If you were to look through the journal I use to keep prayer requests for the congregations I serve, a common petition would be for children and grandchildren not following the Lord. We are – by practice, not by official polity – family-integrated congregations. Does this guarantee that our children will stay in the Lord? No. In fact, nothing will. Not AWANA. Not family worship. Not the latest program or curriculum. Nothing guarantees that the children of the covenant family will grow up to be faithful confessing members of the covenant family.
From the repeated prayer requests and my own heart’s desire, I can guarantee one thing: we would do anything if we could guarantee their future faith. But we can’t. How can we make sense of this frustrating state of affairs? I’ve been wrestling with it recently, and connected – by the Spirit’s light in His Gospel – the dots yesterday on a 5K struggle of a run (it gets harder when you don’t do it every day - both running and keeping the Gospel front-and-center of everything).
“Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, NASB). “See?! See?!” We’re tempted to force the Sovereign’s hand by our consistent efforts to train them in the faith, thereby manipulating Him by our works to keep the next generation in the faith. This is my definition of magic, or witchcraft: doing things in the physical realm to influence the spiritual realm. This does not honor God. Proverbs 22:6 (or the rest of Proverbs, for that matter), is no cause-and-effect contract between God and His people.
“So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.’ For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind. Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:12-19). Wisdom (as in Proverbs) is better than folly, but it doesn’t make any promises. Despite what pop culture’s wisdom says, our destiny is not up to us. But, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, wisdom is still better. Why? If the results aren’t guaranteed, what’s the point of being wise in the rearing of future generations? All of our “labor under the sun,” be it in business or child-training, may be passed onto fools who will deny the existence of God. Is it time to hate this grievous life? Well, if we keep pursuing wisdom as a means of a religion of works (witchcraft), then yes, go ahead and start hating. That’s where you’ll end up in your bitter frustration. I know. I have longed to change the hearts and minds of those who leave the faith more times than I can tell. It does hurt.
But that’s not why we train up our children (and grandchildren) in the way they should go (the way of the Lord). We train our children because God has commanded us to, regardless of the results. Before we can expect our children to obey Him by faith, we must obey Him by faith (as opposed to evangelizing them in an effort to manipulate them or God).
"Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O
! The LORD is our God, the
LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you
today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and
shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and
when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your
hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on
the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). Israel
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Beloved, there are promises attached to obeying by faith, but we are not the executors of the estate! We teach them because we have been commanded to do so, not as a part of a religion of self-effort, but as a Gospel obedience to the King Who has saved us and given us commandments.
Back to the prayer-journal I keep for our little congregations (I just remembered getting a question about prodigal children from a mother at a Q&A in the
– this is a universal
heart-break). It is right to pray for the lost: “Brethren, my heart's desire
and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (Romans 10:1). At the same time, we proclaim the
Gospel to them; both those who know it already (Romans 1:15) and those who don’t
yet (Romans 10:8-15,17). Teach them every day of the Lord, His wise ways, and
His gracious Gospel. Pray for them. Worship with them. Philippines
And trust that God is in charge, even when things aren’t as we wish they would be (or feel, in the works-religion that we must crucify every day in our hearts, that God must make them be because of our efforts).
Believe and obey, commanding others to do the same, starting with our families and going throughout the world. Train them because you’ve been commanded to by the One Who loves you and has saved you, not because you’re trying to force the King to obey your will. This is the Great Commission. It is built upon faithful obedience to the One Who is King over heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20).