Let’s go back to a question that we looked at earlier. Why in the world would any parent pour his or her heart, soul, energy, and life into parenting? Of course, the answer (or maybe one answer) is that we can greatly influence them, and that through them we can greatly influence the world. However, the question still remains. Can we be guaranteed of success?
The verse commonly used to encourage parents and to give them hope is the following:
Proverbs 22:6 Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. NIV
This verse quite clearly says that if you set children down a certain course, they will continue to follow down that course. Yet, most of us have seen families that appear to be exceptions to this verse, and as a result, our faith in its reliability can be challenged. I think the following excerpt may help lay a foundation for further discussion. It is an excerpt from James Dobson and is taken from the Focus on the Family Bulletin – March 2002
Q. You have said that the children of godly parents sometimes go into severe
rebellion and never return to the faith they were taught. I have seen that
happen to some wonderful families who loved the Lord and were committed to the
church. Still, it appears contradictory to Scripture, which says, “Train a child
in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs
22:6). Doesn’t this verse promise that all wayward offspring will eventually
return to the fold?
A. I wish Solomon’s message to us could be interpreted that definitively. I know that the common understanding of the passage is to accept it as a divine guarantee, but it was not expressed in that context. Psychiatrist John White, writing in his book Parents in Pain, makes the case that the proverbs were never intended to be absolute promises from God. Instead, they are probabilities of things that are likely
to occur. Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, conveyed his divinely inspired observations on the way human nature and God’s universe work. A given set of circumstances can be expected to produce a set of specific consequences.
Unfortunately, several of these observations, including Proverbs 22:6, have been lifted out of that context and made to stand alone as promises from God. If we insist on that interpretation, then we must explain why so many other proverbs do not
inevitably prove accurate.
Proverbs 10:4: “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”
Have you ever met a diligent—but poor—Christian? I have.
“The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short” (10:27). I’ve seen some beautiful children die with a Christian testimony on their lips.
“No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble” (12:21).
We can all think of exceptions to the statements above.
Parents who believe that Proverbs 22:6 offers a guarantee of salvation for the next generation must remember that even as Adam and Eve were given the choice between good and evil, God also gives that same freedom to each individual.
I think Dobson’s statements are quite profound, and perhaps a touch controversial. But is he right? Let’s look at the verse again.
“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
If this verse does not at first seem to ring true to us, what do we do with it?
- Redefine it. Maybe we need to redefine some of the terms. Perhaps “He will not turn from it” doesn’t mean that he will follow it, but just that he will not reject it. Or maybe “train” incorporates the idea that they have not just been taught, but have accepted and followed the teaching—in which case following the teaching and being trained go hand-in-hand. I’m sure there are other words or phrases we could redefine as well. The problem with this approach is that if you play with the words too much, the verse gets so watered down that they lose meaning. If there is no real hope offered by the verse, or no instruction, then why was it put in the Bible?
- Restrict it. Perhaps very few parents succeed in training a child in the way he should go. Maybe we need to restrict our application of the verse to only applying to the parents who have REALLY excelled with their children. It is possible that what we perceive as successful parenting is not really enough and that the parents who have “failed” never really fulfilled their obligation to train their children properly. The problem with this approach is that even if we raise the bar on what it means to train a child in the way he should go, it still seems like there are exceptions. If we raise the bar even higher than that, the hope being offered seems unattainable. It would be like saying, “If you do a perfect job raising your child, and never falter, your child will follow all that you taught him.” Do you see how that waters down the verse, just like redefining all the terms does? If you raise the standard to something that is unattainable, then what hope is there? Why try to meet the standard? And why even put the verse in the Bible?
- Rethink it. Perhaps it’s not a promise at all, but a principle. Perhaps it’s a guiding truth of life but not an outright guarantee. This seems to be the approach the Dobson is taking in the above quote. The problem with this approach is that the success rate of parents doesn’t seem to even support the idea of it being a guiding truth. In other words, it not only doesn’t seem like an “absolute promise” but it doesn’t even seem like a truth that generally reflects life very well.
So which is it? I personally think it is number 2 mixed in with a little number 3. I don’t think it is an absolute guarantee that your child will follow you in every single area in which they’ve been taught. That would seem to go against the teaching of freewill. However, Proverbs 22:6 was put in the Bible to give you hope—to inspire you to a certain course in your parenting. And I believe that even if it is only a guiding principle, then it is one that is worth following. Good parenting produces good results. That should be true in every case, or at least in almost all of the cases. I think that is the spirit of Proverbs 22:6, and if the hope we take from that verse gets any more watered down than that I think we should seriously question whether we truly believe God’s Word or not.
I also believe that most parents do not do a nearly adequate job in raising their children. Many take a whack at it, but very few hit the nail on the head—and if you don’t hit a nail on the head the nail doesn’t usually fair very well, does it? It is not enough to go to church, set a curfew, keep your kids out of R rated movies, and keep them off drugs. Training a child in the way he should go involves a much deeper level of involvement than most parents pursue.
I believe as parents we can hold a very high level of confidence in the outcome of our kids. Even if we don’t have an absolute 100%-money-back-guarantee, we still have a principle given to us by God for the very purpose of giving us such a hope and expectation. Parent in a way that teaches your kids how to follow God wholeheartedly, and expect that to bear good and lasting fruit in the lives of your kids.
Remember that everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). God wants us to trust him with this. Too many parents live in fear instead of faith. They fear that God’s Word won’t prove true, or that they will be the exception, rather than living in faith that if they trust in His Word and follow it that it will lead them down a good path. Have faith that God’s way will win!