We want a formula for parenting. The problem is…it’s just not there.
I knew a set of parents who prayed for their son every day, while doing their best to carry out Proverbs 22:6—“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”—only to have their son leave home and abandon his faith.
I’ve also known parents who smoked pot in the home and never went to church, and yet their daughter grew up to have a deep, vibrant faith in Christ.
That doesn’t seem to add up, does it?
A brokenhearted father ask me recently, “Why doesn’t Proverbs 22:6 work?”
“Work” is formula language. It reveals that we believe that life with God is linear. If we do this, this, and this…then God will do that. Scripted out in equation language, it often looks like:
If I pray + read my Scriptures + discipline consistently + read the latest parenting book and follow its advice = then God will give me a child who is well-behaved and loves God.
A formulaic outlook works if you’re doing your taxes, but breaks down quickly when you’re relating to God.
Why does it break down? In part, because certain things that God says in His Word are promises (i.e. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”), and other things He says are proverbs (i.e. Proverbs 22:6). A promise is something you can take to the bank. A proverb is something that is often circumstantially relevant and proves to be true much of the time…but, not always. When we try to take a proverb to the bank, well, sometimes the bank refuses to make good on it.
Formulaic thinking also breaks down because God is an untamable, often unpredictable Being. He doesn’t consult us before taking action or explain Himself to us after He shocks us. He sometimes allows earthly “blessings” or good things to happen to evil people (cf. Matt. 5:45, Psalm 73), while leading the children whom He deeply loves through horrific pain and loss (cf. John 15:20, 2 Cor. 6:3-10). Not always, of course…but sometimes.
What does this mean for our parenting?
It means that we must keep our eyes on the right goal—faithfulness.
If our goal is to work the formula in order to produce good, well-behaved, God-fearing children, then the fulfillment of our goal is beyond our control. While the Lord has a mysterious plan for our children’s lives, there’s a good chance that plan won’t look anything like what we expect. For that reason, counting on a certain product as a result of our parenting is setting us up for pain and discouragement.
However, if we make our goal as parents to walk with the Lord, enjoy His grace, and try to be faithful to the call of Christ on our lives, then our hope will be satisfied. It doesn’t mean everything will turn out the way we want it to, but it does mean that we can enjoy the nearness and intimacy of God every step of the way. Our joy will be yoked to Him and His nature, not to how our children turn out.
Making faithfulness, not working the formula, our goal prepares us for whatever God does in our children’s lives. If they grow up to walk with God, we’ll see it as a gift—one we didn’t earn or deserve.
If they grow up to not walk with God, we’ll see it as a mysterious, albeit difficult, reality, but we won’t have to reconcile the idea that either we failed or God failed.
Perhaps nobody failed. It’s just that the formula wasn’t there in the first place.