My friend asks me this question as we sit across a untouched bowl of chips and salsa at a local Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The hollow look of crushing disappointment is covering his face. Tears are welling up in his eyes. His family has done everything over the past 18 years to try to “train up their child” right: Home schooling … regular church attendance … family devotional time … restrictions on “secular media” … And – most importantly – no dating. And the end result is now a cascading, slow-motion disaster: Their child has engaged in a party-hopping and booze-fueling auto accident that has resulted in the loss of a decent and well-paying job. In the process, they have recently discovered that the same child is engaged in an overt sexual relationship with a significantly older (and jobless) loser. More than rage or anger, there is a resounding expression of parental guilt and depression: “Where did we go wrong?”
Throughout the course of my ministry, I have had this same deja vu conversation over and over with a variety of sincerely believing parents. After diligently raising their kids to Christian standards, their kids have precipitously fallen away from Christianity and made decisions that will wreck their lives for years to come: Kids who become so heavily addicted that they steal and pawn their parents possessions, wet the bed at night and go on the run across state lines from law enforcement … Kids who shack up with random guys they hardly know and come home with new grandchildren that need financial and emotional support … Kids who refuse to stop playing Call of Duty on Xbox all day to move out on their own … Kids who cut themselves on their inner thighs with razors and secretly contemplate suicide. And in every awful, soul-crushing horror story, there is a defeated parent who looks fondly back on baby pictures of a child they no longer recognize. There is a parent who waits longly by a cell phone, unsure whether a prodigal child or a police officer will come to the front door that night. And there is the overwhelming feeling of disappointment and blame that holds parents hostage by keeping them awake at night.
We feel like we’ve let God down.
Often, we bear the brunt of the responsibility for the failures of our children, because we take God’s call to spiritual discipleship seriously. For most Christian parents, our innermost desire is to please God by diligently teaching our kids about the ways of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:7). We try to bring our kids up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Under kicking and screaming protest, we drag our kids out of bed early for Sunday worship. We send our kids to VBS, church camp, D-Nows and lock-ins. We watch cheesy VeggieTales instead of Game of Thrones. We kiss dating goodbye, attend daddy-daughter dances and buy purity rings. We serve alongside our kids at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. And – ultimately – we desire for our kids to experience the same joy, hope and peace in Christ that we have found. Regardless of our methodology, that desire for our kids to have a relationship with Christ is healthy and good.
Here’s the problem: Unwittingly, most Christian parents also tend to engage in a unhealthy and false philosophy of parental determinism: Every victory and failure of our kids lives stems from our parenting decision-making. Our over-protective generation of helicopter moms overwhelmingly camp out on the side of “nurture” instead of “nature.” We believe that the smallest minutia of parental decision making – ranging from daycare choice to organic food to carseat safety – will have a drastic sea change of impact on our kids lives. When it comes to church, we are so deterministic that we genuinely believe whether we cut the crust off a PB&J sandwich will impact the eternal destiny of our child’s soul.
And our churches tend to unfairly reinforce this philosophy. Our pastors often teach that Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) is an unbreakable law instead of a piece of Godly wisdom. Even worse, our churches sometimes teach that the converse is true: When any teenager who becomes a raging agnostic who sleeps around, bad parenting surely must be at fault. Tell me that you haven’t heard parlor room gossip roll off the lips of genteel church ladies when a wayward teen enters the church sanctuary: “I can’t believe that Jack and Diane would allow that non-sense to happen under their roof! What are they thinking?” In church circles, the shame and guilt of a “bad kid” can hang around your neck like a scarlet letter.
Parenting is not a mathematical equation. Or a Food Network recipe: Take one child … Add Godly teaching … Add regular church attendance … Throw in loving home conditions … Pick the right schooling … And – presto! – you’ve got the certainty of a wonderful child that you’ll brag about to all your friends. Heck, you might even get a “proud of my kid” bumper sticker. Children usually don’t work out according to whatever dreams or plans we’ve got.
Here’s why: Your kid is a sinner. Your kids are not exempt from the “all have sinned” part of Romans 3:23. Every child comes from the lineage of Adam. Your kids are guaranteed to make horrible decisions that make you want to start heavy drinking as a hobby. And keeping your kid in a protective bubble their entire lives will never change that theological truth. Even after your kids come into a relationship with Christ, the influence of the flesh continues in the lives of our kids (Romans 8:1-11; Galatians 5:16-26). They will face a daily choice to walk in the Spirit or succumb to the flesh.
Proverbs 22:6 rarely plays out as a promise in the life of any Biblical figure. Even for the first parents recorded, there’s a Cain for every Abel or Seth. There’s a Ham for every Shem. There’s a Esau for every Jacob. Jacob had a litter of kids that killed newly circumcised men and sold their brother into slavery. Samson’s parents devoted him to be a Nazarite from birth, but Samson loved to chase Philistine skirts. David’s love child, Solomon, started out on track but was wooed away by a veritable army of ungodly women. Go through the royal lineage of 1 & 2 Kings: Bad kings producing good offspring … Good kings producing bad offspring.
Here’s the good news for parents: God does not love you less when your kids spectacularly fail. God’s grace is not dependent on our parenting prowess. Parents would do well to meditate on Romans 8:31-35 early and often:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 35 is – of course – nothing. Yes, the truth is that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love. And nothing includes bad parenting, sleepless nights, unbearable guilt, regret, lost children, mistakes made or moments where we wish we could hit rewind. Even if our kids wind up mirroring our worst nightmares, God still loves us with a furious love that sent His only Son to the cross to bear our sins. Believing that God loves us less for the way our kids turn out is an utter falsehood and likely the evil whisperings of spiritual warfare in our ears. When our kids fail, God isn’t waggling His finger in disappointment at us with colossal scowl furrowing his brow.
When our kids don’t love God, we would do well to remember that God still loves us.
So maybe … Just maybe, we should relax a little bit more when it comes to Christian parenting. Training up our kids in the ways of Christ may be a serious task, but the pressure doesn’t lay squarely on our shoulders. If we truly believe only Christ can change lives, we should accept that our impact is rather insignificant compared to the Holy Spirit. The future of our kids is largely out of our inept hands but is squarely in the divine hands of our perfect Creator.
And thank God for that.