There is a dear couple in our church who have been stout followers of Jesus for as long as I’ve known them. Their son, however, spent a good deal of his life running toward drugs and lawlessness. His mother spent the better part of 25 years praying for her son to be free of his rebellious spirit. A very well-intentioned friend once tried to counsel them that Proverbs promises if we train up a child in the way they should go, they won’t turn away. We often think that’s what Proverbs 22:6 means, that if we raise our kids in church, they will be Christian and won’t stray. We’re wrong.
It’s important not just to know what the Bible says, but how to read it as well. I’ve known too many people who will pull verses out of their context and try to claim a promise that was never made. Proverbs is perhaps the most victimized in this regard. Proverbs are not promises, they are wisdom. They weren’t written to be concise and accurate, but rather memorable. Modern proverbs are phrases like “a stitch in time saves nine,” “the pot calling the kettle black,” or “anything worth having is worth working for.” The Proverbs of the Bible serve the same purpose. They are memorable sayings which, when applied, make things better, but they are not meant to be used in the same way we understand the Old Testament Law of Moses or the oracles of the prophets. Proverbs 11:8 says that, “The righteous man is rescued from trouble…” so does that mean if one is martyred for their faith that they weren’t actually righteous? No. It is simply wise advise that generally proves true more often than not.
When we read the book of Daniel, the first four chapters chronicle God’s work in king Nebuchadnezzar. By the end of chapter four, the king is God’s man. He is sold out for Yahweh. In chapter five, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, is intentionally mocking God by using the vessels of worship from the Temple to drink to his gods and his own majesty. What happened? How did we go from a man whose life was transformed by God’s patient work in his life to a son who hates and blasphemes God?
It’s possible to have a vibrant walk of faith, before your kids, and completely fail to pass that baton. Training up a child in the way they should go does not mean dragging them to church against their will. That builds resentment. It means, walking through everyday faith with your kids and helping them understand how it applies to their own lives, desires, dreams, and plans so that you all joyful gather to celebrate with the saints together. In Judges 2:10 we are told that the generation after Joshua and his elders did not know the Lord or what he had done. They privatized their faith to the point that the next generation totally missed it. The same thing happened with Belshazzar.
Nebuchadnezzar didn’t raise his kids. He had concubines, eunuchs, and servants to do that. Could you imagine being raised in an idolatrous culture where various gods are worshipped (and manipulated through religion) and all of a sudden, dad starts to exalt one God – a foreign God – above the others and even subject himself to this God? He even sends a decree throughout the known world to set this God above everyone and everything else (Daniel 4:1-3). All your teachers, caregivers, and other authorities are clinging to their idols, but dad’s just kind of gone nuts. Absent of a solid discipling relationship between father and son, that would cause confusion and (obviously) resentment.
We make the same fatal error. We hand our kids over to Sunday school teachers and youth pastors for an hour or two per week expecting them to get their foundation from that. But then we ship them off to a public school – designed to push God out of our lives – for 6-8 hours a day, five days a week and expect that not to steal their hearts. In the few moments a parent has with their kids after homework, sports, video games, TV, and friends they eat dinner, and try to…I’m not sure what they try to do (we homeschooled our kids). They have the unenviable task of undoing all the damage the world has done in 30 minutes at the end of a long day.
The reality is that the world is raising our kids, training them up in the way they think our kids should go and we wonder why they turn from the faith and become so selfish. The foundation is what they learn from a government system that is hostile to their faith and from a culture that is utterly lost. What little is added the two hours per week at church becomes an intrusion on the self-centered foundation developed by everything else that speaks into their lives.
Whether we are talking about our biological children, or sons and daughters in the faith, we need to disciple the next generation. This doesn’t mean we tell them what their walk of faith should look like. That would be training them up in the way we have gone. What it does mean is that we share our life of faith with them – helping them to understand not just “what,” but “why,” and most importantly Who. It means we encourage them to make their faith their own, even if it means they develop their own traditions rather than assume ours. It’s like restating something in their own words. That’s when you know they’ve really got it.
We exist to pass the baton. Our faith is for them, not merely ourselves. We need to disciple the next generation of saints, whatever the cost. That sacrifice is what it takes to build the kingdom of God. We cannot privatize our faith and starve the next generation of biblical truth and our experience with God. We need to share “not only the Gospel of God, but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Training means eliminating bad habits and influences as much as it does introducing good ones. It’s not just telling someone what needs to be done, but doing it with them (not for them). It’s serious business, and it’s what we are commanded by Jesus to do (Matthew 28:18-20).