From the moment my wife and I heard the news that we were expecting a baby, we thanked God and offered up two prayers. We prayed for a safe delivery, and we prayed that this child would always know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now that my children are all adults, I rarely pray for their physical health—unless they fall sick. But almost every day, I pray for their spiritual health.
The greatest joy that a Christian parent can experience is knowing that their son or daughter is walking with the Lord. Conversely, there is surely no greater sorrow than to see them abandon the Christian faith, or, while they may still call themselves “Christian”, not live in a way that pleases God.
How Can A Parent Find Peace of Mind?
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Seeing our children living without God at the centre of their lives doesn’t just cause us grief. It may also cause us to question ourselves and how we’ve raised our children.
When it comes to Christian parenting, few verses are quoted more frequently than Proverbs 22:6:
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it. (ESV)
Some parents believe that these words provide them with great comfort, while others find them a guilt-inducing reminder of their failures.
Comfort or Judgment?
Some parents find comfort in Proverbs 22:6. They look back on the faithful parenting of their children, when they taught, disciplined, and prayed for their children. Yet, despite their faithful work, they’ve seen one—or more—walk away from God.
However, they find in this verse a wonderful reassurance that, like the prodigal son, this wandering sheep will come home. There is a promise here to hold on to: “When he is old he will not depart from it”. The wanderer will return.
Proverbs 22:6 offers neither comfort to the sorrowing parent nor a rebuke to the guilty parent.
Others look at this verse and wonder: Where did they go wrong? If their child has departed from the way, the reason must surely be that they have failed to properly “train up a child in the way he should go”. The promise of the child’s salvation appears to be conditional upon the parents’ faithfulness in training them.
Both of these responses to the proverb, however, are misguided. Proverbs 22:6 offers neither comfort to the sorrowing parent nor a rebuke to the guilty parent. Quite simply, this is because Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb, not a promise.
What Makes A Proverb?
Proverbs 22:6 is part of a large collection of proverbial sayings, many going back to the wisest of Israel’s kings, Solomon. Proverbs are observations about life that have been passed down over the generations. Let me give you an example:
A couple of generations ago, your great-grandfather’s stove needed fixing. So, he asked his son, your grandfather, to look at it. Unfortunately, your grandfather only made it worse. Your great-grandfather was then heard to say, “If you want anything done properly, do it yourself.” Your grandfather remembered these words and passed them on to your father. Now, you hear your father tell you, “If you want anything done properly do it yourself.”
And, so, a proverb is born.
You see, a proverb is just an observation about life that has been passed down and is generally true. In other words, it’s not true all the time. There are many cases when a job is done better by someone else or with a helping hand.
What Proverbs 22:6 Really Says
What does all this mean for Proverbs 22:6? It means that what we have here is a generally true observation of life in Christian families.
I have observed many families where parents have prayed for their children, taught them the gospel, and lovingly and firmly disciplined them. Many of these children have continued in the way they should go.
But I’ve also observed many families where the parents have been models of Christian faithfulness in parenting, and yet have seen some—and, tragically, sometimes all—of their children give up the faith.
I’ve also observed many families where the parents have been models of Christian faithfulness in parenting, and yet have seen some—and, tragically, sometimes all—of their children give up the faith.
And I’ve met some parents who appear less diligent in teaching their children, yet all their children continue as believers.
This doesn’t mean God hasn’t been faithful, nor does it mean that the parents have failed in their duties. This verse is a proverb and, as an observation of family life, it is generally true.
What It Means For Us
What practical lessons can we take home from this?
First, this reminds us that salvation is God’s work. I can teach and model and train and pray, but it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). The new birth of a person is a gracious gift from God, and we cannot engineer this in our children’s lives. In the end, whether we are faithful or not in our parenting, our children’s salvation is the result of grace alone.
Second, this doesn’t mean that training our children isn’t vitally important. The main centre for the training of a child is the family. As children grow, the church or other para-church organisations may become more influential in the nurturing of their faith. But in their early formative years, parents are the single greatest influence on their spiritual growth.
The new birth of a person is a gracious gift from God, and we cannot engineer this in our children’s lives.
Third, while we should not see Proverbs 22:6 as a quid pro quo, that is, “do this and this will follow”, we also don’t want to remove any causal relationship between the condition (“train up a child”) and the consequence (“he will not depart from it”).
Sometimes, neglecting to bring up children in the way they should go may lead to them rejecting the faith. A parent who doesn’t “practise what he preaches” can produce a child who is cynical about professions of faith.
Similarly, parents who aren’t serious about training their children can produce children who see no reason to be serious about living the Christian life.
The days may be over when we are the dominant influence in their spiritual training, but our responsibility to pray for them daily never ends.
Finally, all that has been said is a reminder to every Christian parent to remain faithful in praying for their children. The Christian life is a marathon, and our desire for our children is that they persevere to the end.
The days may be over when we are the dominant influence in their spiritual training, but our responsibility to pray for them daily never ends. For, as James 5:16 reminds us: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”