In a piece for Her.meneutics, Jennifer Grant cautions parents against trying to “bully their kids into belief,” writing: “Between the extremes of bullying our children into faith and neglecting to teach them to pray is a wide expanse.”
I completely agree, and I suspect most parents would too. And yet…in our practice of parenting, we often act as though our child’s relationship with God is all up to us. In my experience as a child of the church, a pastor, and now a father of four, I’ve found most attempts to force faith onto children stem from a misapplication of a favorite parenting verse:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6
At first glance, Proverbs seems to offer an ironclad promise: Raise your children “the right way,” and they will automatically “turn out right.” And who among us hasn’t heard a thousand messages promising just that? We can get “new kids by Friday” if only we apply the right formula.
But here’s the problem. It doesn’t always work. We all know people who were raised in Christian homes yet abandoned the faith in their adult years.
So what happens to Proverbs 22:6? Because we think this sage wisdom is a guarantee from God, we assume that parents of prodigals must have failed somewhere. Racked with guilt, these parents travel back in time through the child-raising years, searching and sleuthing for their big mistakes. And many pastors and counselors are all too willing to help them in this guilt-laden process.
But Proverbs 22:6 was never written to serve as a stand-alone foundation for the biblical model of parenting. It is merely one verse in the entire revelation of God, from Genesis to Revelation.
Furthermore, the common interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 as a promise or doctrine is faulty. Serious Bible students understand that Proverbs, while inspired Scripture, are just that: proverbs. They represent the best collection of the wisdom anywhere in the world. They rise above all other literature, both classical and contemporary.
But the proverbs are not doctrine, and they are not promises.
We don’t apply the other proverbs this way. For instance, Proverbs 15:1 suggests that a soft answer turns away wrath. This is true, the majority of the time. A kind word often diffuses an angry confrontation. But there are also moments when a soft answer will inflame. I’ve had a soft answer land me an uppercut to the jaw. There are precincts in my hometown of Chicago that will reward a soft answer with a gunshot.
Do you see the folly of reinterpreting the Proverbs as promises? To be sure, God does include many wonderful promises in Scripture, promises that are ironclad guarantees that rest on the unchanging character of God.
But Proverbs 22:6 isn’t one of them.
The problem with making this verse the foundation of our parenting is that it tends to move parents away from a biblical, faith-based approach to a humanistic, results-oriented approach.
Putting all the pressure on parents to execute and then blaming only them for failure is both unbiblical and impossible. Unbiblical because it removes the work of God and brings glory to man. Impossible because human parents cannot manufacture what only the Holy Spirit can produce.
We forget that every child is an individual human soul, created with their own accountability before God. Worse, we ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in the shaping of a child’s soul.
So what is the job of a parent? Faithfulness. Parents are given the task of creating a culture of faith that intentionally uses all of life to point their children toward a lifelong relationship with God. We’re to equip them for life.
But the job of conversion and sanctification can only be done by God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Only God can shape the human heart. Too many Christian parenting models operate under the subtle assumption that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is incidental to parenting. But gospel parenting is more than simply hoping our kids nod in affirmation at the offer of the gospel in Sunday School. Gospel parenting frees us from taking the place of God.
In a gospel paradigm, parents are both evangelists and disciple-makers, continually retelling the story of creation, man’s sin, Jesus’ offer of redemption, and the promise of the Holy Spirit in guiding them toward their God-given purpose. And we earnestly pray with fervent trust, knowing that it is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost who will do the work of both justification and sanctification.
Children are a divine stewardship. They are not for us to own, but for us to love, carefully guide, and then release to God’s provident care. We cannot pressure, bully or force them into faith.
We parent, not with anticipation of some promised outcome, but out of faithfulness to Jesus, leaving the outcome to him.