If you raise children in the way of the Lord, will they really never depart from it? - 3 Keys to Understanding Proverbs

Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." This might be one of the most assuring--and scary--and misused passages of Scripture in the Bible. As I am preaching on Proverbs this week, I thought of this verse, which is a good verse to explore to understand and illustrate what the book of Proverbs is all about, and how to use and not use these proverbs.

As a parent, Christian, and minister, I desperately want my children to follow God, accept Christ, and be faithful Christians all of the rest of their lives. When my oldest child was baptized, it was one of the greatest days of my life. My oldest daughter, Gina, has always had a good heart, loved God, and done the right thing. She also is a deep thinker, very smart, and has always had a lot of very good questions about God and faith, even as a little girl.

At times I wondered if she might be "too smart"--too filled with questions--to take that faith step. However, that was not the case, and she made decision to follow Christ. I was so glad! Now, just two more to go--plus a lifetime of faithfulness. No pressure!

For parents raising children in the Lord, Proverbs 22:6 can be reassuring. If you have raised your kids to follow Christ, then you can trust that they will stay faithful. But . . . . what if he or she does not? As parents, we can fear not only that this might happen, but that if it does, it is our fault. 

And in fact, this is exactly what some Christian parents conclude when their children do not accept Christ or later fall away--that they are at fault--because of Proverbs 22:6. After all, if we believe the Bible, do we not believe that Prov. 22:6 is true?

While belief in God's word is good, we must understand the nature of different passages of Scripture--including the book of Proverbs. With that in mind, note these three things about this book and the nature of the proverbs found within it.

  1. It takes wisdom to be able to know when to use proverbs--they are not automatically applicable to every situation.

    Note the opening of Proverbs:
    The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
    for gaining wisdom and instruction;
        for understanding words of insight . . . 
    let the wise listen and add to their learning,
        and let the discerning get guidance
    for understanding proverbs and parables,
        the sayings and riddles of the wise (1:1-2, 5-6)

    Even the wise need wisdom for understanding proverbs and parables, and guidance for discerning how to use them. As the book attests, "A proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed leg" (26:7).

    Probably the clearest example within the book of Proverbs itself of the need to use wisdom and discernment in using proverbs is found in the section right above the proverb just cited. Note the following two apparently contradictory proverbs:

    4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, 
    or you yourself will be just like him (26:4).

    Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes (26:5).

    Which is correct? Should you answer a fool or not? It depends on the situation--and that takes discernment to know!

  2. Many proverbs give general truths, not absolute promises. 
    When the genre of literature of the Proverbs is not recognized, then it can lead to a number of problems, such as a crisis of faith in one's self (why is this proverb not coming true for me--what have I done wrong, or why is God not keeping his promise?) to judgmentalism against others (if they were living right, bad things would not happen to them).

    The first issue is dealt with in Job, which serves as a type of counterbalance to the rest of the Wisdom literature which says, generally, that if you live right and follow God, good things will happen. That is the basic gist of much of Proverbs, and it is generally true. But sometimes it is not, which is what Job discovered. Sometimes Satan is at work, people have free will, the proverb's truth may not be fully realized in this world but in the world to come. 

    The second issue is dealt with by Jesus, when he was asked the question, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind" (John 9:2)? This question by his disciples followed a natural wisdom literature idea, that bad things are the result of not mere accident, but sin. While that is often true, it is not always true, as Jesus indicates. 

    We must remember in raising children that people do have free well, Satan is at work, and sometimes, a child may go astray. While generally, they will come back, it is possible that they may not. That is not necessarily the fault of the parent. Even Jesus had a disciple, Judas, who betrayed him.

  3. The Proverbs work best in the context of a relationship with Wisdom/Christ, not on their own. Proverbs 8:22f shows that God "brought forth" Wisdom, and Wisdom was with him in the creation of the world. Wisdom is thus largely the way that the world "works," so to fight it is foolish. So we can see many of these proverbs about money, sex, power, politics and more demonstrated in even the lives of non-believers and in the world at large. 

    However, repeatedly in the book of Proverbs, the Father exhorts his Son to "get wisdom!" Wisdom is personified as a woman calling the Son to follow her, just as Lady Folly also calls him down a different path. The Son is exhorted to choose to follow Wisdom, not Folly, and to devote his life to her. It is out of this relationship with Wisdom, make clear in Prov. 1-9, that the proverbs in Prov. 10f are "lived out" and become most fully a reality.

    No one can or has fulled lived out these parables and the wise life-which, according to Deut. 4:6 and other passages, is obedience to the law--except Jesus, who is the wisdom from God and wisdom incarnate (1 Cor. 1:3). And just as we have our best chance of keeping God's commands when we accept Christ and receive the Spirit (Ezek. 36:26f), so also we have the best chance to see the truths of the parables/wise live found in Proverbs realized when we have a relationship with Wisdom/Christ. 

    So if a child has never accepted the call of Wisdom/Christ, if he has rejected his Father's/parents' teachings, then he has much less chance of the proverbs working themselves out fully in his or her life. In a similar manner, if a child has never accepted Christ, then it is much less likely that he will continue in the "way that he should go." It is Christ who has the power to transform, not mere moralism or teaching about good living. We can teach all the proverbs we like, but without a relationship with Wisdom/Christ, there is little transformative power.

Proverbs has tremendous wisdom and value, but it is best understand and used when the genre is understood, as well as the fuller revelation that we have in Christ. 

How have you understood and used the Proverbs? How have you seen them misused? How do you see that the Proverbs point us to Christ?

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Replies to This Discussion

This is a much needed lesson on the genre and use of proverbs.  I fear too many feel responsible and guilty for the decisions their adult children make.  Though I believe most parents feel deeply and sorrowfully when adult children make bad decisions. They are not responsible for those decisions.

Thank you for your thoughts, dad. You and mom did a great job raising us kids! :)


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