I serve as Pastor for Family Ministries at First Baptist Church in Evergreen, CO. Thus, it is not surprising that my curiosity was peaked as I picked up the most recent copy of Christianity Today and noticed the cover story: “The Myth of the Perfect Parent.” After putting down my 14 month old daughter and making sure my 3 week old son was safe in mommy’s arms, I turned to the article and began to read. It was written by Leslie Leyland Fields, a name I was not familiar with, who is an author and mother of six children.
The article begins with a personal life experience from Fields where she was profoundly “shook” by a conversation she and her husband had with a Guatemalan minister. As the conversation ensued, he described feeling like not only a failure as a parent, but also as a son. Fields goes on to elaborate on today’s generation of parents who are willing to do anything in order to secure a “successful” life for their children. She raises the classic “nature vs. nurture” question, cites some examples of “bad” parents from the Bible, and draws from the experience of the prophet of Ezekiel. Her conclusion? That we have “made far too much of ourselves [as parents] and far too little of God, reflecting our sinful bent to see ourselves as more essential and in control than we actually are.”
Fields correctly identifies a common and growing problem that is not limited to just Christian parents, but finds root in the church as a whole. The core issue that parents struggle with as we try to develop God fearing children is idolatry. In its simplest form, idolatry is the anti-gospel. The gospel says, “you are saved by grace alone.” Idolatry says, “there is something else that is needed.” Our children can quickly become yet another personal idol. We typically don’t think of children as idols in our churches and in our homes. Tim Keller remarked at the Gospel Coalition conference this past year that “there are all kinds of parents out there who are essentially thinking in their heart of hearts, ‘if my children are happy, if my children are believers, if my children are worth something, then I am successful.’ If you view you children not as good things, but as ultimate things, then your children are idols.” The same is true in the reverse. If our children are unhappy, not believers, and struggling in life, then parents will look at themselves as a failure. Fields article highlights our need as parents to trust God in faith to do the things for our children that only God can do. It does us good to remember the crucial words Jonah prayed from the belly of a fish; “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Some will undoubtedly ask about the central verse for parenting found in Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The book of Proverbs, properly understood hermeneutically, is not so much a book of promises as it is a book of general truths sometimes referred to as “aphorisms.” Yes, it is generally true that when we raise our children in the fear of the Lord, they will stay true to Him. But, as theologian Robert Stein points out in his book “A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible”, such is not always the case. He says, “As a father I am thankful to God that my three children are committed Christians. Yet it would be the height of folly and ignorance to claim that they are committed Christians because their father trained them perfectly in the way they should go. On the contrary, it is because of God’s grace that they have followed the Lord. And, all too often, this has been despite the inconsistencies and failures of their father.”
So what does all this mean for a biblical view of parenting? Does it simply no longer matter what we do or how we do it? Has the importance of parenting been overemphasized in our churches? Hardly. We are currently experiencing a revival of family ministry within our churches (as evidenced by my current position) and rightly so. We need to be helping and equipping parents to do their very best to “train up a child.” All the while being careful not to place upon them the duties and power than can only come from God.
The issue of dual responsibility should not be surprising to us. God works in this way all the time, we have to rest at times with the tension of Scripture’s teaching. A person is only capable of coming to Christ when the Holy Spirit draws them, yet the Bible clearly teaches each person’s responsibility to choose. Only God can save our children and transform them spiritually, yet the Bible clearly teaches that parents have the responsibility to lead children in a knowledge and fear of the Lord. That responsibility belongs to no one else. Not the church. Not a friend. Not extended family. Studies show overwhelmingly that children have a longing to be disciplined and taught by their parents. An extensive study of 272,400 teenagers conducted by USA Today Weekend Magazine found that 70 percent of teens identified their parents as the most important influence in their lives. There has never and will never be a greater influence on children than their parents.
So yes, we have an important journey in front of us as parents. Yes, at times we will fret, stress, and be concerned about the future of our children. All the while being certain to remember that only God can do what only God can do. Fields ends her article this way – it is a helpful summary:
“We are responsible to teach our children the fear of the Lord, to impress his laws on them when we ‘sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up’ – meaning all the time. And we are commanded to not exasperate our children, but to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” But we must be clear about our own limits. We are not capable of producing perfect followers of Christ, as if we were perfect ourselves. . .We will parent imperfectly, our children will make their own choices, and God will mysteriously and wondrously use it all to advance his kingdom.”
May God help us all.