I often hear well-meaning parents talking about improving their parenting skills. Over the years, I have attended my share of parenting seminars and read books on the subject. Since I teach educational ministry courses at a seminary, numerous churches have assumed that I know something about parenting and have asked me to speak on parenting at their churches. I, too, have participated in the improvement of parenting skills as a Christian on both the receiving and giving ends.
The truth, however, is that I still feel like a novice at being a parent. Just as we have one life that God has graciously allowed us to live, we have one chance at being a parent to our children. Yes, we can grow and are able to observe some gradual changes throughout our lifetime, but once the life patterns set in during the early years of our lives with the help (and detriment!) of those around us, it is difficult to have any meaningful do-overs with certain aspects of life. As Augustine laments, in each moment of time we know that the past is already non-existent and the future is beyond our reach. The present, if I pause to reflect upon it, is already past. We can only extend into the past through memory and the future through anticipation. I suppose we can achieve a sort of enduring presence by the power of our attention, as if carrying a melody. It is no small wonder why Augustine referred to time as a distending of the soul, distention animi, through which human beings can vaguely begin to intuit the divine eternity.1
The same is true for our children. Each child has one chance of going through each stage of her life just as the parent has one chance at being there for her. Being a parent, therefore, is a calling. Parenting is not just something we do for our children out of obligation, necessity, or expectation, but what we are called to be by the gracious invitation of the triune God. As Christians, we are God’s children, which obviously denotes that God is our parent. We are adopted into his family through the atoning death of Jesus Christ to live as his household. As a perfect Parent, God has loved us with an everlasting love and drawn us in with lovingkindness (Jer. 31:3). What a privilege we all have as the children of God to be parents to children in God’s household as well as in our earthly family!
Seen in this light, therefore, we realize our biological children are much more than simply our own. They are God’s children just as we are in God’s household. We as earthly parents are given the privilege to be conduits of God’s gracious work in our children’s lives. Our calling is to invite our earthly children to commune2 with the triune God as we commune with one another—practicing mutual discipleship unto Jesus Christ routinely, yet intentionally with our children as a family. As an outpost of God’s household, we are to live out the life of joyful obedience to testify to God’s grace in the world. This is our life as God’s household, to be constantly preoccupied to do the will of our Father in heaven as the brothers, sisters3 and friends4 of Jesus Christ. Our earthly children are also our brothers, sisters, and friends with whom we practice mutual encouragement, forgiveness, submission, and love in all our ways. In the process, we, the parents, grow and facilitate our children’s growth in relationships—with God, with one another, with those in God’s household, and with those who are yet to be in God’s household. As we practice the life of loving God completely, ourselves accurately, and others compassionately, we fulfill our calling as God’s children, particularly as parents, in inviting our children to participate in the earthly embodiment of God’s household together.
The family as a learning community
However, an important question remains: Is this kind of mutual relationship with our children realistic on the part of parents? Is it even biblical? Would a mutual relationship with the “lesser,” in this case children, inevitably result in chaos or disasters often seen in the families of extremely permissive parents? Proverbs 22:6 is often misunderstood to support the permissive parenting style; however, I believe that this proverb is a caution against rather than for such an approach. Here, “Train a child in the way he should go” (NIV) could potentially be interpreted to mean that parents are to raise their children according to their individuality, natural proclivities, talents, uniqueness, or even stages of development.5 However, such an interpretation is contrary to what the book of Proverbs as a whole consistently teaches. There is “one and only one right way. . . . The idea is to train a child in the way of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. And this is none other than God’s path.”6 Moreover, Jeremiah 10:23 clearly illuminates otherwise when he says, “I know, O Lord, that the way (derek) of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps” (NRSV). Thus, “teach your children to choose the right path” (NLT) and “train children in the right way” (NRSV) further clarify the crux of Proverbs 22:6. According to Proverbs, being a parent requires “work, discipline, and even physical coercion to encourage a person to take the right direction in life.”7 Yet, we must also realize that
The rod is no panacea. [The Book of Proverbs] tacitly condemns the martinet [disciplinarian] by its own reasonable approach, its affectionate earnestness, and its assumption that the old find their natural crown, and the young their proper pride, in each other. The parents’ chief resource is constructive, namely their “law”, taught with loving persistence. . . . This “Law” (torah) . . . means direction, and its aim here is to foster wise habits of thought and action which, so far from enslaving a person, will equip him to find his way through life with sureness and honor.8
The term “train” (chanak) in this proverb is not some heavy-handed teaching as in a transmissive content transfer, unilateral behavior modification, or breaking the child’s will. We are called to be parents, not merely to be engaged in the task of parenting. I remember several of my teachers in the past directing me to do what they say. When—in my innocence—I would ask them why they were not doing what they told us to do, they would say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Perhaps I should not have expected them to be able to do all that they taught us, but at least I was not particularly motivated to do what they were telling me to do, especially when it came to obeying God’s will. Training our children involves much more than instructing them to behave in certain desirable ways by using some extrinsic motivational strategies such as reward, punishment, and withholding affection, among others.
The verb to “train” in Proverbs 22:6 is used only four times elsewhere in the Old Testament.9 In those passages, it either means to dedicate a newly built family (through marriage) or to inaugurate the Lord’s temple with sacrifices, as Solomon did. In a similar manner, then, “train a child” should be construed as initiating or introducing the child to the path or way of the Lord,10 though not in a solitary manner, but rather as in a family and the family of God.11 It is also interesting to observe that the term “train” here can also mean to “rub palate of child with chewed dates,” or (of a midwife) to “rub palate of new-born child with oil before it begins to suck” in extrabiblical literature.12 Such techniques were routinely practiced to initiate or create an appetite in an infant to suckle. This usage further bolsters the notion that training a child entails an initiation through which the child learns to delight in and cultivate the ways of the Lord through relationships, i.e., the nuclear family as a learning community.
Here, I am reminded of Abraham Heschel’s words when he said, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text they will never forget.”13 What Heschel presupposes in that statement is that teachers or parents as “text-people” are to be readily accessible so that their children may experience or witness the “text” that is fully animated by the parents in real-life situations. When we offer ourselves as fellow disciples-in-progress of Jesus Christ among our children, we parents begin to create a safe and hospitable place at home where we are committed to sharing our lives together with them—
mutually serving one another, exhorting one another, and forming one another as God’s household.
For this to happen, we who strive to be good parents will want to practice, as much as possible, a full disclosure of our lives with our children. This means sharing our fears, longings, struggles, broken dreams, and failures. We will want to disabuse ourselves of the idea that God expects us to be some perfect parents or heroes in our children’s lives. As modern-day Christians, we may be led to believe that we are to be spiritually (and in all the ways of life, for some) “perfect” as those biblical “heroes” like Samson, David, and many others were. When we conveniently gloss over the fallen nature of these characters and the work of God’s grace and mercy in their lives, we fail to understand God’s grace and to rely on God wholeheartedly. In doing so, we fail to invite our children to experience God’s grace and mercy fully in the daily crucibles of their lives. Instead, we merely teach the Bible as a collection of heroes strung together, inevitably making a mockery of God’s word and character in the process. We must remember that the triune God himself is the only “hero” of the Bible, and we, as both parents and children, are in constant need of his grace, mercy, and justice.
As we parent, we find healing and forgiveness for ourselves
In a similar vein, the latter half of Proverbs 22:6 should serve as a healthy warning for us. Here, “and when they are old, they will not stray” (NRSV) should not be seen as a promise or guarantee for parents, as if our children’s faith is solely dependent on what we do as parents. On the one hand, having tried to be godly parents to our children, we should not take on more guilt than necessary if our children walk away from the Lord. On the other hand, we ought not to congratulate ourselves in pride if our children walk in the way of the Lord to the fullest. The proverb is “an encouragement to do the right thing when it comes to raising [our] children.”14 The “right thing” here is simply for the nuclear family to imitate the way of the Lord, imitatio Christi, as the brothers, sisters, and friends of our Lord himself and with one another in mutual submission. In the end, this proverb is not intended to adjudicate which of the parenting styles—permissive, authoritarian, authoritative, or uninvolved15—is the biblical one. Instead, it is a clarion call for the nuclear family (of course, as an extended family and, more importantly, as a church family) to practice God’s presence together. Indeed, the triune God is, is with us, and is for us, encouraging us to enter, dwell, and linger in his presence as God’s household.
When we parent, we also parent ourselves. More precisely, being a parent is a wonderful opportunity to allow God to shed his light on our past—particularly on our relationships with our own parents during our growing-up years—as well as our present relationships with them. As we spend time together with our children, we often are reminded of certain episodes from our childhood. Whether they may be memories that bring joy or pain to us, they present themselves as opportunities for us to allow the sovereign God to redeem those memories or use them redemptively in our dealings with our children and others around us. Perhaps God might want to correct any distortions or incomplete understandings of how we have come to view our parents. Perhaps God might want to bring about emotional healing from the hurt that we received from our parents. It is God’s invitation for us to experience forgiveness by extending forgiveness to our parents or asking them for forgiveness for our wrongs. In the process, we learn to let God overwhelm us with his forgiveness and let it pervade our souls.
Here, I am reminded of Menno Simons’s words exhorting heavy-hearted Christians:
Believe the Gospel, that is, believe the joyful news of divine grace through Jesus Christ. Cease from sin; manifest repentance for your past lives; submit obediently to the Word and will of the Lord; and you will become companions, citizens, children and heirs of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. . . . Walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.16
We are who we are because the great I AM continually embraces us as his very own. We are his beloved children in his household. Whether we are single or married, we find our completeness in him. We are all given privilege and responsibility to be “parents,” as in “parents” of the children of our fellow Christian brothers and sisters, or as “aunts” and “uncles” in God’s household. Many of us are called to be parents in the outermost outposts in the form of a nuclear family. Yet, we are never to take on the responsibility alone, but in the context of and with the generous help of the earthly manifestations (i.e., local congregations) of God’s household. In this way, being a parent is nothing less than proclaiming (kerysso) the gospel (kerygma) to ourselves, our children, and to those we are called to love around us every day.17 Here, proclamation is more than preaching, as we commonly equate it to be. It is “fundamentally . . . the declaration of an event. . . . The stress is on dynamic proclaiming. . . . It is effective, not as oratory, but in the spirit and power.”18 Through the mutual and embodied proclamation of the gospel, we can indeed live, and call our children forth to live, as a transformed community—as a family.
Our God is fully present with us as the perfect parent, and we as his household are invited to enter, dwell, and linger in his eternal presence. Precisely because of such an unmistakable reality, God allows us to train up our children in the way they should go—to enter, dwell, and linger in his eternal presence. As we live out our lives mutually with our children, we are not only training them, but God is training us. What an awesome privilege to be the brothers, sisters, and friends of Jesus Christ with our children and all those in God’s household!
As I noted earlier, a plethora of literature, seminars, and other forms of media on parenting is available for the general population and for Christians. When we admit that we as parents are novices at what we are called to be and are constantly in need of grace, we can truly learn to be parents modeling on God, our great Parent, who wishes to commune with us and wants to lavish his love on us. Seeking mutuality with our children as disciples of the Lord is admittedly a risky proposition. But, we need to remember that our authority as parents is derivative, not inherent. That is, there is nothing in us that could mark us as authoritative. Nevertheless, we have been entrusted with God’s children to nurture in the way of the Lord. As long as we remain steadfastly under the authority of that trust, we can be assured that we will teach and serve our children with truly godly authority. Such authority requires consistently conveying humility and openness in our interactions with our children, remembering that—contrary to the zero-sum game19—God-given authority shared is God-given authority multiplied for his kingdom and his household. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we live the life of God-honoring parents in a holy space called “family,” as we continually look to the triune God to parent us in his household.
- Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin, 1961), 271, 274–77.
- Fellowship—Greek koinonia. Cf. John 17:21: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
- Matt. 12:49–50.
- John 15:14.
- Friedrich Delitzch, writing in the early 1870s (before any modern human development theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, or Kohlberg were even born!), translates Prov. 22:6 as, “Give to the child instruction conformably to His way,” and comments, “The instruction of youth, the education of youth, ought to be conformed to the nature of youth; the matter of instruction, ought to regulate itself according to the stage of life, and its peculiarities; the method ought to be arranged according to the degree of development which the mental and bodily life of the youth has arrived at.” In Friedrich Delitzch, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, trans. James Martin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1872, reprinted 1986), 86–87. He is thus interpreting the proverb to be about pedagogical philosophy or a strategy in deciding appropriate educational methodologies.
- Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006), 405. “I am the way” in John 14:6 unmistakably declares the one and only way to access and commune with the triune God.
- Longman, Proverbs, 404.
- Derek Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: IVP, 1964), 51.
- Twice in Deut. 20:5 and once each in 1 Kgs. 8:63 and 2 Chr. 7:5.
- Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, Ill.: Moody, 1980), 301.
- As the contexts of the other four passages suggest.
- Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906, 1951), 335.
- Abraham Heschel, “The Spirit of Jewish Education,” Jewish Education 24:2 (Fall 1953): 19, as quoted in Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), 280.
- Longman, Proverbs, 405.
- Permissive parents—responsive, democratic, and non-directive; authoritarian parents—demanding, directive, and intrusive; authoritative parents—both demanding and responsive, assertive, but not restrictive or intrusive, and supportive rather than punitive; uninvolved parents—neither responsive nor demanding, neglectful and/or even rejecting. See Laurence Steinberg, Nancy Darling, and Anne Fletcher, “Authoritative parenting and adolescent adjustment: An ecological journey,” in Examining Lives in Context: Perspectives on the Ecology of Human Development, ed. Phillis Moen, Glen Elder, and Kurt Luscher (Washington, D.C.: APA, 1995), 423–66.
- Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin and ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1956, reprinted 1978), 116.
- Among others, Jerry Bridges has used the phrase “Preach the gospel to yourself” frequently throughout his faithful ministry. See, for example, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2007).
- Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged ed., trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), 432–35.
- A zero-sum game is a system or a way of thinking wherein the sum of gains equals the sum of the losses and where a gain is offset by an equal loss.