Train up a child

Encouragement and perspective for the struggling Christian parent

W. Norman MacFarlane is a retired United Church of Christ pastor and lives in Boring, Maryland

The common lament among con science-stricken Christian parents regarding wayward children is: "Where did we fail? Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently?"

When in seminary, I, along with other classmates, did summer supply preaching. We weren't very good, but we came cheap. Besides, most New England churches are dormant during summer. Many members spend week ends either in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire or on the beaches of Maine and Cape Cod.

One Sunday I preached about the Christian family in a small church in Brockton, Massachusetts. After the service, a man, visibly shaken, said that he had raised his son in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord," but his son had abandoned his childhood faith, now having nothing to do with Christ or the church. This man had claimed the promise to "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). Well, his son had long since departed, and the father was frustrated and guilt ridden. If I had known then what I know now, I'd have tried to answer him differently.

To begin, we have to ask, Who wrote that promise? It was Solomon, whose sons were no great credit to him or to the faith. His father, David, had children, most of whom were a heartache to him and a disappointment to God. Jacob had twelve sons, ten of whom were rascals. Of Adam and Eve's first two sons, Abel "received approval as righteous" (Heb. 11:4, NRSV), while Cain "was from the evil one and murdered his brother" (1 John 3:12, NRSV).

Samuel, the last of the judges and the first of the prophets, literally grew up in the church (that is, the tabernacle in Shiloh) under the tutelage of Eli the priest. Those were Israel's dark ages, both morally and spiritually. "In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions" (1 Sam. 3:1, NIV).

Godly old Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas scoundrels who exploited and disgraced the priesthood. Though Samuel reared his sons in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4), even made them judges over Israel, "his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice" (1 Sam. 8:3, NRSV). Yet Samuel was a man of such integrity that he could ask the people he served, "Whose ox have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe?" (1 Sam. 12:3, NRSV). This integrity, however, was not passed on to the next generation.

Maybe the genealogies of Matthew don't make for the most interesting reading, but they do tell how wicked King Ahaz was succeeded on the throne by godly King Hezekiah. How could a rascal such as Ahaz sire a saint such as Hezekiah? But godliness continued to skip a generation, because Hezekiah's son was Manasseh, whose 55-year reign was one of the most wicked and corrupt in the Old Testament. But later we have Manasseh's grandson Josiah, who brought faith and revival to the people of God, even if Josiah's sons were degenerate and ungodly.

Notice these interesting words from the Lord: "Consider the man who is righteous and does what is just and right. ... He may have a son who is a man of violence and a cutthroat who turns his back on these rules. He obeys none of them.... This man in turn may have a son who sees all his father's sins; he sees but he commits none of them" (Ezek. 18:5-14, NEB).

"Train up a child in the way he should go" is a solemn admonition, but there are powerful genetic factors, which means that it is possible to succeed as a Christian parent, while your children are failures. Our responsibility is to rear our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but then it is out of our hands.

We need not be consumed by guilt if, after having discharged our responsibilities as Christian parents, our children do not cherish and adhere to the faith in which they were nurtured.

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W. Norman MacFarlane is a retired United Church of Christ pastor and lives in Boring, Maryland

July 2003

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