July 8, 2007

The Wise Person’s Relationships: Children
Proverbs 4:1-4; Matthew 19:13-15

“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth,” the Psalmist once declared. “Happy is the person who has a quiver full of them” (127:4-5). Children are, of course, a blessing from God, and I love my sons and daughter more than words can express. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the Psalmist was still single—and childless—when he chose the full quiver imagery! The average quiver, after all, holds at least twelve arrows. Twelve arrows may not be too many for a capable archer to handle, but twelve children would stretch even the most patient parents. Three seems about right to me.

While the Psalmist with considerable exuberance describes the blessing of children, and apart from my wedding day, I can’t recall ever being more excited than when each of our children was born, the writers of Proverbs take a more practical and balanced look at parenting. Their words reflect years and years of experience—they’ve no doubt had families of their own to care for. They realize that along with the blessing of having children comes the responsibility of raising them. And so, they help us understand what parents—whether biological or congregational!—who live in accordance with God’s rhythm are like.

Wise parents, first of all, are realistic parents. In my pre-parenting days I often thought, especially when I saw how misbehaved certain children could be, that somehow my children would be different from all of the rest. They wouldn’t do this or struggle with that—I’d make sure of it. I’d create the perfect environment and raise thoroughly wonderful children who served God, respected their elders, and listened to every word I said, not to mention brush their teeth without being told. Then I had kids and learned something. I became, whether I liked it or not, more realistic.

Children, as innocent as they may seem, are actually naive, stubborn, rebellious and fiercely independent. I was, too—and at times still am! “Folly,” according to Proverbs 22:15a, “is bound up in the heart of a child.” Foolishness comes as a standard feature on all children. You don’t have to order it as an extra. Why, then, do we find it so shocking to discover that our children occasionally misbehave? Why are we surprised to learn that they are actually real people who, with wills and minds of their own, sometimes reject our obviously sound advice and make unthinkable decisions? Why do we express dismay when we sometimes have to offer the same explanation two or even three times? Kids, once again, are naturally foolish. They push the boundaries and have an instinctual drive to do their own thing. Children do not have to be taught to be self-centered, disobedient and imprudent, by and large, any more than fish need to be taught how to swim. Such things just come naturally in this fallen and sinful world of ours. It is the way it is.

The writers of Proverbs stress this fact, I suspect, not to discourage parents throughout the centuries, but to help us avoid a great deal of unnecessary frustration. In all areas of life, we often run into trouble and waste large amounts of energy when we have unrealistic expectations of one kind or another. Unless we own Duck Boats, we’ll be disappointed if we buy a new car and expect it to move about on water. We’ll be depressed if we listen to political speeches and believe every word we hear. We’ll be let down if we take Tylenol and assume that it will cure cancer. We’ll be overwhelmed if we bring a new puppy into the house without expecting him to pee all over the floor. In every area of life, balancing our expectations is fundamentally important. Parenting, Proverbs assures us, is no different. So be realistic. Be realistic about your children. When children arrive—even your children!—they are, according to Proverbs, innately foolish.

But the writers of Proverbs are careful, once again, not to equate a necessary sense of realism with either fatalism or despair. Children, though foolish, are also teachable—they do not arrive as finished products. Wise parents, therefore, are not only realistic, but also hopeful parents. Hopeful because, as foolish and self-centered as children might at times appear to be, they are trainable. “Train children in the right way,” 22:6 reads, “and when old, they will not stray.”

This widely-quoted verse is, I suppose, among the most misunderstood and misused verses in all of Scripture. Proverbial wisdom is principled wisdom, not contractual wisdom. In other words, the writer provides here sound counsel based upon years and years of experience and a deep trust in God. He points out a hopeful correlation. He has noticed during his lifetime that children who turn out well have typically received the guidance and supervision of caring parents. What the writer of Proverbs does not give us is a contract, a hard and fast agreement that God and us sign on the dotted line. And when Proverbs 22:6 is understood as a contract rather than a principle, the hope that it seeks to offer gives way to disappointment and even despair.

Proverbs 22:6 is often misread and misapplied in the following way. Parents as well as their critics sometimes use this verse as a way of either overestimating the influence of parenting skills or of blaming someone—the parents or God—when children don’t turn out the “right” way. Assuming that the welfare of their children lies directly and perhaps even entirely in their own hands, certain parents strive endlessly to be perfect parents. They keep searching for just the right way to handle each and every situation, and the more complicated that parenting becomes, the harder they try to always get it right. And inevitably, when things go wrong—when children exercise their own free will and do their own thing—such parents as well as their critics either blame themselves or blame God. After all, Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train a child and she will turn out right.”
Obviously, either God or the parents did not keep their end of the bargain!

But Proverbs 22:6, once again, is a principle, not a contract. Perhaps the parents did mess up big time. I certainly do not want to underestimate the havoc that unwise and uncaring parents can have on their children—we can cause our kids pain that can last a lifetime. And if we have, then it is time to ask them for their forgiveness and do whatever is necessary to bring about genuine healing. But the parents aren’t always at fault. Our children are, as I’ve said, real people who make real decisions.

So what is the hope in this passage? Why should wise parents be hopeful parents? At least these few ideas come to mind:
Even the most foolish of children can be shaped to one degree or another.
Our sincere and prayerful efforts at parenting, as imperfect as they may be, still can make a significant difference in the lives of our children.
God is parenting with us, so I don’t have to be a perfect parent. I can’t think of any single area of my life in which I have felt the need to trust God more than in this matter of parenting.
The end of the story has not necessarily been written yet. Who knows how things will turn out further down the road?

Wise parents are realistic parents. Wise parents are hopeful parents. And wise parents are involved parents. Parents who understand that their children are foolish and in need of training likewise come to realize that their children face any number of significant challenges and hurdles in this sometimes unfriendly world of ours. So we walk along with them. We listen to their joys and concerns. We help carry their burdens. As the book of Proverbs describes it, we ought to be involved in the lives our children by:
Establishing Godly boundaries: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (13:24).
Seeking their welfare rather our own: “Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction” (19:18).
Setting a Godly example in both word and deed for our children to follow. “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live” (4:4b).

Over the years, I’ve prayed two specific prayers for my children and two for myself as their parent. For them, I’ve prayed that they would love the Lord more than anyone one or anything else, and that they would serve him in life in whatever vocation he calls them to—whatever. For myself, I’ve prayed that, with whatever I do right and wrong as a parent, my children would always know that I love them and that I am available to them. That, it seems to me, is what God requires of us as parents. That, after all, is how he parents us. He loves us and he has promised never to leave us. If we as parents can do those two things—love our children deeply and be present with them through the good and the bad—I think we will display the values sought after in Proverbs.