Growing up I often heard my grandmother (among others) say that she had to discipline me because she was “training you in the way you should go, so that you won’t depart from it when you get older.” Well, a few decades, lots of drugs and alcohol, an arrest, and sundry other acts of rebellion, I finally did return to the way she was talking about. However, it was her confidence in the gospel and hope in Christ that God used to prick my heart and call me to himself. Plus, I know lots of folks I grew up with who have turned out the other way. People from Christian homes with parents who love them and discipline them well do turn away from the faith.
Since I’ve become a parent, a lot of people have quoted that same verse to me that my grandmother held on 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 KJB). Plenty of well-meaning folks used this verse to comfort me during one of my (many) doubt-filled moments about loving my kids well and how they might turn out. A common way of interpreting this verse—as its translation in the King James Version suggests—is to see it as a promise that if parents discipline their children well (“the way he should go”), then when they grow up they’ll walk with the Lord. That interpretation always bothered me. Does my kid’s future faith really depend on how I raise him? To some extent, of course it does. But can I really take credit if my kid is the next Enoch, who “walked with God; then he was not there because God took him” (Gen 5:24 CSB)”? Nah.
So what does this verse mean, if it doesn’t mean that I hold my kid’s future in my hands? Well, the Hebrew text doesn’t say what the KJV version says. It reads: “Train up a child according to his way, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” So, this principle isn’t that a child will walk with the Lord in old age if he is disciplined well. The principle is that if a child is not disciplined well—if he’s allowed to go his own way—then he will continue in that way even in old age.
Here’s the hope for parents like me who are trying to figure out what it means to love our kids well and train them up in the way of the Lord. We are responsible to God for how we discipline our kids. We are to love them and teach to follow Christ. Deuteronomy has some things to say about that. But whether or not they do follow Christ is not in our hands. We love them, shepherd them, and pray for them, but we can’t make them follow the Lord. On the other hand, we can help them along the road to destruction by letting them do their own thing (and kids will do their own thing if we let them!). But another caveat, proverbs aren’t promises. Just like this verse (misinterpreted) doesn’t guarantee our kids will return to the faith if we are faithful, it also doesn’t mean that they’ll never come to the Lord if we aren’t faithful. God is sovereign. God is supreme. Let’s obey him and trust him with our children.