seemed to work. Jay admitted to no other authority than himself: not parent, not teacher, not principal, not police officer. No one.

Outside Help

We arranged counseling for Jay. We prayed with him. We disciplined him. We hugged him. We pleaded with him. Yet his own unwise choices and the devil-may-care attitude of his peers drew him away from us frequently.

We knew nowhere to turn for long-term help for Jay. For a time, he lived with friends of ours in another state; that proved exceptionally helpful. Yet that season came to an end, and we were again confronted with his impossible turnabouts.

Sleepless Nights

I lay awake night after night wondering what to do. Some nights were interrupted with those dreaded calls from police . . . or by police cruisers’ lights against our home . . . or by having to get out of bed and dress hurriedly to drive into the city to search for our son.

I recalled in years past I had seen others’ children acting in undisciplined ways and I would think to myself If that were my child, I would . . . . But with Jay, I realized there are some parent-child situations that have no ready answer.

Crying Out to God

“God, when will this nightmare end?” I often cried out. Then some days I would look up to see Jay walk through the front doorway after he had been away for several days. His facial features were peaceful, his broad smile captivating. He could be adorable, playful, soft-spoken, and exceptionally courteous. Yet when he was out of control, watch out!

Other parents with difficult children would come to talk with us. Together we were beside ourselves in finding a practical strategy. Talk, talk, talk, but no real solutions.

Pulling Back

However, one bottom line that I held to finally proved to be one that did work: No one can ultimately make any other person do anything. Nevertheless, we can pray for that other person’s will to change for the better.

With that thought in mind, I entered into my greatest struggle as a parent: I gave up trying to coerce Jay to do what I wanted. After all, our family had lived out our faith as well as we could; therefore, we felt relief from guilt.

Consequently, I gave myself to pulling back each day so that I could give Jay to his own destiny. It was difficult; I wanted to jump into his skin and make him “come out right.”

But I could not do that any more than God could have forced His will on Adam and Eve, or Jesus could have forced His will on Judas. Mortals are made with free wills; with free wills, we make our own futures.

Finally, I explained this to Jay. “Jay,” I said, “when you were a baby, we yielded your life to God. Sometimes as parents we try to play God’s part; however, I realize now that I can’t do that. So I recommit you again to the Lord.”

Walking Away

Jay responded by walking away one more time to do his own thing. My heart was crushed. I wanted to change things, but I knew I had to do what was hardest: let God be God. I accepted the bittersweet situation in sadness and yet relief, knowing that my surrender was real.

That meant watching our son go off one more time on an extended run-away in a nearby city. Time went by; we heard nothing. Was he alive? Had he left the state?

Then the phone call came. Jay was in jail.

“But don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t do anything, so I will be out soon.” I was determined to keep my surrender intact. That preserved a real measure of calm within me.

Nevertheless, although Jay said that he had not committed a crime, three of the youths with whom he had run away implicated him in a burglary – to get a fourth pal off the hook. Jay is in jail for a crime that we believe he did not commit.

“Where is justice in all this?” Jay asked me.

“There is no justice,” I replied. “Much of life is not just.”

Returning to Christ

Then Jay began to take stock of his life. And in that process, our prayers were answered: Jay returned to Christ.

“I had been going so fast, I had not taken time to figure out what was going to happen to me,” our son told me. “Now that I am in jail, I have been forced to think about my upbringing, about God, and about where I was headed.”

Jay will spend some years behind bars. But at least, as his father, I know I had done what I had to do: In prayer I had committed Jay to God, respecting Jay’s free will to make his own choices.

Jay has since written to me that when he does get out, he wants to go into youth ministry. “I want to tell kids not to do what I did. I want to tell them to live for God.”

As for me, I live one day at a time, knowing I have resigned our precious son to the Lord Jesus. This has given me peace. Other people have noticed my peace and have commented to me about it; I believe that this experience is being used as a witness to God’s power in my greatest struggle.

Do you have doubts about God?