What Is Your Attitude Toward Brethren Whose Children Go Wrong?
The rearing of children in any age is a fearful responsibility. God entrusts into our care a soul (worth more than the whole world) wrapped in a tiny body. While that child is a gift from God (Psalms 127:3; Genesis 33:5), we are really stewards of that which belongs to another. God said, "All souls are mine" (Ezekiel 18:4). God intends that we nurture, feed, protect, and provide for that child until his body is full grown and his soul is developed to where he can fulfill his God-given purpose to honor and glorify him with his life. In the earlier years, his physical health is our major concern. The sleepless nights, the fervent prayers, the concern as he goes through childhood illnesses and accidents are part of the price we pay for enjoying that gift. But as he reaches his teens we become doubly aware of that grave responsibility. Knowing that children face a society where 100,000s of them will be criminals before the age of 20, and where 100,000s of them will be dope addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, or bear illegitimate children before the age of 20, and knowing that mass media communication, morally corrupt teachers, and peer pressure will initiate them into all of the sophistries and cliches of a promiscuous society at an early age parents often "run scared" during those critical years. Yet the power of the gospel and value of godly training and example is seen in the fact that throughout this country there are multiplied thousands of young people who refused to surrender to Satan, who have remained true to their God, and who bring continual joy and honor to their parents. Solomon said: "The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy in him" (Proverbs 23:24).
But what about the other side of the coin? What about children raised in Christian homes, taught the truth from an early age, faithful in church and Bible class attendance, who at some point in their teens become involved with drugs, or alcohol, or promiscuous sex, or crime, etc.? Parents, heartbroken and shattered, are quick to take the blame. Their anguished cry is: "Where did we fail?" I talked to a couple whose boy had been shot to death during a robbery and they raised that question. In the same week I tried to console a Christian family whose 17-year-old girl had committed suicide and they raised that question. I have sat with dozens of close friends, preachers, elders, deacons, faithful Christians, and with tear filled eyes have asked: "Where did we fail?" It is a logical and legitimate question that we ought to raise with ourselves in such circumstances. If we did fail in teaching them the truth, or living that truth before them, we need to repent and pray God for forgiveness, and if we have done that we ought to forget about it! There is no more logic in continuing to grieve over and bear the guilt of that sin than there is to bear the guilt of any sin that the God of Heaven has forgiven and forgotten. Why destroy our usefulness and health, why rob ourselves of the joy and opportunities of the Christian life by dwelling in the past that cannot be changed? (Read Paul's advice in Philippians 3:13-14.)
The Forgotten Option
But is parent failure the only cause that could produce an errant child? Is it a necessary inference that if children have gone wrong, the parents are at fault? Many express that attitude openly and vociferously. At one of the most critical times in their lives when parents are heart sick, disillusioned, and in desperate need of understanding brethren who can "weep with those that weep" and "bear one another's burdens," the last thing they need is the smug, self-righteous comments of brethren who can readily quote Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he shall not depart from it." All that this attitude says to this grieving parent is: "You blew it!" or "You are responsible for the loss of your children's souls," or "I told you so," or even, "Look at me, look at what a great job I've done with mine." The one essential doctrine that the Calvinists have overlooked with their emphasis on a Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit, and that most of the psychiatrists and psychologists of our day have ignored is the personal, moral choice and responsibility of every individual. They have man in a passive state molded by his environment, heredity, or some external force by God. The Bible teaches that, being created in the image of God, we have a personal choice to make between good and evil and will be held responsible for that choice. "So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). The 18th chapter of Ezekiel has some information pertinent to our study. In Ezekiel 18:5-9, he pictures a man who is "just" and does that "which is lawful and right." But in Ezekiel 18:10-13, he describes the man's son as a robber, a murderer, a fornicator, and an idolater. The question is . . . who is to blame? Ezekiel 18:20, "the soul that sinneth it shall die; the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son." We often quote the first part of that to combat the doctrine of hereditary total depravity. We need to use the latter to combat the current error that young people are not responsible for their actions and to teach some brethren that a righteous father can have an unrighteous son. (See also Deuteronomy 24:16 and II Chronicles 25:4.)
"What About Proverbs 22:6?"
I would not seek for a moment to discount in any way the responsibility placed upon parents in the passage. To "train up a child in the way he should go" is the same as "nurture them in the chastening and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). It requires all the knowledge, wisdom, time, patience, determination, and love we can muster. To set before them a consistent and sincere example of Christian living, to have family Bible studies with them, to restrict and restrain them in any tendency to do wrong, and to encourage them in their efforts to do right, is the least we can do. Nor would I minimize the precious promise contained in the latter part of it . . . to know that such teaching will remain with them through life and bear fruition in decent and godly lives makes all the effort and sacrifice worthwhile. But to place an interpretation upon this verse that contradicts Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 14:12; and other passages is to stretch it beyond its intended meaning. We need to recognize that many of the Proverbs are generalizations that sometimes admit exceptions. For example, if we apply the same dogmatic approach as we do to Proverbs 22:6 to Proverb 10:27, "The fear of Jehovah prolongeth days but the years of the wicked shall be shortened," what would that do to lives like Jesus and Stephen? Or Proverbs 16:7, "When a man's ways please Jehovah, He maketh even his enemies to be a peace with him" — what would a similar application of this passage do to Jesus and Paul? The attitude many have toward Proverbs 22:6 would admit no exceptions . . . if children go wrong, it of necessity is the parents' fault! But how did a man like Hezekiah, who is described in II Kings 18:5-7 as one who "trusted Jehovah, clave to Jehovah, and departed not from following him but kept his commandments," have a son like Manasseh who was one of the most wicked kings of Judah (II Kings 21:1-9)? How did Josiah who "did that which was right in the eyes of Jehovah and walked in the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left" (II Kings 22:2) have an unrighteous son like Jehoahaz (II Kings 23:32)? And how did God have unrighteous children? He said concerning Israel (both then and now), "I will be to you a Father and ye will be sons and daughters" (II Corinthians 6:18). Was God responsible because most of them went astray? Did he fail to adequately teach and rebuke them? "Yet Jehovah testified unto Israel and unto Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, turn ye from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes according to the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets. Notwithstanding they would not hear" (II Kings 17:13-15). Unless I have misunderstood the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the father in this parable represents God. Can you explain to me how God had a prodigal son? Was it a poor home life, improper teaching, lack of proper discipline, or just willful disobedience to every command and example of that home that led the prodigal into the far country of sin and disgrace? How would you apply Proverbs 22:6 to that case? Where is the preacher or commentator who would dare suggest that the fault and the blame lay anywhere but in the willful heart of the prodigal?
To those of you who read this article who have wept and prayed the night through over an erring child, who have had all the joy and enthusiasm of life drained from you by an overwhelming feeling of defeat and despair, I trust that these thoughts will be of some help and comfort to you, and that you will remember that your Father in heaven understands the depth of your pain and frustration, because he has many delinquent children. To those who have been spared that particular burden of life, thank God and examine your attitude toward those who were not so blessed. Have you added to your brethren's grief by a harsh and unyielding attitude? Have you tended to place them in a "second-class citizenship" in the church? Have you found their problem a juicy tidbit of gossip to spread wherever you go and even to discredit their work in God's Kingdom? Read again the parable of the prodigal son and remember that the elder brother represents those who are so self-righteous that they neither fully understand the heartache of the Father or the weakness and frustration of the prodigal. What I have tried to say in this article is summarized in a comment on Proverbs 22:6 in Pulpit Commentary, 438:
"Not the very best training of the very wisest parents in the world can positively secure goodness and wisdom in their children. For when they have done everything in their power, there must remain that element of individuality which will choose its own course and form its own character. Our children may choose to reject the truth we teach them, and to slight the example we set them, and to despise the counsel we give. . . . There is but one gate of entrance into life, and that is the personal, individual, acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour of the Spirit. The parent may lead his child up to it, but that child must pass through it of his own accord."