Ethics Family

The pain of raising children

In a small group with which we meet weekly, I mentioned recently the concern I often hear expressed about the departure of younger people from the church. “Millennials” are frequently mentioned in this regard, and some studies have indicated that it pertains  particularly to those who have attended university. Later in the week, a group member shared their pain as parents because their own children, though having professed faith when young, were no longer involved in church, nor feeling any need or desire for it. That prompted some reflection on our own experience as parents, which I shared with the group. Today is a provincial holiday for Family Day in Ontario, so this seemed an appropriate time to share these thoughts with people who visit my blog, who come from quite an age spectrum.

Gail and I both grew up in wonderful Christian homes, and we grew up hearing Proverbs 22:6 repeated often in church: “Train up children in the way they should go; even when they are old, they will not depart from it.” What our teachers and preachers did not tell us, and possibly did not know, was that the Proverbs are not promises or guarantees, nor are they principles on the order of the law of gravity.

In both of our families, we watched our parents suffer when only half of their children followed the Lord as they moved into adulthood. But we held on to the “promise” of Proverbs 22:6 and resolved that we would do it better and succeed where they “failed.” I’m not suggesting that we did this consciously, but I think that our spiritual education had headed us in that direction. When one of our own children began making very unwise choices in Grade 9, we were devastated and, worst of all, we struggled with guilt that we must have failed to train up our children in the way they should go.

Now, thankfully, we understand better the nature of Old Testament wisdom literature, and we realize that the proverbs are not promises, guarantees, or spiritual laws. They are aphorisms, some of which can be found in the wisdom literature of Israel’s neighbors too, which state general principles that people have learned from observation. As a general rule, we can expect that children will be strongly influenced by their moral and spiritual training. But when it comes to faith, God has no grandchildren; each generation has to choose whether they will follow the way of their parents and submit to God or whether they will take a different course.

God got a fresh start with Israel when they crossed the Jordan into the land he had promised to Abraham. No one of the generation who had been responsible adults at the time the nation heard the report of the 12 who had gone to spy out the land, except for the two who had expressed trust in God (Caleb and Joshua), was allowed into the land. Can you imagine how many times those parents must have warned their children of the consequences of unbelief? But even so, it wasn’t long before the nation whom God led into the land was experiencing the period of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6), and God led them repeatedly through the cycle of chastisement, repentance and deliverance.

I wish I could say that coming to understand the nature of Prov 22:6 fixed us, and that we never had another moment of doubt about our having done our spiritual duty as parents. But it isn’t that easy. Two other things have helped. First, during all the years we were raising our children we believed that it is God who sovereignly distributes his grace. He is wonderfully kind, even to rebels, but he alone is able to give spiritual life to the spiritually dead. So parenting is like the seed sowing of Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:1-9, 18-23). We sow the best seed we can, we water with love and prayer and instruction, but only God can produce a harvest. So we have to be careful not to take responsibility for what God does not hold us responsible. You have probably noticed, as we have, how God often gloriously saves young people who come out of horrendous family situations with Godless parents. That too is indication that Prov 22:6 is not a spiritual law like the physical law of gravity and, in those cases, we are very thankful that it is not.

Second, we are aware that we are still sinners saved by grace, whom God has not yet perfected. On this account, we are thankful that Prov 22:6 is not hard and fast law. Were that the case, our children would have been completely limited morally and spiritually by our own skill as parental trainers.  We were earnest in our parenting, but we were sinners saved by grace, who were not yet glorified. It is impossible for us to say that we never made a mistake as parents. So, we confess our weakness and our failings, even the ones of which we are not conscious, but we also know that God does not declare us righteous because we are sinless in thought, word and deed. He declares us righteous because Jesus was righteous and because we have confessed our sinfulness and gratefully trusted in his righteousness in our stead.

None of this removes the burden we carry for children who have not fully made Jesus Lord of their lives and who are not seeking the company of others who do so. But it puts that burden in a perspective that, in our best moments, enables us to carry the burden without a sense of shame for our personal guilt and failure. Unless we get to that point, we are condemned to carry the burden alone because we are too ashamed to reveal our “shortcomings.”

I share this now for the benefit of others who may be having this experience, or for those whose children are young, and who need to be prepared for what may lie ahead. This is a message I have to preach to myself periodically, so I figured this was a good opportunity to do my thinking out loud in our small group, and now on line.

A few years ago, I learned from my Old Testament colleague that Gen 3:16 was not just a prediction about the pain of giving birth, it is a statement about the whole process of childrearing. The coming into the world of sin has made parenting painful in many ways, including the pain we have shared in the discussion in our group. Eve and Adam lived to see one of their sons kill another one, and it is difficult to fully grasp the pain they must have felt as parents, but it left them in no doubt about the accuracy of God’s words as reported in Gen 3:16. Yet, we continue in prayerful faithfulness to God in the new roles he gives us in the later stages of life, believing that while there is life there is hope because our hope is not in ourselves but in God. Thankfully, as we watch our children move on in life, we see a great deal for which we give God thanks, and we realize that all those good things are not ours to boast about, but are opportunities to magnify God’s grace and goodness.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “The pain of raising children”

Dear dr. Tiessen,

sorry for the off-topic; i’d like to cite the story of the “irian jayan idol maker” in one of my articles, what is the source?

– Riccardo (Italy)

Riccardo, I cited the incident from John D. Ellenberger, in his article “Is Hell a Proper Motivation for Missions?,” in Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard., eds. William V. Crocett and James G. Sigountosm, Baker Books House, 1991, p. 223. He cites an interview with Ruth Rudes, missionary of the CMA to Indonesia, in August 1990. I recall hearing someone else tell the story in a little more detail, but that is the only written citation I have noted.

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