“Train up a child…”

by K.W. Leslie, 23 October

Proverbs 22.6.

This particular proverb, best known in the King James version—

Proverbs 22.6 KJV
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

—has brought a lot of comfort to a lot of Christians whose kids don’t appear to be going anywhere close to the way they should go.

After high school, a lot of the kids from my church youth group didn’t stay in church. Some of us did, and some of us went away to school… and the rest decided since they were adults now, they could choose to go to church or not. So they chose not. To the great consternation of their parents, who thought they raised their kids better than that. They really didn’t.

In despair, the parents turned to this proverb. The way they chose to interpret it: Yeah, the kids had quit Jesus, but the parents had trained ’em up in the way they should go. They’d raised ’em Christian. Took ’em to church. Made ’em pray before meals. Sent ’em to church camps and youth groups and youth pastors who’d tell them about Jesus. Voiced their political opinions, and they’re pretty sure Jesus feels exactly the same way they do. It wasn’t disciplined, focused, intentional, or systematic, but they did kinda lay the groundwork for the kids to come back.

So if the proverb is a promise—and that’s precisely how they cling to it—the kids will one day see the error of their ways, repent, and return to the values they were raised with. The kids’ll go through a brief period of rebellion, their own personal rumspringa, but when they’re old—hopefully not that old—they’ll be back.

The “out of context” header might’ve tipped you off to the fact this view is entirely incorrect. Lot of blind optimism behind it. Lot of wishful thinking. But doesn’t usually happen. I still know quite a few of those youth group kids, now in their 40s, same as me. Still not Christian. Some of ’em think they are, but really they’re just Christianist. Others are “spiritual, not religious,” or joined another religion like Buddhism, or went nontheist.

There are a lot of non-practicing Christians who slide back into Christianity as soon as they have kids: They realize they’ve gotta pass down their morals to their children, and since they have none, they go with Jesus’s… and realize they don’t know his morals as well as they thought, so they go to church to rectify that. Which is great, ’cause it’s what gets young families into the church, and young families help keep a church stable. But my youth group’s former kids? If that was gonna gonna get ’em back into church, it’d’ve happened when they were in their 20s and 30s. It didn’t. They’re still out.

Their parents are likely clinging to the fact the proverb says, “When he is old,” but let’s get real: It’s not happening at this rate. Only way it would, is if the Holy Spirit intervenes with a major course correction. Which he can always do, so never rule out the possibility. It’s just a lot of these drastic actions still don’t convince people to return to Jesus. When a major life trauma (i.e. loss of a job, death of a relative, health crisis, natural or artificial disaster) impacts our lives, people either take a hard left towards God, or a hard right away from him. And since away is the path of least resistance, that’s usually the route they choose.

Does this mean the proverb isn’t true then? Nope, that’s not the problem. The real problem is people are using it completely wrong.

The context of proverbs.

Christians tend to treat proverbs, whether they get ’em out of Proverbs or elsewhere from the scriptures, as if they have no context. More so than any other verses in the bible. It’s because they assume other passages may have a context, but proverbs are all self-contained sayings that we can easily pluck from the bible and put on T-shirts and internet memes.

In fact proverbs do have a context: Their historical context. The mindset of the ancient Hebrews who spoke them. The mindset of the editors of Proverbs and the bible, who kept the ones they considered relevant, and sorted ’em how they sorted ’em. Proverbs 22.8 isn’t where it is for no reason. It’s there because the editor believed they followed a common theme.

Proverbs 22.1-7 KWL
1 Choose a name over choosing great wealth, good favor over silver and over gold.
2 A wealthy person and poor person meet each other: The LORD made them all.
3 A clever person sees evil and hides; a dummy goes right into it, and pays for it.
4 The result of humility is respect for the LORD, wealth, honor, and life.
5 Thorny traps are by the twisted path: One who watches their soul is far away from it.
6 Train a child about their path’s route. Though they grow old, they ought not turn from wisdom.
7 A rich person dominates a poor person: A slave is attached to a person through indebtedness.

I could go on through the whole chapter, but this is enough to give you the idea these proverbs are about being wise. Don’t just let time and chance happen to you: Ec 9.11 Pay attention to your circumstances. Keep your head. Do the right thing. Don’t fall into traps. A clever person sees evil coming and gets out of the way. Pr 22.3

As for what we’re training up a child about, there’s a word that gets translated “in the way he should go” which doesn’t quite mean that. It’s al-peh darkó/“by [the] mouth of his path.” It’s an odd phrasing, and I interpreted it “path’s route” because I believe that’s the sage’s emphasis: The path of life has many entrances and exits. “Mouths,” if you will. Best to know which one you’re headed towards—and which ones you don’t wanna head towards.

Problem is, if Christian parents ever do train their kids, they’re not teaching the kids how to be wise about their life choices. They’re simply teaching them the old brain-dead, “Do this not that.” There’s seldom any instruction as to why they ought do this not that; they’re not taught critical thinking. Just rote memorization, like the multiplication tables. The fear is that if the kids are taught to judge the situation, they might judge wrong. Best, and easiest, to just teach them “Don’t.” Memorize God’s commands instead of meditating on them.

The flaw in this thinking? Once the kids get old enough, they’re gonna judge the situation. And if they’re not taught how to judge correctly, they’re gonna judge wrong. More often than not, they figure, “My parents never told me why these things were good or bad. Probably because they themselves didn’t know why. Well that’s not enough of a reason to not do these things. What is it about these things? What am I missing? Since I can’t reliably take my parents’ word for it, ought I try them out for myself?” And so on.

The other part of the misinterpretation is “he will not depart from it.” Ancient Hebrew verbs don’t really have a future tense. Technically they don’t have a subjunctive tense (what one oughta do) either. But proverbs are put forward as what we oughta do. They’re advice. Not promises.

I’ll expound on that in a moment. But the reason I ended the verse “they ought not turn from wisdom” is because the verse technically ends with the pronoun mimenna/“from her,” and since all the other nouns in the sentence are masculine, it doesn’t refer to them. Not the child, not the path. My guess: The feminine noun khokhmá/“wisdom.” Pr 1.2 Hey, it’s the context of the whole book.

But seriously: Proverbs aren’t promises.

As I said, Christians have jumped all over this verse as if it’s a promise from God. It’s not. No proverb is. These aren’t guarantees, “If you do [this], God’ll do [that].” These are statements which are generally true. All things being equal, most of the time circumstances turn out as the proverb-writers predict. There are always exceptions… and you’ll find a few of ’em in Ecclesiastes.

So most of the time when you raise your kids properly, they’ll turn out fine. But of course we all know exceptions. Some children have medical conditions which affect their psychology. Accidents or disasters happen, some of which threaten to undo all the upbringing you tried to instill in ’em. And some children are just plain contrary: You do everything right, but they reject it anyway. Simply because they can.

A lot of Christian parents are tearing their hair out because they have done everything right. They honestly did raise their kids Christian. They didn’t delegate it to Sunday-school teachers: They were loving, patient, forgiving, generous, gracious, humble, and carefully passed these values down to their kids. Yet the kids still grew up, chose to be self-centered, self-righteous, greedy, impatient, unforgiving, unloving jerks.

Humans have free will. It’s a hard fact. They won’t always do as you wish. Nor even as God wishes. You should’ve realized this from the very first time they figured out how to shout, “No!”

When you raise ’em right, most of the time they turn out fine. But sometimes they don’t, which is why Solomon composed these proverbs:

Proverbs 10.1 KWL
Wise child, rejoicing father. Stupid child, grieving mother.
Proverbs 15.20 KWL
Wise child, rejoicing father. Stupid people disrespect their mothers.

Sometimes these verses are interpreted as if the child’s wisdom or denseness is all the parents’ fault: “You know why you have a wise child? Because the kid began with good parents.” Y’know, kinda like the following verses describe:

Proverbs 13.1 KWL
Instructive parent: Wise child. Never hear correction: Know-it-all child.
Proverbs 20.7 KWL
One who walks in integrity is a righteous person. After that person comes happy children.

But again: We all know exceptions. Kids with lousy parents who turn out all right anyway. Jacob raised Joseph, the prophet Samuel was raised by the head priest Eli, King David was largely influenced but didn’t take after King Saul, and so forth. Likewise great parents but awful children.

Proverbs are conditional. They’re not promises. There are actual promises of God found throughout the bible. (And I should point out some of these promises are also conditional: God telling people if they do [this] he’ll do [that]. Likewise many are unconditional: God’ll do his thing regardless of anything we do or don’t do.) But no such promises are found among the proverbs. None.

I know; some Christians’ very favorite verses are from Proverbs, and proverbial psalms. They’re quoted and treated as if they’re guarantees from the LORD Almighty. They’re not. Doesn’t matter how popular they are, nor how we repeat ’em like mantras. They weren’t meant to be promises, but general guidelines about how humans behave and how wisdom works. They’re generally true. A well-raised child generally snaps out of their rebelliousness, eventually. And some do. And some never do.

Never take a “Christian upbringing” for granted.

As I’ve written previously, our first responsibility with our kids as Christians is to disciple them.

As Christians, our responsibility with our kids is, first and foremost, to share Jesus with them. Don’t just “raise ’em Christian.” Introduce them to Jesus. Make sure they have a personal relationship with him. One you don’t have to supervise, ’cause he’s working with them.

’Cause a lot of Christian “discipleship” doesn’t train Christians to directly follow Jesus. They’re designed to make us dependent on some Christian guru, like a pastor or favorite theologian. Sometimes Christians do this deliberately, just to make you financially dependent upon them. Thus you always have to buy their books and stay in their schools. Yeah it’s evil.

And monkey see, monkey do: A lot of Christians don’t train their kids to follow Jesus, but to follow them. Or follow Pastor. The kids are constantly supervised, and never challenged to step out on their own. They’re never permitted to mature. Hence when they’re finally out on their own, they’re not mature, so of course they stumble and backslide and quit.

So the kids know to say grace, say bedtime prayers, go to church, listen to Christian music, and post Christian art on the walls and their T-shirts. But they don’t know how to study their bibles. Don’t really know how to pray, or lead prayers. Don’t meditate. Don’t worship. Don’t get religious about anything—they’re even taught religion is bad. Their parents never sat ’em down and talked about their beliefs, never taught ’em to critically think, never showed ’em how Christianity applies to daily life, never carefully demonstrated how they follow Jesus.

So of course they’re horrified to discover their kids were never really Christian.

But they said the sinner’s prayer! Sang in choir! Memorized bible verses in Sunday school! But… but… and they’ll list a thousand other superficial things which prove nothing more than the kids were going through the motions. And refuse to believe it was all just an act. Lemme tell you from personal experience: It is way easier to act it out than actually do it in faith.

How d’we find out whether the kids are faking it? Look for fruit. If it’s there, we’re good. If it’s missing, or been replaced by fake fruit, they’re faking it.

And make really sure we are training the kids in the way they should go. Make sure they’re truly his. Once that’s the case, here’s a biblical promise we can bank on:

John 10.27-30 KWL
27 “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them. They follow me.
28 I give them eternal life. They’ll never die in the age to come.
No one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone.
Nobody can snatch them from the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”