As a young mother and new believer, I might have claimed Proverbs 22:6 as my life verse: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Parroting the unhelpful parenting literature I consumed in excess, I declared to patient friends: “This is a promise.”
I desperately wanted it to be true—to believe I could parent faithfully enough to prevent my daughter from following my path of rebellion away from the church. The Lord had graciously brought me back into his fold, but the painful wounds of my sin held on like stubborn extra weight, and I wanted to shield her from collecting her own baggage.
My desire was at least in part a godly one. As a parent seeking to honor the Lord, I wanted to live as faithfully as I could, for my daughter’s sake. But clinging to the outcome made us both miserable. I overanalyzed my influence—how would this play out in her future? Every offense was an occasion to fear for her soul. When she told a lie, I wondered, Will she be a liar? When I yelled, I wondered, Will I drive her from the Lord? Will she believe he’s like me? I lamented our apparent lack of progress. I was constantly surprised by her disobedience and was quick to despair at my failures.
Despite our best efforts, we know from both Scripture and experience that only God can do a lasting work in our kids. So how do we reconcile what Proverbs 22:6 says with the reality we see? And what hope is there for our children?
Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: Life in a Fallen World
The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings. It optimistically illustrates the way things ought to work. These are not meant to be read as promises, but rather a summary of the general rule between deed and consequence—the way God designed the world to work. According to Proverbs, if I operate according to wisdom, good things will generally follow. In the best circumstances, if I train my children in the way they should go, when they’re old they won’t depart from it.
But we need only to flip a few more pages in our Bibles to Ecclesiastes to see that life in a fallen world doesn’t always operate as it should. The writer tries to use wisdom to undo what has been bent by the curse, but quickly learns “what is crooked cannot be made straight” (1:15). He’s forced to look at his toil and conclude “all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14).
God created Adam and Eve to be perfect parents. As they wisely fulfilled his mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” they would raise up faithful offspring, filling the earth with worshipers of God and building a kingdom of his glory and majesty. But even before their family multiplied, Adam and Eve became the first rebellious children. Instead of filling the earth with worshipers, they brought sin and death into the world (Rom. 5:12). Though God would graciously allow them to continue to bring forth the blessing of children, childbearing and childrearing would now be accompanied by pain (Gen. 3:16). Even as they determined to raise children who would be faithful to the Lord, some would go the way of the serpent (Gen. 4:1–16).
Hope in the Faithful Seed
Adam and Eve were the first of many parents who would look at their efforts in parenting and be tempted to declare, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (Eccl. 1:1). It was only as they looked to God’s promise of a child to come that they could persevere in faith. Their hope, like ours, wasn’t in their confidence to raise godly children, but in their confidence that God would. He would bring forth a Son who would be faithful over God’s house (Heb. 3:6). This Son would be obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). And by his obedience, many would be made righteous (Rom. 5:19).
Ecclesiastes captures well the ensuing struggle of parenthood in a fallen world, but it also contains a glimmer of hope: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him” (3:14).
Whatever God does endures forever.
Christmas reminds us that the Father who dealt kindly with his first rebellious children is faithful to fulfill his promises. That promised child—the one born in a manger—was the faithful Seed through whom God rescued his rebellious children. And he is at work even today, reconciling the world to himself.
When we fix our eyes on our own efforts in parenting and on the outcomes in our children’s behavior, we will either puff up in pride at our supposed accomplishments, or wilt in despair as we declare our efforts futile. But when we parent in faith, we declare our belief that only God can do a work in our children’s hearts. Only what he does will last.
He knows our children more intimately than we do. He loves them more fully than we can, and only by his Spirit can they be saved. This doesn’t mean we should give up hope for our wayward children or that we should neglect our efforts at faithful parenting. But as we labor, we find hope for our children not in our futile efforts, but in the finished work of Christ (Jn. 19:30; Heb. 10:11–14).
The same God who kept his promises through the birth, life, and death of his Son is at work in us, and in our children. The work he sets out to accomplish cannot fail (Phil. 1:6). And what he does endures forever.