You Cannot Guarantee Your Child’s Godliness

If Christian parents could choose to control one thing about our child’s future, we all would choose the same thing, wouldn’t we? Across every nation, every culture, in any generation, one thing rises highest on the prayer list of any Christian parent, dwarfing every other request we might make for our precious son or daughter: we want them to know, obey, and enjoy Jesus.

Of course we want them to live long and healthy lives. Of course we want them to learn and mature through their school years without caving in to peer pressure. Of course we want them to thrive in a career, whether they work in an office or at home. Of course we want them to marry, if God wills, and give us grandbabies. But even more than we want grandchildren — far more than we want grandchildren — we want our children to love our Lord with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their strength, and all their mind (Matthew 22:37).

We would trade in a heartbeat eighty years of cancer-free health, summa cum laude at commencement, financial stability and security, and a whole litter of baby boys and girls, if we knew that’s what it took to see our sons and daughters love Jesus. Wouldn’t we?

A Good Father

I’m reading the story of Jotham and his son Ahaz with fresh eyes these days, because now I read it as a father. Ahaz’s grandfather Uzziah reigned for 52 years over God’s people, and for the majority of those years, “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:4). But in the end, he failed the nation, embarrassed his family, rejected God, and fell into terrible sin (2 Chronicles 26:16).

Instead of falling into his father’s sin or blaming his own weaknesses and failures on his dad, Ahaz’s father, Jotham, simply “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord according to all that his father Uzziah had done, except he did not enter the temple of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 27:2). Jotham followed his father’s example in godliness, while refusing to repeat many of his father’s failures.

Ahaz’s father was not perfect, but unlike so many kings in the Old Testament, the record we have of his reign is a story of faithfulness, not wickedness. The author of Chronicles says, “Jotham became mighty, because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 27:6).

Son of Disobedience

Jotham died young at 41, and the people made his son king. Ahaz was twenty years old. For twenty years Ahaz had watched his father lead by faith. So how did he respond to his father’s good and godly example?

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. (2 Chronicles 28:1–2)

The “not” does not seem to do this son’s disobedience justice. Ahaz did not grow up fatherless in a single-parent family. His father wasn’t a nominal or apathetic example as a believer. His father had not simply taught what was right in the eyes of the Lord; his father had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord. But Ahaz rejected all of it — a slave to sin, a son of disobedience, a child of wrath (Romans 6:16; Ephesians 2:2–3).

He made metal idols for the false god Baal (2 Chronicles 28:2). He made sacrifices and offerings to foreign gods “on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Chronicles 28:4) — all over the land that God had promised and given his people. When God sent waves of enemies against the nation because of her sin, Ahaz ran to Assyria, and not God, for help (2 Chronicles 28:16–18). He even stole from the temple to bribe the Assyrian king (2 Chronicles 28:21). Then he destroyed the vessels for worship, slammed and locked the doors of the temple, and made altars all over Jerusalem where he worshiped the gods of the nation’s conquerors (2 Chronicles 28:22–25).

Ceremonial Abortions

This son was so wicked, he even burned his own sons as an offering (2 Chronicles 28:3) — a series of ceremonial abortions after he had held the babies in his arms. Jotham had surely raised him to cherish and protect his children, and to diligently teach them, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5).

But instead of introducing his sons to “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7), Ahaz sacrificed his own little ones to a god who could not speak or hear or smell or feel (Psalm 115:5–7), a god who is worth nothing and brings nothing (Isaiah 44:9). He killed Jotham’s grandsons for nothing.

Watching Ahaz run away from the faith has always been difficult for me, but being a father has made it even more devastating. I’m suddenly able to imagine my own son rejecting Jesus and choosing sin after I am gone, refusing to tell my grandchildren about the strength, beauty, wisdom, and worth of our Savior. I could spend every day for the next twenty years sharing, teaching, modeling, inviting, and appealing — 7,300 days — and on the 7,301st day, he may still walk away.

My heart isn’t strong enough to think about it for long.

What Can We Do?

So what can a father do? God doesn’t ask fathers (or mothers) to dictate what happens on our child’s 7,301st day — or on their first day, for that matter. Parenting never decisively determines a child’s destiny. Jotham could not be faithful for Ahaz. He could only be faithful in front of Ahaz.

You cannot bear your son’s guilt before the Lord. Only Christ can (Romans 3:23–25). You cannot give your daughter the gift of repentance and faith. Only God can (2 Timothy 2:25). You cannot perform the good works God has planned for your child. Only God can, through your children (Philippians 2:12–13; Ephesians 2:10), as the fruit of their own faith in him (James 2:26). As vulnerable and perilous as it may feel at times, we simply cannot guarantee our child’s godliness.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow [my son or daughter] will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit [and believe or not believe]’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:13–14). Yet we do not know. Despite what it feels like most days, you and I do not control or dictate any final detail in our children’s lives. We can only faithfully provide, influence, discipline, teach, and train under the sovereign parenting of a far better Father.

Successful Parenting

We are not called to execute a complicated series of steps that secures a certain outcome in our child’s heart. As burdensome and impossible as that parenting technique seems, our flesh foolishly prefers it to trusting Someone else with our kids. No, success in parenting is not found in meticulously performing a process. Real success in parenting is taking today’s step in steadfast obedience to God’s word, by prayerful dependence on God’s strength, with open-handed faith in God’s plan — always relinquishing the short-term and long-term (even eternal) results to God’s will.

We all love the idea of open-handed faith in God’s plan — until it means our children might not believe in him. The irony in that tension is subtle, but thick. Do I trust God enough to let him decide what my child believes about God? As a father, if I’m honest, that feels even more intimidating than being tortured or martyred for my faith somewhere in the Middle East.

But if we are willing to trust God with our children’s futures, we can focus on parenting faithfully today, while pleading with him to move in their hearts and lead them to himself.

Your Child’s Real Father

The birth certificate may declare that our sons and daughters are legally dependent on us, but they belong, first and foremost, to God. We can’t give our children to him, because they have always been his — dreamed up in his infinite imagination, delicately knit together by his hands (Psalm 139:13–15), placed by him in this part of the world at this point in history (Acts 17:26), every day planned by him before there was even one (Psalm 139:16). We may wake up one day and realize we can trust him with our children, but the reality is he has never stopped parenting them.

Before Jotham could truly be a godly father to Ahaz, he had to surrender Ahaz to God. Like Abraham, walking precious Isaac up the mountain, we must trust that whatever God calls us to do or endure in parenting, he will provide. He may not choose what we would choose for our children, or provide exactly what we ask for, but he will not choose wrongly, and he will give us everything we need.