Does Proverbs Promise My Child Will Not Stray?
Podcast listener Brenda Rodgers writes in: “Pastor John, I have a 22-month-old daughter, and I’m already teaching her about Jesus and sharing my faith with her. However, recently I’ve heard about many adult children who grew up in strong Christian homes — some who even had parents who were leaders in the church — who eventually left the faith as adults. This has become my biggest fear for my own daughter. Can you explain the verse Proverbs 22:6 and give me some practical ways I can help my daughter have a true, authentic relationship with Jesus — one that she will not abandon later on?”
Well, I wish I knew more about this question than I do, even after 43 years of parenting five children, but I want to base everything I say, as much as possible, on the Bible and not just on my personal limitations. So I will try to say something. Let’s talk about Proverbs 22:6 first, and then we will get to what you can do to maximize the likelihood that your child will follow the Lord.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” And the problem we all feel is that the promise half of that verse — “he will not depart from it” — seems so absolute that every time a grown-up child of a Christian family departs from the way of wisdom, or the way of faith in Jesus, we must conclude that it is owing to a failure of the parents to obey the first half of the verse — namely, to train him properly. That is a pretty heavy burden to bear for most parents. But if that is what the text means, then we should be willing to bear it.
Before I say what I think that promise actually means, there are passages in the Bible where the disobedience of children as adults — departing from the faith and making a shipwreck of their lives — are traced back to the failures of fathers.
For example, Adonijah, David’s son — David, the man after God’s own heart — exalted himself saying, “‘I will be king.’ And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:5–6). Now that is a very intentional criticism of David. His father had never taken the time to say, “Don’t do that.” Because he didn’t want to displease Adonijah, and clearly this biblical writer is chalking up the rebelliousness of Adonijah against his own dad for the failure of his father to rebuke him. So there it is. We do err and our errors have terrible consequences.
Here is another example: the sons of Eli the priest. A prophet came to Eli and said, “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (1 Samuel 2:29). Wow. When Eli heard his sons had been killed by God for their disobedience, he fell over backwards, broke his neck, and died because he was old and fat (1 Samuel 4:18). And it says he got fat because he honored his sons above God, because his sons were pulling out the choicest parts of the sacrifices to eat, and their dad loved the food so much he wouldn’t criticize his kids. Oh, he criticized their fornication in the temple, but they kept their jobs, and they kept misusing the sacrifices. What this shows is that a dad can be very selective in his discipline and his criticism of his children, and clearly the prophet here wants to criticize Eli for honoring his sons above God by failing to reprimand them in the way they were handling the sacrifice.
So the point there is simply not to blow off Proverbs 22:6, as though there were no correlation between the way you bring up your children and what becomes of them. I know that. I mean, I am a dad for goodness’ sake. I know this is a huge weight to bear for all of us when our kids don’t do things we think they should be or do things we think they shouldn’t do to look back and say, “Could I have done better?” And the answer is almost always yes.
No Foolproof Process
But having said all of that, I doubt that the second half of Proverbs 22:6 — “even when he is old he will not depart from it” — I doubt that the writer of Proverbs intends for us to take that as an absolute promise with no exceptions. And I’ve got three reasons why I don’t think that means it is a foolproof process that if you bring up your child in a godly way, he will never depart from the faith.
1. Bad sons follow good kings and vice versa.
When you read the history of the kings of Israel, a good and faithful king is sometimes followed by a bad son. A bad king is sometimes followed by a good son. There doesn’t seem to be any effort on the part of the inspired writer to say that faithful fathers have faithful sons, and unfaithful fathers have unfaithful sons. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to do that. The writer seems to be okay pointing out that this godly king is going to have an ungodly son and vice-versa.
2. The only perfect Father had a rebellious son.
The only perfect Father who ever was had a son who went astray. Israel is God’s son and was rebellious almost its entire existence, in spite of all God’s fatherly ways with his child. So here is an example: In Hosea 11:1–2 God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away.” This is God, the perfect Father, pleading with his son. And what does he get for it? A lifetime — I mean, a history time; the whole history of Israel, the whole history of the Old Testament — shows that this son is rebellious.
3. A proverb is rarely an absolute statement.
I think this is the most important point contextually. Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb and proverbs, by their very nature, are generalizations about the way life usually is rather than promises about the way it will have to be all the time. You could just read through Proverbs and you will see this.
For example, in 22:29 it says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings.” Well, really are we going to force the writer to mean that every carpenter or every stonecutter in Israel who does his job well is going to get a chance to go to the palace and stand before the king? That is surely not the way we should take the proverb, and many others. The point of the proverb is to make the generalization that excellence in our work generally gets recognized by discerning people and leads to great benefits — something like that.
The clearest example of how Proverbs work is, of course (everybody who has studied Proverbs knows this), Proverbs 26:4–5. Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Verse 5, the next verse, says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Now what that does is reveal the nature of proverb. “Haste makes waste.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” Those are opposites, right? “Haste makes waste.” Is that a true proverb? Yes. “A stitch in time saves nine.” Is that a true proverb? Yes. Well, they command opposite things. Yes, which is why Proverbs 26:9 says this: “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools.”
In other words, you can use proverbs to put thorns through people. You have to be wise to even know what to do with a proverb. You can’t just take proverbs and assume that they are self-explanatory. It takes wisdom to know how to wield a proverb. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Yet you have got to know the time and the place to use a proverb.
So, for those three reasons I don’t think that Brenda should bear the horrific weight of thinking that if she could just do it exactly right, it guarantees that her 22-month-old daughter will be a solid believer when she is 22 years old. She cannot bear that burden.
Counsel for Godly Parenting
So here is what I want to say to her — just a few things:
1. In general, bringing up children God’s way will lead them to eternal life. In general, I think that is true.
2. This would include putting our hope in God and praying earnestly for our wisdom and for their salvation all the way to the grave. Don’t just pray until they get converted at age 6. That is not very smart. Pray all the way to the grave for your children’s conversions and for the perseverance of their apparent conversions.
3. Saturate them with the word of God. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
4. Be radically consistent and authentic in your own faith — not just in behavior, but in affections. Kids need to see how precious Jesus is to mom and dad, not just how he is obeyed, or how they get to church, or how they read devotions, or how they do duty. They need to see the joy and the satisfaction in Mom and Dad’s heart that Jesus is the greatest friend in the world.
5. Model the preciousness of the gospel. As we parents confess our own sins and depend on grace, our kids will see: “Oh, you don’t have to be perfect. Mom and dad aren’t perfect. They love grace. They love the gospel because Jesus forgives their sins. And I know then that he can forgive my sins.”
6. Be part of a Bible-saturated, loving church. Kids need to be surrounded by other believers and not just Mom and Dad.
7. Require obedience. Do not be lazy. There are so many young parents today that just strike me as being so lazy. They are not willing to get up and do what needs to be done to bring this kid into line. So we should follow through on our punishments and follow through especially on all of our promises of good things that we say we are going to do for them.
8. God saves children out of failed and unbelieving parenting. God is sovereign. We aren’t the ones, finally, who save our kids. God saves kids, and there would hardly be any kids in the world if he didn’t save them out of failed families.
9. Rest in the sovereignty of God over your children. We cannot bear the weight of their eternity. That is God’s business. We must roll all of that onto him.