If you are a parent you have heard the following verse. It’s probably been quoted to you like a mantra or promise,
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
I am starting here because we need to eliminate a certain dangerous way of thinking when it comes to raising our kids that is encapsulated in the way this verse is often understood. This verse is from Proverbs 22 and it is often misunderstood and misapplied by parents or those around us who mean well. This is a proverb, obviously, that is often turned into a promise. The verse is then taken to be a sort of guarantee that if you train your child properly, according to biblical principles and in the context of the local church that he or she will turn into a good Christian person when they grow older. If our children do ‘turn out’ we take solace in this fulfilled promise and we pat ourselves on the back for doing such a good job. But if they don’t ‘turn out’ we are left to wonder what happened. Did we not train our child in the way in which he should go? Were we bad parents? Is God disciplining us for something we did wrong as a parent? Is our child’s rebellious decisions our fault? Many parents have asked these types of questions - I know that I have asked them of myself - and have beaten themselves up over things that the Bible does not teach. Parenting is hard enough without the misapplication of Scripture hanging over us.
The key to understanding this verse is painfully obvious - it is a proverb. This means we need to interpret it as a, wait for it, proverb and not a promise or guarantee. It is actually quite simple to interpret the book of Proverbs as well as other proverbs in the Old Testament. Our verse is found in 22:6, within a larger section (chs 10-29) which is loaded with exactly this type of two-line refrain. The proverbs contained within this section take the following form -- two lines of poetry that convey one truth. Most of the proverbs seem to be somewhat random in their placement, having little, if anything, to do with the verses that come before or after them. Thus the immediate context of each proverb is not really relevant in most cases (eg. check the context of the verse in question). Once we have established what a proverb is we really only need to understand one simple principle of interpretation and application -- Proverbs tell us about the normal ordered life. They are not universals, but rather things that are normally true. We could say it this way -- “all things being equal, things will turn out this way.” No promises, no guarantees, just divine wisdom to set us on the right path.
But we all know that we live in fallen world. We know that things are never equal or normal and ordered. Applied to Proverbs 22:6, we all know that our children are fallen; as David says in Psalm 53, they are sinners from their mother’s womb. Our children don’t come into the world innocent, willing to be molded and desiring to obey. Our children are in Adam, thus they are dead in their trespasses and transgressions, they do not seek God, they are blind to spiritual things, they are rebels against God and they are enslaved by sin. No amount of training will change that. No amount of discipline will change that. No amount of effort, pleading, and struggle with them will change that. Our children need a particular kind of training in order for them to have a chance. They need to be trained, discipled and disciplined in the gospel for this verse to have a chance to wring true. The problem with all people lies in their heart, their sinfulness and our kids are no exception. Thus external training alone will never work. We need to teach and exemplify to our children the only thing that can change the heart and thus make our children willing to be trained properly - the gospel.
I remember when my daughter was young. She was, and still is, a rather independent individual who does not really like to follow rules. (I wonder where she gets that from?) When she would act out in this way the advice I often heard was this - “You’ve got to break her will.” The idea was that if as parents we can “break her” then she will listen to us in the future because she will know that she will not be able to win when we would get into a ‘disagreement.’ With all due respect, this was terrible advice! (Thankfully, I didn’t follow it.) The problem was indeed with her will, but I cannot break it by any means available to me, only Christ can. Only the gospel can. Only the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit can.
The point of this verse is not to give us a guarantee about our parenting, but to set us in the right direction as parents. We do not just train our children however we want and hope it works out. Our goal in training our children, then, is to take the gospel and apply it to their lives. How we do this will be the primary focus of our blog series. But before we leave this verse let me draw four applications from it, given its place in the wider context of Scripture:
Obey the verse! -- we are to train our kids. They need us to set guidelines for them and to provide discipline and encouragement. Training is active. We are not just to set down rules, but to walk and talk with our kids about the reality of sin and the need for the gospel. (cf Deuteronomy 6:4-9) We are not to parent with fear, concentrating our efforts of protecting our children from the world. We need to be on the offense as parents, training and equipping our parents to overcome the world - not by changing or controlling their environment, but by going after their hearts with the gospel. (cf. Farley)
Give your child over to God -- Our children our lent to us by God. They are his, not ours. He is free to do with them whatever he wills. You have responsibilities that God has given you to provide for them, train, disciple and discipline them, but you do not ‘own’ them. Our children are a blessing from God. We are to be faithful stewards of this blessing as stewards who will have to give account.
The gospel must be the center of your training -- If the problem is a sinful heart, the only solution can be the gospel. No amount of discipline, encouragement or time will save our children; only God can do that. We know that God saves sinners with the gospel so we must teach it and model it for our children so that they might be saved. “Effective parents make the gospel so attractive that the world cannot get a foothold in their children’s hearts.” (Farley)
Don’t take credit for your child turning out, or beat yourself up if they don’t -- We give our children over to God. We minister the gospel to them every day. That’s all we can do. We cannot decide how they will respond to our training. We cannot embrace the gospel for them. If they choose to accept our discipleship and to embrace the gospel and they ‘turn out’ - all praise must go to God for his glorious grace. If they choose to go a different way and they don’t turn out -- keep being the parent God wants you to be. Pray and trust in him. Be faithful. Always remember, ours is the obedience, his is the result.
There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but there is such a thing as a faithful one. Our goal is to the be latter. Through God’s grace and the power of the gospel we can be.
Soli Deo Gloria