When A + 2 = Turnips

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.


  • http://www.calicodreams.net Mary Kelso

    Great Post. Raising three boys to be men I see how complicated a formula would have to be to guarantee each one has the same desired outcome. Thankfully, the God who promotes that verse is ever watchful, and desiring to see each of them become His. I tend to see my best role as staying out of His way. He wants the best of them, their whole hearts and their deepest passion. He can’t have that if they are over protected, over prodded and programmed to follow Him. Parenting is not for wimps.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    In raising our 5 we decided to leave some of it to the Holy Spirit so he can keep his job.

  • cowalker

    FWIW, I don’t think there’s anything my Catholic parents could have done differently that would have resulted in my remaining a believer. Sure, when I started questioning they wouldn’t relent on matters like attending Sunday mass. I had to go until I graduated from high school, which made me resentful. But in the long run it was the lack of evidence that made me an agnostic. It would have whether or not I had to attend mass.

    My parents were good people, who loved each other and their children, and we loved them back. But in our late middle age, only one of us believes, and that one attends a Lutheran Church.

  • Jill Battles

    Love this article. It is so true and reassuring in a bitter sweet kind of way. Part of it is exactly what I’ve said countless times…except my formula was a + b = orange. Sometimes awesome parents have sorry kids and vice versa (better said in the article)…and strong belivers have unbelieving children and vice versa. It has been painful, but I must remind myself daily that “Our joy will be yoked to Him and His nature, not to how our children turn out”. This mom is certainly guilty of allowing such circumstances to be a joy stealer. I need to read this daily until I can truly quit feeling like I have partially failed. And likewise, I can take no credit for the good.

    • http://www.zekepipher.com Zeke Pipher

      I like “a + b = orange”!

      I agree with you. I really believe that the best thing we can do as parents for our kids is anchor our joy in our relationship with God. I think our children sense if they are our goal OR if being faithful to God is our goal. It might seem backwards to some, but our children feel most secure and loved when they see that walking with God is our deepest priority.

      Thanks for the comment!